Zola wants to bring the wedding industry into the 21st century

Welcome back to Found, where we get the stories behind the startups.

This week Becca and Dom are joined by Shan-Lyn Ma, the co-founder and CEO of Zola, an online platform for wedding planning and gift registries. Ma talked about why she decided to launch the business after trying to buy a gift for a friend and realizing that wedding registries were still living in the past. Ma also spoke about:

  • How the company has listened to its customers and evolved to offer new features its clients are requesting.
  • How Zola navigated through the pandemic, which completely disrupted the wedding industry.
  • How AI can be incorporated into the wedding process.
  • Why Ma had always wanted to be an entrepreneur.

In the outro, Becca and Dom dive into some of the questions that remained after the conversation, such as how Zola stands out from an increasing competitive field or how its handled controversy in the past such as when the company was asked to remove slate plantations venues from its marketplace. The hosts also got into the company’s fundraising history and whether or not they’d be offended by an AI-generated thank-you note.

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Here’s the full transcript, which has been edited for clarity.

Becca Szkutak: Hello, and welcome to Found, TechCrunch’s podcast that brings you the stories behind the startups from the folks that are building them. It’s me your host, Becca Szkutak, and I’m joined, as always, by the mysterious, the lovely, Dominic-Madori Davis. Hey, Dom how’s it going?

Dominic-Madori Davis: I’m hanging in there. What about you?

BS: I feel like I’m also hanging in there. But something that will maybe pull us through is today’s amazing episode that we have for you, dear readers. So if you also feel like you’re just hanging in there, maybe this will brighten your day. Maybe it won’t. Who knows? Today we have on Shan-Lyn Ma, the co-founder and CEO of wedding registry and planning site Zola.

DMD: Yes, we had an amazing conversation with her. And as always, before we get to the episode, we’re going to do two truths and a lie. So listen carefully to see what am I lying about. Okay, so Shan was able to raise a seed round after one conversation. Is that true or not? The idea for Zola came from the need for a usable gift registry. Or is it true or not that Becca used Zola last week? Stay tuned, you gotta listen to the episode. And then afterward, as always, we’re going to reveal what was the lie.

BS: This one is particularly fun. So definitely listen in, and we’ll catch you back at the outro.

Shan-Lyn Ma: Becca, how are you?

BS: I am doing well. Happy to have you on the show.

SLM: Thank you so much for having me. Fan of the pod.

BS: Very timely, too . . . we’ll dive into this in a second. But I am actually going to a wedding. Not this Saturday. But next Saturday and my friend set everything up on Zola. So I think probably the perfect place to dive in. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about the company?

SLM: Sure. Well, we aim to serve newly engaged couples. From that first day they get engaged through their entire wedding planning journey, everything you have to do in the lead-up and day of the wedding. And then after that into their first years of newlywed life. So we aim to be that one-stop shop where you can do everything you need to do for that big day.

BS: And of course, because I know weddings are obviously something that have a lot of cultural meaning to them. It’s not necessarily a universal experience. But everyone either goes to weddings or they get married themselves. It does have that universal feel in a lot of ways that some things don’t. How did you get interested in starting a business around it?

SLM: Well, very similar to you, Becca. I had that time in my life where it felt like all my friends were getting married at exactly the same time. It seems like you have that year where you spend every weekend going to a different wedding. It’s a wonderful year, but it’s also very expensive, stressful. And as part of that, you know, going to a lot of friends’ weddings, you end up buying a lot of gifts from their wedding registries. So I was having that year in 2013. That was the year we started Zola. I found myself on my friend’s wedding registries. And my background was I had worked in e-commerce building e-commerce products. And I was on these wedding registry websites. And I thought these are just some of the worst shopping experiences I have ever seen online. At that time the wedding registries were really dominated by the big, traditional department stores and websites or mobile apps were really not their strength or their focus. And so I was talking to my co-founder, Nobu [Nakaguchi], who also has been working in shopping products. And I said, this is terrible. We can do a much better job. And our friends who are the ones getting married really deserve a lot better than this. This is kind of insulting now, Nobu. He’s married; he’s gotten married. He was complaining about it from the couple side. He was saying, yeah, it was. [It] nearly caused a breakup of his fiancée before they even got married. It was so terrible. They had so many fights over it. And so we thought we had the perfect people to work on this, and we can do better. And that was the beginning of Zola.

BS: What was it like going from that idea stage realizing the problem, figuring out the pain point, thinking of how you guys could attack it? What was it like actually building out the company? Because I know Zola does so much more now than just sort of like the registry side. So what has the journey been like of taking that idea and turning it into what we all want? I am going to go on and use this week to buy a wedding gift because I will not forget this time.

