Shan-Lyn Ma on founding Zola, “a company that would do anything for love”
There’s no time of life quite like the months leading up to your wedding day: The preparation. The anticipation. And perhaps most of all, the monetization. Shan-Lyn Ma, the co-founder and co-CEO of Zola, realized all of these things back in 2013, and used her expertises of product and eCommerce to shake up and transform the wedding business forever.
Shan-Lyn Ma is Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Zola, the wedding company reinventing the wedding planning and registry experience by combining compassionate customer service with modern tools and technology. Before starting her company, Shan-Lyn was the Chief Product Officer of Chloe + Isabel and prior to that, she was Gilt Groupe’s first product lead where she was tasked with defining and evolving the core site experience.
Shan-Lyn Ma on founding Zola, “a company that would do anything for love”
Co-CEO and co-founder of the wildly popular wedding planning platform talks entrepreneurship, customer love, and navigating the highs and lows of company building.
Shan-Lyn Ma had entrepreneurial dreams from an early age. While most kids had posters of pop stars or athletes on the walls of their childhood bedrooms, Shan-Lyn displayed a poster of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang. “Yes, it is embarrassing but true,” she says with a laugh. “I put him on the wall as a representation of who I wanted to be one day.”
Shan-Lyn was born in Singapore, but moved to Australia at the age of four. As new immigrants, her parents put the majority of their income towards the essentials. “Every time I wanted to go to the candy store or the zoo, their answer was, ‘One day you'll make enough money yourself to be able to do what you want,’” she says. So began Shan-Lyn’s obsession with entrepreneurship. “This idea of founding my own business became a romanticized dream for me,” she says.
Today Shan-Lyn Ma is the co-CEO and co-founder of Zola, the company that reinvented the wedding planning and registry experience. Billed as “the wedding company that will do anything for love,” Zola has helped over 2 million couples plan their big day, and is currently valued at over $600 million. We sat down with Shan-Lyn to hear wisdom from her journey to the top, including why you should build a product you yourself wish existed, how to use customer feedback to outpace competitors, and the one lesson that motherhood and entrepreneurship have in common.
Build the product you want to see in the world
After business school, Shan-Lyn made one of her childhood dreams come true: She actually worked at Yahoo, leaving Australia behind for Silicon Valley. “Suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people who lived and breathed technology, wanted to create things that didn't exist yet, and worked all day and all night to get the job done,” she recalls. Once Shan-Lyn got a taste of the tech world, she was hooked.
After a couple years at Yahoo, Shan-Lyn was still dreaming of founding a business, but she didn’t feel quite ready to take the plunge. Her next role was a Gilt Groupe, a flash sales platform that was astronomically popular in the late aughts and early 2010s. At Gilt Groupe, Shan-Lyn headed up a new business unit—the food and wine division—and built the team’s operations from scratch. It was in this role that she met her eventual Zola co-founder, Nobu Nakaguchi, and had the formative experiences that gave her the confidence to lead her own venture.
By 2013, Shan-Lyn and Nobu were determined to start a company together. Meanwhile, in her personal life, Shan-Lyn was constantly being inundated with wedding invites. “It was very stressful and expensive and joyful and fun all at the same time,” she says. “I was going to a wedding every weekend, so I had to buy a lot of presents. But while shopping for my friends, I was stuck on the worst wedding registry eCommerce websites I had ever seen.”
Shan-Lyn found herself complaining to Nobu about how bad these websites were. Nobu, who had recently gotten married himself, relayed that the wedding registry experience was equally bad from the couple’s perspective. He shared that when he and his then-fiancée created their wedding registry, they kept getting into fights because the limitations of the existing technology kept forcing them to make compromises.
“That was when the light bulb went off,” says Shan-Lyn. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What if we could create the wedding registry experience we’d want to use?” The pair had just spent the past few years building delightful shopping experiences together at Gilt Groupe, so extending these skills into a new market felt perfectly natural. “We deeply understood the customer—couples getting married—because those were our close friends,” she says. And thus Zola was born.
Nothing is more valuable than customer feedback
Drawing on the customer research skills she had first developed at Yahoo and finely honed with Gilt Groupe, Shan-Lyn spent a lot of her early days as a founder deep in customer research. After talking to countless newlyweds, she uncovered a consistent piece of feedback. “We found that receiving gifts was the worst part of the process for couples,” she says. “This was crazy because we thought, receiving gifts from people you love should really be the best part of the process.”
