In 2013, Shan-Lyn Ma found herself in a position many of us can relate to—seemingly overnight, all her friends started tying the knot. And at the time, the wedding registry process was pretty underwhelming, to say the least.

So Ma set out to change that, creating Zola—a New York-based platform that guides couples through the newlywed journey, from planning invitations and registries to identifying venues and vendors, even offering a wedding boutique with dresses and tuxes for the big day itself.

An unexpected wedding crasher—COVID-19—obviously posed a big problem for this BAM portfolio company: Couples across the country, by choice and often by law, were postponing their nuptials. But Ma and her team of more than 170, spread across New York, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Montreal, pivoted quickly and met the need for would-be newlyweds, with virtual ceremonies, expanded planning for weddings pushed to next year, and new category offerings.

Even as the pandemic roils right now, the outlook for Zola remains bright—and like many companies that have made successful pivots, Ma expects Zola will be stronger for it. As she puts it, “People still want to get married.”

We recently caught up with Ma, who shared what COVID-19 has taught her about leadership and team building, where she’s found new opportunities, and why “Change the Date” is the new “Save the Date.”

I’ve had plenty of bad wedding-registry experiences. You saw a business opportunity. How did this start?

Going to a lot of weddings and buying a lot of gifts, I found that the registry experience was terrible. It was really through personal experience, going to all my friends’ weddings that year. I remember one friend, I was looking at her wedding registry and the only thing I could afford to buy was a silver spoon for $150. And I called her and said, “What is going on with your registry?” And she said she hated the registry process and had her mom do the whole thing at department stores. We knew we could build something that was so much more innovative and fun and joyful.

How was the response? Clearly, your friend wasn’t alone in that frustration.

We saw it take off very quickly, and the couples using Zola asked us to help them with more and more of their wedding planning. So we started helping couples build their wedding websites and manage their guest lists and then launched paper and invitations because that was the next top request. They said, “If we could just pick a design and send it to the guests on our platform, that would be so easy.” That really took off. More recently, we’ve attacked the bigger piece of the puzzle where we help couples search for wedding venues and connect them with vendors in their area that fit their budget, style preference, etc.

How was business before the pandemic?

Before COVID, we were the fastest-growing wedding company around and one of the fastest-growing consumer-commerce sites around. Obviously, the wedding industry has been affected by COVID because people aren’t planning weddings in big groups. The vast majority of people who were planning weddings in 2020 are now pushing to 2021 or 2022. The good news is that people are still getting married, they still want to get married.

So how are you helping them in the meantime?

The things that we’ve been doing to serve these couples during COVID has been interesting. One of the things I’m most proud of is how our team has put out new things because of COVID. Very quickly, we launched “Change the Date.” A lot of couples had to change the date and communicate that with guests. In doing so, we’re able to help our couples, guiding them on what to do with great uncertainty. We also launched virtual events and virtual weddings, integrated with Zoom. While they’re pushing back their big celebration to next year, they wanted to have virtual ceremonies with just their parents and maybe their siblings. So people could show that on their Zola websites. That, similarly, got very fast pickup.

We’ve actually increased our focus on vendors. We realized a lot of venues and vendors might be threatened or losing business because of COVID. So how can we, during this time, get as many of those vendors on the Zola platform as possible, increasing their exposure to potential customers for free? We’ve added a huge number of vendors to the Zola marketplace, which is something we’ve always wanted to do, but this year has really accelerated that.

What’s been an unexpected move amid all this?

Another thing that was on our mind, which we didn’t necessarily think we would prioritize this year, is a business we call Zola Home and launching it in a home marketplace. For couples who may not necessarily be getting married, but want to buy new stuff for their homes—everything you can think of for the kitchen, dining room, deck, furniture, appliances, home decor, lots of bakeware. Air fryers are very hot right now.

For couples that have used Zola for the registry, we have a “couples completion” discount. For couples that haven’t done a registry, the biggest reason they come to shop with us is that our assortment is very much tailored to this customer. We have many brands that do not sell on Amazon, we have a specific assortment that learns over time based on what you’re saving or buying or viewing, you get more personalized recommendations. So over time, we think we can do a great job sharing great brands and products, many of which you can’t buy anywhere else. We have a lot of cool D2C brands that sell on Zola.

Like many smart companies I’ve seen, including within the BAM portfolio, it sounds like you’ve been using this crazy year to finally jump on new projects and opportunities that had been hovering on the radar?

I think you’re exactly right. Which is, the behavior of people getting married isn’t going anywhere. So during this time, we’ve focused on how we can best take care of our couples and provide them with great guidance and advice and what other couples are doing—and reassure them that we’ll figure them out together. I think that advanced level of customer service has been valuable to couples who are turning their minds to next year and helping them find the right time and way to get married.

What has managing your team remotely been like? What have you learned?

I think the number one learning for me has been trying and iterating on a number of different ways to keep the company culture strong while we’re all remote. So whether it’s myself or other people from the leadership team checking in with team members on Slack, or organizing socially distanced neighborhood meetups, or doing a team trivia event that we have now every week—I think we’re trying a lot of things to keep people connected to their teammates. It feels like morale has picked up as people feel some semblance of being on a team again.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been at this close to a year. What has it taught you as a CEO?

I would say two things on the leadership front. One is that the worst possible thing you can do is take no action. So when we started to see the way our customers and couples were adjusting their plans and it was clear we needed to shift our business and product roadmap, the team took very fast action to start looking at things that didn’t make sense during a pandemic and start doing the things that absolutely made sense during a pandemic. So that won the day.

The second is the morale point we talked about. There’s so much to do to make sure the business gets through this time, you might not think that reaching out to another team member is the most important thing to do, but it’ s actually crucial to make that connection. We believe people are the most important ingredient to a company and making sure we’re all prioritizing that is key to getting through all this.

And what about personally? What’s kept you going?

The one thing I’ve been trying to do for myself is to think about one thing that inspires me every day, which could be either a great cup of coffee I’ve made for myself or just looking at my dog or a great piece of creative that our marketing and creative team created or someone articulated at a meeting. Some are easy to miss, but finding inspiration in these things has personally helped me to not take things for granted.

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