Married to Innovation #68 #cong17

By Paul Killoran.

When Jacqueline accepted my marriage proposal on the 5th of January 2016; little did she know what she was in for. Little did she know how much I love blank canvases. Little did she know how much I love solving from first principles. Little did she know how much I obsess over user experience. But it didn’t take her long to find out.

This is the story of how we designed our wedding.

For years I heard people talk about how stressful it was to plan a wedding. I used to look at them with slight bemusement wondering how could it be so stressful? After all, most weddings are usually the same. They all follow the same formula. Choose a dress, choose a photographer, choose a cake, choose a few other items and away you go.

If running a business over the last 10 years has taught me anything, it’s that we love formulas. Formulas equate to efficient processes that allow us to drive maximum profitability. An inefficient process will have lots of variability and the most profitable businesses tend to have streamlined processes with very limited variability. In other words, profitability usually means limiting the variability.

In lay terms, variability means uniqueness. In wedding terms, variability means the difference between one wedding and another.

At the start of our wedding planning experience, we visited nearly every wedding venue in Connaught. We very much enjoyed all of the complimentary tea and scones, as they attempted to woo us with the same old sales pitch; “We will deliver a unique experience to you and all your guests.”

At one such meeting I asked the wedding planner if they’d allow us to hire a famous Galway pizza company to serve their legendary wood-fired pizza during the band’s break (instead of the usual cocktail sausages and chips). My request was met with horror as it was deemed fish’n’chips and mini-burgers were suitably generous. I began to realise that my appetite for creativity and uniqueness was far more pronounced than many were expecting.

At another hotel I asked, “What kind of things can we do to give our guests a unique experience?” My request was met with delight and the manager buoyantly responded by saying, “We could serve craft beers as your guests arrive?” I then asked, “How much would that cost?” And I was told, “Seven euro a bottle.” I quickly learnt that any deviation from the norm was going to be expensive and that creativity and uniqueness is not really encouraged (unless you’ve got deep pockets).

Following these encounters, Jacqueline and I came to the conclusion that we either follow the formula (with no deviation) or we abandon the formula completely and devise our own. We agreed that trying to add deviation and creativity to the formula was going work out inefficient and expensive. We realised that trying to make our wedding unique within the confines of the traditional formula was going to cost us a lot of money, without delivering the impact we wanted.

Most couples will tell you that they want their wedding to be unique. They want it to be special. They want it to be a day that they and their guests will never forget. (At least that’s what’s written in the marketing brochures). 

Having attended more than my fair share of wedding fairs, I’ve seen plenty of examples of how you can splurge on a “never to be forgotten” wedding cake, wedding car or wedding dress. And if you’re really feeling adventurous you can hire a hypnotist, a comedian or even a snake charmer for your after-dinner entertainment.

I’ve spent over a decade developing software products and in that time, I’ve learnt one thing; if you want to be unique then you have to abandon the formula. You have to be 10X better. You have to be brave. You have to think differently.

The irony of ironies is that most couples are chasing the unique-yet-safe oxymoron. Given the choice between risking their big day and being truly unique; most will choose to play it safe and sprinkle hundreds and thousands on their safe structured fairy-tale. Watch an episode of “Don’t Tell the Bride” and you’ll see what I mean.

After much soul searching, we decided that we wanted to do something different. We wanted to create an experience that people would never forget. We wanted to create something that would represent us both and be a symbol of the life we were creating together.

It was finally time to abandon the formula. :)

Back in October 2013, I listened to Elon Musk make his keynote address at the Dublin Web Summit. During his talk, he described a method of going back to first principles when trying to solve a problem. Inspired by his words, I elected to do the same with our wedding and I asked Jacqueline the question, “What are the most fundamental components of a wedding?”

We agreed that at its most basic a wedding is a ceremony where two people make a commitment to each other for the rest of their lives. After that, everything else is optional. 

We also acknowledged that it is customary for guests to be invited to the ceremony and that a celebratory banquet be hosted afterwards. And for us we agreed that it was really important that our guests enjoy really good local food, be encouraged to have fun and be immersed in an experience that they would never forget.

Complete with our terms of reference, we were ready to begin.

Jacqueline is from a rural townland in north Co. Galway between Tuam and Dunmore called Brownsgrove. From the outset, she was very specific that she wanted us to get married in her local family church. The place she was baptised, made her communion and made her confirmation, so it didn’t take us long to settle on the ceremony location.

