I’m Zola CEO Shan-Lyn Ma, And This Is How I Work

I’m Zola CEO Shan-Lyn Ma, And This Is How I Work
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Weddings are a project, and they benefit from a good project management tool. We talked to the CEO of Zola, one of Lifehacker readers’ favourite wedding sites. Australian Shan-Lyn Ma co-founded Zola after undergoing the stress of buying people wedding gifts; her co-founder Nobu Nakaguchi had gone through the stress of setting up a wedding registry. Ma talked to Lifehacker about running the company, organising her life, and how to make yourself irrelevant.

Location: New York City

Current Gig: CEO and Co-Founder of Zola

One word that best describes how you work: Collaborative

Current mobile device: iPhone X

Current computer: Mac

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I was born in Singapore, but grew up in Sydney, Australia. I know that most little girls grow up with a dream to be a teacher, a doctor or an astronaut, but I read articles about Silicon Valley and was in awe of American internet companies like Yahoo at the time. So I grew up wanting to be Jerry Yang (who I recently had the opportunity to finally meet!). Back in Australia, I didn’t know anyone who had immigrated to America, but it was still my dream to one day go there to work in technology.

I noticed that the leaders I looked up to (like Jerry… we’re on a first name basis) all had one thing in common: Stanford Business School. I was lucky enough to be accepted into and graduate from Stanford, then land my first gig at – you guessed it – Yahoo. I worked there for about two years before I made the jump to Gilt in NYC, where I was hired as the startup’s first product person. I eventually became the GM and founder of Gilt Taste, Gilt’s food and beverage division. It was an opportunity to be a mini founder within a much larger company. That’s where I really got my first taste of entrepreneurship, plus where I met my current co-founder, Nobu Nakaguchi, as well as our chairman, Kevin Ryan. After Gilt, I worked at Chloe + Isabel, another ecommerce company, for a short period of time, before I finally decided to focus on building something of my own in 2013.

Ma and co-founder Nobu Nakaguchi

Ma and co-founder Nobu Nakaguchi

The idea for Zola was born out of personal need. I was going to so many weddings and buying so many wedding gifts. I was frankly appalled at how terrible and impersonal the wedding gift shopping experience was. I called up Nobu to talk about the idea, and he remembered how terrible the registry experience was from the couple’s perspective when he got married years earlier. We had always wanted to start a company together and realised that this could be a huge opportunity. And after some research, we saw the wedding market was a HUGE one for us to dig into. Most people don’t realise that the wedding industry in the United States is valued at $US90 billion ($1.2 trillion), and $US19 billion ($24.4 billion) of that is spent on wedding gifts. We knew that given our combined experience in product and design, we were the right people to create the best solution.

Take us through a recent workday.

Everyday is different, but one thing that is consistent is that I’m often in meetings for most of the day. Here’s my schedule from a day in mid-Feb:

  • 9 or 9:15AM: Arrive at work
  • 10AM: We had a new employee breakfast. We used to have these about twice a year, but we’ve had to ramp up the frequency because we’re growing so quickly! We now have 110 employees.
  • 11AM: I had a 1×1 meeting with our Chief of Staff, Manika. She’s basically my right hand!
  • 11:30AM: I had a 1×1 meeting with our product lead on Zola Weddings, Jill.
  • 12:30PM: I stepped out to grab lunch with Nobu, my co-founder. We try to get at least 10 minutes together every day.
  • 1:00PM: I had our monthly forecast meeting with about 20 people from our growth, finance, marketing and merchandising teams.
  • 3:00PM: I finally had the rest of the afternoon to sit at my desk and answer some emails.
  • 6:00PM: I left the office for dinner with colleagues in the NYC ecommerce industry.

What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?

I’m on Slack way more than I’m on email. I also use the Headspace app every (or close to every) morning. And, I’m currently obsessed with Noken, an app that makes it really easy to plan a personalised travel itinerary. I recently used it to plan an upcoming trip to Iceland. Another thing that I can’t live without is my reliable pen and notebook. It’s an oldie, but a goody, and never lets you down.

What’s your workspace setup like?

Zola is a completely open office environment to foster collaboration and conversation. I sit next to our CMO, President, and SVP of Growth – we’ve coined our little area “the executive pod”. My desk is a bit of organised chaos, just the way I like it. Then I have an Australian flag taped to my monitor, a plant that a good friend gave to me, and a lot of snacks.

The Zola office

The Zola office

What’s your best shortcut or life hack (no matter how small or niche)?

Meditation. I meditate for 10 minutes every morning before I take my dog, Noe, on a walk. I’ve found that it really makes a big difference in setting the tone for the day.

Take us through an interesting, unusual or finicky process you have in place at work.

Every day that Nobu and I are both in the office, we take a coffee break together. Our schedules are jam packed, but we make it a priority to spend time together. We always go to Blue Stone Lane in the Financial District, which is my favourite because it’s Australian. Often we talk about work or a new idea for the business, but sometimes we just talk about his kids or my new apartment.

Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?

I will give a big shout out to our president, Rachel Jarrett. When we started Zola, every function reported to me, and while that was doable when we were a smaller operation, it quickly became unsustainable. Rachel and I worked together at Gilt, and she is the kind of person who is willing to do anything to make things work. Now, I get to focus on the things that I am best at, and let go of what I’m not. Luckily, she’s best at a lot of things!

Ma's home screen


How do you keep track of what you have to do?

My Google calendar is my lifeline. Not only are all of my meetings and travel time scheduled, but I also block off time to respond to emails everyday and focus on big projects. It’s just as important to set aside time for yourself as it is to set aside time to meet with other people.

How do you recharge or take a break from work?

I’ve recently become much more conscious about making time for myself. It is so easy to get caught up in work 24/7. There’s always a million emails to take care of, articles to read, and more, but I’m a much better worker and leader when I take care of myself. But I’ve become a big SoulCycle fan, going at least to one class every weekend. I also just moved into a new apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn, so I’m spending a lot of time shopping online for home stuff.

What’s your favourite side project?

This is a very nerdy answer but, investing. I’m an angel investor in 13 companies including ADAY, Billie and Hawthorne. I love supporting other founders who are coming up with innovative solutions.

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

My favourite book is Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan. I’ve read it many times. It’s about how to bring an idea to scale and develop a product.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.

Tim Ferriss

The Zola office

The Zola office

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

To make yourself irrelevant. Kevin Ryan, our chairman, gave me this nugget one day and it confused me at the time, but couldn’t be more true. If you can hire people to take on more and do what you were always doing on your own, then you’ve built something enduring that is bigger than just you. Isn’t that every CEO’s goal?

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?

Zola is one of the top five most visited wedding websites in the country. How are we going to be #1?

We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]