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Catching Up (Wait! Slow Down!) With Kevin Ryan

The founder of Gilt and Business Insider--and the busiest entrepreneur we know--takes a moment to talk about his latest start-up.
Meet Zola: Shan-Lyn Ma, CEO and co-founder (at right), Kevin Ryan, chairman and co-founder (center), and Nobu Nakaguchi, CDO and co-founder.
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Think you're moving too fast? I caught a couple minutes on the phone with Kevin Ryan, the founder of Gilt, 10Gen, and AlleyCorp, among other companies, as he was catching a train to New Haven, where he's on the board of Yale University. He'd come from a meeting of the board of Human Rights Watch, on which he also sits, and was getting off the phone with Henry Blodgett, the CEO of Business Insider, a website Ryan founded.

Ryan also is--and this is just currently--chairman and founder of four companies. This places him among the very most prolific of modern serial entrepreneurs; his current email signature might make even the most overachieving executive's head hurt. It reads:

K E V I N  P.  R Y A N
Chairman and Founder - Gilt
Chairman and Founder - MongoDB
Chairman and Founder - Business Insider
Chairman and Founder - Zola

Ryan most recently stepped away from his CEO position at Gilt Groupe (as of late last year), and he hasn't wasted time adding a new business card to his deck. He says he's been eyeing the wedding market for years--a lucrative area, in which registries alone are a $10 billion market--and this month he jumped in by launching Zola.

It's meant to be a truly universal registry, allowing couples to pull in listings from elsewhere on the web. That means not just, say, a KitchenAid mixer from Macy's and a set of Irish linen sheets from an independent retailer side-by-side, but also "experiences," such as Miami Heat tickets or a wine-and-cheese class at a local merchant. They can all be listed as gifts. And unlike the most common universal registry to date, on Amazon.com, it's highly customizable, and beautiful.

How does the chairman of four companies manage it all? First, he says, when starting something new, he enlists trusted help. For Zola, that meant partnering with two former early Gilt employees to run the show day-to-day. They are Shan-Lyn Ma, a former star product manager, and Nobu Nakaguchi, the designer who built Gilt's mobile apps. Second, he manages his schedule very carefully.

"I divide my time between the four [companies], and I have been for the past five months," Ryan says. "It becomes who needs how much when, and how can I provide the most value." That value, he says, is most in demand during the fundraising process for any of his companies. He also allocates a significant amount of time to be intensely involved in a company's hiring process. (He previously spoke to Inc. about the significance of hiring talented individuals; you can watch that video here.)

Ryan, Ma, and Nakaguchi knew they wanted to be in the weddings space, but it was research that led them to focus on the gift registry. They interviewed 200 couples about their full experiences, from engagement through honeymoon.

Plenty of the couples the group interviewed said they tried to control their own wedding details very closely--but they lost their grips when it came to managing a registry. Couples also said they ended up registering in many different places, making it difficult for guests. 

"Brides today spend so much time and energy today making sure that process is beautiful and inspiring," Ma says. "The wedding registry is one time when that all fell over. The bride was not able to be inspired or tell her story to her friends and family."

There's plenty of competition in online registries: In addition to Amazon.com's registry, other new companies, including RegistryLove, MyRegistry, and WeddingRegistry360 each help couples aggregate their desired gifts from a variety of retailers. Others, including Honeyfund and Wanderable, target couples who want guests, rather, to help pay for their post-ceremony travels.

Once the group had a focus for the new business, they brought in two more former Gilt employees--a CTO and the VP of operations--and built a proprietary one-cart checkout system for the universal registry. Zola has been compared to Gilt in terms of aesthetics and simplicity of the shopping experience, but in one key way it's the exact opposite: While items on Gilt are available just for a few days, on Zola the long-term availability of items is key.

I asked Ryan about one other ingredient to his secret sauce of at least his recent entrepreneurial endeavors--the name. Zola, after all, is another simple four-letter word with few preexisting associations (at least for anyone who didn't study late Victorian-era French literature or politics).

"What we wanted in a name, and you'll see with Gilt, is that it's short--which is incredibly, unbelievably, you really wouldn't believe--hard to find," Ryan says. "We also cared that it doesn't mean that much. And is easy to say."

Ryan and Ma say they aren't stopping at registries. They’re thinking more broadly about Zola as a tool for simplifying and beautifying other areas around getting married, including honeymoon registry, wedding websites, and perhaps even invitations and thank-you notes. Or maybe it could branch into other sorts of registries instead--perhaps those for baby showers or bar mitzvahs. That open-mindedness to future expansion into new lines of business is part the reason Ryan preferred the name "Zola" over, say, AwesomeWeddingRegistry.com.

"When I started Gilt, it didn't really occur to me that we could sell travel, for instance. I like a name that gives us latitudes. And we will build a brand around it," he says. "I like a brand that I can define." 

Last updated: Oct 23, 2013

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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