|Company Founded:||Iris Hall||Year Graduated:||2013|
|Location:||Toledo, OH||Residence Hall:||Pasquerilla West|
Annie Voutsos, a licensed certified public accountant (CPA)who built her professional career in public accounting and finance, never saw herself as a tech entrepreneur. Nor did she see herself as an expert in event planning. But something happened when she got engaged to her future husband, Tom Voutsos (Notre Dame, 2014), and attended two weddings while planning her own.
“Both weddings were incredibly fun—people were raving bubbles!” says Voutsos. “As I thought about both, one was very expensive and the other was not, I wondered what the secret ingredient was. What gets people out on the dance floor, immersed in the experience? What makes an event memorable?”
Voutsos knew it wasn’t that money equals a better wedding. Still, she wasn’t quite sure what made the difference, so she kept observing events and tucking ideas away until one day she founded a company in 2023 that answered the question.
Long before this; however, Voutsos was a kid growing up in Toledo, Ohio. Her grandfather, an engineer with the railroad, often made trips to Elkhart, Indiana, and made a point of visiting his beloved University of Notre Dame in South Bend. Her father was also a Notre Dame fan. When Voutsos had a chance to go to volleyball camp at Notre Dame when she was in seventh grade, she jumped at the chance.
“As soon as I got on campus, I knew Notre Dame was where I was going to college,” she says.
In fall 2009, Voutsos’ mission was accomplished. She was officially a Notre Dame freshman with an interest in studying Engineering—or so she thought. “I attended an engineering career day sponsored by the College of Engineering and realized I was not interested in those jobs. Accounting became my new path because it would give me a great knowledge base, and I could transition to finance later if I wanted,” she explains.
Accounting majors are in high demand and Voutsos had no problem landing a job with “Big Four” multinational professional services firm KPMG in Chicago prior to graduating. But before joining the firm, she wanted to earn her CPA license, a notoriously difficult four-exam process.
“The body of knowledge you are asked to amass for the CPA exams is huge,” Voutsos says. “Thinking it would be easier to tackle it head on while still in student mode, a friend and I started studying for the CPA exams the day after graduation. That’s all we did. Study. I took all four tests in a six-week period and passed all of them.”
Armed with her CPA, Voutsos reported to KPMG in August. While many first-year accountants take the traditional paths of becoming audit or tax advisors, Voutsos joined the transactions team working on acquisitions, lender due diligence, and corporate restructurings instead. This turned out to be a great choice. Every four months, Voutsos rotated to a new deal advisory group. This allowed her to amass a wealth of diverse experience and network within KPMG very quickly. The trade out was working in a very intense, high-octane environment. “There was one project that was even more intense than the others. We had a huge team, long hours and a tight deadline. I had to develop personal character qualities just to get through it.”
And she did get through it and other major projects over the two years she was with KPMG, acquiring a powerful technical skillset along the way. Skills such as data acquisition and data management along with thought processes and methodologies have become a strong foundation for her still-evolving career.
In early 2016, Voutsos and her United States Marine Corps husband moved to Hampstead, North Carolina, near Camp Lejeune. While Tom started his commission with the Marines, Voutsos joined Cameron Management in Wilmington as an analyst. For the next six-and-a-half years, she added investment strategy, risk taking and risk management, and a heightened sense of confidence to her toolkit. She and her husband also welcomed two children.
In mid 2021, the Voutsos clan moved to Toledo to be closer to family. It was then that Voutsos’ interest in events returned. “I started looking at the concept of ‘visioning’ an event—how to bring what was in one’s mind to life—as a possible startup company. Originally, I didn’t have software in mind. I was focused on determining if there was a big enough pain point for a solution.”
She dove into six months of customer discovery with all of the thoroughness of a seasoned CPA. “I talked to venues, wedding planners, and past brides to determine the pain points in the planning process. It didn’t take long to understand there was pain on all sides in creating that perfectly memorable event.”
Two key learnings emerged. First, the selection of the venue and decor are highly emotional decisions that are typically made quickly. If a venue is going to impress on an emotional level, the aesthetics have to be there otherwise they won’t secure the business. Second, while a “curated” wedding might sound good, no bride wants an off-the-shelf event with limited options. Even when there is a wedding planner involved, the bride wants to make her own decisions on details. And she wants choices and lots of them.
