Angie Sommer and Alicia Ostarello, the writers behind Vow Muse - a San Francisco-based wedding ceremony and vow writing business - talk about how to start a business that doesn’t exist, how they content-marketed their way to the New York Times, and why a newsletter is still valuable for a ‘one-off’ service.
“It’s not like ‘let’s open an ice cream parlor together,’” recalls Angie Sommer, one half of the wedding writing team Vow Muse. She quips, “Everyone knows how an ice cream parlor works, but writing vows and wedding ceremonies wasn’t a thing.”
Angie Sommer and Alicia Ostarello, co-founders of Vow Muse, say their business had no template - there weren’t other wedding vow and ceremony writers out there, at least not that they knew of. What Angie and Alicia did know was that there was an untapped market of nearly-weds who wanted entirely personalized, original ceremonies and vows.
From there, they took a leap–and landed in the New York Times, one of the most influential newspapers on the planet.
In this interview, Angie and Alicia share how they built their business as a “side hustle,” used content marketing to get on Google’s radar, and how they continued to grow —even after their “big break” nearly crushed them under a sudden influx of business.
Part 1: How a thing that “wasn’t a thing” became a New York Times featured business
Vow Muse came into being in 2010 when Angie and Alicia both found themselves looking for work at the same time—at the height of the recession.
Angie, an engineer by trade, was exercising her love of writing on her personal food blog and picking up some freelance writing work. Alicia, a professional writer, had just returned to San Francisco and found herself in demand for freelance writing of an unusual kind: Friends kept asking her to help them write their vows.
A lot of friends.
Angie recalls, “They tended to come to her the day before their weddings with ‘I have to write my wedding vows - will you help me?’ Alicia is a very helpful person who will go to great lengths to help her friends, so two days before, or a night before, she’d stay up to help them write their vows.”
Alicia and Angie got to talking, and they wondered if they could turn this into a business.
Angie says it started out easy: “In terms of logistics, online businesses are simple in the beginning. You’re just testing it out to see if it works. Some people do venture capital things and investment, but we’re not business people. We did the low-pressure, slow ride, ‘put this out there and see if it works.’”
Putting it out there, however, is much harder than it looks.
Putting it out there: An aggressive content marketing strategy
From 2010 to 2013, during and in between finding jobs and losing jobs, Alicia and Angie methodically built Vow Muse. In the beginning, Angie says “we did a ton of legwork, trying to get on any little blog, push our social media, and keep our own blog.”
She recalls that their strategy was simple, but time-consuming: “We’d pitch any tiny local blog who would have us. We tried Google Ads for a while. We wanted ‘help with my wedding vows’ to make Vow Muse pop up on the first page of Google results.’” And the best way to rank for a keyword phrase is to have legitimate websites and blogs linking back to yours. This is what their content strategy hinged on, and it worked.
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They focused on quantity, but never forgot quality - “We put a lot of time into curating each guest blog post and social media post. We didn’t just send the same submission to fifty people. We tried to do this, as best we could, catering to whatever the outlet needed.”
They doubled their business every year until 2015 when all of their hard work “getting out there” landed them a huge break.
“Somehow, the New York Times found us. They wanted to do an article about us and one other similar company in their Lifestyle section.”
The article came out in the New York Times in June 2015, prime wedding season in the United States.
“That summer was the most insane summer for us.”
Suddenly, they had more work than they knew what to do with and scrambled to write beautiful ceremonies, funny and thoughtful speeches, and, of course, vows. They used the influx of cash to invest in their website.
Because now - thanks to the links they had built in their early years of business combined with the New York Times article - everyone was finding them online.
In the wedding industry, visual branding is vital
Even though Angie and Alicia invested in the visual side of their brand early on by hiring a local graphic designer to create a logo, in the beginning they did their website themselves using tools like Weebly. But in the world of weddings, visual branding is exceptionally important, so they knew that to continue building their business, they needed a more polished web presence.
“In the beginning, we were doing design-it-yourself websites, which could only go so far. Neither of us are graphic designers. We’re word oriented. But we do see our brand as modern, cool, and fun - which we try to convey with our colors, logo, photo style, layout and fonts.
"We’re no experts at this, but we’ve put thought into it, and it’s evolved over time and gotten better and better. Our latest version of the website launched in June; it’s our fifth or sixth version.
"I feel like you put so much into a website, but your needs change so quickly as an evolving business. You think you have a website, but a year later, you’re like, nope. Let’s revisit this. You want the website to be figured out and work for you, but really, you’re always working on the website because that’s the main thing that’s giving you business.”
Keeping with the times, they chose a long-page format with the most important information at the top. Angie says the first goal is to reassure people that this is a real, legitimate business, which they convey through a polished website design, an eye-catching ‘hero image,’ and a lot of social proof.
“That’s a lot of real estate above the fold that doesn’t communicate many words to our audience, but it also communicates a lot.”
The other purpose of their website though is to educate visitors on exactly what they do - and what they don’t do.
“How do you write vows? We’ve been asked that question a lot. Often, people can’t even conceive of what the process would be.
‘Is it a template or something?’ No we don’t use a template.
"We have to explain the process to people interested in working with us, and we have to do it fast, right there on the website.
"People want to glance, understand, and decide ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ That’s been an ongoing challenge with every iteration of our website, we’ve tried to improve in helping people understand what we do, understand the process and what it costs, and see if they’re interested."
She says having the logos of the Today show, The Daily Mail, and the New York Times on their header image buys them time: “If they don’t understand immediately what we do, they know that it’s cool enough that the Today show talked about us.”
And recently, they were guests on Good Morning America.
One website tip they have for businesses that get a lot of inquiries but far fewer bookings is to make pricing clear from the start.
"We used to get a lot of inquiries but a medium conversion rate for people who actually booked. We discovered that was because we weren’t communicating our pricing. We weren’t trying to be coy about it, the information is there, but people don’t spend that much time to find it. So they contact us, we email them back, and that takes time on our parts, so we wanted to make sure that the people who emailed us actually book.
"We moved our prices to the Contact page, which we did as a checklist survey. For people to contact us, they have to check the box for which service they’re interested in, and the prices are all right there.
"Now we have an 80-90 percent conversion rate out of the people who email us."
Even though they get fewer inquiries, the inquiries they do get are “only the people who really value words - which are our ideal customers.”
Angie says “Our website self-selects really awesome clients. They’re level headed, interesting. So many times we’ve gotten off the phone, turned to each other and said ‘We want that person to be our friend.’ We get really cool clients.”
Social Media & Newsletters when you have a one-off service
Although Vow Muse has concentrated mostly on guest posts on other blogs, they also use social media to keep their brand in front of people. They currently use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, all featuring the hashtag #LifeofaMuse. Alicia says Facebook and Twitter are “mostly for reaching wedding industry folk” while Instagram and Pinterest work better for attracting potential clients. “People love Pinterest for vow and ceremony inspiration, so if we can be part of the conversation there, we can drive people back to us.”
Alicia says they’re working on getting more word-of-mouth industry referrals and hopes that publishing a newsletter will help with that.
“We’ve been thinking about doing a newsletter for a while, but one of the reasons we haven’t done one before is that a lot of the people who we work with are one-off clients.
“We write their vows; they get married. We do get some repeat clients who are in other people’s weddings and need to give speeches. But it’s not like other companies where we need to stay top-of-mind on a continual basis. So we wondered at the effectiveness of a newsletter and had to ask ourselves if it was worth it, because if we’re doing that, we’re not doing something else.”
But as their business has grown over the years, Alicia and Angie have found that people are interested in keeping in touch. Many of those ‘cool clients’ have become friends who want to keep in touch. And Alicia happens to be a singularly gifted newsletter writer.
“I think of newsletters (and all content/social marketing) a lot like I do about dating. You have to be interested in your audience, and you also have to be interesting. Which translates to thinking about what people who reach out to us care about, and sharing ideas and concepts that relate to them — in other words, not talking about ourselves.
“My main source of newsletter inspiration is the "I'm reading" section of the Ann Friedman newsletter. I love how she shares a bunch of content she is interested in. So, it relates to her and her work and thought process, but it's not about her. I love the idea of writing themed newsletters meant to inspire (really bring in the Muse aspect!), and that are more about life than they are about weddings. Because weddings are one-off events. Post event, our clients don't care about weddings anymore. But they do care about life.
She says their first newsletter will focus on “beginnings, middles, and endings — I've got a collection of articles to share about starting something in life (a business, a marriage, a school year, etc), articles about the middle (the wedding planning process via Angie, etc), and endings (got a great couple articles about even, yes, death).”
As for how this supports their business, Alicia says “it’s mostly just the reminder factor. ‘Hey, we’re here! We’re someone you know. We’re someone you want to tell a friend about.’ Referrals are an untapped marketing opportunity we haven’t pushed. It’s all about trying something new to see what works.”