To my dismay, the options for hosting a wedding reception around Tuam were limited and I hated the idea of a long commute between the ceremony and the reception (as I believe it disrupts the flow excitement and energy among the guests). In an ideal world, I wanted the wedding reception to be within walking distance of the ceremony.

Destination weddings abroad are becoming more and more popular these days. Obvious advantages include the weather but there’s also a subtle advantage in that the couple get to design the entire experience for their guests; from the moment they get off the plane until the moment they go home. Without a shadow of a doubt I wanted that same control. And so, the natural question emerged; “Could we create a destination wedding in Brownsgrove, Co. Galway?”

My mind began to race. If we could control their experience then we could design a very specific experience complete with moments of unexpected delight. For me it was the ultimate product design challenge. But first we had to figure out how to detach our guests from normality. We had to remove their reliance on their cars and the mobility that they offered.

We invited all our guests to a welcome reception at a local hotel on the morning of the wedding. This gave our guests the opportunity to abandon their car, check-in to the hotel and grab a light breakfast snack. It also gave me (the groom) the opportunity to greet everyone at the entrance of the hotel, make that genuine human connection and welcome them to our wedding day. First impressions count.

If your house is anything like mine I always find that I’m in a panic rushing to a wedding (usually as a result of late running appointments or last-minute wardrobe malfunctions) and invariably I end up arriving with minutes to spare before the ceremony. There’s always panic and I rarely have time for breakfast. And as a consequence, I end up suppressing belly rumblings throughout the ceremony (and let’s not even discuss my torture if the bride happens to be 30 minutes late). Then by the time the canapés arrive 2 hours later, I hoover them up, desperate to stabilise my hunger anxiety.

The welcome reception gave our guests a buffer zone to absorb the rushing around and panic. It also gave them the opportunity to enjoy a scone and a cup of tea before the ceremony. A chance to relax maybe. And then when it was time to depart, all of our guests made their way outside as they awaited the departure of the wedding bus.

And then it arrived. A beautiful, green, double-deck Routemaster pulled into the hotel carpark only to be met with shrieks of joy and excitement. For many it was the first time they’d seen an old Routemaster in operation in over 30 years. They clambered on, up the stairs, clutching scones and tea and made their perch for the journey ahead. 

All aboard! It was time to go. It was time to get married. 

We chugged along down the old country road making our short 10-minute journey to St. Patrick’s Church, Cortoon.  We arrived promptly at quarter to one and the little old church glistened in the midday sun. People scuttled down the spiral staircase at the back of the bus with great enthusiasm and ventured towards the church door. The sound of chatter filled the air. The wedding was about to begin.

Five past one, the bride’s car arrived. Jacqueline climbed out of the car with her veil blowing in the wind. There was time for a few short photographs with her mother and father before the soloist gave the nod and it was time for her to walk down the aisle. I stood at the other end of the aisle, standing tall, standing proud, facing forward, awaiting my bride.

We had a beautiful ceremony, exactly what we wanted. Jacqueline’s sister sang for the congregation at the end of communion; it was her first time to sing in public and she nailed the performance. And then my old college friend gave us a pause for thought during the communion reflection as he recited a lesson in philosophy, life and beer.

Even though we wanted to create a unique wedding experience for all our guests; we didn’t want to tamper with the ceremony itself. I guess the lesson there is that not everything needs to be disrupted.

After the ceremony, we greeted our guests at the back of the church in the afternoon sunshine. Hugs, kisses and smiles were all in abundance. Cortoon is the quintessential rural Irish village. No Irish village would is complete without its three mandatory permanent fixtures; a church, a pub and a statue of Mary. 

The Cortoon Inn, Mickie’s little pub beside the church sells pints of Guinness, cans of cider, packets of rashers, tubs of butter and mansize tissues. It didn’t take long for our guests to find the pub and within minutes the entire congregation were sandwiched into the pub and the place was packed to the rafters. Tea and sandwiches were available in the lounge for those with empty bellies.

Jacqueline and I took advantage of the Cortoon Inn distraction and jumped into my friend’s vintage Porsche 911 and sped away to have our wedding photos taken before anyone noticed us missing. 30 minutes later we arrived back just as people were getting ready to get back on the bus. It was time to depart for the wedding reception.

Jacqueline grew up on a farm about 5 minutes away from Cortoon. After we decided we want to get married in Cortoon Church we started looking for possible reception sites within a stone’s throw of the church on Jacqueline’s family farm. And sure enough, we found one. A beautiful rolling green hill with views that extended for miles around.