But couples would often receive packages and have no idea what was coming or when, much less who sent it. Sometimes, gifts would be delivered while couples were on their honeymoon, and they’d be concerned it’d get stolen from their doorstep. And often, couples would change their minds about what items they’d find useful, so they’d have to lug much of their haul back to the store to return it.
So Shan-Lyn’s team designed the Zola platform so that it would only send a gift once the couple said they actually were ready to receive it. “It sounds obvious,” says Shan-Lyn. “But still, it's revolutionary.” This attunement to customers’ needs is what sets Zola apart from competitors. “We're still the only player that does this because it’s very hard to engineer if you have a system that has already been set up to send orders as soon as they're placed,” she says. “We're putting control in the hands of the couple where they felt they didn't have it before.”
Do right by your customers, especially in times of crisis
When the Covid-19 crisis happened, Shan-Lyn could immediately see thousands of weddings canceled and postponed through the Zola platform. “Game of Thrones fans will remember that episode with the big epic battle scene, which was so dark and so poorly lit that viewers complained. Nobody could see what was going on. That was very much how it felt during that first week of lockdowns in 2020,” says Shan-Lyn.
But eventually, Shan-Lyn could make out a path through the chaos, and she became clear on what she needed to do as a founder, no matter how uncertain the future seemed. The Zola team rolled out some essential product changes at a shocking speed, including free “change-the-dates,” the ability to edit wedding websites to include information about postponement and rescheduling, and a built-in Zoom wedding feature.
“A lot of the quick actions we took were both the right thing for couples and the business,” says Shan-Lyn. “It showed couples that we were there to support them even through the toughest times.” “Many of those features made no revenue, were costly to do, or were a big investment. It was certainly not easy.”
But Shan-Lyn came back to her founding values, which included a couple-centric approach. “With that lens on, it was very obvious what we had to do,” she says. While Shan-Lyn’s unwavering commitment to her customers led to a challenging few quarters financially, the decisions she made early on were an extremely sound investment in hindsight. “We were there for couples in their time of need, and they rewarded us. We have a very high NPS (net promoter score) because of how we handled that time.”
Motherhood and being a founder are full of highs and lows
In 2021, Shan-Lyn gave birth to a baby girl. “Being a mother has been the best thing in my life,” she says. “I'm sure many working parents will relate to the fact that now I only do two things: I work and I look after my baby. Everything else has been deprioritized. And I'm happy with that.”
While Shan-Lyn greatly hopes to regain some sense of balance in the future, she’s accepted what’s possible in her current circumstances. “When I imagine myself five or ten years ago hearing my own words, I think I would be very unsatisfied with this answer,” she says. “But now, it's the reality.”
Much like the highs and lows of motherhood, Shan-Lyn’s day-to-day life as a co-CEO also ranges wildly. “The natural state of a startup founder is that on any given day, you feel an incredibly wide range of emotional states,” she says. “You go from ‘Wow, this is great. We just are doing so well’ right through to, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re nowhere near where we need to be in order to make it as a company.’”
As both a mother and an entrepreneur, Shan-Lyn has a favorite mantra to keep her grounded through the hard days: “The only way out is through.”
Shan-Lyn Ma: One of the big challenges of working in a company of that size is that everything just takes longer to get out the door because it impacts hundreds of millions of people. Every little change is seen by the world. It was something that I found really hard to get over.
Talia Goldberg: Welcome to Wish I Knew, the show about the revelatory aha moments that founders, CEOs, and leaders discover along their own business journeys and why taking risks leads to growth. I’m your host, Talia Goldberg.
On today’s episode, we have one of the biggest power players in the business of love, Shan-Lyn Ma. She’s co-CEO and co-founder of Zola, which is the company that reinvented the wedding planning and registry experience.
Everyone’s heard of the saying first comes love and then comes marriage. It’s a simple one-two punch. Well, not so simple. Then comes wedding planning, the in-laws, the cost. It’s stressful. Shan-Lyn got her start as a product leader at Yahoo and Gilt Groupe, so she was pretty familiar with the highs and with the lows that come with startup life. And these learnings paved the way for the company’s growth.
For this episode, I had the honor of interviewing Shan-Lyn myself. I’ve known her for many years and really have enjoyed following the company and its evolution. So let’s get to it. Here’s my conversation with Shan-Lyn Ma.
