How I Get It Done: Shan-Lyn Ma, Co-founder of Millennial Wedding-Registry Site Zola

By
Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg

Shan-Lyn Ma is the co-founder of Zola, the popular wedding-registry site “for millennials.” She started Zola in 2013 and after four years she says she now receives “350 emails a day that feel like 3,000.” Ma is committed to journaling twice a day, and understands that in her job, she has to be in near constant communication with her team. She has a dog and listens to podcasts to and from work. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On why she starts her day with five minutes of journaling:
I usually get up at 7 a.m. and my morning routine is mostly always the same: I start with five minutes of journaling. I started it after I had a car accident a year ago. I was going through a challenging recovery and I found that doing the five-minute journal during that time was really helpful. So I write down three things that I’m grateful for when I get up, and then do the same thing at night. I try to meditate for ten minutes in the morning, too, before I walk my dog around my neighborhood. (One recent morning was a little different because I had gotten back from my friend’s bachelorette party at 2 a.m. I like to consider that “market research.”) I love listening to podcasts to and from work. My top three to listen to are the Recode podcast, The Twenty Minute VC, and the Splendid Table with Francis Lam. He has such a soothing voice.

Like many start-up founders, my calendar is pretty full of meetings. For example, one recent Monday was a pretty big day because we launched Zola Weddings, a service the helps couples create wedding websites, checklists, and a guest-list manager as well as a registry. It was the first time we were looking to the bigger plan — beyond our registry service. We had to figure out, how do we expand in a logical way? And it was a really frantic time leading up to that launch.

I spent a few hours that day working on a keynote speech that I was giving at an event called Business School Disrupt on what it’s like to fund and run a fast-growing start-up. In preparation, I was watching what I consider to be some of the best keynote speeches of all time: Sheryl Sandberg’s original Lean In TED talk, Steve Jobs’s commencement speech, etc.

On how she keeps up with a busy evening schedule:
Many nights, I usually have some kind of work-related event, like I’ll be speaking on a panel, or I’ll be attending a gala. If I don’t have any event like that, I’ll leave work at 7:30, go home, walk my dog again, look at my schedule, and catch up on the phone calls, emails, and Slack messages I’ve missed during the day. I’m a part-time angel investor in a few start-up companies, so sometimes I’ll look at how I can help those companies. I’ll speak to friends and family. The thing I also try to do, which I only remember half the time, is to do physical-therapy exercises, which are also a result of the accident. I love to watch TV, I read about TV on Vulture recaps, I do my five minutes of journaling at the end of the day. At night I like to write three things that happened to me and one way that could have made the day better.

On the surprisingly tough decision to put up ads for Zola on subway trains:
It was a tough decision for us because it’s hard to measure what the return will be on subway ads. It’s much harder to measure those than online marketing, for example. We initially started talking about it in some of our marketing meetings and then we met with other start-up founders who all felt it was valuable.

Our hypothesis was that New York has a critical mass of people riding the subway every day. We tend to think about our market as concentric circles. The first circle is those who are recently engaged, the next circle are people who are going to be engaged in the next few years, and then the third circle are friends, aunts, uncles, family members who are going to weddings. We want everyone in those groups to have experienced Zola. That’s why we advertised on the subway.

On the most difficult part about running a new and growing start-up:
The most challenging part of the job is the mental stress. Always having more tasks to do in a day than it is possible to get done. How do you manage all of that? I’ve learned how to delegate, how to leave certain lower-priority items on my to-do lists. I also manage stress with meditation or journaling or working out. I love SoulCycle and Pilates.

On why she keeps doing it anyway:
It’s really all about the people that I work with, the team that I get to work with every day. Many of us have worked together in previous companies and so we have a huge mutual respect and trust for each other. And also getting the chance to meet Zola couples who tell me the products we put out there help them get through the most important parts of their wedding planning.

How the Founder of a Wedding-Registry Start-up Gets It Done