From unicorns to cockroaches, the startup scene is occupied by a menagerie of creatures these days.
But after a few tumultuous months in the tech world, it is safe to say that unicorns are losing their lustre. In the aftermath of the disruption they caused and the workers they shredded, another type of startup is beginning to take shape.
This time, taking the form of a real animal rather than off the pages of a Harry Potter book: a zebra.
All hail the zebra!
Zebra startups, like their namesake, are both black and white. But what does that even mean?
For a start, zebras seek to make profits, turning their books black. And similar to the cockroach, zebras are lean and adaptive organisations focused on growing a loyal customer base over time. All of which are traits that give them the natural advantage to survive tough times.
However, what makes zebras unique is their emphasis on sustainability and social responsibility, not as an afterthought, but as a pillar of growth.
Instead of entering a market with guns blazing to disrupt and eliminate competitors, zebra startups strive to shape society positively, bringing convenience and efficiency to a community in a harmonious way.
High on the priority list for zebra startups is a desire to contribute back to society and build a business model that benefits all stakeholders, not just the investors.
As such, zebras are introducing a new way of doing things — one in which ethics and profits are not a zero-sum game, but complementary ideas bouncing off each other, generating benefits that go beyond profits.
Why the world needs more zebras
Before explaining any further, let us look back at the history of ride-hailing apps.
In the beginning, ride-sharing apps kept their fares low to attract users. Meanwhile, taxis were unable to compete. Ask any cab driver, and they will gladly tell you how their earnings took a hit in those early days, leading to widespread misery.
The rise of ride-hailing apps is taken out of the unicorn playbook. It is also an example of exponential growth, capital excesses and monopolistic gains coming together to disrupt the existing social infrastructure and crush rival companies.
All of which would be actions antithetical to the ethos of any zebra startup.
Unfortunately, the desire to become a unicorn is so ingrained that startups of all shapes and sizes take that approach from the get-go.
What these startups tend to forget is, doing so would mean a commitment to an aggressive strategy of rapid expansion — one that requires the deep pockets of venture capitalists to absorb the massive losses before a pay-out becomes a reality.
In the long run, this is not sustainable, and startups operating on this model might as well be on life-support. Turn off the machine (funding), and it would be dead, perhaps explaining why 90 per cent of startups fail.
Moving forward, startups need a different goal and approach. And luckily, becoming a zebra could be the key to extending the shelf life of startups.
The magic of zebras
By embracing the zebra mindset, businesses can achieve longevity because they are not setting themselves up for failure with impossible numerical targets.
To run a startup as a zebra is a more thoughtful way of doing business. It allows success to be measured not just by valuation and revenue, but also by customer success and contributions to the community.
More importantly, zebra startups — while open to investments — are less dependent on external investors to keep them afloat. Such businesses also tend to band together, coexisting with other players to create the right synergy.
Ethics and profits need not be mutually exclusive. By harnessing the spirit of the zebra, startups can change their fortunes for the better.
Featured Image Credit: Getty Images