Shan-Lyn Ma built Zola into a leader in the $100 billion dollar wedding industry and a company worth hundreds of millions in the process.
What started as a better online wedding registry has blossomed into a one-stop destination for all things weddings.
The most fascinating part?
She’s leveraged a differentiated approach, unique business model, and ongoing customer feedback, and Zola has been able to stand out in an industry ripe for disruption.
There’s a lot to her story.
Shan-Lyn Ma was born in Singapore and moved to Sydney, Australia when she was four years old.
That move, combined with her upbringing, influenced her desire to one day start a company:
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.
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.”
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.
Shan-Lyn also had an unlikely idol growing up.
It wasn’t a sports star, actress, or celebrity.
The fun story behind Yahoo is that I had a poster of Jerry Yang on my bedroom wall from when Yahoo first started because I loved the company so much and I admired Jerry Yang so much.
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.
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.
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.
Shan-Lyn would end up in Silicon Valley soon enough.
After graduating from college in Australia, she moved to the U.S. to get her MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Guess where she interned the summer after her first year?
In 2006, after graduating from GSB, Shan-Lyn joined Yahoo full-time as a product marketing manager, spending two years working for the company.
The best day of my two years at Yahoo was when I passed Jerry Yang in the corridor and he didn't see me but I definitely saw him and I silently freaked out.
After leaving Yahoo in 2008, Shan-Lyn joined Gilt Groupe, a company co-founded by Kevin Ryan in 2007.
Gilt was an early leader of the flash sale model and Shan-Lyn was drawn to their product, which in the early days you needed an invite to join:
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.
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.
Gilt offered Shan-Lyn the opportunity to work at a smaller company, an experience she craved after two years at Yahoo and one that would set her on the path to becoming a founder.
Furthermore, through that 4-year experience, she met her future co-founder, Nobu Nakaguchi, and her first investor, Kevin Ryan.
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.
After four years at Gilt, Shan-Lyn would spend one year as the Chief Product Officer at chloe + isabel before deciding to finally start her own company.
It’s 2013 and all of Shan-Lyn’s friends are getting married.
She’s going to weddings what seems like every weekend, but she’s frustrated with the registry process:
I had always dreamed about starting my own company one day but I had never felt ready until really working for many years in product management which was really working alongside designers and engineers to build digital websites and mobile apps and so had gotten that experience.
In 2013 that just happened to be the year all my friends got married at exactly the same time. Everyone has that year where you're going to a wedding every weekend spending a lot of money.
I was buying gifts from my friends’ wedding registries and found that the experience that I was going through was just one of the worst shopping experiences I had ever seen.
I was talking to Nobu about how painful it was, and he's married, and he was complaining about it from the couple's perspective. It's just as terrible.
We looked at each other and we said you know we've been working together to build great products why don't we attack this ourselves? We think we can do a much better job. That was how Zola was born.
Shan-Lyn, just like we saw with Laura Behrens Wu a couple of weeks ago, had a personal problem she thought she could turn into a business.
And, with around 2 million weddings taking place every year in the U.S. alone, a number that hasn’t really changed much over the years, she had a massive market to go after.
Because of her experience at Gilt, Shan-Lyn also knew how she wanted to run her own company:
I think having been through that experience of where a company grew from zero to then a billion in valuation to then go down the other side of the hill again was the best possible lesson. Then in a fast-growing startup like Zola to know that we have to earn that every day.
The way you earn it is you work your butt off on behalf of your customers and your partners and nothing is taken for granted.
For us, we have from day one been very frugal and capital efficient and many times investors will say, “Well this is one of the most capital efficient businesses we've ever seen,” and we've done it purposely because we want to avoid the situations that we've seen in past companies.
But let’s take a step back.
Shan-Lyn and Nobu knew the wedding registry process was broken.
Drawing on their backgrounds in product management, Shan-Lyn and Nobu went through a very traditional product development process before fully committing to work on building their future company.
They started talking to hundreds of couples and thinking about how they could differentiate themselves in a massive market.
When we were thinking about, “the market is big enough, but how do we really differentiate and build something that we know our friends and couples today deserve.”
