Unforgettable Stories and One World Trade Views: Highlights from our “Leading Lights” Series Featuring Shan-Lyn Ma and Alex Chung.
Last night we hosted our Annual “Leading Lights” Series at Mic’s beautiful office on the 84th floor of One World Trade (to say the views were breathtaking would be an understatement), where my partner Alex and I sat down with Shan-Lyn Ma, Co-founder of Zola and Alex Chung, Co-founder of GIPHY, and discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly of building an enduring company.
The name of this event, “Leading Lights,” originated with our desire to celebrate leaders who have unique insights, not obvious ones. Shan and Alex embody this to a tee. From Australia and Seattle to the Big Apple, Shan and Alex spoke of their journeys to disrupting the Wedding and Search industries, whether or not you should work with friends (spoiler: you should), and what the future looks like for both Zola and GIPHY. Check out this video or text below for some highlights of our conversations.
Thank you to the over 200 entrepreneurs, founders, investors and friends who showed up last night and helped drive forward meaningful discussions and connections. If you are as passionate about entrepreneurship as we are and would like to attend our next “Leading Lights” event, send us a note with your LinkedIn profile to email@example.com.
Q&A with Shan-Lyn Ma:
Q: Tell me about growing up, and how your experiences and upbringing led you to become a founder?
A: I grew up in Australia. For those of you who are familiar, know it’s in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world. Isolated both metaphorically and literally. Felt like all the action was anywhere but there. Read about the tech revolution in the US and I wanted to be a part of it. Unlike most people who I had a poster of Kylie Minogue, I had a poster of Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo in my room. That brought me to Silicon Valley.
Q: What was your first job in tech?
A: At Yahoo of course, my dream company!
Q: What attracted you to NYC vs. Silicon Valley?
A: Moved to NYC to be the first produce person at Gilt. Best decision I’ve ever made. They were completely redefining shopping online at the time. It was my dream job. I thought to myself “if I’m personally shopping on this site every day, how fun would it be to work there and think about the site every day.” I’d have moved anywhere for it. But it was amazing to have a front row seat at the beginning of NYC’s tech scene. Just have to say. It used to be hard to find product people in NYC. Now there’s so much happening! NYC tech has completely changed and exploded here.
Q: NYC is also where you met Nobu, your co-founder. Tell us about that. What’s your co-founder story?
A: First have to say, I have the best co-founder in the entire world (Nobu). We got to learn a lot of lessons together at Gilt. We created a lot of products that customers love and talked over that time about how we’d love to start something together. We went to separate startups and didn’t feel ready to start something immediately after Gilt. Met up for lunch. We realized we were both ready and the next day we quit our jobs, gave plenty of notice, and started thinking about what we’d then create together.
Q: Did you always want to work in wedding? People have been wanting to disrupt the wedding space for 20+ years. Why did you start with registry?
A: In 2013, when we were thinking about what we wanted to start together, it was also the year that all my friends were getting married. As I was going through that registry experience, I was like this is the worst e-commerce experience ever. Nobu was getting married and it was just as bad from his perspective. The more we dug into it, the more we realized that there was a fundamental shift in how couples are getting married today. Couples today want products, experiences, cash, full control. No one was giving it to them. Registry was stuck in the 20s, when it was invented. It was a clear opportunity to create a better experience for couples and their guests. Best thing about starting with the registry was how it allowed us to innovate on the business model. Business model is one of the things we’re most proud of. How do we capture the best of e-commerce and marketplace businesses but leave behind the burden and pitfalls (avoid inventory, avoid returns, avoid unpredictability). Industry was ready to support it.
Q: Now you’re 5 years into it. Much bigger than registry. Talk about what Zola is now.
A: In a generation where experiences are important, the wedding is the ultimate experience. Hard to go to a wedding without everyone taking pictures and sharing the experience etc. That generational shift. How the wedding looks and feels for your guests has never been so high. Allowing couples to plan more and more of their wedding on the Zola platform in a way that we know makes it much easier for couples today. Our vision is how can we serve couples from the day they get engaged to their first year of marriage. Now we’re printing paper products — save the dates, invitations — etc. One of the most requested things from customers.
Q: How is the retail ecosystem responding? You announced a big partnership with Crate & Barrel that launched today…aren’t you competitive with Crate & Barrel? How does that work?
A: Today the Crate & Barrel boutique on Zola went live! We will now be selling 3,500 Crate & Barrel gifts in the Zola store. It’s a dynamic partnership that brings together a retail pioneer and a retail disruptor. It’s something that would have been hard to imagine 5 years ago. Today it’s the only place you can buy C&B stuff from somewhere other than C&B.
- Zola perspective — This partnership was born out of real demand by our couples. Crate & Barrel is the #1 externally added brand onto Zola registries (via our add to Zola button). Now couples will be able to register directly for Crate & Barrel dinnerware, furniture, home decor and more, plus the 50,000+ gifts we already sell and cash funds. This is the 4th retailer, and most notable, to choose Zola as an exclusive registry partner (ABC Home, Backcountry, Michael C. Fina).
- Crate & Barrel perspective — They want to reach new engaged customers where they already are, on Zola. They are focused on growing their registry business.
Q: The company has grown a lot. Zola headcount has more than doubled in the past year — how are you growing the company in a thoughtful way that is sustainable in the long run? And hasn’t F’d up the culture?
A: We’re now at about 140 employees. Still very small in terms of team size relative to the size of the skin of the business. Very thoughtful about every head / new role we open up at the company. As a leadership team, for every job that might be new, ask ourselves if we *really* need it and if it’s *really* going to positively impact the business. From our Gilt experience, 40 people to 1,000 people in 4 years. Very hard to manage from a business and org perspective. Taking a very thoughtful approach at Zola. It’s worked out well for us. Large reason we’ve been able to show capital efficiency.