SLM: It really started off with [us thinking] . . . this is an interesting idea. But let’s make sure that it’s actually a good idea and when that’s valuable when that’s needed. And so we just tried to find as many people as we could who had either recently gotten married or engaged in planning their weddings, and we ended up going to a lot of coffee shops having a lot of one-on-one coffees, lunches, breakfasts, asking people, “Tell us how you’re thinking about your wedding. What are you excited about? What you’re stressed about? What do you use? Say what’s good and bad about that.” And through these coffee conversations, we found a lot of stress and anxiety, and everyone said the same thing: “I’ve never done this before. This is the first time I’m getting married. I have no idea what to do. But I have a deadline, and just help, please help me and tell me what I should be doing.” And so [we thought]  . . . we could reimagine the wedding registry [and it] expanded into this bigger idea of we could help couples with their entire wedding planning journey; we can start with the registry. But the the industry itself is so antiquated, that it really needs to be disrupted in the same way that every other industry has been with technology. And so through those user conversations, we kind of validated this is a need, this is a pain point. And slowly we started designing a prototype for what would be a better product; we started having these design brainstorming sessions together in my living room, on my coffee table, on the floor. And we would sketch out on pieces of paper these designs, what we thought would be a better user experience, and then put those into an online prototype, go back to the same couples and friends and say, “Okay, based on that conversation, what do you think? Is this what you had in mind? Would you want to use this?” And over that period of a few months, [we] designed what is the basis for Zola today.

DMD: Talking about industry disruption. What was the reception like from the big box retailers? Who just came in there and did their whole thing? What was the reception like in the industry?

SLM: Yeah, I think we were lucky in that we were kind of flying a little bit under the radar, because the big box retailers had a lot going on, and they were being disrupted, and you had people migrating away from traditional department stores [and going] online . . . We were able to build this business, kind of under their noses. I think a few years in, we started to really find product-market fit and brand recognition. Some of these department stores came to us wanting to work together. And we also were interested in how do we offer products from stores that our couples do want, but they don’t necessarily want us to create three different registries at three different stores, just for one wedding. They would rather have that all in one registry. And so can we be that place, but still partner with those stores to offer their products. And today we do have partnerships with some great stores, where their products are only sold at their store as well as Zola.

DMD: And this seems like such an obviously amazing idea that taps into a really pressing need. Did you initially start bootstrapping this? Or did you immediately go to investors and pitch this?

SLM: Well, every founder that I’ve spoken to has always had a very unique fundraising story. And our story of how we initially got our seed funding is no different and that it’s very different. So what happened was Kevin Ryan, who is a well-known New York entrepreneur and investor who had built many successful businesses over the years, including Gilt Groupe, he was someone that Nobu and I had worked with for many years at Gilt where we were joined in the early days and built that on the product side . . . So we were all talking together about this idea for a new weddings company — Nobu and I were talking to Kevin about what we’d heard, what we were interested in doing. And he said to us, “I love this. I’ve always wanted to do something in weddings. I would love to work with you guys. I will give you the seed funding. And let’s just get started.” When I tell people that, they’re like, “Wow, that was so easy. You raised your seed round in a second. I wish I could do that, too.” And what I always say is, “No, Nobu and I worked our butts off for four years, day, night, weekend, 24/7, to prove that we were good enough to be able to have someone to say, ‘Okay, I’ll invest in you in a second.’ And so [it was] both luck and hard work. But that was how we had seed funding to really be able to invest in building the first product, building the MVP, and getting it out there into the world.

BS: And thinking about when you guys got started, a lot has changed since then, because I know even just talking about what you mentioned was sparked the idea of these big box retailers not even being really designed yet for smooth e-commerce transactions, let alone wedding registries. That kind of stuff has all come up to date by this point. Plus this category has gotten more crowded in general. I know there are a couple other venture-backed startups that are also trying to do wedding registries and wedding websites — all a little bit different, but all kind of trying to solve the same problems that you guys set out to as well. What has it been like riding that wave and keeping Zola . . . as a major player in this category? How has it been able to ride the changes that have happened in this space since you guys launched?

SLM: Yeah, so my background, and my co-founder’s background is really around product and product design. And so naturally, we believe that the best product always wins in the market. And what we are very proud of is that even though our wedding registry product has been out there in the world now for 10 years, there is no other player that offers the same things that we do in our very first product that everyone could see and potentially could do the same thing. But for some reason, they just can’t. We let you add products from anywhere, including the Zola store, which you can then decide when you want to ship. We integrate our registry fully into wedding websites into our guest list, invitations and paper. All the things that we’ve built are built in a way that’s a seamless kind of ecosystem of products. I think if you were to look at each product available in a winning space, you would find that really isn’t the case anywhere except for Zola. And so I think the way that we’ve stayed ahead is through product development; day in, day out, we think about what can make the couple’s lives easier and better. We just keep adding on to that day by day, brick by brick, until we see 10 years later, this ecosystem of products that are both wide in terms of breadth, but each product in and of itself is best in class. And each product competes with a different set of competitors but is the winner in that category. And then no one connects these products together like we do.

