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Why New York beats Silicon Valley as a destination for some startup founders

Why New York beats Silicon Valley as a destination for some startup founders


Zola’s Shan-Lyn Ma on the five reasons she started her company on the East Coast

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Photo by Emily Forrest

On the second episode of Converge, Zola co-founder and CEO Shan-Lyn Ma comes on the show to tell us why she’s building her company in New York. Zola runs a popular online wedding registry where couples have saved more than $1 billion worth of merchandise. Days after I spoke to her, Ma announced a new $100 million round of funding that puts the startup among New York’s tech elite.

But why did she start the company in New York? Ma attended school at Stanford and later worked at Yahoo. But when it came time to start her own company, Ma was set on New York. ”New York is now at a point where we’ve had multiple rounds of successful startups exit,” Ma said. “We’ve built up a critical mass of tech startup talent across engineering, product design, etc.”

Ma has a chance to give us her entire New York pitch on Converge, an interview game show where the biggest personalities in tech tell us about their wildest dreams. It’s a show that’s easy to win, but not impossible to lose — because, in the final round, I finally get a chance to play and score a few points of my own.

Ma has a fascinating story to tell that goes beyond Zola. She was born in Singapore, raised in Australia, and says she grew up wanting to be Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang. Three years into building Zola, Ma was involved in a serious car accident, and battling back from that shaped how she thinks about medical care — something you’ll hear more about in the first game we play.

Photo by Emily Forrest

You can read a partial, lightly edited transcript with Ma below, and you’ll find the full episode above. You can listen to it here or anywhere else you find podcasts, like Apple PodcastsGoogle Play Music, Spotify, our RSS feed, and wherever fine podcasts are sold.

Casey Newton: So why New York?

Shan-Lyn Ma: Okay, if you are someone who is interested in seeing these things on a regular basis — Beyoncé, Jake Gyllenhaal, Broadway, Madison Square Garden, Shake Shack, Dollar Slice Pizza — then New York is the only logical choice.

Okay, I have to ask right now. You’re telling me you see Beyoncé on a regular basis?

I’ve seen her once.

Where’d you see her?

In a Japanese restaurant with Jay Z.

Okay, very good. Please proceed.

Double points. So, if you were starting a startup, there’s really four things that are essential to every founder, and we have all of them in spades in New York. The first thing is access to top talent across different functions. New York is now at a point where we’ve had multiple rounds of successful startups exit. We’ve built up a critical mass of tech startup talent across engineering, product design, et cetera.

The second is if you were a company or a startup that’s going to need access to media and press—

I do.

If you’re in fashion, if you’re in the financial services, or you need access to financial services partners, or any industry that happens to thrive in New York, then you want to be here, because it’s a 10-minute ride to anyone you would ever want to meet, and you could set up a meeting that morning and meet them that afternoon.

I mean I have been thinking about starting a fashion financial company that gets a lot of press, so you’re making some pretty good points here.

You would not be the only one thinking about that. Then the third thing is you’re going to consider raising VC funding, and New York now has a critical mass of both VCs and angel investors, that means you can raise your round and not have to travel anywhere else to do that if you don’t want to.

I will note that there also does seem to be a great number of female investors in New York, which is always helpful.

Including Beth Ferreira at FirstMark Capital who I just met yesterday, and she was telling me a lot of nice things about you, so shout out to Beth.

Thanks, Beth. Then the fourth thing is there’s now a great ecosystem of founders and other entrepreneurs who really are supportive and want to see each other succeed. There are people that you’ll find at the same stage as you, as well as a few stages ahead who have been operating longer, so that you will be able to get advice from people who are really wanting to help because they’re really wanting to see this ecosystem win and thrive.

We’re not used to thinking of New York where people help other people, right? It’s traditionally been a lot of hard-charging sharks.

Where did you get that from?

You know, from The Wolf of Wall Street.

You’ve been watching Billions too much.

Well, exactly. But really, any piece of media ever made about New York is about someone trying to screw someone else. But you’re telling me that in the startup community at least, there are friendly people trying to help each other.

Yes, correct.

I’m not sure I buy this at all, but it’s nice to think so.

A lot of the advice and support and questions that I might send to other founders, I will get a reply back within minutes.

That reply is, “Hey, you figure it out yourself. I’m busy over here.” 

Then I will say, bonus point, fifth thing that you might be interested in is that in the startup ecosystem here, there’s just more diversity versus other places that might be more homogeneous. So if you’re someone who appreciates people that look different to you, this is a great place to be.

Traditionally, something that Silicon Valley has been terrible at. That is definitely a point I have to award to New York City.