Naa-Sakle Akuete arrived in New York City six years ago as a fresh-faced Wellesley graduate with a cute new Manhattan apartment and an exciting job on Wall Street. She quickly found that with a busy schedule and a circle of mostly female friends from her all-women’s college, dating in the Big Apple could be a challenge. So, like any tech-savvy millennial, she instinctively turned to the Internet to find a solution to her conundrum: help arrived through OkCupid.
Several months later, she found herself at a neighborhood bakery called Amy’s Bread on a date with Kyle Healy, a production assistant on a comedy show, whose profile struck her interest. “He was very handsome,” Akuete tells me, but she also had reason to think they would make a good couple. “According to OkCupid's matching algorithms, we would be compatible not just romantically, but also as friends,” she said. As it turns out, OkCupid was spot on. Their first date went swimmingly--“It wasn’t awkward at all,” Akuete said--and the next few years continued to prove the algorithm right, as their friendship and romance blossomed.
Four years after their first date, Healy, 29, proposed to Akuete, 28, on a road trip to Joshua Tree National Park with a diamond ring he designed on the jewelry website Blue Nile and a camera to capture the moment. “He held out his iPhone like he was going to take a selfie of us, then I realized it was on video record mode and he was fumbling with the ring,” she recalls with a laugh. Since technology has been critical at the key moments of their relationship, it makes sense that Healy and Akuete are now relying on technological tools to plan and execute their wedding, which takes place next month in New York. The couple decided to forgo a wedding planner and rely, instead, on tech startups to orchestrate almost every aspect of the big day.
They found their spectacular Williamsburg roof-deck location on Airbnb, invited guests using Paperless Post, set up a wedding website on The Knot and a registry on Wedding Republic, and jointly planned the event on a Google Drive spreadsheet. Using TaskRabbit, they are staffing the event with waiters, cleaners, cooks, and photographers. Instacart will deliver food and beverages directly to the site, while decorations will arrive via Amazon Prime. When her favorite wedding gown (the Nadia) sold out at the J.Crew store, Akuete managed to find the same brand new dress on eBay in her size for less than the listed price. Finally, instead of hiring a DJ, the couple have been slowly working on a Spotify playlist that will set the mood for each segment of the evening’s events.
With these tools, they’ve managed to put together a fully catered wedding with 130 guests for less than $10,000--no small feat in a city where weddings cost an average of $86,916 last year. Even compared to the 2013 national average of $29,858, Healy and Akuete’s wedding comes in at a fraction of the price. These figures, drawn from TheKnot.com’s annual survey of 13,000 brides and grooms, show that wedding budgets have been steadily increasing since the economic downturn of 2008, reaching a record high last year. For her part, Akuete refused to be part of this trend. “From the start, I had a ‘go-get-em’ attitude,” she says. “I was always looking for smart ways around unreasonably high costs.”
But cost was not the only factor motivating Healy and Akuete’s tech driven approach: they also wanted to have more control over a process that is typically outsourced to wedding professionals. For most people, planning the logistics for a large wedding is a daunting prospect and when combined with the pressure of ensuring that such an important life event goes off without a hitch, most couples err on the side of spending more money and hiring experts. Many vendors capitalize on this anxiety, significantly marking up their prices as soon as they know a wedding is involved. The New York Times recently pointed out how little price transparency there is in the wedding industry, describing how vendors make it difficult for couples to compare costs by using confusing terminology and regularly appealing to the “once-in-a-lifetime” logic to justify exorbitant fees.
From Akuete’s perspective, however, many complex aspects of modern life that once required expert middlemen can now be tackled with technological tools. Today, we bypass travel agents with websites like Expedia and Travelocity; we bypass television cable providers with services like Hulu. Akuete figured she could similarly find ways to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of the wedding industry, such as wedding planners, caterers, and venue providers.
When it came to music, for instance, she and Healy decided it would be easier, cheaper, and more fun to put together their own playlist instead of hiring a DJ. Over the last few months, they have been listening to Spotify, then dragging and dropping songs that catch their fancy into a custom wedding playlist. “We know the songs we want to hear and it didn’t make sense to me to pay somebody else to play songs we would have selected anyway,” she explains.
Even though Spotify is not specifically a wedding-related product, it has nonetheless become an important tool for brides and grooms. Shanon Cook, Spotify’s trend expert, tells me that over 200,000 Spotify playlists have the word “wedding” in the title, but the true number of wedding playlists is probably much larger, since many couples don’t use the word wedding in their title, choosing names like "Naa-Sakle and Kyle’s Awesome Reception Beats" instead. (She says the most popular song on wedding playlists is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing," followed by Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.”) Cook believes the popularity of Spotify reveals something about the desire of the modern bride and groom for control. “They want to be in the driver’s seat of their own weddings,” she said.
Here are the current most popular wedding songs on Spotify--play them now and dance awkwardly with your great aunt!
