Zola CEO and co-founder Shan-Lyn Ma dreamed of dabbling in the American tech industry ever since she was a young girl living in Australia. After attending Stanford Business School, Ma joined a number of recognizable companies: first Yahoo, then Gilt Groupe, then Chloe + Isabel. In 2013, Ma’s entrepreneurial itch was dying to be scratched. Like most startups, Zola was born out of a need for a better way to get something done. In her case, that something was giving wedding gifts.
Zola has expanded its services past the gift-giving business, but it continues to offer organized solutions to many of the pains for any couple planning a wedding along with their guests. Ladders spoke with Ma to learn about her biggest career risk, her biggest piece of career advice, and Zola’s current focus and work culture.
What are you most excited for at Zola right now?
“Our goal is to serve couples from the moment they get engaged all the way into newlywed life. We’ve only just started to serve couples in that entire time and in the last year we’ve added even more resources to support our couples that I’m really excited about. We recently launched our Wedding Shop, where couples can buy everything they need for the day of their wedding, in addition to our Expert Advice area, where couples can find all the information they need as they make the transition into newlywed life. There’s much more to come!”
What would you say is the biggest industry trend to watch right now?
“Couple’s today are throwing etiquette out the window. Increasingly, they shop for rings together and book venues they love before their official engagement. On their registry, almost all Zola couples register for gifts like a Vitamix blender alongside cash funds for things like honeymoons and minimoons. There really are no rules.”
What’s the most surprising aspect of being a CEO?
“One of the lessons I’ve learned as CEO is the best thing you can do is replace yourself with someone better in an increasing number of functions within your company. If you set up a person and/or a team that can get the things done that you felt like you were doing yourself, then you’ve built something bigger than yourself. An enduring business. Zola is certainly bigger than one person and I’m proud of that.”
What’s the biggest career risk you’ve ever taken? Did it pay off?
“In 2013 my co-founder, and friend, Nobu and I decided to quit our jobs and pursue starting our own company full time. We didn’t have a concrete idea or business plan but after many months of research and some really bad ideas, we started Zola, which was definitely worth it.”
Are you a mentor? Do you think it’s important?
“Mentorship is incredibly important to me when we founded Zola 5 years ago there weren’t a lot of other female entrepreneurs who had disrupted multi-billion dollar industries for me to look up to. I try and share my expertise with future entrepreneurs as much as possible, I’m lucky to be a part of Female Founders Fund and involved in many of the initiatives they work on like creating communities of women and young leaders looking to disrupt staid industries.”
What’s the most common piece of career advice that you give to young professionals?
“Always ask yourself, ‘Can I be thinking bigger?'”
What’s special about Zola’s work culture?
“At Zola, we believe collaboration and teamwork between functions create the best experiences for our users and are therefore the most important driver of our success and longevity. Any time that we hire someone, we, of course, look for top talent, but we also value kind people who enjoy working as part of a team and care about the greater good.
“We also try to combat burnout by bringing fun and flexibility into the workspace. We have a very flexible vacation policy, and we’re always celebrating something whether it’s a birthday, an employee’s engagement, or Australia Day (I’m Australian so it’s one of my favorite days of the year). We also eat a lot of cake around here—we’re a wedding company!”
Does Zola still feel like a startup to you?
“Absolutely, culture has always been an integral part of Zola and as we grow we strive to keep a strong startup culture. One way we do that is by cultivating a culture of innovation. If you have an idea for a change to the site or a new feature for the Zola app you’re encouraged to take that project on. Everyone’s opinion here is heard equally.”