Millennials have modernized many aspects of the wedding, from writing their own vows to downloading nifty checklist apps. But many people still want to send out old-fashioned invitations, printed on beautiful thick card stock and sent through the mail.
Paper invitations are both delightful and aggravating. I remember how much fun it was designing our save-the-dates and invites: My husband-to-be and I picked the perfect font against a backdrop of pink and orange swirls that hinted at the colors of my bridesmaid’s dresses. Then reality set in and we had to deal with the far less glamorous part of sending these letters out to guests: the spreadsheets. We spent months building out a Google Doc, gathering the addresses of great-aunts and old college roommates, then writing out the addresses by hand, hoping we didn’t get a single number wrong. (We did. At least two of our fancy, overpriced invitations got returned to us due to typos.)
Zola, the five-year-old wedding company, wants to make the dinky, inefficient wedding spreadsheet a thing of the past. The startup first launched as an e-commerce site, where couples could create their registry from a curated range of products and experiences, then have those items delivered at the time of their choosing. Now, with a $140 million mother lode of VC-funding, it is gearing up to become a platform to help couples manage every aspect of the wedding process, from the moment they first get engaged to help them choose what they will have in their homes after the last of the rice has been thrown. Last year, the brand launched free wedding websites, guest list managers, and planning checklists for couples to customize that could be fully integrated with the registry. Couples can send out a quick email to guests, requesting their address and contact details, which will automatically populate a database, and is integrated into every other aspect of the process. For instance, after a guest has purchased a wedding gift, the couple can easily locate the guest’s mailing address to send them a thank-you note, which can then be ticked off the checklist.
Starting tomorrow, couples will be able to order paper invitations that can be coordinated with the fonts and colors of their free websites. Zola is launching with 150 different designs, which can be used on invitations, save the dates, and thank-you notes. Customers can customize every part of these cards and also upload photographs. Zola will also print guests’ addresses on the envelopes at no additional charge, pulling from the guest list manager database. And when RSVPs come back, either through the mail or through the wedding website, it’s easy to update the database accordingly. “We created the wedding websites because it was the top things that our customers were asking for,” says Shan-Lyn Ma, Zola’s founder and CEO says. “But after we launched that product last year, the next most requested thing was the invitations.”
Zola is filling a valuable gap in the market. The U.S. wedding industry brings in $72 billion in revenue, with the average wedding costing $32,329. But for all the money pumped into weddings, few companies are solving some of the biggest pain points of planning a wedding. Couples need to go through a wide range of websites to organize their big day. They typically register with one retailer, then go to a stationery store to design their invitations and then, of course, build out their own guest list spreadsheets on a trusty Google spreadsheet. (That’s not even considering the whole host of local vendors you need to lock down to book a location, DJ, and caterer.)
Over the past decade, companies have tried to incrementally make the process easier. Websites like The Knot or Wedding Wire provide content, local vendor lists, and free websites. A host of apps, like Wedding Happy and Wedding Countdown, offer checklists and organizational tools. But each of these has been a piecemeal solution that’s not integrated into other aspects of wedding planning. As a result, none have been able to comprehensively walk the couple through the entire process and provide the kind of free, high-quality digital products that Zola is offering.
Part of this, Ma says, has to do with the fact that it is hard to make much revenue from free wedding planning tools. Many companies that offer free websites and checklists rely on advertising to bring in money. But since only two million couples get married every year, it’s hard to scale and offer really premium products to couples about to get married. “There just aren’t enough eyeballs to make it worthwhile,” Ma says. And since there are so many sites that make these tools available for free, couples don’t feel like they should pay for them.
Zola’s business model, on the other hand, centers on its e-commerce website, which operates like any other online store, except it is carefully designed for couples about to get married. Ma, and her co-founder Nobu Nakaguchi, have deep experience in the world of digital commerce, having spent years building Gilt. With a healthy revenue stream coming from the registry business, Zola is able to pour some of this money into its free organizational tools.
But as it turns out, providing a free way to help couples keep track of their wedding guests actually opens up an entirely new revenue stream in the form of these paper invitations. Zola’s invitations are reasonably priced: A save the date card costs $1.35, and an invitation costs $1.99, which is about on par with the budget line of an online competitor like Minted and a tiny fraction a paper store like Papyrus, which charges as much as $15 for one card. Zola also offers premium upgrades, like gold or silver foil, or rounded corners, that cost more. For the time being, Zola doesn’t mail them on behalf of the customer, so couples will receive a stack of pre-addressed envelopes and will simply need to take them to the post office.
Zola will offer this free addressing service at no additional cost. This sets Zola apart from many other online stationery stores–like Vistaprint–which allow customers to upload a list of addresses and to be printed on envelopes, but at an additional charge. “It’s clear that our customers are really interested in great design,” says Nobu Nakaguchi, Zola’s co-founder and chief design officer. “They were looking for invitations that would pair with the design of their wedding website. But it is also important that we are also offering them good value.”
I’m personally pretty bummed out that Zola wasn’t around when I was getting married six years ago. This service would have saved many late nights carefully addressing each envelope. And it would have definitely avoided an awkward call with a great-aunt who wanted to know where her invitation was. (Yup. I got the zip code wrong.)