Division of labor in a 2-person business
Angie says she and Alicia are “different in a lot of ways which mostly helps us, and only frustrates us sometimes. We both have our specialties.”
Alicia handles social media; Angie pays the bills and makes the spreadsheets. They both work with clients.
“It all feeds into that search engine results page, and that’s our end goal.”
Angie says figuring out who does what has been an organic process, “which for me, a very structured person, is almost terrifying. If you put a bunch of challenges in a room, we each walk to the ones that suit us, and it appears relatively evenly balanced in terms of workload.”
It’s a partnership that allows both women to play to their strengths. As an engineer, Angie says she is “a very procedural person” and “Alicia is more of a creative person.”
“We both do the writing, we both respond to clients and develop the vow muse voice, we both work with our consultants. If someone is doing more, the other will step in to do the next thing to keep it relatively even.”
Expanding services based on client demand
Initially, Vow Muse only offered writing services. But, according to Angie and Alicia, that lasted about five minutes.
“We’re writers; we wanted to do the writing. But people were asking us to officiate too. A lot of times they’d assume that since we wrote it, obviously we’d come read it! It evolved into people asking for that service right off the bat.”
And this is where “not being a thing” really complicated matters - because Yelp doesn’t have a category for “writing consultant.” They do have a category for “officiant.” Angie and Alicia found themselves popping up under that category. Angie says “I used to try to take it off, but it kept popping up!”
Eventually, they decided to stop fighting the tide.
“If you’re doing wedding things that deal with vows, speeches and ceremonies, you’re either an event planner or an officiant. And we are definitely not wedding planners.”
Both Alicia and Angie are now certified officiants who get rave reviews for the ceremonies they perform, but they’re still both writers at heart. And that led to a recent business decision, as Angie explains.
“We’ve actually hired an officiant consultant. So we write the ceremony with her input, and she’s also one of our writing consultants, and she officiates many of the weddings. We still do some, but that helps us out a lot.”
The writing consultants have been added slowly to help Vow Muse expand, an evolution that came out of necessity. After the New York Times article came out in 2015, Alicia and Angie struggled to balance their full-time jobs with their side-business. They were swamped and knew they needed help, but it was a struggle.
Angie says, “The hardest part was that I thought, because I’m a Type A business owner, that no one else could do this. I thought it was unique to me and Alicia, that only we could construct a speech about someone’s love for another person. But you just need to be a good listener and a good writer and we’ve found four really good people who can also do that.
“Letting that go, and realizing someone can help and you don’t have to do everything was a big step for us. Alicia’s writing network has been super helpful with that. They’re all friends or friends of friends. But one of us does review every single project. So it’s not like we’re not involved. We keep tabs on every single project.”
A logical evolution to authorship
Angie and Alicia have recently co-authored a book for people looking to DIY their ceremonies. Much like how Vow Muse began, the idea came to them because they saw a real need - and a gaping hole in the market.
“The book idea came to us for a few reasons: First, much like the inspiration for our business, we saw a need for it. People want personal, secular ceremonies — and it's very en vogue to have a friend perform said ceremony.
“But asking someone to officiate your wedding leads to questions like, ‘what does that mean?’ and ‘Who is writing the ceremony?’ and ‘wait, what goes into a ceremony? Ack!’
“In seeing all of this, we wanted to create something where a bride and groom could ask their high school principal to officiate their wedding, and then give that person the tools to write the ceremony (or give themselves the tools to do it).”
The “Gettin' Hitched” book is for couples who want to write their own ceremonies as well as people who have been asked to officiate a ceremony, and it also serves another purpose.
“Also, honestly, we wanted to stop providing our ‘template ceremony’ service — we felt like it wasn't what we wanted to be doing, and it was confusing to our clients. So now, our template ceremony is this book. It's cheaper, and it's DIY (the book itself is really a toolkit — it's a how-to personalize a fully formed ceremony).”
Soon, they published a second edition of their toolkit, the Gettin' Hitched Pride Edition.
“We live in the Bay Area, and gender-inclusiveness is very much part of our culture here. So we wanted to create a non-gendered toolkit for people who weren't into the traditional ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ nomenclature.”
What it comes down to: Listening
Interestingly, the evolution of Vow Muse follows what Angie and Alicia say they do best: They listen, carefully, to their clients. Careful listening is what you need to write heartfelt vows for people you’ve just met, and it’s also what you need to build a business that is responsive to client needs. Good listening, a good website, and the will to diligently keep putting yourself out there–at least until the New York Times finds you.