Celebrating our Silver Jubilee
Contact sheet of Michael Shapiro, CEO and Founder of Ketubah.com
It is hard to believe, but Ketubah.com is celebrating 25 years of business. Starting from a simple, yet creative idea to the largest seller of Ketubahs worldwide, Ketubah.com is an example of what happens when you have a dream, mixed with innovation and an awesome team. As we celebrate this amazing milestone, I sat down (over zoom) with Founder and CEO Michael Shapiro, and Operations manager Tani Gordon, to reflect on the beginnings, achievements of years past, business today, and what’s next for Ketubah.com.
A business card of Michael’s from the early years
How did you decide to go into the marriage contract business? Please share some reflection on the early days of Ketubah.com
I was inspired to have my own business. My younger brother basically always had businesses from childhood, and I thought that was so creative and cool. But I always figured I was going to be a lawyer, because that’s what my dad did and it seemed interesting, so I wanted to do that too. But eventually, after studying in University, I realized that law school was not for me. I became more interested in the idea of having my own business, and eventually went to business school. I then worked in the corporate world for a while, at Procter and Gamble. I learned a ton there but I was a little bit like a round peg in a square hole. It was a very corporate environment and I’m much more of a free spirit – much more of an artistic spirit, even though I’m not an artist. I left P&G in 1994 and went to Israel with the intention of doing some traditional Jewish learning. I went to Jewish day school, but it wasn’t a religious day school and I was interested in delving deeper into Jewish texts. I had never seen a page of Talmud and I was curious. I remember, while I was preparing to go over there, I had already hatched the idea of some sort of business having to do with Jewish art. I didn’t quite know what it was going to be, but the seed was there.
Growing up in Montreal, I went to Bialik Day School. I was the Hebrew valedictorian, but never would have guessed that knowing Hebrew and Yiddish would in the end be helpful for my future business. While studying at Pardes in Israel, I started to explore and refine what my business would be – I knew it would be in the realm of Judaica so I started networking with Judaica artists of all sorts. One of the early ones that I met was Danny Azoulay. At that time he was not making Ketubahs but one thing led to another, and one artist led to another, and then one day in June of 1995 I found myself in Pardes Hannah, meeting with an artist by the name of Ardyn Halter. He had these gorgeous printed Ketubahs and they just blew me away – I had never seen a Ketubah before. My parents just had a paper one in their drawer or safety deposit box somewhere, but these – these were stunning. I signed on to represent him right away. When I got back, I still didn’t know my business was going to revolve around Ketubahs, but I thought it was going to be what we now call a “bricks and mortar” gallery because there really was no internet yet. The plan was to come back and open a gallery that would have really nice artistic Judaica from challah boards to kiddush cups to candlesticks to items you need in the Jewish home – but elevated. When I returned to Toronto, I started to look for a storefront but quickly realized that traditional retail might not be a good fit for me because, especially in the early days, it usually involves sitting around in your shop waiting for customers.
So at the beginning, even before the website, I would make an appointment and go to somebody’s house and I would open this big black portfolio of Ketubah samples, usually on the dining room table, and they would flip through and look at the designs. I also had a booth at the Ashkenaz festival, interacting with people one on one.
At that time I bumped into a friend from childhood, who told me that he was leaving social work, and that he was going to start building websites. It was very early on at that point, but he explained to me what he was planning to do, and so I became his first customer. It was obviously very modest, not an e-commerce site at all. It had about two dozen designs on it, and six artists, whereas now, we have 10 times as many artists as we did at the beginning and many, many more designs.
In the spring of 96, while the website hadn’t been built yet, I think we were still figuring out what the structure of the business was going to look like. It occurred to me that I should register a domain name, and I asked my web developer if he could register Ketubah.com for me – luckily nobody else had registered it before that. At the beginning, the company wasn’t always called Ketubah.com – at the time we launched the website, it was called Ketubah Ketubah, which was actually the name that we used for many years, even though the domain name was always Ketubah.com. It must have been maybe 10 years ago when I finally said, well, why don’t we just call ourselves Ketubah.com and it turned out that was actually a really smart idea for a number of reasons, but mostly because it was much easier to remember.
Even though we were primarily an online company, people could still come in and look at samples by appointment. We did that for a while and then eventually we stopped because enough people were online and comfortable enough with the platform and it just served them better. Plus our team could take care of five different customers instead of one. That was the beginning and slowly slowly it grew from there.
A snap shot of what our website looked like when we were first up and running online.
Can you share some memorable moments and milestones of the past 25 years?
One of my most memorable moments was definitely working at the Ashkenaz Festival, a big Yiddish culture and Klezmer festival in Toronto, in 1997. They hired me to organize an arts fair, which took place in an arts exhibitors area. It was a great festival, but the highlight of it was that I met my wife Cheryl.