I should start this by saying thank you as a customer as well because I used Zola for my wedding a year and a half ago. And it was amazing. I had a great experience. And I’ve been waiting since I met you to have an opportunity to use it myself, not just for buying gifts, but actually for receiving gifts. I feel like I’ve mostly been spending money on Zola. And finally last year, it came back around.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Oh, well, I’m so happy to hear that. Thank you so much for using Zola. And you should send me all your feedback since you’ve gone through it from every which way.
Talia Goldberg: Well, you’re very lucky to be in the business of love.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes, yes, we are.
Talia Goldberg: Shan, what is Zola?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Zola really is the place where couples today are planning their weddings. So we are there alongside couples throughout their entire journey from engagement into newlywed life. And we aim to be there to hold couples hands every step of the way.
Talia Goldberg: I love that. You were born in Singapore and moved to Sydney, Australia when you were four years old. How did your upbringing impact your trajectory to become a businesswoman and a CEO?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Well, as a result of that move, I was a first-generation immigrant. I was one of the few non-white kids in my neighborhood. And my parents, the majority of their income went towards school books and towards my schooling and putting food on the table. And so every time I wanted to go and do something that often required some kind of money, the answer was, “Well, at some point you’ll make enough money yourself to be able to go and do what you want, whether it’s go to the candy store or go to the zoo.”
And so from the time that I was very young, I was always thinking about how can I go into business in order to do the things that I would like to do? And this idea of becoming an entrepreneur and creating something out of nothing really started to be almost like a romanticized dream for me.
Talia Goldberg: Shan-Lyn was a fangirl of entrepreneurs from a young age. Unlike me and most teenagers who were admiring movie stars and pop stars, she was an aspiring entrepreneur and wrangled together a group of business leaders to be her role models. And some were a bit unconventional.
Shan-Lyn Ma: The role models I had at the time were on TV. There was a show called Family Ties and there was a character that Michael J. Fox played. He was a “businessman.” And all of this kind of helped me look towards role models that I could one day hope to emulate.
Talia Goldberg: I know that you were a very big fan of Jerry Yang, the co-founder of Yahoo, when you were a kid, which I think is so interesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and how that became an idol of yours over the pop stars and the athletes?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes, it is embarrassing but true. I was really in awe of what he was doing, which at the time he was in the early years of starting Yahoo. And Yahoo as a company and a vision was creating a portal literally into the entire world in the form of the internet or the worldwide web as it was called at that time.
And Jerry Yang was Asian American, had an idea, went after it, and very quickly his idea was reality that was touching the lives of millions and then eventually hundreds and millions and billions of people. And so I thought, wow, what a special place Silicon Valley and the tech industry must be to be able to give the Jerry Yangs of the world this opportunity to create something like this and if I could only get myself to Silicon Valley, I could learn, hopefully, to one day do something similar myself. And so I can put him on the wall as a symbol of the representation of who I wanted to be, but also where I wanted to go one day.
Talia Goldberg: And you were successful with that goal because you ended up working at Yahoo after business school. If you look back, did it live up to the hype? What did you learn from your time at Yahoo?
Shan-Lyn Ma: I learned so many great lessons about how to build products that customers love and want to use. And I learned it from great people. Speaking about living up to the hype, you have to imagine coming from Australia, at that time, Australia didn’t really have a technology scene, then being plopped into a company like Yahoo where suddenly I’m surrounded by thousands of people who live, eat, breathe technology, want to create things that don’t exist, and working all day and all night to get the job done, that was revolutionary because I had just never been in an environment like that.
And so both a culture change but then also the exposure to these product leaders, that was the best education of how to be both a product manager but then eventually an entrepreneur because it was a lot of 101 lessons, such as how do you reach out and find customers to get them to talk to you to tell them what are their pain points, what are their needs, and then how do you brainstorm solutions that could be innovating on behalf of those needs? And then how do you test those to make sure the ideas you’re coming up with are actually things people would want to use. And then how do you work with engineering and design and business development, partnerships and legal, and everyone to get that out of the door?
That was one of the best lessons you could have on really how to eventually launch your own product or own company one day. I feel really lucky to have had that masterclass as well as just the ongoing network of friends that I had as a result of working there.
Talia Goldberg: Shan-Lyn eventually left Yahoo in 2008, and she leveraged her experience in her next role at Gilt Groupe. If you lived through the heyday of Gilt, then you know the meteoric hold that the shopping site had. I mean, by the time I first heard of Gilt Groupe, I thought it was the coolest site, and then I was so lucky to get an invite to access its sales. But speaking of sales, Gilt was an early pioneer of the flash sales model. It’s a model that had its fair share of challenges. So I was pretty curious what Shan-Lyn saw in Gilt that made her want to take the leap and join them.