BS: To stick to the product side for a second, I’m curious how you guys decided to add on to that original idea with the wedding registries. What products made sense to add on, which things were nice to have, but maybe our clients don’t need to have that? I know something I’ve seen in this space is how some companies now do baby showers. You can do a registry for a baby shower or you can book your Lyft for after the wedding through the platform. So people are going off in different branches. I’m definitely curious how you guys decided when and where to expand as you were building out these different products?

SLM: This is an interesting question. Because in the early years, we tried to stay very focused on just let’s make sure where we can really win and get it right in our first product. And so we stayed on that wedding registry product and doing only that 24/7 for four years. But pretty much from day one we find we kept hearing people say, “Well, I love Zola from my registry. If I could just add a few details about my wedding. I could also [use] it as my wedding website. [If it was] both together, then I’d be done. Can you please do that?” And we purposely kind of said, “No, we aren’t doing that right now.” After four years of hearing that we said, “Okay, it’s time we can do that.” So we launched the wedding website, and it was a hit straightaway. It took off out the gate. And so we thought, okay, maybe we shouldn’t wait for years to listen to couples and what they’re telling us they want. I think once we launched that wedding website, we very quickly heard, “I love the design I picked for that website. Could I also just print my save the dates and my invitations in the same design? Because you already have the guest list of the guest list manager. If I could just print it all out, send it, that would be great.” So we did that, actually. We did that very quickly after the wedding website. And similarly by listening to the couples, that turned out to be a runaway success in terms of people wanting to use that. It led to our next product of couples who were saying, “Okay, you have all these older couples. You probably know where they’ve booked their weddings. Which venues should I be considering? Which photographers do people like me like? Which photographers did my friends use?” So that led to probably one of our biggest launches yet, which is our venue and vendor marketplace where couples can find venues where they want to get married or vendors for the day of their wedding from their photographer, caterer, DJ, salon. That marketplace has really been informed by couples, and we see where all the couples have gotten married, and then how can we get those onto Zola so that other couples can see and find where they want to get married faster?

DMD: It’s so interesting, because you’re obviously talking about adapting with the times and moving product really fast. But I remember a few years ago there was something with Color of Change in terms of where someone wanted to throw their weddings and how there’s a lot of sociopolitical weirdness that might come up with weddings these days. So how do you navigate that as a company, when someone wants to get married at a very weird location that they should not be getting married at? How do you say, “Oh, we’re not going to have our users do this, or we’re going to have them do that?”

SLM: So obviously we can’t tell our users or our couples what they can and can’t do on their wedding day, because we can’t control everyone. But we can decide who we want to accept into the Zola vendor marketplace based on a vendor vows. Every vendor that shows up on Zola has to sign up for these vendor vows. And what’s included in those is that vendors must not discriminate against couples based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, you know, all these dimensions that are, frankly, offensive and hurtful and just wrong. So, if someone was to discriminate against a couple on those dimensions, we would not have them on Zola. That has been very important to us and to our team, important to our couples. And we are proud that we were able to say that.

BS: If you want to talk about that a little bit more? I’m curious, because that sounds like a great policy, having people put this commitment forward to be able to use the site and advertising that way and get connected with potential couples. Was that a reaction to something that happened? Or was that something that you guys baked in from the beginning? How did that come to be? Because I definitely agree with Dom, that is something that I feel like we weren’t talking about as much 10 years ago, but now obviously is a much bigger part of the conversation when we’re talking about weddings, and just decisions about events in general, based on where the country’s going, what we’re talking about in the zeitgeist and such. So what how did that decision come to be?

SLM: I think it’s very reflective of Zola culture and values from day one, which was very consciously Nobu. And I said, even before we had launched a single design of Zola, that we want to be inclusive of all couples. One thing that really offended us was that many of the other wedding sites that we looked at would just automatically assume that it was a bride and groom getting married. When you fill out the form to sign up, the default is what’s the bride’s name and what’s the groom’s name. And, of course, that makes no sense. For us, it sounds so obvious now when I say it, but 10 years ago, what no one else was doing that we built in from day one was, let’s not assume who’s getting married. Let’s just ask for names. They can tell us who they are. And the images that we show on the website, we used to show a silhouette. If it was a groom and groom getting married, it would show a silhouette of a groom and groom. I can’t tell you the number of emails and outreach that we got from couples saying, “Thank you so much for not assuming that this is a bride and groom thing.” We tried to weave that inclusive value throughout the entire user experience from the very beginning and continue to do so in every product that we launched. It’s a natural conversation that comes up [in the vendor marketplace] where we say, okay, let’s make sure that we’re not discriminating against anyone in the design of this new product.