Paperless Post is another product that didn’t mean to disrupt the wedding industry, but managed to do so anyway. James Hirschfeld cofounded the digital invitation company with his sister when he was still in college and did not have much experience with the wedding market. “It turns out that a huge part of the stationary market is weddings and babies and other life events that most 22-years-olds don’t have much experience celebrating,” he says with a grin. In response to demand, the company has tailored more and more of their products to brides and grooms, who now constitute 20% of the customer base.
Hirschfeld says there are many reasons couples might choose online invitations, including cost, but most believe their guests will find it more convenient to RSVP on their computer or mobile device than by mail. Unlike existing online invitations on the market at the time, Paperless Post sought to replicate the experience of paper invitations as closely as possible. “We wanted to create a product that was as viable as paper, so for instance, we made sure that there were no ads to ruin the moment,” says Hirschfeld. In October 2012, the company even launched a paper product for couples who were asking for an exact replica of their online invitation as a keepsake or to send to relatives who might be less comfortable with email.
Hirschfeld points out that cultural norms surrounding wedding traditions are changing in the digital era. “The technology paradigm is changing and etiquette is changing along with it,” he said. “The most polite thing you can do at your wedding is create an experience that is considerate and convenient for your guests.” While paper invitations were once considered important wedding decorum, new notions about politeness are emerging, particularly in urban areas: Paperless Post is most popular in in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
Akuete falls squarely into the category of the modern, urban bride and tells me she does not have rigid expectations about weddings. Since her family is originally from Ghana, where the wedding reception is less culturally significant than the engagement ceremony, she did not feel pressure to abide by specific etiquette, allowing her to use technology to replace more traditional aspects of the wedding. “Neither of us is religious and, in the absence of specific cultural guidelines, we are improvising to create something we will both like,” she says.
According to TheKnot.com’s research, Akuete’s experience is becoming more common, as couples increasingly forgo traditions in favor of modernizing their nuptials. Casual weddings--informal affairs that reject of cookie-cutter conventions--are on the rise, with 17% of brides describing their weddings as casual, up from 12% in 2008. Couples are also less likely to get married at religious institutions, with just 33% choosing to do so in 2013, down from 41% in 2009. These cultural changes dovetail with demographic changes, as couples are getting married older than ever before. According to November 2013 data from the United States Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage for men is 29.0 and 26.6 women.
Tech startups have sprung up as a response to these demographic changes. Wedding Republic, for instance, the cash registry that Healy and Akeute are using, specifically caters to brides and grooms who already live together before the wedding--74% of all couples, according to TheKnot.com. “The reality is that couples’ needs are very different today than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Hana Abaza, who cofounded Wedding Republic in 2010. “They already have the household items they would get on a traditional registry.”
According to her market research, Abaza says that today’s couples would much rather use the money for a vacation or a house downpayment. However, since many guests feel uncomfortable giving cash, Wedding Republic’s interface is designed to look like a traditional registry where each financial contribution goes towards a specific item, such as one night’s stay at a honeymoon destination.
Startups like Wedding Republic that are deliberately trying to break into the wedding market typically have an uphill battle.
Abaza tells me the wedding market is a crowded space with many established players that are difficult to unseat. Offline, brick-and-mortar registries, caterers, and venues have established ways to market themselves to engaged couples at wedding fairs and store events. Online, things get murkier. It is difficult to identify a potential bride or groom from their web history, making retargeting efforts next to impossible. For instance, if a woman is browsing for wedding dresses, she might be a bride, but she might also be a friend of a bride, someone working in the fashion industry, or just a wedding enthusiast with no immediate plans to get married.
The sales cycle is also complicated in the wedding market, Abaza tells me. “Unlike other online markets, we cannot capitalize on a viral effect,” she says. “A guest might like what they see in a friend’s wedding, but they might not themselves be getting married for years.” Moreover, each new cohort of engaged couples needs to be wooed all over again. “There is a very small window of time before the wedding to catch a couple and make sure that they choose you over your competitor,” Abaza says. Yet, despite these hurdles, new wedding startups continue to pop up every year and only a sliver of them get off the ground.
If Healy and Akuete are any indication of the modern-day wedding, it is clear that technology is increasingly being woven into every aspect of the big day. But their story reveals that in the uncharted territory of wedding planning, couples are most likely to use technologies already integrated into their lives--like Spotify, Amazon Prime, and Paperless Post--rather than wedding-specific ones that they have yet to familiarize themselves with. Healy and Akuete say technology has saved them tens of thousands of dollars, but just as importantly, it has allowed them to bypass the gatekeepers of the wedding industry and stay in control of the process.
Akuete says she is particularly excited about the desserts that will be served at her reception. In classic form, she has chosen to abandon tradition in favor of a high-tech solution that perfectly suits her tastes: rather than ordering a three-tiered wedding cake, she’s picked her favorite cakes, cookies, and pies from bakeries throughout New York and has hired a Taskrabbit to pick them up for her.
Among the smorgasbord of goodies will be slices of cake from Amy’s Bakery--a happy reminder of the place she met Healy for the very first time after they spotted each other’s profiles on OkCupid.
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Park]