We’ve been wondering what stealthy startup Gilt, AlleyCorp and 10Gen founder Kevin Ryan has been working on after he revealed that he was expanding his empire a few months ago at Disrupt NY. We’ve learned Ryan is staying in the e-commerce space but going in on a lucrative vertical — weddings. Meet Zola, a new startup emerging from Ryan and a group of former Gilt employees who want to reinvent the wedding registry.
As Ryan explained to me, he’s been wanting to tackle this space for a few years. He’s always been frustrated with wedding registries online because the poor UI of most e-commerce sites’ registry, and impersonal experience with buying wedding gifts for loved ones and good friends. He knew that there could be a better way of solving this particular problem using some of the knowledge and expertise he’s gained from Gilt.
So he enlisted the help of two of his former Gilt employees, Shan-Lyn Ma and Nobu Nakaguchi. Ma was one of Gilt’s best product managers who helped lead the launch of Gilt Taste, and Nakaguchi worked on design for Gilt, building the flash sales site’s mobile apps. Both had left Gilt a few years back so Ryan wasn’t poaching from within his other company. He continued to assemble an eight-person team, which has six ex-Gilt staffers. Their brainchild is Zola, which is still in private beta, but will be launching in the next few weeks.
So what is Zola and how is it different from the current offerings? In case you haven’t made a wedding registry, it’s a ridiculously time-consuming process that lacks any sort of experience (which is in high contrast to the actual experience of planning and going through a wedding). You pick each store at which you want to register (i.e. Bed Bath & Beyond, Macy’s, Amazon, etc.), and individually choose items you want to add either in the store or online. When aggregating these registries, you can add them to a wedding website, but the entire UI of these registries and aggregators like Wedding Channel are clunky and don’t offer the kind of personalized, e-commerce experiences that fit with the importance of an event like a wedding. As Ryan explains, “most wedding registries are stuck in web 1.0.”
Ma describes the goal of Zola as rethinking the wedding registries for a couple in “our generation.” When you visit the site and sign up for a Zola wedding registry, you can do some of the same things you would do with your wedding website, including designing a home page with a customized URL, photos, and more. In fact this experience is relatively simple, on purpose, as Ryan explains that filling in a lot of fields in the first sign-up can turn off users immediately. Zola is also tailored to same-sex marriages, and you can designate this if you want.
The design of the registry homepage is highly customizable, or you can choose to use some of the stock photography that Gilt provides (but this is actual photography you would want to use). You can then create collections of different types of categories you want to set up in your registry, including kitchen, food, experiences, honeymoon, furniture and more. You could even create a cash fund to buy a home and accept donations. The user experience is strikingly similar to creating a board on Pinterest, except you are adding items from Zola.
Within each collection, Zola allows you to simply add items from categories of products to collections. So if you were registering for kitchen items, you could add an array of utensils, china, glassware, kitchen tools, gadgets and more (including those from brands like Cuisinart or Le Creuset). Zola partially operates as an e-commerce site, as they are sourcing all the products from the brands themselves. Of course, you won’t find the kind of selection of home goods you would on a Bloomingdale’s, or Macys.com, but Zola has ambitions to carry and add more inventory (the site currently lists about 1,000 items to register/buy). Plus Zola allows you to add additional items to your registry that you wouldn’t find at a traditional store, such as cooking classes, music lessons, gift certificates to KitchenSurfing, bicycles, massages and more.
You can also denote certain objects to be items that groups can buy, or to which individuals could contribute a portion of the purchase price. This is especially useful to high-priced products like furniture.
Design is a big part of this site, and it’s apparent that this resembles a Gilt-like, high-end experience, and differs from the traditional retailer online. Basically, as Ryan says, this isn’t your Target.com experience. As Ryan and his team explained to me, there isn’t a great way to let registries reflect the couple’s personality and style but also be easy to use. There’s also an element of curation at play. Zola will feature certain registries, and also curate collections based on theme. Though I have no knowledge of this taking place, you could envision content being particularly useful and relevant here, as brides and grooms are looking for recommendations from experts on what types of pots and pans to buy, whether it’s worth buying china and more.
One of my favorite features is the ability to control when your gifts arrive. For anyone (like me) who has been inundated with wedding and engagement gifts, and lived in a sea of boxes and bubble wrap for months, this is huge. A bride and groom can actually delay getting gifts until after the wedding, when they are less frazzled and can devote the time to unpacking. You can also import all purchase information to make it easy to organize thank you notes.
In terms of business, Zola operates much like an e-commerce site would — they get a portion of the price of the item (something like 20 percent give or take, we’re told). Ryan adds that this is all full-price merchandise. There’s no charge to the couple. To date, the startup has been backed by Ryan completely, but will be looking to raise a Series A of around $3 million to $4 million in the next few months.
The site has been in beta testing with around 20 or so couples, and so far engagement has been impressive, says Ryan. He also vouches for the built-in marketing aspect of a registry — as more young couples use it for friends, they may want to use Zola for their own weddings.
Eventually Zola will expand to creating actual wedding websites for couples, with the ability to add things like where the wedding is taking place, travel information, and more. Zola isn’t the first company to try to reinvent the wedding registry. RegistryLove launched last year as a universal registry for couples. There are a number of competitors in the wedding website space, including Brit Morin’s Weduary.
Beyond being easy to use, what could make Zola compelling is that it is visually beautiful and provides the kind of aesthetic to a wedding registry that makes it feel more personal. Ryan has also had experience of running a large-scale e-commerce site, which should help the startup operate more efficiently.