Shan-Lyn Ma

Co-founder - Zola

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Shan-Lyn Ma might be the most successful Australian e-commerce entrepreneur that you’ve never heard of. 

Founder of millennial wedding registry startup, Zola, Ma was born in Singapore, raised in Australia and now calls New York City home. Growing up in Australia, her future was foretold by her mother when she was just a teenager: “One day you will go to America and get your MBA, and you'll have a fantastic career". Perhaps the Stanford MBA sealed Ma’s fate, but the seeds were there much earlier.

Ma graduated from the University of New South Wales in Sydney with double major in Business Economics and Marketing, receiving a Dean’s Award and a scholarship. 

After starting her career in the early 00s web marketing world in Sydney, she applied and was accepted to Stanford Business School. It was there that she learned to “think bigger” and discovered her desire to be a leader.

After graduating, she joined Yahoo as a Senior Product Manager. In 2008, Ma was offered the product lead role at what was probably the hottest e-commerce startup in the world, luxury flash-sales site Gilt Groupe based in NYC. Between the time Ma joined and 2 years later, Gilt’s revenue had increased 17 times and expanded into 90 cities and new verticals like travel, food and menswear.

At its height, Gilt was valued at over $1 billion and generating over US$400 million in revenue. 

Many marketing initiatives we take for granted today, such as ‘refer a friend’ viral marketing, are said to have originated with the Gilt team. We can also thank Gilt for pioneering the importance of curation, storytelling and editorial presentation in e-commerce. 

After leading the Gilt.com main site and recruiting a world-class team to launch Gilt Taste, Gilt MAN, Gilt City, and Gilt Noir through high-growth years, Gilt Taste was shut down by parent company, Gilt Groupe. Shan has described the decision as “heartbreaking”. 

Shan took the lessons of the Gilt era onboard and, together with two former Gilt colleagues, launched Zola with the help of seed funding from Gilt co-founder, Kevin Ryan. The idea was to reinvent the wedding registry by making it digital, customizable, and fun. 

Observing that the wedding registry experience didn’t reflect the shopping habits, tastes or needs of millennial couples, Ma spent thousands of hours interviewing hundreds of couples to discover their biggest pain points and what they wished they could do differently.

Through those learnings, Zola completely re-created the wedding registry experience with these couples’ needs in mind. You can choose from over 40,000 physical gifts, over 700 experiences, personalize their own cash funds and enable group gifting all in one checkout. Zola is the only wedding registry that will hold couples gifts until they are ready to receive them, to avoid the inconvenience of having gifts arrive when they are away on honeymoon. Zola also has a Pinterest-like ‘pin’ called the ‘Add To Zola’  button which enables couples to add items from anywhere across the web to their registries. Now, couples can actually register for the gifts they want, instead of just the traditional toasters and photoframes. 

Ma’s business economics and MBA skills came in handy when it came to business model innovation. Because registries are planned so far in advance, Zola is able to drop-ship rather than purchase stock, leading to much greater capital efficiency and almost zero inventory risk. It also makes things like the ‘Add To Zola’ button feature possible, which in turn helps the company’s buyers work out which brands and categories should be added to the registry catalogue.

Wedding gifts are a market worth over US$19 billion in the US alone.

More than 67 million Americans said they'd attend at least one wedding this year and most of them will spend upwards of $109 on a wedding gift for the newlyweds. Zola is just at the beginning of conquering an enormous market.

Zola is well and truly on their way to attaining iconic status. Since its launch in October 2013, over 7 million guests have attended a Zola wedding, $350 million in gifts have been added by Zola couples and they’ve generated over US$100 million in revenue, while only raising US$10 million. They recently raised a US$25 million Series C from Lightspeed Partners to further power their growth in the US. 

Shan is a keynote speaker at The Sunrise Conference. She’ll be speaking about her journey through Gilt and on to Zola. Get ready to learn from one of the hidden gems of the Australian tech diaspora!