BS: Expanding on that, too, not even getting into that side of it, where we’re talking about discrimination, but weddings are so broad. I’ve been to a number of weddings. I’ve been to a wedding in the yard of a bar in New Orleans. I have been to a wedding at a very fancy club in Nantucket, Massachusetts. There’s so many different cultural traditions, traditional commercial traditions; there’s just so much. How can you design a product that fits every kind of potential couple that does come through the door just based on everything else that’s going on? Because I know every one I’ve been to has both felt the same in some ways, but also felt very, very different.

SLM: Yeah. So this was another thing that we actually tried to do early on in one of our products, which is a checklist where everyone’s like, I have no idea where to start what to do; please help me. And so we have a wedding checklist where we say, here are the things you need to think about. Think about the venue — where do you want to get married? Who do you want to invite? And to your point, it could have been easy to fall into a default one-fits-all. But, no, there’s very different cultures with very different traditions that, depending on the type of wedding you want to have, your checklist would change. So we incorporate that into the product. If you’re from a certain type of culture, [we would modify] activities in the checklist based on that. For example, an Indian wedding has different ceremonies and so we incorporated that into the planning and the timeline of the checklist. What I will say is that you are right, everyone’s wedding and experience is different. And it’s really up to them. We kind of say, “You do you.” What we try to do is offer a very flexible platform where people can pick any of the designs that we have, say for their wedding website, or their invitations, or they can upload their own. You can always personalize your wedding to really reflect you well, which is something, again, we’ve really seen as a big change over the last 10 years. Hopefully we’ve been a part of that in the degree to which people want to personalize their wedding day.

DMD: I’m so curious, I have to ask this. What was the pandemic like when the wedding industry just exploded, in terms of people having to cancel in that time?

SLM: It was one of the hottest periods of time, potentially the hottest of my professional career. As you might have guessed, everyone’s pushed their wedding back in terms of date or timing. Very early in that first week of lockdowns in the country, everyone was pushing their wedding dates back to later in the year. Because we could see that happening, we knew this was going to be a very hard time for both the company and the industry. And we started thinking two things. One is what do we need to do to support the couples who are obviously very stressed and upset that they’ve had to postpone something that they’ve probably already invested a lot in both emotionally and cash wise, but also what do we need to do to secure the business? What do we need to do to just plan for any scenario that could happen? And frankly, one of the hardest things during that period of time — apart from everyone just being panicked about what does this pandemic mean for me and my family — from a Zola perspective, was we were thinking who knows when weddings will come back, because who knows how long this pandemic is going to last. And while of course, we could put scenarios down on paper, like what if it lasts three months, what if it lasts six months, what if it lasts nine months. The thing is no one knew. Now sitting up here a few years later, now 2024, what did happen was that we saw, even though the pandemic might not have been over by the end of 2020, people did start to get married again. So what we thought was going to be kind of a no weddings year ended up being actually pretty strong in the latter part of the year. People decided, you know what, I’m going to get married. And so the bounce-back in terms of the wedding industry happened faster than I guess anyone would have projected. It was really toward the end of the year weddings picked up again. And then 2021, 2022, huge years for the weddings industry. I think a lot of people postponed and then also maybe put forward their wedding. So 2022 was the biggest year in decades in terms of the number of weddings in the U.S. But yeah, I would not want to relive 2020 again.

BS: I’m curious, coming out of that experience — which, of course, every business runs into those hurdles, runs into those peaks, those pits, as you can’t always plan for everything — what is something you’ve taken away from going through the pandemic that you guys can continue to implement at Zola to protect you from having something like that happen again? At the end of the day, is it helping push the business for you to have been through that experience and have been able to navigate a challenge like that?

SLM: I think one thing that it taught us is that speed is of the essence. And that you’re as soon as we saw people starting to move their wedding dates out. And we knew what the implications would be for both the couples and the business, we were able to act very quickly in terms of okay, thinking about what kinds of features and products do couples need in terms of how we can support them. So we launched this feature on people’s wedding websites where they could put a message to their guests in terms of how they were postponing their weddings or what they were doing what the plan was. We launched a virtual weddings feature we let anyone who had ordered a save the date or an invitation from us. We gave them free change-the-date cards. And so that quick response was really just overwhelmingly well received by couples and I think just kind of paid back in terms of the loyalty that Zola couples have to Zola, particularly from that timeframe is out of this world from the business perspective. I think we saw very quickly we have to start planning now. And for what we do if this pandemic lasts, all these different time periods, and how are you going to get through this? So those quick actions that we took to support the couples in the business, it kind of makes you think, okay, if we lived through that, we could live through anything, because we know how we can react is really dependent on us. I’m proud of the way that the team handled that. Because during what was clearly a time that people could potentially just freeze, no one froze. No one panicked. Everyone was like, Okay, we need to do what what the right thing is. And let’s just do it.

