I recently came across a thought-provoking essay by Jennifer Brandel and Mara Zepeda, titled “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break.” In it, Brandel and Zepeda take a deep look at what our society has come to value in a business venture — values that are strongly shaped by the cult of startup culture.
Brandel and Zepeda argue that much of startup culture is based on what they call “magical thinking.” Because of the emphasis on rapid growth and disruption, it has created a culture with values that may actually be antithetical to real business success.
Hunting for unicorns
In the startup world, disruption and innovation are highly sought after. Enormous amounts of energy and venture capital are spent to try to find that “unicorn” business that will make its investors as wealthy and famous as Mark Zuckerberg.
And it is a gamble. According to the Small Business Administration, one in three small businesses fails within the first two years. But according to Fortune, only 1 in 10 startups will make it through their first two years. Why is that?
According to Brandel and Zepeda, it’s because the “unicorn” model of business focuses on wild success and “magical thinking.” Sure, the authors argue, the luckiest of these founders may get rich and their offerings may create entirely new frames of reference for how we do business. But are they creating sustainable companies?
The problem isn’t just in the question of sustainability. The cult of the startup leader can lead to a business culture that is damaging. The “unicorn” mindset fosters competition and innovation, but recent high-profile cases like Uber and Google have shown that if you peel back the layers of startup culture, you’ll often find a toxic world underneath.
Unicorn vs Zebra culture
The opposite of unicorn culture, Brandel and Zepeda write, is zebra culture. To quote them:
- 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 a stronger collective output.
- Zebra companies are built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive.
Instead of putting innovation and profits before all else, zebra companies prioritise creating sustainable businesses that treat their employees and customers well and make the world a better place.
Is running a “zebra” company at odds with profitability? I don’t think so. After all, you only need to look at companies like Costco, TOMs, Patagonia, and hundreds of others who put building a better world above cashing out a record-breaking IPO. Instead of squeezing every last cent out of their market, they’re tilling their profits back into their communities and business. And they’re seeing success.
Your business culture is your choice
What kind of company will you run? Whether you’re just planning your first startup or at the helm of an established company with years of history, understand that your leadership will shape your organisation.
Will you prioritise your profits and shareholders? Or will you prioritise people?
The choice is yours.