And there we decided to pitch a tent; but not just any tent. There we pitched six Nordic Kata Tepee tents in a huddle at the top of the hill. And around it we built a village, a little music festival if you will. Jacqueline and I both love music festivals and we wanted to bring that experience to our friends and family, many of whom have never been to one. 

And as the Routemaster climbed up the hill on the country lane our wide-eyed guests saw for the first time the wedding festival that was awaiting them.

The carefully manicured bark on the ground led you on a pathway into the field to where you were greeted by a “Welcome to our Beginning” entrance arch. As you walked under the arch you were met by a big digger bucket filled with ice, beer and soft drinks.

To your left was a tiny caravan converted into an old man’s pub (also known as The Shebeen) where there was plentiful supply of the creamiest pints of Guinness I’ve ever seen. To your right was another little pub, this one modelled on an old red hayshed which was serving a selection of gin and tonic. And in the middle, was an open fire burning chunks of timber and sods of turf.

Using hay bales, festoon bulbs and a heavy machinery trailer we crafted the Hay Stage. A stage that played host to the Cozy Cartel; a group of four Galway musicians that I found busking on Shop Street one Saturday afternoon.

Opposite the Hay Stage was the Garden and the Sweet Trailer. The Garden was seating enclosure made from timber pallets that hosted a characterurist that spent the afternoon sketching people. The Sweet Trailer was a cattle trailer that harboured an old dresser full of every kind of sweet you can imagine.

And beside The Shebeen was Diarmuid Kelly from Kelly Oysters in Kinvara, carving open some of Galway Bay’s little treasures. Nothing quite washes down a pint of Guinness like a couple of wild oysters.

The crowd arrived, drinks were poured and they were merry. 

Shortly before six o’clock it was time to move inside the tepees so that the main banquet could begin. The space inside was cosy; decorated with nothing more than fairy lights, pillar candles and floral garlands. The mix of small tables created an intimate atmosphere and encouraged discussion amongst our guests.

We devoured a spectacular meal that was prepared and cooked on-site by Green Olive; a fabulous Galway based catering company that use nothing but the finest of local ingredients. And then after dinner, we sat back and enjoyed the speeches.

And then to our surprise our wedding took on a life of its own and to our delight we were no longer in control. You see we had booked five trad musicians to come and play at the end of the night. Their set wasn’t due to start until two in the morning; but they decided to show up early at ten o’clock to warm up their instruments. The sound of trad music spread quickly throughout the tepees and it didn’t long for a full-on trad session to break out in the Hay Shed outside.

Inspired by this breakaway group, somebody else appeared with a guitar in The Shebeen and started what can only be called the first Sea Shanty jamming session in the West of Ireland. Meanwhile Jacqueline and I were inside in the tepees on the main dance floor busting our moves to Paolo Nutini as we rocked the floor for our first dance. 

And that moment we knew we’d succeeded. We’re created an environment where our guests and our musicians had taken over our wedding. We were embracing the madness. The lunatics were running the asylum and the wedding was no longer something we controlled. It was now an experience that was being perpetuated by our guests.

We partied long into the night. After the band, we had a DJ. After the DJ, we had a trad band. There was plenty of Guinness poured and between all the guests that day we polished off over seventeen litres of Hendricks Gin. And at six o’clock in the morning as the sun was about to come up, one of the trad lads looked and me and said, “I think it’s time.” And I look at him and I replied, “I think you’re right.”

We bundled our guests into taxis that ferried them back to the hotel. The trad band slept on couches in Jacqueline’s home house and we cooked them a full Irish breakfast the following morning. We all woke up with pounding headaches and plenty of stories.

That evening I went back up to the tepees and thought about everything that we’d created in the hours gone before. Only then did it dawn on me that within 24 hours everything that we had constructed was going to be dissembled again. That the sheep that occupied this field a week ago were going to return to their home in a week’s time completely oblivious to our wedding. That everything that we had created was going to disappear. That life goes on.

And while that thought made me sad for a moment, my thoughts quickly changed when I realised something else: Only those people that attended our wedding will ever know exactly how it felt. People will see photographs and videos, but only those that shared the experience with us will know how it felt.

We created an experience that people will never forget. Sure, it was a lot of work but it provided us with huge creative rewards when we put it all together and watched it come to life. We were brave. We broke the mould. We created something unique.

At the end of the day, a wedding is the union of two people. On Friday, the 8th of September 2017 I married Jacqueline Nestor and I’m so proud that our first act as husband and wife was to create something so special.

It’s true. We’re both married to innovation.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie