Events

Cedar Talks: Zola Co-founder & CEO Shan-Lyn Ma’s top 5 recommendations for pitching, pivoting and disrupting in new industries


For June’s Cedar Talk, we were joined by Zola co-founder & CEO Shan-Lyn Ma—an iconoclastic entrepreneurial leader who followed her vision to boldly forge ahead to disrupt the wedding industry with data and technology solutions.

Shan-Lyn shared insights into how to overcome doubt when pitching and using technology to disrupt old industries, how to promote startup diversity and the lessons from Zola’s COVID-19 pivot to support customers by launching new products. Her top five recommendations are featured below; to watch the full interview, click here.

Learn how to pitch to investors who might not emotionally connect to the product and make it sound like a compelling investment opportunity, nonetheless

Though Zola has raised more than $140 million in funding over several financing rounds, Shan-Lyn said every round was different and pitching to VC’s completely uninitiated in the specifics of the wedding industry wasn’t exactly easy.

“[The majority of VC investors we were pitching to were] out of the typical wedding life stage, and they just found it very hard to emotionally connect to the problem…I was asked some crazy questions like, ‘30 years ago when I got married, my wife seemed fine with our registry. So why do you think anything is different? Does it really need to be changed now?’ So I had to learn over time how to pitch to people who might not be emotionally connecting to the product but make it sound like a compelling investment opportunity nonetheless.”

Find out more about how Shan-Lyn overcame challenges in funding rounds at 9:09.

When pitching, answer three questions above all: Why you, why now and why this problem

According to Shan-Lyn, a successful investor pitch can be boiled down to answering those three questions in a compelling way.

“Every investor [really wants] the answer to three questions. First: ‘why you’—why are you the right founder or founders to attack this particular problem? The second question is ‘why now?’ What is it that makes now the time for this idea to be right—what has changed in the market? What's changed in technology? And then the third [...] is ‘how much money is this going to make me’? And that can be pitched in a range of different ways, whether it's [that] the market size is big, the lifetime value is large [or] the competitive set is such that you guys [have] a real opportunity to disrupt the market. And if you can articulate [that convincingly] you've won the battle.”

Want to know how to make the perfect investor pitch? Click here and jump to 24:36.

Pitch unicorns, not businesses

When it comes to pitching, Shan-Lyn said the impact of confidence can’t be overstated.

“My advice to female founders is to make sure that you are projecting externally the same amount of confidence that you feel internally in your business. When I was able to start doing that and feeling more comfortable, bringing out what I felt inside, the better it was for my business.”

Hear Shan-Lyn talk about this trend and her biggest wish in improving the landscape for diversity in the startup community at 35:59.

When the market changes, be willing to let go of previous commitments and rethink what success means in a different environment

When COVID-19 halted the wedding industry for over a year, the Zola team quickly pivoted their product roadmap with a long-term customer-centric view to emerge stronger after the pandemic. During that time, they launched an online vendor search platform, a Zoom wedding feature, the option to send out free “change the date” cards and the ability to message on wedding websites around date changes and COVID-19 protocols.

“[I’m proud] our team was willing to let go of everything that we had previously committed to during the year and thought, ‘No, we need to rethink what it means to be in this kind of new world of a pandemic. And let's not give up or take the year off. Let's maximize the opportunity.’ And because of that work that we did last year [we’re] in a fantastic place this year […]–weddings are back, pent up demand is all coming through now—but because of what we've built people are coming to Zola much more than we had even forecast.”

Hear more about how Zola quickly pivoted in 2020 at 39:41.

Continually nurture your culture

Shan-Lyn’s last kernel of wisdom is to always make sure new hires are a good cultural add, and ensure you continue to nurture the culture daily.

“Maintain the culture each and every single day with as many people in the company as possible. I think culture is one of those things where people think, ‘Oh, let's talk about it at new hire orientation, and then at the yearly meeting,’ but it's harder to talk about it every day and every week.”

Hear more at 49:40.

Want to hear why Shan-Lyn always looks for “simpler, easier and lighter”? Her most important lesson from her days at Yahoo? When it makes sense to branch out after putting a laser focus on your business’ core competency–and much more? Watch the replay here.

Cedar Talks is a thought leadership series highlighting experienced entrepreneurs, tech innovators and healthcare leaders who are solving important problems by challenging the status quo. Recent Cedar Talks have included CareJourney President Aneesh Chopra, Affirm founder and CEO Max Levchin, Clinton Foundation Vice Chair Chelsea Clinton and Peloton co-founder Graham Stanton.

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