Don’t be a Unicorn, be a Zebra

Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.

von Lisa Jaspers and Naomi Ryland, October 17, 2019
Unicorn Lego

This article is adapted from our new book: "Starting a Revolution: what we can learn from female founders about the future of business". For this book we interviewed some of the world's most progressive founders to find business advice that aligns with our values and that meets the challenges of climate change, populism and a disengaged and burnt-out workforce. You can purchase your copy here

In 2017, a movement sprang up online that quickly manifested in cities around the world. It’s now a growing community of business founders who reject the venture capital investment model and support the creation and discovery of alternative funding methods. This ‘Zebra movement’, as it is called, was started by four women: Astrid Scholz, Mara Zepeda, Jennifer Brandel, and Aniyia Williams, who want to encourage fellow startup founders to build zebras rather than unicorns.

A unicorn, in startup terms, is a company valued at one billion dollars or more. It is characterised by exponential growth and market domination – which is exactly what venture capitalists (VCs) are looking to invest in. Since VCs are in the business of high-risk investment, many of their investments (often up to 90%) fail to deliver any significant returns. So their own business model demands that they only invest in companies that can potentially deliver an extraordinarily high return on investment. Because of this they push their startups to go for exponential growth at all costs. Anything else is irrelevant. That’s where the idea of the ‘hockey-stick’ revenue curve comes from: if you don’t have a short, flat curve followed by a long, steep curve on your revenue slide, most VCs won’t even look at your deck.

Astrid, Mara, Jennifer and Aniyia, all busy entrepreneurs trying to build their businesses, decided that they’d had enough of competing with unicorns and chasing the current VC model. And so they wrote an essay which stated:

“The current technology and venture capital structure is broken. It rewards quantity over quality, consumption over creation, quick exits over sustainable growth, and shareholder profit over shared prosperity. It chases after unicorn companies bent on ‘disruption’ rather than supporting businesses that repair, cultivate, and connect.”

The Zebra Movement

To state the obvious: unlike unicorns, zebras are real.

Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.

Zebras are also mutualistic: by banding together in groups, they protect and preserve one another. Their individual input results in stronger collective output.

Zebra companies are built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive.

After publishing their essay, all four heard from hundreds of other founders, investors, and advocates who agreed: “We cannot win at this game.”

On the back of this shared voice, Astrid, Mara, Jennifer and Aniyia created a Zebra manifesto which is a powerful and important read for anyone wishing to grow their business sustainably and thoughtfully.

The Zebra Manifesto

We interviewed one of the founders of the Zebra Movement for Starting a Revolution, Jennifer Hearken, as well as several other of the world's most progressive founders: from Ida Tin, founder of Clue, to Dame Stephanie Shirley, one of the world's most successful tech entrepreneurs, who started her company in the 1960s. Everything we learned about leading a company, buliding an organisation, hiring, funding and innovation, we share with you in the book. Find the full book here