‘Virtual incubator’ Zana wants to democratise entrepreneurship by providing global entrepreneurs access to Silicon Valley’s best

- July 22, 2015 10 MIN READ

While people have varying opinions of what it means to be an entrepreneur, most would agree that entrepreneurs bring solutions to problems. Entrepreneurs and the startups they create are among the most powerful drivers of positive social and economic change. Professor Muhammad Yunnus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur who won a Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance, once said that all humans are entrepreneurs. Many centuries ago, being an entrepreneur was not a choice, but a survival mechanism. You wouldn’t survive if you weren’t entrepreneurial. Professor Yunnus believes society had progressed in ways that suppressed the entrepreneurial nature inherent within us all.

In light of the great challenges that humanity faces today – poverty and climate change being the two most pressing – and the fact that we’re technologically connected in ways previously inconceivable, there is no better time to be an entrepreneur. Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and venture capitalist Shea Tate-Di Donna agrees now is the perfect time to be an entrepreneur, however feels resources for entrepreneurs are not equally accessible to people of all backgrounds. Her latest venture Zana aims to ‘democratise entrepreneurship’ in developed and emerging economies, so that people – regardless of their age, gender, race or sexuality – have the best chance of building successful businesses.

Zana has been dubbed as a ‘virtual incubator’ and even ‘online university’  given the array of services it offers including access to educational resources and mentorship. But it’s important to note that, from an education perspective, what Zana offers is not the kind of education that’s offered in universities, colleges or even entrepreneurship programmes. Education systems have traditionally taught people how to become small cogs in big hierarchical machines; and even though new courses and programmes are popping up to help create the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, there is no academic discipline that adequately trains people on how to found, build and grow a company.

“We know that all new net job growth comes from startups, but nothing trains you on how to found or work at a startup. That learning path is what we’re addressing. When you hire for a position like product management, growth hacking, UI/UX design, there is no academic discipline or major that really [caters] for those … that’s the hard skill labour gap we’re addressing,” said Tate-Di Donna.

Even a skim through the free version of Zana shows that users will be learning from the best of the best: Steve Blank, Erika Hall, Julie Hamwood, Alexander Osterwalder, Amy Jo Kim, Matt Mullenweg, Cindy Alvarez, Adam Nash, Jerry Campbell and many more. Tate-Di Donna made sure to highlight that Zana is not like Udemy, where anyone can create educational content and pose as an expert.

“Our customers told us early that they only want to hear from people who are experts in their field, from people who get their hands dirty in business every single day. They don’t want to hear from professors and academics; they don’t want to learn about the theory of entrepreneurship,” said Tate-Di-Donna. “So when we have the opportunity to film somebody about growth, we film people like Gustaf Alstromer, who’s in charge of growth at Airbnb. There’s no denying that he did an amazing job of building Airbnb. Then there’s Steve Blank, who is the godfather of the customer discovery model. Alex Osterwalder is the creator of the business model canvas. Matt Mullenweg is the founder of WordPress and 21 percent of the internet runs on WordPress. These are deep subject matter experts.”

Tate-Di Donna said that, with Zana being a startup itself, when the company is faced with a problem it needs to solve, it goes to the best people in the field to help a solution, but also uses it as an opportunity to relay those learnings back to Zana’s users and customers.

“Right now, we’re actively building our growth and distribution engine. So instead of us just learning about it, we went out to 10 of the top growth experts and created content so that we can share it with entrepreneurs globally. We’re all about sharing knowledge,” said Tate-Di Donna.

The free version of Zana provides users access to short, curated video-based lessons with these superstar entrepreneurs, investors, and subject matter experts. It also provides entrepreneurs access to 150 tools across 28 subject categories like A/B testing, design prototyping, accounting, legal, and micro-VC.

The premium version of Zana, called Zana Edge, starts off with a needs assessment. It then creates customised learning paths for its users, which includes startup coaching and access to mentors. This could mean helping a bricks-and-mortar retail store transition to ecommerce, by providing guidance on transactional marketing and setting up sales funnel. Or it could mean walking a startup team through Adam Nash’s approach to product management, Amy Jo Kim’s process of applying game design elements to achieve product-market fit, or Steve Blank’s customer identification and validation methodology.

“When you raise money, you’re mitigating your financial risk. With Zana, we’re trying to help mitigate team risk, product risk, and all these other risks you take when you’re an early stage company. We want to be there as a resource for companies as it grows and scales,” said Tate-Di Donna.

Although there are a few startups emerging that connect entrepreneurs to mentors through bespoke algorithms, Zana’s method is to hand select the best people based on the needs of its users.

