Shan-Lyn Ma is the CEO and founder of Zola.com, a website that uses design and technology to reimagine and reshape the wedding gift registry, and an investor in female-founded businesses.
The best career advice I’ve ever received is: Make yourself irrelevant, from Zola’s chairman, Kevin Ryan. It goes against everything you think as CEO, but if you hire people to do what you were doing on your own, then you’ve built something enduring and bigger than yourself.
One thing I wish I had known when I began my career is not to doubt myself. Entrepreneurs, especially female entrepreneurs, put up false barriers as a reason they can’t live up to their full potential. I immigrated with my family from Singapore to Australia, and then I moved to the U.S. for business school. I had to work hard and make connections quickly. It wasn’t—and still isn’t—easy, but I’m proof that there are no barriers except for the ones you artificially put on yourself.
A major challenge I’ve faced was letting go of some responsibility. Up until two years ago, I was managing every department, which was completely unsustainable. We decided to hire a president, Rachel Jarrett, and it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. She always jokes that I get to do the sexy stuff like marketing, and she does the unsexy stuff like finance. But Zola wouldn’t be what it is today without her!
I thought the wedding registry business was in need of a shake-up because it hadn’t been shook in 100 years! Before Zola, the in-store registry experience was impersonal and clunky, and the e-commerce experience was even worse. Zola is the only place where couples can totally personalize their registry by uploading pictures and notes, plus registering for things they really want—not just what they think they’re supposed to register for.
I tap into creativity and inspiration by talking to our users. There is nothing more powerful than getting feedback from the people who use your product.
The thing I’ve achieved that I am most proud of is the team that we’ve built at Zola. We’ve hired 110 of the most intelligent, curious, creative, and driven individuals in the country. I really believe that. They are our heartbeat.
The biggest challenge that women entrepreneurs face is projecting as much confidence as men to investors. Susan Lyne, president and managing partner of BBG Ventures, said, “men pitch unicorns, and women pitch businesses.” Men walk into a meeting touting that they’re going to build a billion-dollar company. Women are more conservative even though we’re also building billion-dollar companies! We need to shift our mindsets.
Before I invest in a business, I look for a fast-growing business with a huge growth opportunity. It’s as simple as that.
The most important feature of a business pitch is confidence. Know your numbers. Know your business. No one can stop you if you know what you’re doing.
I maintain balance in my life by taking full advantage of the weekend. I love SoulCycle, Pilates, and brunch. Plus, a bit of shopping and a glass of champagne never hurt anybody!