We started by thinking about what are users using today and we did a lot of research. We spoke to hundreds of couples and we heard that what couples were doing was they were going into department stores, they were faced with a sea of products, they had no idea what they were doing or what they should be doing, and it was painful to be led through things that all look the same where there was the same kind of coffeemaker same kind of plate pots and pans. That was the physical experience and it led to a lot of fighting.
Shan-Lyn and Nobu were constantly looking for pain points, trying to fully understand the experience couples had with their wedding registry so they could design something better.
Three things came up repeatedly with couples:
They wanted to register for products, experiences, and cash in one place
They wanted to fully personalize their registry, making it look good
They wanted to control when their gifts would arrive, receiving them only when they were ready to
With that feedback, Shan-Lyn and Nobu got to work prototyping:
We started designing this concept for Zola based on these three differentiators.
We would put prototypes in front of users, we would ask them to walk us through the designs and over the course of a few months we would wait and try not to sell them or lead them, we would wait for the brides to ask us the magic question which is, in the product world, “When can I use this product?”
It's really hard because you really want to pitch them on how great your product is but we tried not to. We didn't hear that for a few months and it was only after we started to hear brides who were getting married the following year say to us, “Will this be ready in time for my own wedding? Can I use this anytime soon or can you email me when I can sign up?” That's when we knew we had a winning product and that's when we committed to doing it 100%.
It’s a few months after the initial “aha” moment of this opportunity to improve the wedding registry.
Shan-Lyn and Nobu have talked to hundreds of customers, prototyped a solution, and it’s become clear that this a problem worth solving.
So what did they need next?
Fortunately for Shan-Lyn, she’d find it from her former Gilt Groupe boss, Kevin Ryan, after 4 years of hard work at the company:
We were fortunate in that from our many years of working at Gilt Groupe, which was the startup Nobu and I had worked at previously, Kevin Ryan who was the Founder and Chairman of Gilt and also a serial entrepreneur who has started many other businesses, he knew us, he liked the weddings industry, and so he came on as both our co-founder and our seed investor.
When I tell people that story many other founders say to me, “Wow you're so lucky, it's like you clicked your fingers and all of a sudden you had funding,” and what I say to them is that is actually not true, it's the opposite, it is that Nobu and I worked our guts out 24/7 for four years to prove to Kevin that we were worth investing in and that's the only reason he was able to make a decision so quickly.
That was what helped us get started when we had no product and no revenue and then from that initial seed funding we were able to build and launch our first product and get people using it.
Zola launched in October 2013.
Their business model presented another opportunity for Shan-Lyn to innovate, as she’d later talk about in 2021:
We started with one particular business model which I'm proud of in that it's very innovative. It is truly a combination of an e-commerce business and a marketplace business.
What I mean by that is that when we first launched our wedding registry we wanted to offer products and experiences and the ability for couples to register for whatever they wanted but we also knew we had to find a way to make money to stay in business and so what we ended up doing was creating this marketplace of products and brands that couples wanted where we could sell them the product through Zola, similar to the way retailers do it, but in a way where we could dropship the product.
So we didn't have to buy all the inventory and if we did have to buy all the inventory for the registry, because it requires such a broad assortment, I think it would have been very hard to make the business model work.
But because we could move towards a blend of an e-commerce and a marketplace business based on the technology that we built to allow that to work we were able to then not just serve a lot of couples but have a business that was then able to fund our investment into new products that were free, like the free wedding website that we offer or the guest list manager, and from that could then innovate into more products that helped us expand our business into new business models such as our paper invitations business where that is more similar to what I would call a direct to consumer business model.
Armed with plenty of customer insights, a product that addressed many of their pain points, and a sustainable business model, Zola was ready to take off.
In the early days of Zola, virality was a key component of their growth:
At Zola we also have the benefit of having natural virality because when someone gets married on average you invite 150 guests to your wedding so the way we think about building virality into Zola's product is that if we can build a registry that is beautiful, that is easier to buy from than any other registry, then every guest coming to that registry will want to tell their friends who are married, getting married, or will want to use it themselves when they get married and we just have to remind them that we exist.
With this growth, in November of 2013, they raised a $3.25 million Series A led by Josh Kushner at Thrive Capital, who then joined Zola’s board of directors.
Zola has 1,000 different items available to couples for their registry at this time.
Not long after, in April 2014, they launched their iPhone app to make it even easier for couples to create and manage their Zola registries.