DMD: And switching gears just a little bit. I want to know more about your entrepreneurial journey. Growing up, did you always want to be a founder? Did you know that when you would have a wedding business, like what has been this process?

SLM: I was a nerd and still am a nerd. But growing up, I had always dreamed of being part of something, an industry that was changing the world, something where people who started from nothing kind of like myself came from the middle of nowhere. I grew up in Australia. It’s a lovely country, but it’s very remote, and you really feel like you’re very far away from the action. So growing up, I had posters of entrepreneurs I admired like Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo, was kind of on my bedroom wall. And so yes, I had always wanted to do what I’m doing now. I’m very lucky in that way. I don’t think I ever would have thought that it would be in weddings, because, I never particularly dreamt about my own wedding. I’m not married. So it’s just something where the stars aligned, and it was a combination of a market that I thought was really interesting and fun and joyful. And my skills and experience seem to match it. And there was this huge, exciting opportunity to go after and really serve my friends. And so here we are.

BS: And what has it been like personally for you? Because I know you worked at Yahoo for a while as well. And of course Dom. We love Yahoo, as Yahoo employees technically. You started at Yahoo. And then you were at Gilt, which was definitely more of kind of in that startup step phase, like in that scaling phase, and then launching your own company. What has this journey been like for you? Personally, I know, of course, being a founder, being an entrepreneur isn’t exactly the easiest job on the planet, and how have you kind of been able to adapt to that job in a business that has had so many challenges and ups and downs, since you guys got started?

SLM: You know, I think the years that I spent at Yahoo and Gilt were the best possible experience on trading ground for starting my own company. And I get many potential founders who come up to me and say I’m thinking of starting a business, but I don’t have that kind of experience. Do I need to get that kind of experience? Can I just start it now? And, of course, it always depends on the individual. But for me, I never felt ready. I personally felt like I wanted to get the experience and learn from people who could teach me how to do something that is best in class. So at Yahoo, what I learned was how to build products that are best in class from best-in-class products, people, once I started to see those great product leaders leaving for other companies. That’s when I started to think maybe it’s time for me to leave to at Gilt. I learned what does best in class look like in all these different startup functions. That then helped me identify what kind of qualities would I want in leaders in what ultimately became Zola. So for example, you get exposure. Even if you’re working in one particular function, you get exposure to so many things in a startup. So I learned, oh, what a merchandising people do want to finance, accounting, legal, talent, and HR people do, and got to do a little bit of everything. And then got also had the opportunity to launch and start my own business unit within that safety net of a bigger business, which was in retrospect, the best practice for then lodging a startup myself. So the advice I always give to people is follow people that you think you can learn from, and no matter what it is the company, the industry, if you are really inspired and think you can learn from and want to work for these people, you will gain so much in terms of how you then apply that to your future startup. Otherwise, you could learn it the hard way you could learn it yourself in your own startup. People do that, too. Sometimes it works out great. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. And for me, I really, I wasn’t in a financial position where I could just start a startup and afford to have it fail. And so many reasons why I did that journey. But I don’t regret it for a second. I’m so glad I did. And I hope and another thing Nobu and I, my co founder and I spoke about when starting Zola is we hope to give that experience to people who work at Zola, we hope that one day after many, many years of working with us, they will then go on and start their own startup and it will be better because they worked with us and we were able to hopefully pass something onto them.

BS: And thinking especially with talking about what you’ve learned and how that kind of affected how you started the business. If there was one thing and you can’t say nothing. What’s one thing if you could go back and change about starting the business getting started being new to being a founder? What would you change?

Shan-Lyn Ma
I really wish I would have prioritized if finance and accounting function and skill set much earlier than I did. You know, I think in many early stage startups you kind of running to get the product launch, then get the product into the hands of users or couples for us then get some kind of revenue so that you can afford to keep going. And you have all these 101 priorities. And for me, it never quite made it to the top of the list to make sure that books were best in class. And so yeah, we had a bookkeeper, a part time bookkeeper, like many startups do, but it was not until we started to raise more serious rounds of funding that I realized, oh, no, we actually need an in house team of great finance and accounting people. And I wish we had built that team much earlier, because it resulted in a lot of long, sleepless nights and weekends, trying to put it all together in a very condensed timeline, which, you know, in retrospect, was just unnecessary stress that both myself and team much more than I should have

Becca Szkutak
I’m definitely curious, you guys are now just a little over 10 years into the business, what are the next 10 years look like? I know about it products, you’ve added these different aspects to the business, but kind of where does it go from here?