“For instance, one of Zana Edge’s customers is a pilot in the air force, who has a fantastic sales and marketing strategy and has a visible product. The unique challenges he’s facing now means that somebody in the military or with military experience is the right mentor for him. I happen to know an ex-army fighter pilot who’s also an entrepreneur and investor and has been working at Google for many years, and she’s the perfect mentor him,” Tate-Di Donna explained.

“Sometimes entrepreneurs need periodic access, so we strive to understand whether the need is a situational match or a long-term match.”

Zana is actively working on creating a communication channel for users and mentors to interact, but more details on that will be released at a later date.

Although Zana has been called a ‘virtual incubator’, Tate-Di Donna stressed that supporting startups throughout its lifecycle as a company is Zana’s goal.

Incubators and accelerators are focused on certain periods of time in a company’s lifecycle – i.e. early-stage, mid-stage, late-stage – or on specific skill development. In Australia, some incubators and accelerators still employ a top-down approach, where information is passed down from, say, investor (who has a stake in the company) to founder.

This is even more visible in a VC environment where large amounts of capital and equity are involved. For instance, when an investor wants a company to focus on revenue or profit-per-user growth, whereas the founder is more interested in user growth, there can be tension. Zana, unlike incubators and accelerators, sees an opportunity in peer-led education support – that is, entrepreneurs gaining practical skills by learning from peers who have ‘been there, done that, failed and succeeded’.

Tate-Di Donna said, “the magic happens not when VCs talk to entrepreneurs, but when entrepreneurs talk with each other.”

Whereas conventional approaches to entrepreneurial education can be expensive and restrictive, sometimes failing to reflect change in our workplaces and careers, Zana aims to provide a more agile system of education that empowers entrepreneurs to embrace continuous learning. From the beginning, Zana has been built with the intent of mining the wisdom of a high-value crowd and facilitating a peer-like knowledge exchange.

“Incubators, accelerators and business programs are often inaccessible; it is harder to get into Y Combinator, for example, than an Ivy League College. The information and resources change rapidly on pace with technology, and the needs of a company vary as it grows. Zana is the key to make being an entrepreneur – a successful one – a more tangible and realistic goal,” Tate-Di Donna said in a media statement at the time of Zana’s launch last year.

Tate-Di Donna certainly knows what she’s talking about. She has worked in VC for 12 years; she was one of the founding partners at True Ventures, a venture capital firm that targets early-stage tech startups and has invested in companies like FitBit, WordPress, Makerbot, KISSmetrics and Automattic. Tate-Di Donna is also the architect behind True’s platform of Founder Services including Founder Camp, True Entrepreneur Corps, and True University, a two-day annual conference that brings entrepreneurial education to the engineers, designers, growth hackers and other people working in companies backed by True Ventures.

It’s her experience and dissatisfaction with lack of diversity in startup ecosystems around the world that led her to create Zana; and there is good reason as to why inclusivity and accessibility are at the core of Zana. For one, there is certainly a diversity problem in the world of entrepreneurship, startups, technology and venture capital; or perhaps an image problem that’s linked to its diversity problem.

The most common answers to the question, who do you think of when you think of entrepreneurs, are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. White males. If being an entrepreneur means embracing change, understanding risk, identifying and seizing opportunities, finding solutions to high-value underserved problems, and being relentless in the pursuit of goals, there’s no reason why non-male, non-white, non-young, non-heterosexual people can’t be entrepreneurs. If entrepreneurship is a process involving the introduction of new economic activity, then a person’s age, gender, race and sexuality is irrelevant. Yet, for some reason it is.

“VC is very homogenous; it’s driven towards the young white male. At one point in our portfolio, we had one female founder, and that’s just not okay. There’s so much untapped talent within minority races, women, different age populations and the LGBT community. I really wanted to build something that wouldn’t discriminate against who we provide this information and access to,” said Tate-Di Donna who believes all entrepreneurs deserve Silicon Valley access.

When Tate-Di Donna speaks of ‘democratising entrepreneurship’, she means three things. The first is, having access to experts that look like you and are relatable. Eventbrite’s co-founder Julia Hartz told Startup Daily previously that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,’ meaning that awareness and visibility is key to diversity. The more women we see thriving in their careers, the less unusual a ‘women in technology’ becomes, and the more likely that future generations of women will see entrepreneurship as a viable and rewarding career path.

