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.
Founder + CEO, Alchemy 43
“Starting a company is basically synonymous with uncertainty. You never know what's around the next corner. It's the reason I love it so much and it's also the reason that it's so difficult. This moment looks like that, but exponentially bigger. So many things outside our sphere of control.
So it presents a new type of challenge for a CEO—instead of running a company, we now pivot to minimizing fallout. Making sure our company survives this and that our employees have a job to return to has become the primary focus of my days. It's actually interesting work. It's challenging in a novel way. In order to stay in the right mindset for this type of work, it's been very important to me to stay connected to people, friends, and family, as well as colleagues. Also, daily exercise and mental breaks in the evenings, which seem to involve a lot of baking.”
Co-Founder and CTO, PathSpot
“Right now, life is uneasy. As entrepreneurs, we're used to life being ‘hard.’ We're always hustling to close the next sale, push the next product milestone, recruit the next member of our team, or raise the next funding round. When we want better results, we can always put in more hours, go the extra mile, or push a little harder. When things are hard, just work harder and they get easier. But suddenly, that mantra feels flipped. Budgets are frozen, conferences are cancelled, and businesses are closed. There are new (temporary) roadblocks that we can't simply run through—there is a sense of ‘prepare and wait’ sweeping the startup landscape.
PathSpot is a system that validates hand-washing frequency and effectiveness, with a company mission of reducing the transmission of illness. Before COVID-19, a large part of our routine was education—generating awareness of our product and explaining why handwashing was the most effective way to reduce illness. Now, the problem has entirely changed. Handwashing is more searched and more discussed than it ever has been before. We're suddenly adapting to the new challenges of reduced and frozen budgets in our target market, and how to support a highly in-person, face-to-face industry with a hardware product, while fully remote and socially distancing. As we face new problems, our team is working around the clock to support our quickly growing customers with their hand-hygiene needs, and utilizing our data to try to prepare the restaurant community and public to have the tools necessary for handwashing tracking and efficacy, as consumers and employees are more aware, educated, and focused on transmission of illness.”
Co-CEO, Harper Wilde
“Life is a series of dichotomies. On one hand, I feel very lucky that those closest to me are safe and healthy. On the other hand, I have a deep sadness for the turmoil and loss that permeates daily life. I have confidence in the incredible team at Harper Wilde and our ability to rise to this unprecedented occasion, while also having concern about the unknown unknowns, which seem to have multiplied over the past few weeks.
Being a founder has, in some ways, prepared me for this emotional rollercoaster, where high highs and low lows are often felt in the same hour or even in the same moment. I'm trying right now to make space to acknowledge all of these contradicting thoughts and then push them aside to focus on what's right in front of me.”
Founder and CEO, Elliot
“Life as an entrepreneur, and human being, has never looked or felt more real. Due to today's circumstances, life's forced us all to take a hard look at reality and revisit what's important. While life's challenging, I'm grateful to have a team that's proven to be able to operate under duress, make decisions, and find solutions to complex problems. Moreover, appreciative in having investors that believe in our ability to persevere. For me, my life looks simpler and in many ways more genuine, given I'm using COVID-19 as an opportunity to strengthen key relationships and just get back to the basics. In short, life looks different, but sometimes different is good.”
Co-Founder + CEO, Mented Cosmetics
“Right now, my life looks a lot calmer than it did a month ago. Prior to quarantine, I commuted from Philly to New York every day, traveled pretty frequently for work, and spent most of my free time exploring new restaurants in Philly, where my husband and I moved less than a year ago. These days, I mostly travel up and down my stairs and occasionally to my terrace.
Being forced to slow down so significantly has given me a lot of time to focus on what's most important to me. I've rediscovered how much I love to learn (I've been learning three to four songs a week on piano), gossip (I've been having nightly FaceTime calls with my girls), and go for long walks. I've also been amazed at how resilient our team has been. We've launched a new product, hosted a fantastic Instagram Live, tested multiple new promotions—and they haven't skipped a beat. As weird of a time as it's been, I'm grateful for all of the little lessons that have come with it.”