By this time, they had 3,000 products and experiences available for couples and their growth was already starting to take off.
In the timeframe from their October 2013 launch until April 2014, Zola had 10,000 couples create a registry on their platform.
Growth was also accelerating every month.
Zola would end up doing more than $8 million in revenue in 2014 and by April 2015 the team was already nearly 40 people.
Building on the 10,000 couples that had used their platform in the first 6 months after launch, two years in that number was 100,000 and Zola would do $40 million in revenue.
Shan-Lyn’s company was the fastest-growing online wedding registry by 2016 and a fundraising round that year would value Zola at more than $200 million just three years after launching the company.
Series C & D
Of the Series C rounds closed in 2016, Shan-Lyn Ma was one of only 4% of woman founder CEOs to close a Series C that year.
It was a round of funding preempted by VCs, as Zola didn’t need to fundraise, still having most of their capital from the previous round due to how fast they were growing.
In just three years, Zola had hit a $120 million GMV run rate, by this time Shan-Lyn was leading a team of 52, and couples using Zola could choose from more than 40,000 products for their registry, of which Zola gets a 40% cut if sold through their platform.
The way we manage our capital was a significant selling point for VCs.
The early days are often about a relentless pursuit of growth without considering how much it costs your business. We refuse to light money on fire here. We track how every dollar we spend influences our bottom line. Investors really respect that.
After this round of funding, Shan-Lyn would spend more significantly on paid marketing, not only buying ads in bridal publications but also in New York City subways, something they’d do for years to come, especially around engagement season.
Around this time Shan-Lyn talked about the customer surveys they use to improve Zola and how impactful these had been:
We review and categorize feedback from detractors and their comments typically map to a handful or themes that we’ve been monitoring.
What we’ve observed is that the top two themes tend to comprise more than 50% of the comments, so that’s where we focus. But regardless, as soon as a theme arises, we start investigating ways to address it, or what might be causing the issue.
It’s important to us to track how themes shift over time. If one shows up two or three months in a row, we’ll add it to the road map. Other considerations include what the issue is, how time-consuming it will be to address, as well as the impact the solution will have on our bottom line…
The issues that prevent people from picking Zola — the deal breakers — are the most important to us, because they’ll have the biggest impact on our core business.
The growth team that leads these surveys at Zola shares this data with the entire company.
That means every single month every single person in the company will be walked through the results of our research. Yes, this is about transparency, but more so, it’s about accountability.
Everyone must know that they’re contributing to — and therefore, equally responsible for — our NPS performance and the success of Zola. This way, it's no longer just on the horizon of the product team to address feedback. It's on everyone. It touches every single team.
That is really the next phase of our business, it's going beyond just the wedding registry to help couples plan more of their wedding.
We, for the first four years of our business, have been focused on solving the painful parts about wedding registry but we've been hearing users ask from us, or pull from us, things they also want us to help with, things like could you help me with my baby registry, could you help me furnish more of my home, or could you help me plan more of my wedding?
And we only in the last few months decided we would expand beyond registry to attack a bigger market and between those three options we landed with weddings. We wanted to help people really plan the wedding from the day they get engaged through their first year of newlywed life.
Zola Weddings, a free resource for couples’ wedding-planning needs, includes, as written about by Alex Taussig at LVP, a custom website, registry, dynamic checklist, and automated guest-list management.
By 2017, 300,000 couples had used Zola’s platform with 500+ brands and more than 50,000 products and experiences available.
A May 2018 Series D round of $100 million led by Comcast Ventures valued Zola at $600 million, surpassing The Knot, another leading wedding company.
The selection of VCs in this round was strategic:
We also picked Comcast Ventures to be our lead investor because Comcast and [fellow investor] NBC are market leaders in media with wide reach. They’ll help us with our marketing and awareness goals, which is a big opportunity and area of focus for us in the coming year.
And what allowed Zola to capture so much market share by this point?
I think this is why we have been able to capture a huge chunk of the market is because we create a beautiful site that couples can customize but we also develop, in the case of registry, specific features you cannot find on any other site.
Like we let couples control when and where they receive their gifts. So it turns out most couples don't actually want to receive their gifts until after they've come back from the wedding, after they've moved house, and no one else does that.