“One thing I’ve learned in the last year is that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it … I believe that leaders in Silicon Valley are helping to shape the greatest generation of female entrepreneurs by empowering their daughters to innovate, succeed, and lead. Even if you don’t have a daughter, the potency of strong modeling has the ability to shape the next generation,” Hartz said in a previous interview with Startup Daily.

The second thing Tate-Di Donna means by democratisation is platform accessibility – that is, making sure Zana is available on demand. Entrepreneurial knowledge and best practices have not been readily accessible in an approachable format tailored for the modern entrepreneur. In fact, many Australian entrepreneurs have relocated to the Valley and other reputable innovation hubs to have access to resources. With Zana, you don’t have to be in a particular location at a particular time to have that access, nor do you have to be a founder. You can be an employee in a startup, an advisor or even a nascent investor.

It’s worth noting that when it comes to accessibility, the cost of starting a company has come down significantly now that we have cloud infrastructure and other technologies of scale. However, to start a technology business, the founder, especially if they’re non-technical, will need to have accumulated a certain amount of wealth or have a some cash in their hip pocket to take their idea forward.

TechCrunch writer Danny Crichton wrote a compelling article in February this year discussing how starting a startup is “a rich man’s game”. He points out that the greatest risk of building a company is financial, yet there’s far less discussion about financial inequality than, say, gender and racial inequality.

“In addition to the opportunity cost of lost wages working on a startup, there is the serious burden of fueling a company’s early expenses before an accelerator or venture capitalist comes in and drops some capital. It is a common form of founder braggadocio to talk about the $20,000 credit card debt that they are carrying to see their dream come to life,” Crichton wrote on TechCrunch.

Many startup stories, at least in Australia, start with ‘so I left my cushy corporate job to pursue a startup idea’ or something along those lines. Rarely, do we hear ‘I had debt collectors blowing up my phone and knocking at my door, so I decided to launch a startup’.

The reality is, bringing new products to unproven markets is inherently risky and costly. Capital is therefore the lifeblood of startups, particularly pre-revenue startups that need to address both operational costs and human capital.

Tate-Di Donna is cognisant of this, but said that, “if you spend a month of your time before you quit your job, before you write a line of code, to validate an idea – and people like Steve Blank, Erika Hall, Jerry Campbell, Cindy Alvarez and Julie Hamwood have great content around this – then it would save you so much time and money.”

“We put a whole series together for entrepreneurs at the ideation stage. It includes people like Jerry Campbell who has deep subject matter expertise in search. He talks about how search is the objection expression of user demand. If I ask you, ‘hey are you interested in this online platform about entrepreneurship’, you might say yes to be nice. But if you were Google searching ‘entrepreneurial education’, ‘on demand platform’, ‘entrepreneur experts’, then you’re looking for my product (Zana) without me prompting you. Jerry goes through how to use search tools to understand what the demand is for your product. It’s brilliant stuff,” Tate-Di Donna added.

The third thing Tate-Di Donna means by democratisation is reachability. The free version of Zana is available to anyone; there is no financial barrier to entry.

That said, Zana is a business and will be looking to make money in two ways. The premium version, Zana Edge, as discussed earlier, is based on a monthly subscription model and priced at $99 per month. The second way Zana will be monetised is through its certifications product.

Although the certification arm of the business is still in the process of development – the company is prioritising its premium services first – the general idea is to introduce new exercises and test measures, so that people can be certified in areas like growth hacking.

“You can watch all the videos on growth hacking that you want, but if we were to introduce exercises and test measures, then we can certify you that you’ve been trained in growth hacking and hopefully place you into an internship. That is the goal,” said Tate-Di Donna.

“If you want to consume videos on growth hacking, that’s great. But if you want to get a certification on growth hacking, you or your employer would pay for that test measuring. We’re actively building that product right now.”

Tate-Di Donna said that interest in Zana has been global from day one. The company has appointed ambassadors in various countries and is currently looking for one in Australia.

“When we launched a year ago, we thought the interest would be domestic first and that we would have to work on international expansion, but the interest has been international from the day that we launched,” she said.

Zana has also been backed by leading entrepreneurs and angels including Steve Blank, Jeremy LaTrasse (Co-founder of Twitter) and Jim Scheinman (Founder of Maven Ventures).

At the time of Zana’s launch, Scheinman only had words of praise: “Zana’s mission to share insights from thought leaders and a community of entrepreneurs is instrumental to startups throughout their company lifecycle. Building from her background in early stage VC and working with hundreds of founders and their teams, Shea has deep expertise in this space, and I truly believe she is the right person to realise this vision.”

Upon speaking to Tate-Di Donna, it’s clear Zana has the right person behind it to make it a global success.