Shan-Lyn Ma
You know, when one thing we realize is that we really are a modern life stage company. So speaking about where to couples kind of ask us our biggest to kind of expand into next. Another thing that I’ve heard pretty much from the first year of Zola is, can you please now helped me with my baby registry. So I think we spoke a bit about baby earlier. But for 10 years, we said again, no, we can’t do that yet. That’s not the right time for us. And then last year, with the closure of byebye. Baby, we thought, Well, if there’s ever a time to do it, this is the time so we did launch Zola baby, we now kind of see a great number of people who use all of their weddings over the past few years use us for baby. And I think it’s one another kind of life stage or category where there is no clear tech driven market leader. And so it’s an exciting phase because we continue to expand both in weddings and the number of things that we do right from that first day of getting edge. And then we are also expanding outwards. Now, first day that you learned that you you might be having a baby. Other than that I continue to be excited about AI, as is the entire world. We’re kind of playing around with the tech to see how can we use it to support couples in a way that they find genuinely useful. We just recently launched an AI tool that helps couples right there thank you notes, which is one of the top things couples complain about in terms of how painful it is to write like 75 to 200. thank you notes and perfect use case. Right. So we launched that in our mobile app. And we’ll continue I think to launch more things like that to help take the workload off. That’s unnecessary. Unfortunately, I wish I could could say this is not the case. But unfortunately, women still do an unfair share of wedding planning work. And so yeah, we’re passionate about helping make that both more equitable, but also maybe lighten that load.

Becca Szkutak
I think that’s a good place to wrap because we’re pretty much right at time. But I love the thought of an AI. thank you note, you said that. And I started thinking about it. And I’m like, they really are like, Hey, thanks for coming to the wedding. Thank you for the gift, like love the couple edits. Like it’s true. It’s like I don’t expect something heartfelt because I know how many they have to do. So that actually does make a great case for AI. One, then Sam Altman should look into that. That’s all I’m gonna say.

Shan-Lyn Ma
Well, we have your guest list that, you know, we helped you put together and we have the designs that you picked out for your invitation. So imagine you could use the AI tool to have the note done right there, edit it slightly, and then we can print it directly into your thank you card for you. And you’re done.

Becca Szkutak
We love a practical use case for AI. But thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been really fun. So thanks for taking the time.

Shan-Lyn Ma
Thank you. It was great. Appreciate it.

Becca Szkutak
And that was our conversation with Shan starting with the two truths and a lie I’m going to take at this time because unfortunately the lie was something that I said by accident. So a little bit of a different format than our usual two truths and a lie. When I mentioned that my friend was getting married next weekend she had a site on Zola. I was confusing her wedding with one of the very many I went to last year. Her site is on The Knot. I went to a couple of weddings on Zola last year. I regret the air. I had just been getting off a red eye flight that morning. No excuse but the reason your listeners we decided to keep it in as opposed to say cutting it out is that we think it sparks an interesting conversation about competition. Sure. Well, my brain was kind of fried when I said that. We asked Shan a little bit about the competition between some of the different platforms like Joy, Zola, and the Knot I think they’re a little more similar than Shin let on to especially as a guest I know personally, I have never noticed really any difference between the platforms. I don’t know what you thought about that, Dom.

Dom Davis
I, oh, my goodness, I’ve only been to one wedding. And it was very recently. And so I’ve never used any of these wedding platforms before. But I mean, based off of just a simple elite, I don’t see how different day could be really, I mean, when the service functions are like the same, basically, right?

Becca Szkutak
Because it’s like, in theory, people want the same things. And we’re all talking about the same thing surrounding the same event. I was curious. And I definitely put myself out there by bugging my friend about this, who is literally preparing for her wedding in one week. But I asked her, like, why did you use The Knot over Zola, or some of the other options? And she said, largely word of mouth. Like they just knew other people who had used it. And there was like, a little bit of the pricing stuff, but it didn’t sound like that was kind of what drove the decision at the end of the day. But I mean, it’s a bit of industry that it would seem weird if there was one player, so I don’t really necessarily think there being a fair amount of competition in this space really matters as much as some other industries.

Dom Davis
No, I don’t I don’t think it matters at all. I think there should be more. I mean, how many wedding companies are there like this? Because I don’t hear about it often. But I’m also none of my friends are getting married, man. It’s hard out here. So I’m like, Nah, I’m, like totally disconnected from this wedding world. How many of there are there because I feel like I’d heard of Zola. But now that I’m thinking back, I think I’ve also heard of the knot.