The other thing we do is we have all these other wedding planning products that we've launched after our registry product like the wedding website invitations and these are things that are deeply connected to each other.
By 2019, Zola had 80,000 products on their site, but virtually no inventory, and they capture wholesale retail margins because they are the retailer.
Shan-Lyn is leading a team of 200 by this point and, while they’ve had a great deal of success, they’re not without competitors.
Amazon, of course, is one of them.
Whenever Zola launches an update, Amazon tends to copy it, but Shan-Lyn isn’t too bothered:
I love it when other sites copy us because I'm a competitive person so I feel like it's motivation to stay ahead and to keep iterating.
She’s a force and I love it.
All the products that we're building in the wedding ecosystem, so all the things that we do to help couples plan their weddings, are all focused on how do we be that one-stop-shop when no one else is today.
Coming off the Comcast-led investment, Zola started experimenting more with TV ads, with surprising results:
What's interesting is we found, as we've been experimenting with TV ads over the last year, that it actually has been very high performing for us from an ROI perspective which was surprising but I think it makes sense. I think that some of the products out there today you're able to target more accurately.
That same year, reflecting on the wedding market, Shan-Lyn was still surprised by its lack of disruption:
It's mind-boggling how this is one of the few categories left that is fueled by millennial spending today that has not yet seen a multi-billion dollar disruptor emerge yet every other category that you look at of this size has seen that disruptor come through and take the entire market.
Then, when the pandemic hit the following year, Shan-Lyn and the Zola team were forced to adapt quickly.
What do you do when a global pandemic completely decimates your industry?
We very quickly started to put out, within our product, messages that would help couples based on what we were hearing from them through these calls.
So we put on our wedding website product messages that couples could post to all their guests to communicate what was happening with their wedding as a result of Covid-19.
We launched change the date cards so that couples could very easily customize and send change the date cards to all of their guests to get the word out.
Then we invested a lot more in our customer support team and I've always been proud of the fact we have best in class customer support for our industry and we wanted to maintain that and while it definitely wasn't easy and I know that our customer support team just worked 24/7 to serve our couples I am proud of the level of service that we helped our couples have through this time.
From there, Shan-Lyn and her team accelerated the launch of their wedding vendor search platform and also launched Zola Home, pulling it ahead on their roadmap:
We didn't think the home store was the number one priority initially when we set up in 2020 because there's so much to do in weddings but, of course, when people are all at home and they're looking online increasingly for bread ovens, bread trays, mattresses, and we have all of that we saw in our data people very quickly turning to Zola to buy things for their home even though it was very hard to do so.
We thought, “What if we make it easy and we actually let people not set up a registry if they are just looking for a pizza oven?”
And so that was the launch of Zola Home and since we've launched that we've just seen incredible demand for both our current couples, past married couples, as well as anyone coming to Zola to buy for their homes.
Shan-Lyn and her team also hosted 5,000 virtual weddings through their wedding website product during the pandemic.
It’s a testament to their willingness to adapt and do whatever is in the best interest of their customers.
That willingness to adapt was also showcased by Shan-Lyn herself when she brought on a co-CEO, Rachel Jarrett, in June 2022.
Today, Zola continues to expand.
In September 2023, the team launched Zola Baby, a baby registry for expecting parents.
It was a product their customers continually asked for and one that seemed inevitable.
In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.
My advice to founders is always a piece of advice that I got when I was first starting Zola and I think it was the most valuable piece of advice which is, before you really decide to commit to an idea for your startup, to think about how you're gonna spend at least the next 10 years of your life focused on this one thing and that's if everything goes well.
You are gonna be living, breathing, working pretty much 24/7 on this one thing and your most valuable asset is your time so is this the best way that you want to be investing your time for the next decade because if it's not the best investment of your time maybe you should think about another idea and other team, something else, but to really have a commitment to yourself before you bring anyone else on your journey and once you're able to think about that and commit to yourself that this is the only thing you want to be doing then you're ready to go.
Quarterly would be too infrequent to track themes over time, and too easy to be distracted by one-off feedback. Weekly would be too frequent from a workload perspective.
Every month we write a new survey and sort through hundreds of answers. Monthly is that sweet spot where we’re able to stay in touch with our users, and not create so much work internally that it’s overwhelming.”
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 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.