Shan-Lyn Ma: After a couple of years working at Yahoo, I thought about, well, my dream is to one day start my own company, but I don’t feel ready yet. And the reason is I don’t feel like I’ve gotten enough experience or exposure to all the skills that I would need in order to successfully run a company. But at the same time, I also don’t have the personal financial stability to support myself both in a startup and if the startup doesn’t work out.
So as a next step, I would love to go to a smaller startup where I can have a broader range of responsibilities. And at Yahoo, one of the big challenges of working in a company of that size is that everything just takes longer to get out the door because it impacts the hundreds of millions of people. Every little change is seen by the world. And so each change just takes a lot more people to approve. And it was something that I found really hard to get over. And so I thought I want to go to somewhere with less people where I can move faster and I can see and learn more about different products and how they perform in the world.
And so I was talking to different startups. And I actually really didn’t want to leave Silicon Valley. But at the same time, my friend invited me to shop on Gilt. And at that time, you had to be invited.
Talia Goldberg: Yes, that’s what it was. I remember I was desperate for an invite to Gilt back then.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yeah. That was part of the genius appeal. And once I was on the site, I was hooked. It was really an addictive, special experience. And I was on there every day thinking there’s nothing else online like this and what they’ve created is magical. And so I looked at the team page and I thought who created this? And the bios of the team members were incredibly impressive. So I thought, wow, I’d love to work with them. I looked at the jobs page. There happened to be the perfect job, exactly the one I was looking for.
So I did what everyone says you should not do, which is I put my resume in through the website. And of course now, everyone says, “Oh, you should find someone that works there. You should get them to refer you. You should get your resume directly into the hands of the hiring manager.” But no, I did not know that at the time. But it worked out because I got a call the next day and was asked to interview.
And with each person I met, fell more and more in love with the team and the product and the company. And so after interviewing for quite a few months, got the job, moved to New York, and was there for the first four years of the business, which was just an incredible experience. And a lot of the reason why Zola is successful is because of what happened during my four years at Gilt.
Talia Goldberg: What was it about the Gilt experience that had such an impact on how you went about building Zola?
Shan-Lyn Ma: My co-founder and I, first and foremost, met working together very closely at Gilt.
Talia Goldberg: Shan-Lyn’s co-founder, by the way, is Nobu Nakaguchi.
Shan-Lyn Ma: We love working together, and we loved the culture that we were able to create within the team and the business unit that we started together, which was the food and wine division. And that was one of the special things about the Gilt culture was that there were opportunities to start something. And I got the opportunity to launch a whole new business line and run it, even though I’d never done that before.
And so in doing that with Nobu, my co-founder, we were able to almost have a trial run at what were the cultural elements that we found worked really well when we did that together and then what didn’t work as well and what do we want to change if we were to start another company, which, of course, eventually became Zola.
Talia Goldberg: And this is an important stop on Shan-Lyn’s journey, one that became a shaping tenant in her founding story, when she realized the combo of business prowess and cultural excellence was at the core of the type of company she wanted to run.
On the culture piece, I’ve read that the way that you lead is informed by an iconic class that is taught at Stanford Business School, the touchy-feely class called Interpersonal Dynamics.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes.
Talia Goldberg: Can you explain that class for those that are unfamiliar? What are some of the lessons that you’ve taken from that course that have influenced your leadership style or the culture at Zola?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes. That is really a pivotal class, I think, in the experience of many Stanford Business School students, myself included. And what the class talks about and goes through in practice is how to give and receive feedback in real time and not just one-dimensional feedback. So not just say performance feedback, but really all the full range of feedback that you may be feeling at any one time.
And there are many ways that different people within a team or a company can impact each other and their performance and their happiness and their morale, and therefore their productivity. So some of those things might be the way information is verbally communicated, the way it’s non-verbally communicated, whether it’s through body language or facial expressions, the way you phrase certain things, the level of transparency in information. All of these things, that class really encourages you to give and receive your peers feedback on.
