How This Founder Created The Ultimate Wedding Product

A chat with Zola co-founder Shan-Lyn Ma

For Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting a trio of incredible female founders. Up today: Shan-Lyn Ma, co-founder, and CEO of Zola. You’ve probably used her product if you’ve been invited to a wedding over the past few years — Zola started off as a wedding registry service and grew into a one-stop digital shop, where couples can host their wedding websites as well.

So how did Zola come to be? What’s the biggest lesson Shan-Lyn learned in starting her own company? And what happened when Hallmark Channel (briefly) banned an inclusive ad from Zola this past year? Read on…

Wake-Up Call: Shan-Lyn, how did Zola come to be in the first place? Can you talk us through the start of the company?

Shan-Lyn Ma: I think everyone has that year in their lives where it feels like they’re going to a wedding every weekend — and 2013 was that intense year for me. I, like many people, was spending a lot on traveling to different weddings, buying gifts for my friends from their wedding registries, and was starting to feel like buying some of my best friends a gift was one of the most painful e-commerce shopping experiences I had ever seen.

I had a background working as a product manager — creating delightful and fun e-commerce shopping experiences. So I thought: It shouldn’t have to be this bad.

I was complaining about it to Nobu [Nakaguchi, my co-founder], who I worked closely with and who is an incredible product designer. He was married and complained that it was equally bad from the couple’s point of view. So we thought: We should fix this, and we can do a much better job. We started with registries, and since then, we’ve expanded to become a one-stop-shop — because we’ve seen the experience was equally bad in other parts of the wedding planning as it was in registry.

In that vein, was it a really seamless transition to add other services besides registries, or did it require strategic planning?

From the first day that we launched our wedding registries, the couples that were using Zola started to beg us to help them with other parts of their wedding planning journey as well. Our mission, from the very beginning for Zola, was always bigger than just a wedding registry — but we wanted to make sure that we first and foremost did a great job building and creating a great wedding registry product. Once we felt like we had done that, we then started to address some of the other requests.

In our early days, we kept hearing: “I love Zola for my registry. I already have uploaded our photos and if I could just add a few more details about our wedding, I could also make it my wedding website. And then we’re done — and it’s all in one place.” That avalanche of requests made us think we should launch Zola Weddings, which was the free wedding website and guest list manager, as our next product in 2017. That took off pretty much day one.

So let’s back up to before you started Zola. Was it always your plan to get into the business world?

That was the dream. I was born in Singapore and I grew up in Sydney, Australia. I had always dreamed of one day being an entrepreneur, mainly because I used to read about it in business magazines. I was reading a lot about entrepreneurs building world-changing products — reading about tech companies like Yahoo, eBay and Amazon that were just starting up at the time. So I thought, “Well, it seems like a revolution is just starting,” and I wanted to be a part of the action.

I ended up moving to the Bay area to be in Silicon Valley. I went to graduate school there, worked at Yahoo, and got to start learning how to build great digital products from the best. Then I had the opportunity to move to New York and be the first product person at Gilt Group when it was first launching — which was an incredible opportunity. I got to build a lot of products that millions of people loved.

But then even more importantly, I got to work alongside my now co-founder Nobu, who was the head of the User Experience Design design team there, as well as many of the other people on the Zola leadership team today. We had collective dreams of, “One day it would be fun to start something together.” And eventually, that’s what we did.

What have been some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned through running your company? And is there anything you would’ve done differently?

One of the biggest lessons as CEO is to continuously think about: “How can I reduce the number of jobs that I am doing as a CEO and increasingly replace myself with someone that’s better at doing that specific function within the company?” So, for example, in the early years of Zola as CEO, I probably had 10 functions reporting to me. Now, I have much less than 10 functions reporting directly to me — which means that I’ve been able to bring on great leaders who have the right skills and experience to better lead and run those functions than I ever did. And I think the company is much better for it.

I would say the thing that I wish I had done differently is to bring on some of those experienced leaders earlier on. I was a scrappy founder, looking to make sure we were spending each dollar as efficiently as possible. In reality, I thought I could do without some of those key leaders for longer than what we should have. It’s a great lesson for any founder.

I always say, “Think about how you can build something much bigger than yourself.” And Zola today is certainly bigger than one person. That’s something that I’m really proud of.

Now, let’s talk weddings! Springtime seems like such a busy time for weddings. Is this the busiest time of year for Zola?

Well, actually, the entire year is busy for Zola — because we have a lot of people getting engaged and starting to plan their weddings, or they’re getting married. So they’re using other sets of products from Zola, and their guests are coming to Zola to buy them wedding registry gifts or visit their wedding website.

But what we’ve seen about weddings on Zola, is that October is the most popular wedding month this year. May and June aren’t that far behind, and we see a lot of couples planning their wedding dates around the weather. They want to have better chances of weather that’s not too hot, not too cold, where there might be some flowers in bloom and where the days are longer. That means better opportunities for great photos.

A few months ago you had this really, really beautiful ad with a lesbian wedding, and then it went viral after the Hallmark Channel briefly pulled the ad. This led to an outpouring of support, love, and appreciation for this ad online. So I wanted to ask — what was it like to go through this experience?

We were so overwhelmed with all the positive support that we received for Zola and for the ad. What’s interesting is that we’ve always had very diverse ads — and have been including same-sex couples in our ads for years now. So we weren’t expecting that this year would be any different.

We always want to embrace every couples’ right to get married, no matter how they choose to do that. And in our ads, we want to represent couples getting married today and the couples who use Zola. So, while we were surprised that anyone would not run an ad that is just representative of couples today, it was such a positive surprise to see the show of support from so many different groups of people — who said, “We appreciate Zola standing by your ad and the rights of all couples.”

What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to somebody starting their own company?

Anyone that’s looking to work on their start-up should know it’s a journey that, at a minimum — if it all goes well — will take up at least the next seven to 10 years of your life. You will be thinking, breathing, doing nothing but obsessing over how to build a great startup and a great product for your customers for an extended period of time in your life. And so I would encourage everyone thinking about that to really make sure that they are ready to make that big commitment. Make sure they have not just the right differentiators from what they’re looking to offer in their product to their customers, but also make sure that you have the right business model to be able to a great business — one that is sustainable and over time has a clear path to be profitable.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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