A Radical New Tech Start-Up Movement Gathers in Portland This Week

Kinder, cooler, and smarter: 'zebra' companies take on Silicon Valley’s 'unicorns.'

By Zach Dundas November 13, 2017

0717 big ideas zebra azfobz

Image: Michael Novak

Are we done with Silicon Valley yet? After all the “disruption,” all the sexual harassment, the digitally tainted election, and that wifi-enabled $400 juice machine, has the tech world killed its own buzz? An industry obsessed with exponential “unicorn” growth rates and attention-guzzling social media is definitely changing the world—but to what end?

Those questions—and some possible answers—will be at the center of Dazzlecon, a three-day conference luring entrepreneurs and investors to Portland this week, November 15–17. The gathering is the first big IRL rally for a formative but fascinating movement that aims to counter Silicon Valley’s unicorns with…well, with zebras.

As defined in a popular essay posted to Medium last spring, a self-proclaimed “zebra” company would emphasize social responsibility. Zebras aspire to fiscal and environmental sustainability. They create products and services that sustain communities rather than disrupt them. (We tired, we few, we surviving journalists—we can relate.) This stripy new start-up species, the essay’s coauthors write, would “balance profit and purpose, champion democracy, and put a premium on sharing power and resources.”

So the Twitter bros and that ex-Uber guy won’t be at Dazzlecon. But the gathering will attract scores of entrepreneurs inspired by the manifesto written, in part, by Portland start-up founders Mara Zepeda and Astrid Scholz. With a Wednesday night speaker session open to the public and two days of sold-out, application-only practical sessions, Dazzlecon will both refine would-be zebras’ skills and help define this new breed.

In the run-up to Dazzlecon, we spoke with manifesto co-author Scholz, founder of Sphaera, a Portland start-up aimed at helping non-profits and social-change efforts share information and collaborate.

What’s the response to the zebra concept so far? 

It’s been overwhelming. We put something on Medium, and then 2,000 people raise their hand and say, “We’re a zebra company! We want to invest in zebras! When are you bringing zebras to the UK?” I guess we hit a nerve. So the purpose of convening is to gather up this community. And it’s also to talk about what a zebra is—what those values and characteristics are.

How does the thinking behind a zebra company contrast with the thinking behind the kind of start-up that tends to beguile Silicon Valley investors?

Is the company solving a real problem? Sushi delivery by drones? Not a real problem. So many Silicon Valley start-ups are basically looking to replace Mom. You can get your food delivered, your housecleaning arranged—everything the Mom of the 1950s used to do. But these are not real problems. How do you solve climate change? How do you meet sustainable development goals? These are real problems, as opposed to lifestyle things.

Then, what is the company built to do? What is it actually selling? Facebook can seem like it’s in the business of helping you keep in touch with your old high school friends. But really it’s selling advertising. And that’s a direct consequence of the founder—the founders of so many of these Silicon Valley companies—punted on the revenue model. They don’t think about how they’re going to get to profitability. It’s growth first: pour buckets of venture capital into it, then get it back when it becomes a unicorn. You don’t have to think about the long term. And that’s the kind of outlook that leads to the design decisions—or non-decisions—that allow a Facebook to become weaponized. And some of the bad behaviors—the sexual harassment, the bad cultures of Silicon Valley—they’re all related to those decisions, too.

People are coming from many places for Dazzlecon, but why is Portland the habitat where the zebra is making itself known?

Portland has a start-up culture that’s not Silicon Valley. It’s very self-conscious in that way. Culturally, there’s something very community oriented, which nurtures new ideas, which is welcoming. I don’t know if we have a particular density of zebras here, but the signaling is important. We were going to hold it in San Francisco, but then made a deliberate choice not to locate in the bay area.

And what do you expect this week?

We want to listen intensely to the entrepreneurs, and hear what they need. We expect needs to emerge around not just capital needs, but technical needs. Ninety-nine out 100 corporate lawyers will tell you to incorporate as a C-corp, and you’ve just lost your ability to incorporate a social mission. So we’re going to figure out an approach to what this community wants to be. We have no hard and fast preconceptions.

An investor wrote me this morning and said, I’ve been reading about all the entrepreneurs who are coming and it’s like opening the secret door to Narnia. It’s like the Narnia bootcamp for investors and entrepreneurs.

Filed under
Show Comments