This Founder Has a 5-Minute Secret Weapon
That Helps Her Focus Every Day
Four years ago, Shan-Lyn Ma came up with the idea for her wedding planning and registry company Zola when it felt like all of her friends were getting married.
Every time she had to navigate a wedding registry to pick out a gift, instead of excitement for the upcoming event, all she felt was irritation. “It was one of the worst ecommerce experiences I had ever had,” Ma recalled.
The Australian native knows a thing or two about creating successful ecommerce experiences. Before she co-founded Zola, Ma was the chief product officer of fashion and jewelry retailer Chloe + Isabel.
Prior to that, she was the senior director of product management at Gilt Groupe, where she helped develop the core site experience for the flash sale platform as well as all of the mobile web experiences. She was also the creator of Gilt Taste, the company’s food and wine division.
Since Zola’s launch in 2013, the company has helped more than 300,000 couples set up their wedding registries and the business carries over 450 brands. In the spring of this year, Ma and her team debuted Zola Weddings, a collection of wedding planning tools to make websites, manage guest lists and create customizable checklists.
For Ma, customer experience is her top priority. “[Zola Weddings] was created because we heard our couples ask us if we could build these things for them. We built it to serve them in more ways.”
We caught up with Ma and asked her 20 questions to figure out what makes her tick.
1. How do you start your day?
I start by taking my dog out for a walk, and I do The Five Minute Journal [inspirational journal], 10 minutes of meditation and then I think about the top three things I want to move forward at work that day. It helps me focus throughout the rest of the day and not be as stressed out about the hundreds of things I have to do.
2. How do you end your day?
I do The Five Minute Journal again, do some reading before bed and take my dog out. I found that The Five Minute Journal in particular helps me because even if there were 95 things that I didn’t get done, there were some things I was able to push forward, and it reminds me that it was a good, productive day.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
The book I’m reading right now is Merchant Princes by Leon Harris. It’s about the families that built the great department stores. It’s interesting to me because I’ve been thinking a lot about how the traditional department stores are struggling to survive. My thinking was that they hadn’t innovated in a while and that’s why they were struggling. “But what the book showed me was that they have endured so many retail trends over so many decades, and what’s amazing is that they survived for as long as they have.” It reinforced for me that retail and ecommerce always come back to the same principles: selection, convenience and price.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
My favorite book is called Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan. I love this book and have read it many times over the years. It really helps you understand how to take something from an idea to then test it and verify it as something that customers will want to use. And then how do you actually bring it to scale and work with a team to continue to develop that product and move it forward.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
Nothing beats the simple to-do list and checking off boxes.
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6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be like Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo. I wanted to be the founder of a company that shaped the world and had a big impact. Just the fact that he came up with the idea to catalog the worldwide web and give everyone access to the internet in a way that was fun and irreverent was something that moved me. It was the reason why I moved to Silicon Valley, went to business school and chose to work at Yahoo for my first job in the United States.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
The worst boss I ever had took a piece of work that I had done, which I knew I hadn’t delivered my best on, and complimented it as a great piece of work. The result of him accepting and rewarding what I knew to be substandard work made me no longer want to work with him. I knew I wasn’t going to be pushed to be better. “My lesson from that is when I lead people, I push them. I think if you’re not challenging your team to do better, you are doing them a disservice.”
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
I have been fortunate to work with Kevin Ryan, who is a great New York serial entrepreneur. I learned from him the importance of hiring great people, letting them run their own functional business and pushing them harder when needed.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
I immigrated to three different countries. Every one of those was life changing, but I would say my move from Australia where I grew up to Silicon Valley to go to business school. It changed my worldview about what I thought I could be, what I wanted to be. It made dreaming big feel really possible. It felt like, why shouldn’t I be able to go out and start a company like Yahoo?
10. What inspires you?
I am a bit of an ecommerce nerd. The things I get inspired by are people and companies that are rethinking ecommerce in new ways. For example, Stitch Fix and the founder Katrina Lake. I think she is inspiring in the way that she is rethinking how people understand fashion.
Marc Lore who founded Jet and sold it to Walmart. He is inspiring in that he is taking one of the biggest retail giants of all time [in Amazon].
At Zola, we’re constantly thinking about how we can reinvent ecommerce for our customers, millennial couples who are in the process of getting married. We look at these examples of companies who have done it other spaces and think about how we can apply it to weddings and wedding registries.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
In high school I got to do a small-business activity, where we would form teams and come up with an idea, put it together and sell it. We came up with an idea for a stress-relief kit. We would fill balloons with rice to make stress balls. What was great about the activity was these teams were competing against each other to see who could generate the most business out of their idea. We were the first in our city, and I think also our state. A lot of it came down to sales. I found that I was able to drive the most sales for my team, because I was willing to stay out longer than anyone else to keep selling, and winning was something I found I loved.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
When I was young I decided that I would spend part of a summer building a vegetable garden in the backyard. A lot of the soil in that part of Australia is clay and hard to dig, so I was basically digging concrete. Everyone told me that it couldn’t be done. I ended up digging for the whole summer, all day long for hours to show everyone that it could be done. And at the end of the summer I had a garden.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
The best piece of advice is the same as some of the worst piece of advice. I learned it from a favorite lecturer at business school. The advice is: the only thing that matters in startups is product market fit. Now that I’ve had a few years to think about it, what makes it great advice is that if you don’t have it, nothing else matters — you essentially don’t have a company. But once you have it, you need to keep pushing to make sure that you are building a company on top of that foundation of a product market fit..
In my current role, in the first two years of the business, we could see very clearly that we had product market fit. We had a service that people loved and told their friends about. We had explosive organic growth and that was the foundation. What we’ve spent the last few years doing is scaling and growing the business based on what we are hearing from our customers, what they are telling us they would like to see us grow into and making sure it’s sustainable over the long run.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
The reason why I think the [above] advice sometimes does a disservice to entrepreneurs stems from my experience when I was at Gilt Groupe. I think we did have a product that people loved, and it grew really quickly. But that underlying business model was very challenging for Gilt. It required thousands of people that made it really tough to sustain. I think that was a great example that product-market fit isn’t sufficient.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
Coffee. It’s the main thing that keeps me productive — not too much, not too little.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
I’ve tried a number of different tools and hacks, but I keep on coming back to the simple to-do list.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
To know oneself, what works for you and to stay true to that. I’m someone that likes to be on top of my work, so I’m not the kind of person who can tune out for an entire weekend or a whole vacation; I find that more stressful. I prefer to check in and respond regularly — that makes me feel less stressed out than if things are piling up.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
I am a big fan of sleep. I think of weekends as a prime time to catch up on sleep. It’s a luxury that helps me stay sane.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
I love to walk near water. As someone who grew up in Sydney, a city surrounded by water, it’s something I miss. Now I make an effort to walk somewhere near water whenever I feel like I am facing a hard problem that I have to think creatively about.
20. What are you learning now?
Every day I’m learning more about leading a fast-paced tech startup. I’ve learned the most from the many experiments we run within every function every day. We’re all learning together. I used to think the great startups knew what they were doing and there were playbooks you could apply. I’m realizing that every situation is so different based on industry, people and timing. You need to test all the hypotheses and see what works for your particular case.