Part of wedding planning is creating your dream registry. The process can be tough as you try to figure out one store (like IKEA) that can fit all of your needs for your newlywed life. Going through each room in your nest can be a cumbersome task, and even with the ultimate registry checklist, you’re bound to wish you had added that *one* thing to your list. In this week’s How to Quit Your Day Job series, we chat with Shan-Lyn Ma, the CEO and co-founder of Zola, a popular wedding website and registry service. Ma shares her story of how she turned common wedding registry woes into a fast-growing company.
Meet the Wedding Pro: Sha-Lyn MA
Born and raised in Australia, Ma always knew she wanted to start her own company. She was fascinated by the rise of the internet and dreamed of moving to Silicon Valley to start a tech company. One thing that Ma noticed all those tech founders seemed to have in common was a degree from an Ivy League, so she got an MBA from Stanford and worked at Yahoo!, Gilt Groupe, and Chloe + Isabel after graduation. Together with her Gilt Groupe colleagues, she and co-founder Nobu Nakaguchi launched Zola, a popular wedding planning and registry website.
1. Find common ground. Given their background in technology, ecommerce, and design, Ma knew that she and her co-founder Nakaguchi could really innovate the wedding company space with a new approach. They consulted with Kevin Ryan, founder of Gilt Groupe, about their business plan, and Zola was launched. Through research, interviewing engaged couples, and finding out what works best for today’s modern brides and grooms, Ma has found ways to continually improve her company. “Almost four years later, I am still deep in all of our couples research because there is no better way to improve our business than by listening,” says Ma.
2. Learn what your customer needs. According to Ma, two million couples get married every year. Ma and her team interviewed hundreds of those couples to find out their biggest problems with traditional wedding registries. One problem that popped up was shipping. “Some couples even had gifts stolen off their front porch while they were on their honeymoon. So, at Zola, we offer free shipping and we send couples a notification when a gift is purchased but then let the couple decide if they want to ship the gift ASAP, or if they want us to hold the gift until a later date so they can avoid box overload,” says Ma.
3. Provide a personalized experience. What resonates with Zola users is the personalized experience they want is in one place, for free. In 2013, when Ma found herself buying countless wedding presents from department store registries, she was shocked by how terrible the commerce experience was for the shopper. Nakaguchi, who was in charge of user experience at Gilt Groupe, lamented the same pains of traditional wedding registries. “Our original hypothesis was that millennial couples didn’t want many physical gifts anymore, that they preferred experiences to share with their significant other, but actually what we’ve found is that couples today want to have everything. They want cool experiences, home upgrades, and funds for their future,” says Ma. Zola was born out of the need to cover all wedding planning needs.
4. Rely on your squad. Many of Zola’s earliest wedding couples were Ma’s engaged friends who wanted to support her venture. From her time at Gilt Groupe, Ma developed strong relationships with her colleagues that resulted in six of them working together at Zola in an executive team of eight.
5. Go all in. If you’re thinking about starting a company, Ma suggests diving in head first. She believes that if you’re only working part time on your side hustle, it’ll be much harder to make it work. She quit her job at Chloe + Isabel in 2013 before Zola was even an idea to her. “I gave myself 24/7 to hone in on what I wanted to build,” says Ma.
6. Be obsessed with innovation. Since she runs a tech company, constantly testing and thinking about what’s next is part of Ma’s daily routine at work. She’s addicted to finding ways to make Zola even better. “There is nothing as energizing to me as hearing what someone loves and hates about our product,” she says.
7. Believe in your vision. During her early pitch meetings, Ma wishes that she had not been so humble about her business. “A lesson I had to learn during the fundraising process is that your pitch is being viewed in the context of hundreds of other pitches. Most male founders claim without a doubt their business will be worth a billion dollars or more. If you have a billion-dollar idea, say it. Believe in your company’s vision and speak like it!” says Ma.
Perfect Your Skills
1. Coding: From Web Page to Website Online Class ($39): Designer Allison House will teach you how to create a beautiful multi-page website using HTML and CSS. Make elements that will help your site stand out from the crowd.
2. Build Your Digital Brand Online Class ($49): Creative director Caroline Winegeart walks you through the steps of figuring out your brand’s mission statement and defining your audience. Find the right fonts and colors to convey who you are.
3. Build Your Brand on Social Media Online Class ($39): Social media guru Melanie Ham knows everything about every social media channel. She’ll show you how to choose the right platforms for your brand and track your content with an editorial calendar.
What’s your dream career? Tweet us @BritandCo to let us know, and we could feature it in the next column!
(Photos via Zola)