Another memorable moment was starting the business in the house of a friend, who was a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. He was almost never home and he had this big house with extra bedrooms and so I rented two of his bedrooms for 300 bucks a month. I slept in one and worked in the other. My office had a little desk, a little Mac computer (that I had bought for business school), and a phone line that had a toll free number, which almost never rang. I knew the business model was something that I thought was a good idea and that I was passionate about, but lots of people told me I was crazy – you can’t have a business selling just Ketubahs. Some days it really felt like maybe they were right. Although I would say the early days were a bit of a low point, it was also something that I’m proud of because I figured out how to live very inexpensively as I really wanted to make this work. I had some marketing expertise so I was able to do a little bit of freelance marketing work for small companies. I think it took up till around year three when Ketubah.com was kind of breaking even on its own, but I persisted with the idea that I was excited about even though most people said it didn’t have potential. I don’t think it was that I was such a visionary, I really just think I was young, excited and naïve enough to think that, well, if I think it’s a good idea, other people will too – and I was very lucky. There are not enough Jews in Toronto or even in Canada getting married in a year to support it and now, 25 years later, 90 plus percent of our customers are in the States.
Our first Ketubah couple Alison and Andrew at their Ketubah signing 25 years ago in 1996
How has your role as owner and CEO evolved over the past 25 years?
So in the beginning, I was the “chief cook and bottle washer”, I just did everything. We had this little catalog and people would ask for copies and I remember it would take me a whole morning to get a bunch of them into envelopes and mail them. That was probably not my best skill, but there were some things I used to do that were a better fit for my skill set. At the beginning, I was really involved in everything, and as time went on I really just trusted the team and the managers. Curating the perfect team was very important to me. I have evolved over time to really know, trust and delegate very significant parts of the business including hiring and firing, staffing, making sure that the team is optimal, which then allows me to keep an eye on the bigger picture, including the financial well being of the business.
Can you share with us some famous couples that have purchased Ketubahs from us, and perhaps some unique Ketubah requests over the years?
Famous couples who purchased Ketubahs form us off the top of my head, were Julianna Margulies, known from The Good Wife and the earlier days of ER, novelist Lauren Weisberger who wrote The Devil Wears Prada (now a popular movie) and more recently, maybe six years ago we did a ketubah for Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. As you can imagine in those cases, things were really kept under wraps. The agents were calling us and saying we can’t tell you the location of the wedding. We explained that we didn’t need to know the exact location where the wedding was taking place, but we needed to know the name of the city as it is part of the text of the Ketubah. It was all very secretive, so that was kind of cool.
Some of the most interesting requests we have received have been to include different languages on our prints. I think the most unique language we have done is Mandarin. We have of course done Ketubahs in other languages like Italian, French and Spanish. We’ve also done Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Quaker Ketubah which are of course not traditional, but we take pride in being able to accommodate lots of requests for unique pieces. We’ve had orders from interesting and unusual places from all over the world, such as Singapore, India and Hong Kong.
What do you like most about having a business that makes Ketubahs?
Well, for me, I love that this business combines three things that I have a lot of passion for, which are Judaism, art and technology. I’m not a coder, but I love working with our developers to figure out how we can continue to give a great personal experience to our customers by leveraging technology. As well, it is genuinely an honor to have a meaningful business where we are intimately involved with one of the most important times in people’s lives. At times when our clients are stressed or, if there’s an issue, it is our opportunity to shine and make things right for them. And of course Judaism, obviously it’s just always been a passion. Even when I was a kid in my day school I loved the language part of it but I also loved the Jewish part too.
Anne and Dave (celebrating 24 years) are another wonderful Ketubah couple with their Ketubah from the early years.
How has the pandemic affected the way you do business?
The Pandemic was very scary, obviously, for many people individually, and for couples postponing weddings. As a business, our orders went down virtually to zero last March. I think that just in general, people always said to us, “well, you’re probably a recession proof type of business because people are always getting married and Jewish people getting married always need Ketubahs” but COVID actually showed us that we’re not safe because there was something that happened in the world that actually stopped weddings – and it hit us in a big way.
Although it was tough, we are really proud of how we, as a team, stepped up to find multiple ways to make people’s lives easier and to reassure them we would be there for them. We changed our policies in order to pivot – as the word has been used a million times during COVID – and in very flexible ways made it possible for people to come to us and trust that we would be there for them. I will say that we did some crazy bold things and it was a big risk, but we had the courage to do so. We, as a team, rose to the occasion and improved our internal processes, and also innovated our catalog in terms of products, such as the Jewish Wedding in a Box.
Our customers felt reassured and we ended up keeping a lot more Ketubah orders than we would have at the time because people felt confident that if their wedding day changes, we would reprint another Ketubah for them. It was vital at that point because nobody knew what was going on and it was a scary time for everybody so we had to move the needle quickly to somehow make it work. We held on and now we are busier than ever.
How do you see Ketubah.com moving forward to the next 25 years?
What I am excited for in the next 25 years is about continuing to grow and innovate as well as have more fun together. You know, I feel like we have come from a point where it was just me to where we are right now with a really terrific team of hardworking, creative people who all want to contribute and get involved cross functionally. I am looking forward to creating and having a lot of fun together, taking care of our customers, and innovating our products, as we look to the next quarter century.
I am also looking forward to the eventual publication of the book that I’ve been working on over the last couple of years, which is a coffee table book chronicling the rebirth of the Ketubah over the last half century. You know we’ve had a front row seat to that evolving story the last 25 years and it’s a story that I’m really excited to be able to share one day.
A sample of a printed catalog from the Ketubah.com archives