Zebras Are Real: The First-Ever #DazzleCon

Dazzle Con! It's going somewhere. And in the race between Zebras and Unicorns, my money is on the stripes. 

If you're feeling lost, here's the short of it: In Silicon Valley, venture capital funded startups that are valued at $1 billion or more are affectionately referred to as Unicorns. So rare that they're nearly nonexistent, the mystical draw of these companies (Facebook and Uber among them) is measured by one thing: profitability.

Startups, like the male anatomy, are designed for liquidity events. Consider the metaphors: ‘seed’ funding, ‘up and to the right’ trajectories, ‘acceleration,’ ‘exit.’ ‘Making it’ means one of two things: go public or sell.
— Sex and Startups, Jenn Brandel & Mara Zepeda (March 2016)

As a rule, all venture capitalists lust after unicorns. And when you spend most of your time tracking down something that doesn't even really exist? You miss some really important stuff. That's where Zebras come in! According to startup visionaries Jenn Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams, "Zebras fix what unicorns break."

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.
— Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break, Brandel, Zepeda, Scholz, Williams (March 2017)

Thing is, basically everyone immediately agreed with these four whip-smart ladies the instant Sex and Startups was posted to the Internet. And what happens when everyone agrees on something on the Internet? Let's be honest, usually nothing/less than nothing because trolls get involved and ruin lives. But in this case, with Brandel and Zepeda behind the wheel, something way bigger that nothing happened: #DazzleCon was founded.

So two weeks ago, I found myself at Portland's Annex on a rainy (what else) night surrounded by people who were asking the same questions: Is it possible to build a different investment model where venture capitalists measure success by more than just capital returns? And importantly, is there fiscal incentive beyond "doing the right thing" that'd draw vc funding to companies that are interested in this new model? (Maybe! And, with most things, it already existed... but needed a snappy name.)

The thing is, I don't work in Silicon Valley. I also don't work for a startup. And I'm not trying to start one, either. So why spend 6 hours on a Wednesday night listening to the challenges facing potential Zebras? I'm a publisher at an independent nonprofit feminist media organization—one that's turned course in the last ten years towards sustainable revenue streams, ie: membership.

I believe that independence, primarily in decision making re: what's the best direction forward for this organization/business/team, is about diversifying accountability, both by to whom you are accountable and by what you measure success. I also believe that most nonprofits are facing the same issues that most vc-funded startups face: Startups are accountable to one or two investors or firms that decide whether or not re-investment is worth it. Nonprofits are often primarily funded by one or two foundations that decide whether or not re-investment is worth it. Both measure success by return on investment, of course, and in both cases, those doing the work are at mercy of investor interests and whims.

The call to action at #DazzleCon is not new, but if it succeeds, it's potentially revolutionary for our world.


What if startups were more accountable to their users than they were to their investors? What if media organizations were more accountable to their readers that they were to their funders? What if Facebook was more accountable to its content creator (that's you!) than it was to its advertisers? (OK, that last one isn't a direct parallel, but I had to say it). What if nonprofits, particularly direct-service organizations, were more accountable to their clients than they were to their grantors? I think we'd see immediate, revolutionary change. I think we'd see an economy emerge that reflects the feminist values with which many of us already live.

When measures of success change, so do lines of accountability. And when who you answer to is also who you serve, everyone thrives—not just investor bank accounts.