There is a lot of ugly, wonky, barely-usable wedding planning technology out there, from the seating charts and guest lists, to RSVP software, checklists and vendor management tools. There's a reason few modern tech startups have managed to penetrate the $70 billion wedding industry. It's something Shan-Lyn Ma has understood well since co-founding Zola, a “wed-tech” startup, in 2013.
Ma says it’s difficult for wedding software companies to scale because the market for advertising is small -- only two million couples get married in the U.S. each year – and most people don’t want to pay for online tools, so charging for them puts a cap on any company’s potential growth. Many of the existing options for these services are limited in their customization, feature outdated designs, or cost money.
Zola started as a new kind of online wedding registry, infusing sleek design with wedding-specific features that many retailers don’t offer. That includes the ability to delay shipping till after the wedding, exchange goods before they’re shipped, pull in items from across the web, and receive monetary gifts with the lowest fees. The company amassed 300,000 couples that add $10 million worth of items to their registries each week, while earning approximate 40% margins on the 40,000 items sold directly through Zola. The company sometimes earns affiliates on the sale of items from other sites. Zola has not said what percentage of registered gifts are purchased or what its revenue is, except that sales will “more than double” in 2017.
Now, armed with $25 million in funding raised last fall from Lightspeed Ventures, Zola is pushing deeper into wed-tech with a suite of new products aimed to help engaged couples called Zola Weddings. That includes wedding websites, guest lists, RSVP tracking, and customizable checklists. Ma says they’re the top things couples requested when using Zola.
Zola’s new tools will be free, a decision Ma compares to the way Google offers free services like storage, messaging and email as complements to its money-making search engine. Zola monetizes through its registry; the free tools are a way to lure in more customers.
Ma says her time as general manager at Gilt Taste, a division of Gilt Groupe, taught her about the dangers and costs of holding inventory, and the value of building the right technology around “drop-ship” commerce, where the vendor handles the shipping.
Now, Zola is hoping its one-stop-shop for wedding planning will lure even more customers to register with the site. “We asked, ‘How can we build tools to make it much easier for them and know that if we do a great job at that, they will also want to register with us?’” Ma says.