And so a classic framework is when you, Talia, do X, it makes me feel emotion Y. And then you’re encouraged to give that feedback in real time. So not let it just fester and give that three months later when everyone’s forgotten what you’re talking about. But really to give someone that feedback in the moment so that they have the information to know, okay, I didn’t realize and it wasn’t my intent to make you feel like that perhaps, but it’s another data point that’s good for me to know that you felt say bad or good when I did that. And so I can then make a decision, do I want to change the way I behave, or do I want to stay the same but know that it impacts you in that way?
Talia Goldberg: I love that framework. It leads to real transparency. It requires a level of vulnerability on behalf of the leadership to feel comfortable and vulnerable enough to speak up immediately and share their thoughts and throughout your time as a CEO. Has everyone gotten it right away? Is it just inherent in the culture, and so people learn and they are able to operate this way? Or does it sometimes just not work out, and some people never quite get it?
Shan-Lyn Ma: It’s never a case of you learn it once and then you’re always great at it. It’s an ongoing process I think for everyone to try to push themselves to both give and receive feedback on an ongoing basis.
And let me actually give you an example of someone that was very kind to do this to me. There have been times where you get very stressed out by whatever needs to be done in the business. And there was one time where I was really pushing people very hard to be moving faster than the deadlines that were estimated and that were set.And I was really on the backs of a number of people on the team saying, “We need to move faster, we need to move faster,” but wasn’t saying why.
And so someone pulled me aside and they just said, “Are you okay because you don’t seem to be acting like yourself? And I just want to understand what’s going on and what’s behind it.” And so that was just another form of feedback of essentially saying what you’re doing right now is impacting people. So I think the answer to your question is everyone needs reminders and they need it in real time.
Yes, absolutely it can be taught, but obviously the person that is joining the team has to be signing up for this culture as well. Some people are just not into wanting to be receiving a ton of feedback. They just want to do what they’re doing. And this type of culture is probably not for them.
Talia Goldberg: Coming up, the E-commerce world was shifting dramatically when Shan-Lyn decided to leave Gilt. And how exactly did the idea for Zola actually come about? That’s coming up next.
2013 was the year that Shan-Lyn and Nobu decided to jump headfirst and start a company together. The only problem was they didn’t really know what company to start. Meanwhile, you know how there’s usually a season where everyone seems to get married or a period in your life where that happens? Well, that was happening for Shan-Lyn.
Shan-Lyn Ma: All my friends were getting married at exactly the same time, and I think we all have that year. It’s very stressful and expensive and joyful and fun all at the same time. And I was going to a wedding every weekend, having to buy a lot of presents and just shopping for my friends from the worst wedding registry, E-commerce websites I had ever seen.
And so I was complaining about how bad it was to buy from these sites to Nobu. And I was telling him, “These are just so shockingly bad, you can’t believe it.” And Nobu is married. And he was saying, “Oh, it’s equally bad from the couple’s perspective.” He was telling the story about how when he and his now wife were creating their wedding registry, they kept getting into huge fights because he wanted to do certain things that you just weren’t able to do.
And that was when the light bulb went off and we kind of looked at each other and we thought, well, what if we could create the wedding registry and then the wedding planning portfolio of products that we would want for ourselves and for our friends? We are the perfect people to do this, and we deeply understand the customer, which is the couple getting married because those are our close friends, and why don’t we just get started? And that was really the beginning of Zola.
Talia Goldberg: As Shan-Lyn was getting ready to bring the idea of Zola to the world, there were changes happening in the home industry that kind of created the perfect storm.
Shan-Lyn Ma: I think the important thing is what was happening in the industry at that time, which was that home as an industry was also starting to open up E-commerce capabilities and that they themselves were starting to put up their own websites. Within having their own websites, that meant they had to develop the capability to ship from their warehouse to a customer’s home, which meant that we could take advantage of that through our drop ship platform.
Talia Goldberg: Can you describe a little more of what drop shipping means and how that works for Zola?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yeah. It means in an alternative universe, if we didn’t drop ship, maybe a brand might sell a product to Zola, and then Zola might have to have our own warehouse where we store all these products and brand. And then when someone wants to buy that from us, we then send it from our warehouse to them. But in the meantime, we’ve had to pay for that inventory to put it in our warehouse. We’ve had to pay for the warehouse. We’ve had to pay for the shipping both to and from our warehouse. And all of this adds up, and who knows when someone will actually buy it.
With drop shipping, what we were able to do was use technology to trigger the order via our platform so that when someone placed an order through our site, we would transmit that order to a brand’s given warehouse, wherever they were in the country. And then the brand’s warehouse, where they already have their products, would ship it directly to say, your home.
