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Zola Founder Shan-Lyn Ma Shares How to Collaborate and Conquer Your Biggest Challenges

The leader of the wedding registry and planning startup reveals who and what inspires her every day.
Zola Founder Shan-Lyn Ma Shares How to Collaborate and Conquer Your Biggest Challenges
Image credit: Courtesy of Shan-Lyn Ma
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
7 min read

Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is a series in which entrepreneurs and leaders share what motivates them through good times and bad, while also sharing stories of how they overcame challenges in hopes of inspiring others.

Shan-Lyn Ma wants to make one of the most stressful yet joyous days of your life go as smoothly as possible. She is the founder and CEO of Zola, a wedding registry and planning site. It is designed to make it simple for guests to pick out the perfect kitchen appliance or contribute to an international getaway for a honeymoon, along with helping couples plan the perfect day.

But just as wedding days are stressful, so can be starting and running a wedding site.  “Starting Zola was frightening, exciting, energizing, tiring and fulfilling,” Ma told Entrepreneur. “I quit my job before Zola was even an idea, because I wanted to have day-in-and-day-out to build something.”

Yet, Ma is no stranger to the demands of ecommerce -- prior to launching Zola, she held leadership roles at Yahoo and Gilt Groupe. She gets the challenges and understands that her customers must always be getting the best experience. No matter what. This dedication to her users requires her to make tough decisions about the bottom line impact of offering free shipping or how to best develop and tailor new products like the free suite of wedding planning tools that the company launched last year.

And that hard work has paid off. Today, Zola has raised more than $140 million in funding. It also carries over 500 brands and more than 500,000 couples have used the platform to register for gifts.  

While successful, running Zola isn’t always easy.  We talked with Ma for Women Entrepreneur about how she stays motivated, what inspires her to keep going and what others can learn from her.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Related: This Founder Has a 5-Minute Secret Weapon That Helps Her Focus Every Day

What is a quote that inspires you, and why?
This quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of my favorites: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

I thought about it a lot when I was just starting out in product management. As a product person, you have to learn how to inspire, corral and partner with people across functions who do not report to you. And I still think about this quote today as a CEO. At Zola, the way we are conquering the “sea” is by innovating on behalf of the 2 million couples who get married every year.

[I motivate my team by having] a very transparent work environment. Every week we have a company-wide meeting where we go over how the business is performing, recent accomplishments, and upcoming initiatives. If you work at Zola, you know how we’re doing. I hope everybody feels like they are a meaningful piece of a very big picture.

What is a book that inspires you, and why?
Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg. [I think it] was brave of her to have written that book, and it's more relevant now than ever before.

One of the anecdotes from Lean In that resonated with me is a small but mighty point, and that is how to lead a meeting. Often, women shy away from dominating a room with their body language or their tone of voice. Sandberg advocates that you sit at the head of the table, set the agenda and ask pointed questions that help you achieve your goals. When we are having healthy debates at Zola, I guide the conversation to ensure all voices are heard and that we reach a clear decision at the conclusion.

Who is a woman that inspires you, and why?
Katrina Lake. Not only is she the youngest female founder to ever lead a company to an IPO but also Stitch Fix is a growing business with huge opportunities to scale. It’s a business that was built efficiently and sustainably.

This is super nerdy, but I have to admit that I enjoy listening to the Stitch Fix quarterly earnings calls, as I always learn a lot about how Katrina and her senior execs talk about their business. Based on what Katrina talks about, it's clear she knows her business back to front, has a clear sense of how to grow and move certain levers on her P+L and has certainly built an impressive team of senior executives.

What inspires you at work?
My team, and I'm not just saying that. I like to describe every person who works at Zola as a “bar raiser,” somebody who is an expert in his or her respective field, and who is encouraging everybody else around them to do better and think bigger.

You don’t have to be an exec to be a bar raiser; you just have to give it your all every day. One hundred percent is expected, but bar raisers give more. That doesn’t mean they work until the lights are shut off in the office. It means they are productive, efficient and have found a personal-professional balance. They are an authority at the company and in their specific role.

What has inspired you to be a better person?
I had the opportunity to work closely with Susan Lyne over the four years I was at Gilt Groupe. She was CEO and then Chairman of Gilt, and prior to that, was CEO of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, among an impressive hit list of career accomplishments. Getting to see Susan in action was so inspiring to me. She led by example, encouraged and supported us, asked us hard questions and never hid the fact that not only was she a kick-ass, successful CEO, she was also a loving mother of daughters.

When I was moving into a new role as a GM on the Gilt executive team, I was going to be the youngest GM on the team, and I felt some serious imposter syndrome. I was expressing some fear to Susan, and she told me, “Straight up; it's time to grow up. You might not have done this job before, but you are here for a reason. If there are things you don't know, go and figure out which GM knows it and then learn from them. Ask them if they will teach you, and then you'll know what they know.”

For those women who are looking to start a business or have begun one, but are feeling discouraged, what advice do you have for them to keep going?
I would say, don’t doubt yourself. A lot of women have said to me something like “I’d love to start my own business, but I didn’t work at a great company like Gilt.” That’s a false barrier. There are no barriers except for the ones you artificially put on yourself.

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