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Name-change hassle turns newlywed into entrepreneur
CHICAGO (Reuters) - It took three stressful trips to the motor vehicle department before newlywed Danielle Tate finally succeeded in changing her name. Her frustration unleashed a new business that has saved thousands of brides from the same headache.
"I complained to my new husband that this is ridiculous, why isn't there some sort of service that does as much of the paperwork for you as possible?" said Tate, 29. "He just looked at me and said, ‘Well, you should do it.'"
Six years later, MissNowMrs.com (www.missnowmrs.com) has helped some 82,000 users change their married names. At the cost of $29.95, plus fees with various government agencies, the website offers an integrated process Tate likens to filing taxes on TurboTax. She estimated it saves about 13 hours of wasted time, on average.
"It's sort of amazing in this day and age and level of technology that there is still this amount of red tape associated with changing to your married name," said Tate, who co-founded the company with her husband, Culin and another partner. "We give you the complete inside scoop on how to skip hassle, skip lines, mail everything in."
Tate undertook initial research for the idea at night and on weekends, keeping her sales job with a cancer diagnostics company until August 2006, shortly before launching her website.
In addition to investing $15,000 of her own money, she needed to get a handle on the varied requirements around the country, personally calling motor vehicle departments in all 50 states.
"You don't realize how much minutiae goes into each name change," said Tate, who now relies on new customers for updates when local requirements change.
Potomac, Maryland-based MissNowMrs handles name changes on driver's licenses, passports and social security IDs, among other documents. It also helps to alert banks, utilities and other service providers. In most cases, the only time customers need to appear in person is to change their driver's license.
MissNowMrs has faced several hurdles since founding. The recession took a toll on growth, Tate said, noting that 2009 sales flattened as more couples waited out the economic uncertainty. She had to lay off two members of her fledgling staff, which currently includes her husband and three part-timers.
In addition, a number of copycats began appearing, and Tate had to divert resources toward costly litigation she said ended in settlements.
"It was actually something that pulled our focus away from opportunities," said Tate, adding: "I think we've established the brand and brand recognition and the niche in such a way that we're in a good spot."
Growth has resumed, Tate said, noting second-quarter sales are up 25 percent from last year. Total revenues to date are nearing $2.5 million.
To help draw traffic to the site, Tate has embraced social media, having developed the No. 1 Google-ranked blog for newlyweds where she writes on topics ranging from marital spats to coping with in-laws and popular cocktail recipes.
"Brides were a very new, girly world to investigate and understand," she said.
Justine Ingersoll, editor of Bridefinds.com (www.bridefinds.com), which identifies wedding-related deals, said MissNowMrs is one of several tools that have emerged to automate the process of wedding planning. Everything from sending invitations to writing speeches - even practicing a first dance - can be aided by online services.
"One great thing about the bridal industry is that it will never go away, it's not a trend," Ingersoll said. "I think there's a market for sites that just make a bride's life easier."
Manasquan, New Jersey resident Meredith Ashley Wishart, 27, planned on changing her name shortly after getting married last September. But after doing some research on MissNowMrs, she learned that waiting a few months would save her some tax-related hassles.
"Even making my car payment is harder than changing my name," said Wishart, a director with Teach for America. "It was just very comprehensive. I didn't have any of that back and forth."
The market for name changes appears to be holding. Reports vary, but a 2009 national survey conducted by Indiana University researchers showed 71 percent of respondents said it's better for women to change their name upon marriage.
There are more than 2 million U.S. marriages each year, according to data culled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, the increasing legalization of gay marriage is adding a new group of potential customers.
"As long as they have a certified marriage certificate recognized by their state of residence, they're more than welcome to use our service," said Tate, adding that non-marital name changes require court petitions.
Should a marriage go south, Tate has that covered as well, having tapped the divorce market with a sister site called GetYourNameBack.com (www.getyournameback.com).
"It's the red-headed stepchild," Tate joked. "We've actually had a couple of customers admit to using MissNowMrs.com and are now using GetYourNameBack."
Tate, who said she never expected to be an entrepreneur, hopes ultimately that MissNowMrs will be acquired. In the meantime, she is busy researching potential foreign markets and recently added a Canadian arm of her service.
"This is a large market and life stage inflection point," she said.
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