Talia Goldberg: I love that. And it’s something that only the internet could enable, right? You can’t do this in the physical retail world. You wouldn’t be going around to individual manufacturers or retailers. You go to the department store.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes, exactly. And this was particularly important for a wedding registry because with a registry, what you want is to offer a very broad range of products and brands, but you don’t need a lot of depth. You just need a lot of breadth.
And this was a lesson that I saw Gilt learn the hard way. And as a result, I think a lot of the business ultimately lack of success was because of some of the pitfalls of that business model. At Gilt, the inventory challenge was exacerbated because of the flash sale model. It was required to buy a lot of inventory to fuel the daily flash sales that happened each day. And the amount of cash required to invest in that inventory, to warehouse that inventory, to sell it, to merchandise it, to photograph it, to write about it, all of that cost structure, I think meant that it was hard for that business to ever be profitable.
So the aha moment that we had in order to avoid this inventory challenge was based on the insight at Gilt, where when I ran the food and wine division, we were able to ship those food products on a drop ship basis. And so I thought what if we could do the same at Zola?
Talia Goldberg: And another learning that Shan-Lyn took from Gilt was how to deal with product returns.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Just when you sell a product, you think you’ve sold it, it comes back to you again in the form of return. And so you not just have the cost of warehousing it, shipping it, merchandising it, all those things I described the first time, you have to do it all over again with the return except you have zero revenue.
And so when we thought about Zola, we spoke to a lot of couples getting married before we launched Zola. And the very consistent thing we heard from everyone was, “Oh, the problem with every other existing wedding registry is as guests buy things for me, the gifts just start showing up at my doorstep and I have no idea what’s coming, when it’s coming, who sent it, if I really want to keep it. I might be away on my honeymoon. It might be getting stolen. I have no room for this. And then once I’ve gotten married, I have to lug half of it back to the store to return it because I’ve changed my mind by then. And so receiving gifts is the worst part of the process.” And this was crazy because we thought receiving gifts from people you love should really be the best part of the process.
And so what we did was we designed our platform so that we would only send a gift to someone once the couple said they actually were ready to receive it, which sounds obvious, but still it’s revolutionary. We’re still the only player that does this because it is very hard to engineer if you have a system that has already been set up to send orders as soon as they’re placed. But we’re putting control in the hands of the couple where they felt they didn’t have it before.
Talia Goldberg: So you’ve solved that problem, but you’ve done a lot more. Now in 2022, the idea of gifting to someone’s honeymoon cash fund is not foreign at all. People want experiences, they want honeymoon funds, house funds, name your funds.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Puppy funds.
Talia Goldberg: But it was unheard of back then. How does it feel to have had such an impact on the registry game where that is a core part of the offering that Zola provides today? And how did you come up with that and decide we’re also going to go into cash funds now?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Offering couples the ability to register for what they really wanted all in one place, that was so obvious in how badly that was needed in the sense that it came up in every single conversation. And even people we speak to today, it’s just loud and clear. People want what they want and they want it all in one place. And if we didn’t do it, someone else would have done it.
And so as a product person, the big aha moment for us was, oh, we could actually make this much easier than what is out there today. Because before Zola, what couples had to do was they had to set up three different registries at three different places in order to register for all the things they wanted. It just seems so crazy that I couldn’t imagine us not doing the right thing, which was to offer all of this in one registry as well as the things that we heard again and again, which was experiences.
The experiences in 2013 were things like wine tasting or hot air balloon rides. Now, they’re things favorite gift cards or Airbnb, or IVF is something that we see increasingly common.
Talia Goldberg: That’s really cool. I think it’s awesome that you can support everything from Uber to IVF via Zola.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes. Sometimes people will ask me how does it feel to be where I am today because, of course, it must feel great? And I always struggle so much with that question because I never feel like I’ve “made it yet.” I think that is the natural state of a startup founder is that you always feel in any given day, every single day, you feel a wide range of emotional states from, wow, this is great, we just are doing so well, we’ve made such great progress right through to, oh my goodness, we’re nowhere near where we need to be and we need to be doing so much more in order to make it as a company and maybe someone that needs to be doing better here. And so I can never answer that question because I still feel like every single day we have, and I have a lot to prove.
Talia Goldberg: As I mentioned at the top of the show, I got married about a year and a half ago, which means we were in the thick of worrying about COVID as part of the planning. And of course, Shan-Lyn and the Zola team were doing the same thing.