Co-Founder, Great Jones
“It's a powerful time to be in the business of home cooking. We're very fortunate to be experiencing a continued surge in demand for Great Jones products, and we've expanded our services and content to give further support to home cooks. We've extended the hours for Potline—our free text service for real-time recipe advice—and we've leveraged our partnerships to host a daily cooking tutorial on Instagram. Recent participants include Dominique Ansel and Erin McDowell.
On a personal note, Maddy and I are leading daily standups with our team, as well as enjoying bi-weekly digital happy hours, where we can connect and check in on each other emotionally.”
“As an early-stage, high-risk consumer startup, chaos has been the norm for us. Without the ability to adapt quickly or even pivot, we would've shut down a long time ago. That being said, our terminal values, the core of what we're trying to change in the world, haven't budged at all. I think that's critical. You have to clearly delineate your terminal and instrumental values—the things you should be stubborn about and the things you should be radically open-minded about.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“The biggest change for us, operationally, was transitioning to a remote-working culture. In March, as COVID started unfolding in the U.S., we had to sit down and dedicate time to creating a system in which my team would keep the open communication and creativity flowing, even when we are not sitting next to each other. Setting those parameters since the get-go was extremely effective, because in a world with so much uncertainty, my team knew exactly what to expect and how we would operate during
“We obviously didn’t anticipate in March that we would not be back in the office for so long. However, the structure that we set up has naturally evolved over time. One thing that has been noticeable is how important it is to have a team with high EQ, or emotional intelligence. I’m extremely happy with the way my team has adapted to the new normal—and open communication has been key during this process.”
“Like many other early-stage companies, Kanga has moved to a fully remote work model. We’ve adapted in two major ways: The first is operational and the second is psychological. Operationally, we are now focused on asynchronous work. Daily, we do remote standups posted in Slack at the start of the workday, spend our Monday planning, and check in on Thursday, but the majority of the work is done whenever employees are most effective.
“I've noticed some of our developers commit late at night, others work frequently on weekends, but ultimately team members work in a manner that is most efficient to them. I made a conscious decision to move everyone to New York for our first year in business, which not only fostered a sense of belonging but also immense trust. This trust is essential, so team members know everyone is working hard and will get tasks done, so the company can succeed.
“Maintaining that sense of belonging is the reason for that second change. The pandemic has been incredibly stressful for everyone, and it's important for every employee to know their team members are there to support them. Having a constant temperature check on team psychology is necessary. We spend a lot of extra time on how we are feeling, and everyone on the team has a one-on-one catch-up about work and life with every teammate, every other week. Also, we have a special channel in Slack where we post how we're feeling every one or two weeks. This personal status report is called the ‘PPPM,’ which stands for ‘Progress People Problems Me.’ Finally, we do a virtual team happy hour every Friday afternoon where we play online versions of board games that promote team bonding, such as Spyfall, Code Names, or Mafia.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“During the crisis, NestEgg has had an important role in our customers’ lives, to help them operate in the new normal. We helped renters stay in their homes during financial hardship, and we added reliability to our rental owners’ income during an unpredictable time. These stresses will leave an echo long after the event itself is behind us, and our customers will feel renewed urgency around managing their properties efficiently online. We're focused on that need by pivoting our roadmap around optimizing NOI and cash flow for rental owners.
“Today, we are seeing 100% rent collection success rate versus the wider industry benchmark of 70-80% and we added $1.4M in rent business in the last 30 days alone. We recognized that landlords and tenants tend to have very different personal financial situations, but today's paradigm for renting forces them to commit to a single shared process that often only works for one party. As a landlord, you want rent from your tenants on the 1st, because that's when all your loans and other expenses are due, but many tenants get paid weekly or rely on disability checks that are sent mid-month, so coming up with the first big rent payment at the beginning of the month is difficult for them to budget to and sets them up for failure. The landlord-tenant relationship becomes very transactional and adversarial.
“We totally restructured this by decoupling when the landlord gets paid from when tenants pay. NestEgg pays rental owners up front on the 1st, and residents have flexible 30 day terms to pay us anytime throughout the month. They can split rent with roommates, pay across multiple payment methods, and even make installments. Especially now, it’s a win-win.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“The health, economic, environmental, and social crises we have faced in 2020 have led to an unprecedented amount of stress, anxiety, insomnia, physical pain, and other health challenges. WTHN's mission is to help our clients thrive with both mental and physical well-being. Given our unique offerings of time-tested, science-backed healing therapies—acupuncture, cupping, acupressure, herbal medicine, and more—we are focusing on the best ways to support our community members and their health during this time.
