Farm style was all the range for weddings in 2015. (Source)

Finding product/channel fit at Zola

shan-lyn ma, CEO of Zola, was profiled a few months ago in Entrepreneur. When asked, “What’s the best advice you ever took?”, she responded:

The best piece of advice is…the only thing that matters in startups is product market fit. Now that I’ve had a few years to think about it, what makes it great advice is that if you don’t have it, nothing else matters — you essentially don’t have a company. But once you have it, you need to keep pushing to make sure that you are building a company on top of that foundation of a product market fit.
In my current role, in the first two years of the business, we could see very clearly that we had product market fit. We had a service that people loved and told their friends about. We had explosive organic growth and that was the foundation. What we’ve spent the last few years doing is scaling and growing the business based on what we are hearing from our customers, what they are telling us they would like to see us grow into and making sure it’s sustainable over the long run.

Zola had strong product/market fit (PMF) out of the gate. It filled a much needed vacuum in the $19 billion wedding registry market. Reviews from customers paralleled Steve Jobs’ classic comment about how much Windows users enjoyed using iTunes:

“It’s like giving a glass of ice water to someone in hell.”

But, early on, the team did not feel confident spending paid marketing dollars to acquire a customer who may convert months down the road. After spending years riding a roller coaster at their prior startup Gilt Groupe, the team searched for another way to scale the business. Zola needed to foster strong organic growth to win.

That was tough. Department store competitors like Macy’s had tons of SEO juice pouring into their product pages. Ditto for lead gen sites like TheKnot. While weddings are social in nature, couples are hesitant to share their registries on sites like Facebook. They fear offending those friends who are not invited to the wedding and tend to view registry sharing as overly “promotional.” So, traditional social media marketing was out.

The team thought, “Where does a 10x better registry have a strong fit with a specific marketing channel?” The answer was earned media.

Weddings have always benefited from strong editorial and visuals. Most couples who are planning a wedding do so for the first time. They have many questions and search for answers from trusted sources. Other than a house or a car, a couple spends the most amount of money on their wedding. It’s a “considered purchase.” The engagement period can last over a year, so there’s plenty of time for research. As such, couples turn to more traditional, editorial sources of information: magazines, news publications, and wedding-specific blogs/forums. If a registry is designed for that channel, it should stand out.

Zola achieved what I call product/channel fit (PCF) by building specifically for the earned media channel.

First, Zola instrumented its product to have better data on which products different couples expressed interest in and registered for. Combined with survey data, it produced compelling articles for couples who were seeking a starting point for their registries. It turns out couples want information on what other couples ask for because it normalizes the “extravagant” nature of their gifts. Here’s an example from Martha Stewart Weddings:

This strategy created an advantageous, virtuous cycle for Zola: more couples → more data → more relevant content → more articles → more couples. A similar cycle existed on the vendor side of the business.

Zola also has unique inventory on its registry. Remarkable new items or services often spawn ideas for articles. For example, Zola was the first to offer Soul Cycle classes on its registry, as well as some unusual food-related items (a lifetime supply of avocados, a package of bees, a champagne sabre). These are fodder for differentiated articles like the below:

Lastly, it’s hard to separate the Zola product from its creators. The executive team is majority female, and so is the CEO. The company has been built from the ground up to foster diversity and support families, which is (unfortunately) unusual in the startup world. Couples increasingly care that their wedding partners share their core values and are drawn to articles discussing Zola’s philosophy on this topic. The below interview with Shan goes into detail:

I’m really proud to have an executive team that is diverse. Out of our 8-person leadership team, five are women. We support mothers and fathers working at Zola through our flexible leave policy and encourage everyone across the teams to lead initiatives and create their own career path. For me personally, I feel a responsibility to be a good example of how it is possible to be a woman, run a fast-growing company and create an enduring, valuable product. There are a lot of great examples of men doing this, but not as many women. There are days when I am completely exhausted, and then I think to myself…other women are looking to me to see if it can be done. So I get out of bed, work as hard as I possibly can that day and keep going.

For Zola, PMF was just a starting point. Achieving PCF has been just as transformative.

As investors, we’re seeking founders who can not only articulate the former, but also the latter milestone. History is littered with great products that lose out to a competitor with a stronger path to market. Designing your product for a specific channel from the get-go correlates strongly with success.

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