Stop looking for unicorns – be a zebra instead


CEO and co-founder of Hexacton a mission to empower businesses of all sizes with AI-powered sidekicks working in the cloud.

The pandemic has changed the way we work, learn, meet, travel, shop and invest, so perhaps the days of the shiny, mythical venture capital unicorn are over. Welcome, the tough and sturdy zebra!

The state of small businesses and self-employed workers

Ninety-eight percent of US companies employ less than 100 people, and there are now more than 17 million full-time self-employed workers in this gig economy – this includes solopreneurs, creators and freelancers working in the gig economy. While the gig economy has grown (and continues to grow) rapidly during the pandemic, the pace of venture capital investment initially slowed in 2020, although it came roaring back in 2021

Many small businesses began moving their physical operations online in response to the 2020 shutdowns, if they hadn’t already. With the explosion of e-commerce, in both the consumer and B2B sectors, companies have found new ways to adapt.

But for all these signs of resilience, far too many vulnerable small businesses are still closed during the pandemic and never reopened. As of September 2020, according to Yelp, 60% of small businesses which was temporarily closed in March 2020 was closed permanently.

How can freelancers, solopreneurs and small and medium-sized businesses survive, with a war abroad and the highest inflation in the US since 1981? By working smarter, meeting a need and offering value. In the VC world, by being a zebra – a real, breathing animal – not a mythical unicorn.

Zebras vs Unicorns

In business, zebras accelerate organically despite difficult times such as pandemics and inflation because they are lean and adaptive. Zebras solve real problems and fulfill a demand in the market, instead of living in a fairytale world like a unicorn.

After several high-profile startup debacles, VCs and shareholders want real – undetected – value for their investments. And while much capital is still being invested, the new value-added “trends” are sustainable and cut off from the real world: remote working, e-commerce and pandemic-ready tools.

In addition, CEOs are now looking for internal solutions, not expensive consultants or expensive, faltering software. As more and more employees left their companies during the “Great Layoff”, CEOs were faced with meeting increasing business demands with fewer employees to get the job done.

How to compete?

So how are small businesses and solopreneur Davids supposed to compete with the vast Goliaths of the world, as resources shrink and prices everywhere rise?

The first step is to protect your intellectual property. Setting up an ecommerce team is expensive, and once you start outsourcing business intelligence solutions, you lose the ability to protect your market research. With teams contracting everywhere, companies are looking for no-code resources and automated solutions to stay in-house instead of using expensive, one-time consultants.

While shareholders may be excited about a unicorn’s rapid growth, they may not be excited about market research and business intelligence coming from an outsider, rather than from within the company, someone who has really invested in the innovation and growth of the team.

Eliminating the “middleman” is part of the new shift from working smarter and more strategically. You don’t want to give away your expertise and know-how; you want to build capacity in-house with strategic tools that help a business grow lean and organically – like a zebra.

My own company has taken these lessons to heart. We grow by innovating and helping our customers solve problems by automating repetitive, manual tasks and freeing up valuable time and resources for more value-added work. Resolving pain points for a specific user segment allows zebras like my business to grow without the need for funding typical of scale.

Zebras are open to investment but strive to be lean, smart and durable rather than following the latest fad. In an unpredictable market, this is a path to organic, sustainable growth. Business Council is the leading growth and networking organization for entrepreneurs and leaders. Am I eligible?


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