“In late May, acupuncture was designated an essential health service by the State of New York, enabling us to re-open our New York City acupuncture studio, and we have done so with the safety of our team and clients as our highest priority and a heightened sense of urgency around our mission to provide safe, natural, and effective healing. (More on how that experience can be found here and our rigorous sanitization protocols here.) Given the changes in our client base—primarily the large numbers that have left New York either permanently or temporarily since COVID began—we are focusing on rebuilding the base and finding innovative ways to connect with new clients, including partnerships with other businesses/brands as well as referrals from other healthcare providers. There is an increased sense of urgency around the power of preventative medicine and people are thinking about how to stay healthy more than ever before.
"We have doubled down on our digital efforts, including launching virtual healing sessions that are 1x1 telehealth consultations with an acupuncturist for guided acupressure, stretching, herbal consultations, breathwork, and more—so we will continue offering that option to our clients that may need to stay home longer.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“At Sleek, we are reinventing the way people wait in lines. Much long before COVID-19 broke out, we were already envisioning a future where you could step into a venue— and not only instantly know of the wait times, but also choose to have your phone hold your spot in the line.
“As the world grapples with COVID-19, we initially paused to see how our customers' needs evolved in this new normal. Given safety is a topmost priority for businesses to stay open, not having to wait in lines is now a necessity versus a nice-to-have. And lines have come to exponentially grow by six times given the social distancing.
“We re-adjusted our focus from the live-events market and are assisting essential businesses with our core technology to keep the community safe, from grocery stores to food trucks, and now have added tens of thousands of new businesses as customers. You can check out our COVID-focused product offering here.”
Founder and CEO
“Even under normal circumstances, building a new business requires a somewhat contradictory combination of focus and flexibility. That’s especially true now with uncertainty in every aspect of life and business. There are a few key elements that help us operate and succeed in this new ‘normal.’
“Fluid communications are essential. We accomplish this with frequent huddles that keep everyone in sync. When we were thrust into a remote work mode in March, we immediately put in place all-hands stand-ups every morning to align around the priorities of the day, twice weekly virtual happy hours to stay connected and have fun, plus the usual sprint planning and demo days. I can honestly say we have more effective and focused communication now than ever before.
“The ability to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand is also essential, and this applies to both filtering out the chaos of the world and also successful multitasking. I think the team finds our work a reprieve from the stressors of the world—I know I do. Usually it’s the other way around, right?
“And last but not least, it’s essential to have a high degree of comfort with ambiguity, which we screen for as part of our hiring process. We’re blessed with a seasoned, mature team—we take the curves and ups and downs together, with logic and without emotion.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“We’ve come a long way from the Great Toilet Paper Scramble of 2020. While the desperate and often futile search for two-ply we faced in the spring was an early sign that COVID-19 would impact how we shop and consume for the foreseeable future, months later, we have a much clearer sense of customer behavior amid pandemic. Just take a look at your last credit-card statement. As we’ve documented, BAM portfolio founders—like all savvy entrepreneurs—have used this unprecedented time to re-strategize, rebuild, and reimagine their companies. And a big part of that is reading the new consumer trend lines that have emerged, to help understand what they want and where they want it, now and perhaps longterm. The good news? Some of what we were already working on before any of us had heard the term “novel coronavirus” have not only been proven out—but are accelerating even faster than we would’ve expected during so-called normal times. We recently checked in with some of our BAM founders, to get their take on what they’ve learned from customers and how it’s helped their companies weather this past year—and charge into 2021.“
Founder and CEO
“Allin all, there seems to be an increased consciousness toward health acrossconsumers, which, thankfully, is the category we are deeply ingrained in.However, we experienced the undeniable shortcomings of retail locations closingdown. To maintain our brand presence and connect deeper with our consumers, weaimed at expanding our social channels and customer communication.
“Ingeneral, boosting morale inside and outside Neuro became one of our mainfocuses. We shifted into becoming a more lifestyle-oriented brand that focusedon mental health alongside physical health. Thankfully, this alongside PR hasled to our business growing—even during these tough times.”