On any given day at Zola's office in Lower Manhattan, there's a high likelihood there will be cake.

There are the birthdays. The engagements. Sometimes it's a funfetti cake--other times it's the banana cake from Billy's Bakery, an office favorite that some employees jokingly have dubbed "the Zola cake." "We eat a lot of cake," concedes Shan-Lyn Ma, the co-founder and chief executive of Zola, a company built around helping people celebrate.

Ma founded Zola in 2013, along with three executives from Gilt Groupe, including founder Kevin Ryan, user-experience expert Nobu Nakaguchi, and chief technologist Felix Lung. Ma, an experienced product manager who'd been the first product lead at Gilt before becoming general manager of Gilt Taste, had an idea for rethinking the wedding industry. After focus groups of engaged and newly married couples revealed wedding registries as a consumer pain point, her concept for Zola was born.

For decades, Ma observed, registries had worked the same way: Couples would pace the entirety of home-goods stores with a scanner, zapping items to populate their wedding registry. More recently, the whole process had moved online, with everyone from Amazon to Williams Sonoma posting web-based registries. And startups had come in with various twists on the process, like Honeyfund (a honeymoon-fund site), or a promise to curate products or better-catalog them (Blueprint Registry, NewlyWish, and MyRegistry).

Ma's company entered the fray with a Millennial design aesthetic, curated experience, and intuitive navigation. It listed products from a hand-selected set of retailers, and let couples register for experiences or cash gifts. On the back end, Zola would buy items at wholesale and let the retailers ship directly, which meant great margins for them without the burden of inventory management. It didn't take long for the ex-Gilt team to persuade brands and retailers like Kate Spade and Crate & Barrel to work with them, despite the fact they were setting out to upend those very retailers' traditional registries. "It was [an industry] that hadn't really been touched by technology," says Ma.

But her goal from the start wasn't just to build a better wedding registry. It was also to guide couples through, and manage their entire process of, engagement, wedding planning, wedding, and even the first year of marriage. Considering couples spend an average of $33,000 on a wedding, a small slice of that, for millions of couples, would be a massive business.

In the company's first few years, Ma was able to raise significant funding: $10 million in 2015, and $25 million a year later. By 2017, Zola's registry was allowing couples to add products from other websites, and swipe right in its app to add a product to their registry. That year they also unveiled a free wedding website tool, which included guest-list management and a wedding to-do checklist synced to the app. "That blew up," says Ma, who then launched dozens of lines of paper wedding invitations, thank-you cards, and menus.

Meanwhile, she continued pursuing the larger opportunity well beyond the registry. Last May, she and her management team assembled a whopping $100 million round of venture capital funding. The company doubled in head-count, zooming past 100 employees, hiring technologists and project managers, mostly in its New York City office. The company also has offices in Montreal and Charlottesville, Virginia.

Now at Zola's Lower Manhattan office, there's a bit of anxiety about maintaining a breezy-but-fast-moving culture. Ma loves launching new products quickly, and her whole executive team likes moving at a rapid pace. "For us, the challenge is, how can we move as quickly as we did when we were a five-person startup?" says Ma. 

It's a near-daily consideration--one Zola president and COO Rachel Jarrett has been focusing on. Zola's staff is 70 percent female, and half of the executive team is female. At weekly all-hands, there are occasional gratitude sessions in which staffers write notes to others they appreciate. It's not gushy; Ma says it can lead to constructive comments, and she sees it as exemplary of one of the company's values, which includes promoting real-time feedback, putting the customer first, and, less formally, "not hiring a-holes."

"If there is any question that this person might not be someone who assumes good intent of other people, or is maybe arrogant, we will not accept that," says Ma. Paul Hsiao, an investor from Canvas Ventures, says hiring fast is a continuing challenge for Zola--but that Ma's policy has paid off: "The team consistently under-promises and over-delivers."

Couples can now purchase all kinds of items on Zola--everything from cake toppers and bridesmaids' dresses to diamond rings. But one of the company's newest products, Real Weddings Inspiration, addresses the social media-induced anxiety now surrounding this particular life event. "What has really changed is that we live in the Instagram era, where everything about your wedding is posted by every guest there--almost the second that it happens," says Ma. "Everything I think is even more pressure-filled and more important, because so many more people than ever before see it." 

Ultimately, Ma wants Real Weddings Inspiration to function like a Houzz for weddings. In its current form, it's a visual directory of tens of thousands of real weddings, each with a gallery of photographs--a better-curated cross between Pinterest and bridal magazines. The photographs are tagged with locations, color palettes, and specific information about any vendors that were used, and are geo-search-able. If that product can eventually be linked to Zola's existing wedding checklist, the company seems poised to become a massive referral engine for florists, photographers, venues, and wedding-planners. And then, there's the data. Ma now has a trove of data on couples that can be used to help them well into marriage--or at least, finding new ways for Zola to monetize it. 

Published on: Apr 12, 2019