A Gilt Groupe Alum’s Plan to Revamp the Wedding Registry

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The first-time CEO of Zola, which just landed venture backing to update a time-honored tradition, offers some advice for early-stage entrepreneurs.

By Lorraine Sanders (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

The love that leads to marriage should be boundless and beyond compare. It’s a cold contrast, then, to visit the average online wedding registry, where giftable products typically live in branded silos, giving cash is not an option and group contributions are difficult to manage – and if a couple wants to offer all three of those gifting options in one place, forget it. For many of us, the hassle is a requisite stop on the journey to celebrating most modern nuptials. For Shan-Lyn Ma and her former Gilt Groupe colleagues Nobu Nakaguchi and Kevin Ryan, it was a reason to start a company.

“A lot of couples spend a lot of time, energy and money on making their end to end wedding experience beautiful and something that is very personal. Registries online were the one place where that was not reflected,” Ma tells Women 2.0.

With Ma at the helm as CEO, the trio debuted Zola in early October. They aim to bring the wedding registry into the here and now by offering an ecommerce platform where couples can use a unique URL, create a custom landing page, upload images and add stories and text to personalize and contextualize wish lists of products. The site, which currently counts about 500 registrant couples, also offers features for giving cash and contributing selected dollar amounts toward larger ticket items such as furniture or honeymoon travel. Another value add for the soon-to-tie-the-knot: the couple can elect to receive their gifts immediately or at a later date, when they’ll be drop-shipped directly from the brand and delivered.

“We let the couple really have as much ability to personalize their registry and tell their story as they could possibly want,” says Ma.

Some additional help in making that happen came last week, when the startup online boutique announced a $3.25 million Series A funding round led by Thrive Capital and the appointment of the firm’s Joshua Kushner to its board.

Women 2.0 recently caught up with Ma to learn more about her path to CEO, motivating a team and – for anyone noodling on new business – areas this e-commerce veteran says are just waiting for an upgrade.

Before launching Zola, you spent four years working at Gilt Groupe. How did that job prepare you for what you’re doing today?

I joined Gilt Groupe when the company only had around 30 employees. When I left, four years later, there were over 1,000 employees. Those four years at Gilt were like a bootcamp in fast growth startups. I learned how to collaborate with designers and engineers to create online experiences that consumers love. I realized the importance of hiring and guiding existing teams through rapid employee growth.

During my time at Gilt, I also learned all about e-commerce - intricacies of how changes to the front end UI of a site as well as the back-end infrastructure - can drastically impact my business's bottom line.

At Gilt, I was exposed to different types of functions of the company for the first time - such as merchandising, distribution operations and creative production. All of those functions now report to me in my CEO role today at Zola. I was lucky to be able to work on almost all the new businesses that Gilt launched, including Gilt Man, expansion into Home and Kids, Gilt City, Gilt's mobile apps and Gilt Taste. My role as General Manager of Gilt Taste was like a mini-CEO role of one business unit. It gave me a great understanding of what a CEO might have to do, and made me better in my role today.

The most important thing I realized from my time at Gilt was that I loved working closely with Nobu Nakaguchi, who co-founded Zola with me. We built Gilt's mobile apps together and we worked extremely well together. I was lucky to have Kevin Ryan as a direct manager and mentor over my time at Gilt. In that role, I was able to understand how he assesses new business opportunities. I think about all those lessons almost every day in my new role as co-founder and CEO at Zola.

You’ve been part of a team, and now you’re in a role where you’re leading a team as CEO. How do you motivate people to do a great job day after day? Any words of leadership wisdom you can share with readers who may be trying to build great teams of their own?

I focus on trying to hire people who are extremely aligned with my personal vision and values around what makes a great company. Specifically, I look for team players who care deeply about the online experiences they will build - making sure it is beautiful, simple to use and delightful for users.

Early on in my career, I found that if you spent time and energy hiring people who were smart and self-motivated to make a difference in their industry, my role as leader could become more about defining BHAGS (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) that people would find inspiring and achievable.

Tactically speaking, I try and share feedback that I am hearing from users, whenever possible, as those are ultimately the people my team and I are serving.

You mentioned that you’re fascinated with e-commerce and solving problems that people encounter when shopping online. Other than wedding registries of course, are there any other areas of e-commerce that you find particularly exciting – or in need of some serious innovation – right now?

I think the whole area of e-commerce in relation to local businesses has yet to be disrupted. For example, local dry cleaners, car repair, hair salons, could all benefit from some application of consumer-focused technology.

What do you wish you had known when you started your career that you know now?

I really wish Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In had been published when I was starting my career. I made the classic mistakes - I never "went after" opportunities that I thought I was not 100% qualified for. I am a big fan of the book and admire Sheryl for showing others how to craft a truly unique and kick-ass career, and it feels like the most exciting part is yet to come.

What areas of e-commerce that you find particularly exciting?

lorraine-headshotAbout the blogger: Lorraine Sanders is a journalist, blogger and media consultant. She is the author of the San Francisco Chronicle Style Bytes column and writes regularly for FastCompany.com and others. She is founder of the blog Digital Style Digest and an inhabitant of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Connect with her on Twitter @digitalstyledig or @lorrainesanders.