Becca Szkutak
Yeah, the only other one I know of is Joy, which is another venture backed startup. And I know of them because I covered one of their funding rounds a couple of years ago. But again, like even with them to chatting with them, some of their answers are on like how they were different, kind of or similar to what Shan said about being able to just if a customer tries to use them, which she had mentioned a few times, and they are like, we want this feature, which you don’t already have. And she was like, Oh, we learned to be quick to build it, like build these products that our customers are asking for as like a competitive edge. And it sounds like they all do that. But I guess if you are hearing different things from your different customers, they’re gonna end up with like, slightly different differences on the back end too

Dom Davis
Yeah, I think I don’t know how many different ways there are to plan a wedding. I think the basics are the same. Right. But I wouldn’t know once again, I wouldn’t know. But what what are your thoughts on the the AI? thank you notes. I think that’s it. I mean, does it matter if the thank you note, or the gift note is personal or not? Is that a big deal?

Becca Szkutak
Personally, one, I am a thank you note, Stan. I still write them for my birthday and things like that to my older family members because I know that they like getting them even though I know people always joke like Gen Z doesn’t even know what a thank you card is. I love a thank you note but I also think for weddings and and I think you know what, I actually don’t hate that because I get that they have to do so many. And I also just feel like my attendance like No one plans, their weddings so that I come you know, like I get how big of like a hurdle it is to do those kind of things. You know, it’s I remember I raise money for like a race a couple of years ago, and I was like, I’m gonna send thank you notes to everyone who donated over like $50 or something like that. And I sat down to write them and there weren’t crazy personal but after 25 I was like oh my god fuck this like I was like this is taking hours just to like do like a significantly smaller amount like most weddings have. So I may be pro AI thank you note, but that might be a controversial take.

Dom Davis
No I mean, my hand hurts thinking about it. I would definitely be like a thanks exclamation point moving on, because what but were people handwriting these anyway? Or were they using some type of Microsoft Word or like I’m basing it off the thank you note that I got from the wedding that didn’t look handwritten to me. It looked like it was like that was thought that was clear font from like a font machine or something. Yeah, maybe that’s like the personalized thank you note industry.

Becca Szkutak
I have no idea. Big thank you note.

Dom Davis
The big thank you. No industry. Sam Altman is coming. Okay. But I guess that is the way AI would disrupt the wedding industry. Yeah, AI is everywhere.

Becca Szkutak
It really is. But I think one of the other things that stood out to me about this conversation is some of the talk we had about inclusivity, which I know it sounds like Zola really prides themselves on how inclusive they’ve been as far as making sure their site is set up for same sex couples, as well as just like different wedding arrangements than the traditional, say, bride and groom. But there definitely is some other stuff in their history that’s worth touching on.

Dom Davis
When I was talking about when I mentioned, like some people are getting married in places they shouldn’t be. That was a direct hit at people who get married at slave plantations. And that Wall Street Journal article that shows people are now getting married in prisons. That’s weird behavior, everyone, I just have to first call that out. So there was a controversy a few years ago, or not a controversy. It was just this advocacy organization called Color of Change, sent a note out to kind of all the big wedding players, including the knot, I believe, just saying like, hey, people are getting married at slave plantations. That’s weird. Can you tell them to stop? And you know, the big players said, Yeah, you’re right. That is weird. So they’ve stopped and I think the thing that happened with Zola was, at first they were like, Oh, this doesn’t violate our policy, and then they came back and they were like, actually, we’re gonna start working with Color of Change to be better being more inclusive and everything. And so that was something that happened a few years ago. And I brought it up, because I don’t know, it’s just really interesting. Like, how do you as a platform, weddings are very magical days for people? And how do you kind of create boundaries with people like that saying, like, Hey, you can’t get married at Alcatraz? Like, that’s insane. You know, but at the same time, you want to please your customers, but she did not address that at all.

Becca Szkutak
No, no, it definitely feels like one of those situations where it’s like, the substack argument, where people they’re like, Well, we’re a free speech platform. And like, anyone can write whatever they want here. We can’t like police them. And then users are like, well, then you’re gonna have bad stuff on there. Like you have to like, and I’m sure, cuz you mentioned their whole agreements with vendors on the platform sounds like that existed prior to that. But it was just that they wouldn’t discriminate against any couples who wanted to potentially get married there, which I know, that doesn’t sound like that was the issue. Obviously, that’s not the issue of when she said like, Sure, it doesn’t violate that. But like, we can look a little more big picture.

Dom Davis
That was so funny when she said that I was like, No, that was not the issue. The issue was not always getting married. It was where

Becca Szkutak
no, but I mean, I do on the one hand, you do get her argument where it’s like, even if they take them off the marketplace, it’s like someone, there’s probably wedding sites on there. Right now we’re getting married at save plantations, they just didn’t find the vendor through the marketplace. So it’s like she did make a good point where it’s like, they only can do so much. But they definitely can at least acknowledge, like, what they can do.