Let’s talk a little bit about 2020. Take us back to first hearing about COVID and maybe realizing that this is going to have an impact.
Shan-Lyn Ma: If we rewind to the very beginning of COVID and when the lockdowns first started in early 2020, we could see pretty early on that this was going to have a big impact on weddings in 2020. Because when couples sign up with Zola, they have their wedding dates in the system. And so we could see almost immediately couples starting to move their wedding dates from that summer of 2020 into later in the year or the following year. And so we knew that it was going to have a big impact on the weddings industry, our business, and how people were thinking about celebrating their weddings.
In that first phase of the lockdowns, we all just had no idea how long would COVID last, how bad would it get, what would happen to the world? And I personally, I’m a big Game of Thrones fan, and I guess so for anyone who watches Game of Thrones, you might know there’s an episode where there’s a big epic battle scene which is so dark and so poorly lit. Viewers are complaining no one can see what’s going on. And that was very much how it felt during that first week of lockdowns in 2020.
Talia Goldberg: That’s such a good analogy.
Shan-Lyn Ma: What myself and leadership did was think about what are the possible scenarios around how long COVID could last and how big the impact could be on our business. And so we started to plan the business as if it would last for much longer than anyone expected. And we also started to think about what are the things we need to change in our products and the way that we serve couples to both help them through this time if they were planning their weddings for this year, as well as make sure that we are still relevant and there to serve if there can’t be a lot of in-person gatherings this year.
Talia Goldberg: The Zola team rolled out some essential product changes at shocking speed, including free change the dates, the ability to edit your website to include info about postponements or rescheduling, and a built-in Zoom wedding feature.
Shan-Lyn Ma: I think a lot of the quick actions really were the right thing for both our couples, the users, as well as the business because it showed couples that we as a company, as a brand were there to support people even through the toughest times. And many of those things made no revenue, were costly to do or a big investment, but the right thing to do. And I think customers, couples reward us with a very high NPS, a net promoter score, because of that.
Talia Goldberg: That’s awesome. And it’s not easy to do that.
Shan-Lyn Ma: It was certainly not easy. But I think in that time, we kind of came back to our founding values, which is a customers couple-centric approach. And with that lens on, I think it was very obvious what we had to do.
The thing that I’m also proud of, the team and how quickly we reacted, was for our local vendor marketplace, we saw this opportunity where a lot of local vendors, which are small businesses, whether it’s wedding venues, photographers, caterers, florists, they suddenly had a lot of their business disappear overnight. And so they naturally were really struggling to think about how do I continue to support my business through 2020 and through COVID. And we had always planned to accelerate our local vendor marketplace, but we took that year to reach out and get as many of these local wedding vendors onto the Zola platform for free, as many as we could. And so glad we did.
Talia Goldberg: Navigating the COVID landscape was a Herculean task for Shan-Lyn, especially when some of her customers were Bridezillas. But that wasn’t her only accomplishment at the time. This next one is a bit more personal.
So I read that you became a mother in 2021, congratulations, to a little girl. How has motherhood impacted your life? And what have you learned from being a mother and a CEO at the same time that you can share with our listeners?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Well, being a mother has been the best thing in my life. And I’m sure many parents who have to juggle work and a baby will relate that now, as a result, I only do two things. I work and I look after my baby and everything else that I used to do has gone away for now.
But sometimes people will ask me is how do you have work-life balance, or how do you navigate being a mother and running a company? I think I’ve become more comfortable with the answer, which is, I have no idea. But I just do the best I can every day. And I am happy with the fact that I have my two priorities and everything else has been deprioritized. And at some point, I hope I will get them back.
I think if I was to rewind and think of myself five years ago, 10 years ago, and I was listening to this answer, I would be very unsatisfied with this answer. But now, it’s the reality.
Talia Goldberg: I think it’s also really great because just as you looked up to Jerry Yang as a child, as an Asian American founder, we need more mothers that are CEOs and founders and more examples of that. You can’t be what you can’t see. And so I’m excited that there will be many other children that can look up to you as the role model for the future too.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Thank you. And I think about the awesome female CEOs who had children, whether it’s Katrina Lake who started Stitch Fix or Whitney at Bumble. And I really am inspired by how they are able to hold their children when they’re IPOing. And that, the example that that sets for everyone, I think is truly inspiring.