Q: How do you recharge or take a break from work? How do you maintain balance?
A: I play HQ Trivia. Use my jumprope app. Angel invest in companies.
Q: Any specific words of wisdom for the young entrepreneurs in the room? Words of wisdom you heard from your mentors or maybe mentees?
A: Kevin Ryan, one of my mentors for many years, something that I try and keep in mind always: How can this idea be bigger? Even bigger than what we’re imaging today? Asking that question helps remove any artificial constraints. Helps remind us all that usually it’s the same amount of work to go after small or big so why not go big.
Q&A with Alex Chung:
Q: Let’s start from the beginning…where are you from and how did you end up in NYC vs. Silicon Valley vs. LA?
A: I grew up in Seattle, on the best coast. A few minutes away from the University of Washington, Microsoft, I saw all of that happen as a kid. Moved to SF in 1997–2004. Went through the dotcom boom and bust. Once I was done with engineering, what brought me to NYC, went to Parsons for Fashion. Bad idea. Then I became a graphic designer. Couldn’t afford my rent. Went back and forth, now I’m here. Been here for about 13 years. I think I’m a legit New Yorker now?
Q: What have been some of your biggest learnings along the way?
A: Learning #1. Never live in SF. That vibe of NYC, being able to meet up with anyone and hang out with anyone, it’s special. This used to be what it was like in ’97, went to the first pool party at Google, they had DJs and it was fun and then everyone got married and older and got fancy things and it became more gated. NYC still a local, small place. NYC or LA are the only places to start companies.
Q: First time I met Alex was in 2015. GIPHY had rented this awesome mansion in LA. So they could get the creative juices going all summer. GIPHY pool towels, floaties, etc. That’s how I like to envision your life. But what does a typical day for Alex Chung look like now?
A: Back in the day, we were working out of Airbnbs, couldn’t commit to office space or afford it. When half the company was going to LA to meet with studios, we were like why are we doing this. The amount of rent we’re paying for Airbnb ends up being the equivalent to a mansion in LA. Decided to rent a house. Life was so much better. Saving so much money on rent. Sushi. Everything is better. Ending up making it a tradition. Bonding moment. 30 days lived together and work together every day. Typical day? Last night I was up until 3 or 4am. Anyone who is a founder of a company knows, I get about 1,000 emails a day. Half get filtered out. I still have to respond to 500. So I spend half my day doing email.
Q: What’s something surprising that nobody knows about you?
A: I’m pretty open. Maybe I was here last week for an underground cage fighting karate combat tournament on the top of the World Trade Center. I’m a black belt, MMA 30 years. UFC fighters come through. One of our friends puts on these crazy karate tournaments. Everyone was in suits. It was like a post-apocalyptic scene.
Q: What is your leadership style and/or some of the core principles that guide GIPHY?
A: We have a bunch of values and core principals. The number one thing that we do. Hierarchical style — everyone is a collaborator, shareholder, co-founder. Everyone has an equal voice. If you get 100 people working together in a room, getting that community to work, and produce content, hard. Equal say matters. Treating people as people matter. End up getting the best ideas and most loyal people who are attached to work you’re doing. One of the reasons I only work with friends. We are a community, let’s figure it out. Our pillars:
- People before process
- Community before company
- Relationships before process
Q: What was your lowest/hardest time as a founder and how did you get through it?
A: Like this morning? I’ve been doing this for about 20 years. This is my 12th startup that was funded. Definitely failed more startups that you’ve started. I probably just suck as a startup founder. One of the things I’ve learned, co-founders love and hate each other. Your best friends are the ones you stick with. The reason you have co-founders, you have 3/4xs more probability of being successful. Co-founder pulls you through when you’re down. You pull your co-founder through when they’re down. If you were friends before, you’ll make it through.
Q: How did you find product-market fit? How did you find early customers?
A: In the beginning we didn’t have any competitors. There was no GIF search engine. “How do you even find these things?!” Registered GIFSearchEngine.com. Registered like a hundred of them (relevant domains). One of my product philosophies is, I only build things for myself. If I can’t convince myself it’s cool, then I definitely won’t be able to convince anyone else it’s cool. Once I started sharing, and other people started sharing, then I knew I was on to something. I guess that’s when I reached product-market fit.
Q: How do you monetize? How do you include ads in a meaningful way / balance it with a good user experience?
A: I don’t think most people know what we do. Most people think we’re a site with cat GIFs. The pitch deck has been the same for the last five rounds of funding. It’s always been about a new type of search engine. YouTube was the only other place could compete. There has to be a search engine to find the short form content. The internet went mobile. Mobile went to messaging. Only about 5 or 6 companies. We’re the largest search engine for messaging. Allow people to find content to bring into their messages. Now we do about 20% of the search engine of Google. People watch more GIFs every day than they watch YouTube videos. Probably the largest media company in the world from an impressions standpoint that no one talks about. So, how do we monetize? Doing $30 CPMs that I think we can talk about. Only ad platform successful at monetizing messaging at this scale.
Q: So, what’s next for GIPHY? What does an exit look like?
A: If we scale our revenue in the next 9 months, we have a potential of multi-billions in revenue per year. If we can’t do that, we could fail. We’re a potential acquisition for so many companies. If that doesn’t work, then we shut down and we all get new jobs. Tech industry is still good, despite what you hear. I mean we’re on the top of the freakin’ World Trade Center right now.
If you’re in NYC, I’ll be speaking at the Primary NYC Summit today at 11:30am on What’s Next for NextGen Commerce. Come say hello!