Maggie Winters Gaudaen shot her first wedding when she was 16 years old. Her then-boyfriend, Steven Gaudaen, was also photographing the event. She fell in love with the process.
The pair continued the lucrative hobby through college, but after graduation, Winters Gaudaen began to find it both exhausting and tedious. Traditional weddings tended to consume her entire weekend, and, she felt, were overly choreographed and cookie-cutter.
There was an exception: The smallest weddings, involving just family and a couple friends, seemed more spontaneous and light, and mercifully devoid of stress. They weren't quite elopements, but they felt a little rebellious. Winters Gaudaen loved them.
She decided it wouldn't be a big leap for her and Steven to start producing full packages for tiny weddings on weekends by adding a couple extra services to their photography, like bringing a cake and going to the courthouse for the wedding certificate. The couple founded Pop! Wed Co. in 2013 in Washington, D.C., and managed their first wedding the following February. Since then, the company has gained considerable momentum, conducting about 50 weddings and generating $140,000 in revenue last year. Turns out, the founders had discovered a mostly neglected sweet spot in the wedding market: people who don't want or can't afford an opulent event, but want a more inspiring start to their union than waiting in line at City Hall.
"Wedding planning is not fun for many people--but they still want to get married," Winters Gaudaen says. "You don't have to have a giant wedding instead of making a down payment on a house. You don't have to go into debt." For example, for Pop! Wed's first wedding, the founders secured a venue by bribing a guard to let them inside a gate at Blind Whino, a former church in Southwest D.C. that had been painted in Technicolor and turned into an arts collective.
Tiny weddings can have up to 15 guests and include a ceremony performed by Steven Gaudaen, a certified officiant who also handles all the paperwork for the couple's nuptials. Additionally, Pop! furnishes the photography, a small cake with a topper, and, afterward, a photo book. The total cost is between $2,900 and $3,200. The company also does larger gatherings that include an hour-long after-party, for $4,500. Pop! dubs these huge, because they can include up to 35 people.
The huge parties often require a venue--and Pop! gets creative about that. Some of their favorites are a thrift-and-antique store, neighborhood parks, breweries, yoga studios, and, one time, the Salon Doré at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. (Venues cost $400 an hour and up. Couples often arrange their own after-parties, at local bars, restaurants, or home.)
Pop! Wed clients Robin Sawyer and Olaf Zerbock had been together for years and wanted to get married but disliked all the pomp associated with a traditional wedding. "For the longest time, we called 'getting married' 'going to the dentist,'" Sawyer says. "We just wanted to get it over with." They considered eloping before stumbling onto the company's website. "I thought it was incredibly cool--they do all the work for you. We just had to show up," she adds. The couple got married in a Georgetown park in November 2014.
By 2015, the founders knew they'd hit on a great formula. One year after the Blind Whino wedding, the pair returned to the scene and held their own ceremony, with just 10 guests. Afterward, they decamped to see a musician they loved play a show. It was the only one of more than 200 weddings Pop! has produced that Gaudaen did not officiate.
Much of the past five years has involved tinkering with plans for managing and scaling the business--which is a challenge, because Winters Gaudaen still is holding her day job at a creative agency, simply because she loves it. "I just really love to work!" she says. Stephen Gaudaen, too, works full-time as a programmer.
Over the past few years, the duo has experimented with variations of the core concept, including running their operation out of a sort of an updated, hip, Vegas-style wedding chapel. But that didn't resonate with couples--no one wanted their ceremony to look or feel just like the one before it. They scrapped the idea. "I'm a big believer in testing the market and growing from nothing," Winters Gaudaen says.
The next step for the business is national expansion. The founders expect to launch in a new city, or perhaps two, this year. They expect it will be simple: just book a few local contractors, including a marriage officiant, a planner, and a photographer, to work with every couple having a Pop! wedding. The test will be whether Winters Gaudaen can truly keep her day job through the business's growth.
Winters Gaudaen isn't as concerned about fast growth of the business as she is of mindfully spreading awareness of the product--and the accessibility of tiny weddings. "The mission has been to offer this brand-new way to get married," she says. "This should be an option for everyone who thinks the wedding isn't the priority--the marriage is."