Talia Goldberg: Something I really wanted to ask Shan-Lyn about was her decision to relinquish some control and invite someone else to join her as co-CEO. That’s someone was Rachel Jarrett. In fact, it was billed as a new kind of marriage, which I really love. But this marriage, well, it wasn’t a shotgun wedding. Rachel had known Shan-Lyn and Nobu for a while and had even worked with them back in the Gilt Groupe days.
Shan-Lyn Ma: One of the best decisions we ever made at Zola was to bring on Rachel as the president and COO in 2016 because up until that point, my co-founder Nobu, he’s a product and design genius, and so he was very focused on working very closely with the engineers to create these innovative products that people would love. But then all the other functions from finance, accounting, marketing, growth, everything, was reporting to me, which was too much and not the right thing for the company. And so I thought who’s the best operator that I’ve ever worked with? And the first person I could think of was Rachel because she was my mentor in many ways when we worked together at Gilt. She taught me a great deal about how to be a GM, how to lead a business, how to read a P&L in a way that would inform business priorities. And so she was the only person I could imagine who would be much better than me in all these other things that I was doing.
And so the move to the co-CEO model with Rachel was just a very natural extension of that decision that we made six years ago now. I think in thinking back about it, in business school many people who have built great businesses will often say you only end up making a few big decisions that really change the course of the company and you only recognize what those big decisions are in retrospect. And I think for us, Rachel joining was one of those big, important, positive decisions. So yeah, I could not be happier or feel more lucky to be able to work with her and to have her lead Zola.
Talia Goldberg: Definitely. So I want to switch gears. I have three rapid-fire questions for you. Are you ready?
Shan-Lyn Ma: I’m ready.
Talia Goldberg: Okay. Where can we find you on a Sunday night as you’re preparing for a Monday morning?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Well, I love watching Game of Thrones, and so now there is House of the Dragon, which is not quite the same, but nearly as good.
Talia Goldberg: What is your go-to pick-me-up to reinvigorate yourself when you hit a wall?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Walking around the block to get a coffee with my co-founder and maybe, if we’re lucky, a delicious French croissant.
Talia Goldberg: I love that answer. That’s the trifecta of caffeine, outdoors, and food.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes.
Do you have a favorite quote or personal mantra that you carry with you into your work?
Shan-Lyn Ma: Particularly in 2020, it has become the only way out is through.
Talia Goldberg: I love that.
Shan-Lyn Ma: So when you’re facing a challenge, can’t avoid it, have to make your way through it.
Talia Goldberg: Just like your leadership style, attack things head on.
Shan-Lyn Ma: Yes.
Talia Goldberg: All right. Final question. On The Wish I Knew podcast, we end each episode with a parting thought for our listeners as they embark on their own personal and professional journeys. Looking back at your time as a professional, from Product Lead to CEO and Founder, what do you wish you knew either before it all began or as it was unfolding?
Shan-Lyn Ma: I think my answer here is that it’s always all about people, people, people. I think, theoretically, I know that, and many people know that. But when you’re in the early stages of building a company and each person means huge leverage in terms of the amount that you’re allowed to get done in a day, and so what that means is that early on, there’s a lot of temptation to hire anyone that seems remotely smart to help you get going really quickly.
But when you’re hiring extremely quickly, what happens is that through the course of the business, each person, particularly early on, becomes such a key part of forming the culture, forming the direction of the company, that sometimes you unintentionally influence where you’re heading as a company because you needed someone two years ago as soon as possible.
And so what I would say to anyone starting out in the early years or to myself is to just continue to take the time to be rigorous about each person that is hired. They’re the ones that are going to seek out and bring other great people on. And so it’s not just can they do the job today, and can they do it quickly, but can they do all these other things that they will inevitably have to do just by virtue of being there?
That’s it for today’s episode of Wish I Knew. You can find and follow the show on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or anywhere you listen to podcasts, or at bvp.com/wish-i-knew.
An extra special thank you to Shan-Lyn Ma for joining us on today’s episode. Wish I Knew is a podcast by Bessemer Venture Partners. The show was created by our very own Karen Lee and Christine Deakers. I’m your host, Talia Goldberg. Our show is produced by the team at Filia Media. Our lead producer is Molly Getman. Our executive producer is Kait Walsh. We’re engineered by Evan Viola. Our theme music is by Terry Devine-King at Audio Network. Additional Music by Blue Dot Sessions.
And remember, sometimes the only way out is through. Face things headfirst and head on. We’ll see you on our next episode.See Less