“It was clear there was plenty of pain to go around,” Voutsos says. “Event venues have to sell their spaces and décor often when the customer doesn’t know exactly what she wants. Here’s an example. The bride’s wedding color is emerald green and wants to know if accents should he black or gold and the table clothes green or white. These are agonizing decisions if a venue can’t easily show the options and the customer can’t see it.”
She continues, “But what if the venue can show her options as a 3D digital rendering on a screen? Decisions can be made on the spot when the bride is emotionally engaged, and the venue is more likely to get the booking.”
Confident she had the makings of a startup, Voutsos named her event staging and design software company Iris Hall and by January 2023, she had created a simple precursor to a minimum viable product (MVP) by hiring a graphic designer to do custom renderings of specific venues. She shared them with venue owners and event planners who loved them. With this response, Voutsos felt comfortable moving forward with creating a digital platform that empowered clients—venues, event planners and their customers—to bring their events to life in planning stages.
In early 2023, Voutsos hired a developer to build an application with limited functionality and a small décor library. The only thing that moved were the guest tables. The Iris Hall MVP launched in late June. Even with minimum functionality, people were willing to pay for the Iris Hall platform. “One client said it was like their own little Pixar movie. Another said Iris Hall captured the essence of their space better than a photograph. The overall experience was like showing a customer the venue on the day of their event.”
Buoyed by the feedback, work immediately began on a more highly functional version one of Iris Hall. This is when she hit the biggest challenge to date. “Managing a tech product as a non-technical person is hard,” admits Voutsos. “It’s also been difficult finding talent in our product area. Lots of people develop websites. There aren’t as many working in Unreal Engine, our rendering engine.”
Fortunately, she found Odyssey, a streaming platform with a bench of relevant expertise. With their help, Voutsos was able establish infrastructure that allowed for rapid product iteration. “We now have the functionality to make changes to our software faster. This was critical for us,” she says.
From August until now, there have been transformational functionality improvements to the Iris Hall platform. Users can now create a complete event layout, drawing upon a greatly expanded décor library. Users can move table types, create different color schemes, add décor such as table clothes, center pieces, tableware, and cutlery. Additions to functionality are ongoing.
During the summer, Voutsos leaned into the many resources the Notre Dame IDEA Center offers to student, faculty and alumni entrepreneurs. She chatted with Matt Leevy, director of the IDEA Center Innovation Center, who offered great advice. Voutsos has applied to participate in the McCloskey New Venture Competition held by the IDEA Center to help hone her business plan and gain introductions to potential investors.
Up to this point, Voutsos has bootstrapped Iris Hall. “As a founder who’s paying all the bills, you have to get to revenue faster.
This also impacts your mindset to customers; you don’t give your product or service away for free. Clients pay to trial Iris Hall. Surprisingly, this has made potential clients give us a more thoughtful look.”
Voutsos is now taking the now robust version one to early adopters, purposefully launching in the Toledo area so she can be on-site with clients to make the onboarding process as smooth as possible and also identify any potential user issues. She is also pitching Iris Hall to university event planners that host many diverse events throughout the year. In the future, she plans to take Iris Hall to hotels, convention centers and other traditional event spaces.
Her biggest win to date was landing her first multi-space client. “I was very excited because it represents the technical competence we’ve reached. The ability to maintain a high aesthetic quality that clients respond to favorably, so decisions are made in minutes rather than days or weeks, is what we were aiming for, and we did it. Now we have to keep going.”
Asked what advice you would offer to others interested in starting a company, Voutsos laughingly says, “Do it before you have kids!” She then adds this sage advice that hearkens back to her CPA days:
“Leverage free resources. Read and watch everything that Y Combinator has to offer. It costs nothing but time. Next, be disciplined during customer discovery. Really, really listen to what your potential target market wants. When it’s ready, introduce your MVP to potential customers and listen some more. Finally, do things that add value in the way that makes sense with your resources and team at that time. It’s okay if it doesn’t scale. There’s only one way to go and that’s up.”