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By Jenny WhalenOct. 2, 2013
A screw loose? Possibly. Nerve? Absolutely. But cold feet? Not even when taking on the multibillion-dollar wedding industry can Adrian Ohmer and Sean Doolan be accused of having those.
As founders of The Wedding Seed, a web and mobile-based service that provides couples with a wedding site and cash gift registry, Ohmer and Doolan face not only the standard challenges of launching a startup, but the added pressure of marketing a product whose success depends on their ability to shift the wedding culture of a nation more inclined to gift blenders than cash.
Both graduates of the University of Michigan—Ohmer from the Law School in 2013 and Doolan from the University in 2007—neither expected their careers to shift almost overnight into the entrepreneurial sphere.
"Graduation was on the horizon and I had started studying for the bar," Ohmer said. "The first time Sean brought up the idea of actually starting a business together I said no. I had a corporate law job waiting for me in New York."
A few tortuous weeks of decision-making later, Ohmer opted to take the advice of his mentors and partner with Doolan, also a first-time entrepreneur.
"My entire professional experience had been in energy—trading, development, renewables—everything that has nothing to do with The Wedding Seed," Doolan said. "I always had ideas floating around for fields I'd like to pursue and was really interested in crowdfunding. I did a Google search and came across an article Adrian co-authored. When I learned he was a 3L at Michigan Law, I contacted him and set up a meeting to learn more."
What Doolan did not know at the time was that Ohmer had been wrestling with an idea since his previous summer at the New York office of Morrison Foerster—one that would ultimately inspire his business with Doolan.
Over a lunch conversation, one of Ohmer’s Associate mentors remarked how he and his husband were recently married and were now saving to have a biological baby. In passing, the mentor commented, “I wish I could have registered for cash.” When Ohmer pushed back and asked, “Well why not?,” his mentor explained, “Etiquette and tradition.” For Ohmer, this was not a sufficient reason.
Back in Ann Arbor, one meeting with Doolan became two and casual conversations soon evolved into daily brainstorming sessions on a range of businesses, with The Wedding Seed finally emerging as the venture of choice. Less than two months later, Ohmer and Doolan were working with Michigan Law's Entrepreneurship Clinic to give their startup a legal foundation.
For Ohmer, who had been a student in the clinic just one year earlier, the experience was surreal.
"It was funny to be on the opposite side, but it felt right," he said. "In my final journal assignment as a student in the clinic, I remember writing that I felt as though I was supposed to be on the business side of the table. My plan was to get a few years experience in practice, and then go in-house somewhere. When Sean contacted me I started thinking, 'Why do I have to wait?'"
Doolan, on the other hand, had no idea what to expect from a law school clinic but trusted Ohmer's recommendation. He has since found his trust well placed.
"(Clinical Assistant Prof.) Bryce Pilz has been an incredible asset to The Wedding Seed and so has our student counsel," Doolan said. "Not only have they been drafting documents for us, but they are there to answer any additional questions. On a whim we needed to get in touch with Bryce and he took a call from us on a Sunday afternoon. To have that type of person on our side has been really great."
It has also allowed the pair to focus their energies on talking with potential investors and marketing the idea behind their business, which, as both partners admit, won't be easy.
"Couples prefer cash," Ohmer said. "But we have a weird tradition in the U.S. that doesn't easily allow for that exchange to happen. We're trying to take that next step in the wedding industry and shift the culture away from the sensitivity around cash."
As the pair explain, a couple in its 20s or 30s may have no need for new appliances, but could always use help financially starting their lives together. “Many cultures have long recognized this reality and exclusively gift cash, but not the majority of Americans,” added Ohmer.
And though it remains up to the bride and groom to tell grandma they don't need a crockpot, The Wedding Seed is designed to provide a secure method for friends and family to make monetary gifts online.
"There is a fundamental disconnect between what couples want and what our culture expects," Ohmer said. "There needs to be a significant shift in the way we give gifts and that is what drives us every day."
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