Dom Davis
I guess Definitely. It’s just an interesting conversation, I guess, in terms of the role that companies and founders play in shaping society. I do not think people should get married in prisons. No, that’s not something that I would help someone do. If you’re a wedding planner, and someone is trying to get married at Rikers, stop, like say, no, just say no. So I guess it’s, I guess this is where capitalism intersects with society and values and everything, and kind of where’s the line for a company and a founder to walk that line, especially

Becca Szkutak
with the being like a marketplace to because I’m sure, it’d be interesting to talk to other marketplace. And obviously, this is not fully a marketplace. But what we’re talking about relates to the marketplace that they do have, but like, I’m sure you’d get the argument a lot. But it’s like, well, people can choose who they want to work with. Like, they are just the platform to connect people. So it’s like, I don’t know, I can see people making the argument. It’s not an endorsement of having stuff like that on the site. I personally don’t agree with that. But um, I definitely can see why there would be a perceived gray area, even though I don’t think there’s a greater personally Yeah,

Dom Davis
but you know, that’s just us. Those are just our thoughts and opinions.

Becca Szkutak
I mean, those kinds of wedding venues are probably booked every weekend isn’t just a different world.

Dom Davis
Those antebellum weddings are ripping to the south, please stop. Why? Just be more creative, just be more creative. Like, seriously.

Becca Szkutak
it’s such a huge thing, too. It is nice that these platforms have kind of been able to stay. And I know, she talks about like, COVID. And it’s interesting how they were able to adapt, even though I’m glad to have not been planning a wedding at that time, because a virtual wedding may have killed me, like I cannot I cannot do a virtual wedding.

Dom Davis
I wanted to ask her about if she seen any of the Animal Crossing weddings, because that was like a thing. You know, like people were having graduations they were we trust I remember the Animal Crossing meet up this people were having I was using Animal Crossing, because that’s I don’t know, why was I doing that? I don’t know. I also wanted to ask her if she saw an increase in people having multiple weddings, because it seems like a lot of people just had two weddings at the time.

Becca Szkutak
Yeah, I would be curious about that, too. Because it is kind of a product where you hope use it once. Like, that’s why it is interesting. Weddings are such a huge industry, which is interesting, because it’s a one time industry, which usually those kind of things aren’t good businesses to invest in and like aren’t huge industries, trying to do another example. Like I always think about cars, like when they get like car demand wrong. And it’s like, well, sure, I’m interested in getting electric vehicle, but I’m planning to buy a car every 12 to 14 years. So it’s like, it’s not something you do all the time, when the new thing comes out. You don’t like go and get a new car. So it’s like the weddings is so interesting in that way that it like has been able to be this like, ginormous thing that it is, even though it’s like people you hope to use it once.

Dom Davis
I know. Which makes me think how, how sustainable and profitable. Oh, actually, what are the metrics of the wedding industry? Aside from them up charging people at venues for food and stuff? What are the metrics of but I guess also, do people even get married once now or are a second or third? Like I don’t know. I always tell people I would be a great second wife. So already that’s like two weddings for Zola. How many times are people getting married now? Anyway? I don’t know what the financials are of this industry.

Becca Szkutak
Oh, I just know it’s big. And if it gets a news to be big, I mean, it’s a good industry to grow in for sure.

Dom Davis
Big Wedding into St. This is going to be the next will. But will investors still get it? Will investors get it? Because they always miss out on the big industries?

Becca Szkutak
Yeah, I don’t know. It sounds like this one has like worked out decently well, for the companies in it. Yeah. What’s the next disruption in the wedding industry?

Dom Davis
And is it seen as a women’s industry? Did we talk about that a little bit? Like, how is the wedding industry seen to investors who are looking at are they saying like, Oh, this is just like a targeted toward women? Or do they see it as like an everything in every one type of business.

Becca Szkutak
That’s what was interesting, because she had mentioned, obviously, like, raising the seed round was relatively easy for her and her co founder. And, of course, not all weddings, but a lot of weddings include men, as well. But I definitely feel like planning is seen as like a women’s thing, like setting up the website and stuff like that. But then it’s also that weird thing, because when you have same sex couples have you have two men, there is no woman to be setting up the site. So it’s like maybe that’s what kind of has shielded it from getting put into that box. Because I know one of the other companies in the space I’ve talked to is like the founding teams, all men who like we’re running into the same issues like going to their friend’s weddings and stuff like that. So it was like, maybe it is that universal, even though it definitely gets that more like perception of being a more feminine aspect. Wedding wedding planning in general seems like a more feminine aspect of it. But yeah, maybe it is more universal, which would be a good thing because it should be but it doesn’t usually work out that way.

Dom Davis
I hope more investors back more wedding planning businesses because it’s clearly everyone is suffering as a guest and that is what I’m seeing and hearing. So that’s it. invest more in wedding put help us help us.

Becca Szkutak
Help us plan our future weddings. Dom second wedding.


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