Vivid Ideas: how to turn your brilliant idea into a booming tech startup

Vivid Ideas: how to turn your brilliant idea into a booming tech startup

The secret

Site: Yeong Sassall

Ever wonder how some entrepreneurs turn their daydream into a profitable reality? We enlist Zola founder Shan-Lyn Ma to tell you exactly how

Like every other millennial out there, I'm sure you've dreamt of packing in your 9-5 and swapping your desk job for a dynamic, lucrative career in tech. While we may not all be capable of inventing the next Uber, truth be told there are plenty of great ideas out there just waiting to be thrown into the universe. Just ask Sydney-born entrepreneur Shan-Lyn Ma, the CEO and founder of millennial-focused online wedding registry ZolaAfter launching Zola in 2013, it quickly became one of the fastest growing digital wedding registries in the US, and to date has helped over 300,000 couples avoid being gifted tacky dinner table sets and pointless throw rugs. 

Below, Yeong Sassall chats to Shan-Lyn ahead of her appearance at Vivid Ideas event The Sunrise Conference.

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You have a great digital retail/media background, and worked for Gilt Groupe before launching Zola. Have you always been interested in digital media?
I've always been fascinated by technology. Growing up in Sydney, I was blown away by the companies people were building in Silicon Valley, like eBay, Amazon, Yahoo!, and dreamt of working alongside these brilliant leaders and thinkers. They were creating things that had truly not existed before, and I remember thinking to myself that I'd want to be able to do that one day.

I also love the idea of using technology as a means to reduce friction in everyday activities. Yahoo!, for example, was founded on the premise of helping people link to interesting information. When I joined Gilt Groupe it was a simple and fun way to democratise access to high fashion. Now with Zola, we've developed technology to simplify an outdated and fragmented industry for today's engaged couples.

How did you come up with the idea for Zola?
I had always known I wanted to start my own company and in 2013, I had just come off of some great experiences in Silicon Valley and in New York. I felt like it was my time. It also happened to be the year when most of my friends were getting married. So I spent a lot of time buying wedding presents from the dominant wedding-registry players at the time, which were mostly department stores, and I was shocked by how terrible their ecommerce experiences were and how they weren't built for mobile at all.

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So I met up with my friend and future co-founder, Nobu Nakaguchi. He remembered his own registry experience and agreed that wedding registries were problematic from the couple's viewpoint, too. We loved working together at Gilt Groupe and had talked about starting something together. So when we realized our backgrounds in technology, eCommerce and design put us in a great position to reinvent the wedding registry space, we dove right in.

What's one thing that surprised you about starting your own business?
When we started Zola, I had this hypothesis that millennial couples didn't want many physical gifts anymore - they preferred experiences that they could share with their significant others, whether that was cooking or fitness classes, contributions towards their honeymoon, wine subscriptions... And I wasn't entirely wrong, but I quickly discovered that couples want it all. They want cool experiences, but they also want the traditional home upgrades like dinnerware and bedding. So I think I learned early on that you can set out with a hypothesis that the consumer may not totally align with, then quickly adapt what you've created to serve them better.

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A lot of people steer clear of the wedding industry because of so-called bridezillas! Why weddings?
I think "Bridezillas" are misunderstood. We at Zola feel lucky to work with couples during one of the most important moments during their romantic journey. There is an enormous amount of pressure put on them to put on an extraordinary event. But planning a wedding is an incredibly stressful and fragmented process. While nearly every other industry has adapted to our increasingly digital world, the $300 billion global wedding industry went untouched for years. And if you think about it-the industry could get away with it because its market and demand weren't going to ever disappear. People are always going to get married. We believe weddings should be the happiest time in a couple's life, not a time clouded in stress. That's why we saw such a huge opportunity to simplify the entire process with design and technology, particularly with the launch of Zola Weddings.

A lot of entrepreneurs start with one good idea. What else do you need to successfully launch your own digital brand or product?
The advice I give to every entrepreneur or entrepreneur-to-be is to be prepared to commit to this idea every day for the next seven to 10 years of your life at least (and that's if it goes well). You need to prepare yourself for that level of devotion-if you're not willing to yet, that's fine. Listen to that instinct. But if you're excited to jump out of bed to work on bringing that idea to life, you're ready. Then it's about intense market research and a ton of user testing to make sure you are creating something that people don't just understand, but want to use. You want users to practically beg for your product to be live. That's when you know you're ready to launch.

Vivid Ideas presents The Sunrise Conference on Wednesday, May 31 at Carriageworks. For tickets and more info head to

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