We came, we connected, we dazzled.
"I left Portland both in awe of what you pulled off and re-energized by the folks that I met. What a privilege it was to be there. I felt like I was watching Nirvana play a small club in Seattle, or the Beatles riff in a tiny Manchester basement club -- being a part of something big the beginning." - Entrepreneur and journalist David Skok
We are amazed, humbled and so excited to report back on what took place at the first ever DazzleCon. If you stumbled upon this post and are new to DazzleCon, here’s your primer:
The Quick DazzleCon Backstory
A couple of entrepreneurs were frustrated by the limitations of traditional venture capital and startup culture, which is fixated on one model: building so-called “unicorn” companies valued at over $1 billion dollars. We saw so many innovative companies building products and services that solve important problems, yet the growth of these companies is thwarted. So we started writing about it. We wrote at first about the “up and to the right” nature of financing in "Sex & Startups." A year later, after hundreds of conversations with founders and investors, we wrote "Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break." In it, we proposed a new type of company, called a “zebra,” which balances profit and purpose and never puts personal wealth above societal health. A group of zebras is called a “dazzle.” You see where this is going …
After publishing the Zebra Manifesto we heard from thousands of people interested in getting together to meet, collaborate, learn, and grow a movement. Between the the writing of the two posts, our core team doubled from two people to four including Astrid Scholz and Aniyia Williams: all of us founders and CEOs trying to concurrently build our companies and grow a support system in an environment not designed to include us.
In considering how to pull off a gathering that could accommodate the thousands who raised their hands to say, “If you convene something, we’ll be there!,” we realized we needed to take a step back and a page out of our own approaches and businesses. We needed to start smaller, with an MVP ( startup speak for “minimum viable product”) of a gathering that would be designed specifically for the people we were trying to help and learn from: founders and the funders and leaders interested in growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem
For this inaugural gathering we focused our efforts on post-revenue founders who have a product in market and face capital challenges. We thought it’d be amazing if 75 people showed up to DazzleCon. We received more than 300 applications from folks who were willing to fly from across the world to attend.
How We Designed DazzleCon
With such a varied collection of people who responded to our initial posts, we knew it was going to be impossible to design something that worked for everyone. But to ensure the gathering was as relevant and meaningful as possible, in our application process, we asked what these founders would want to get out of the gathering and three key themes emerged: community, aligned financing and targeted learning.
1. Community. The top desire was for building community and a network of support -- entrepreneurial, emotional, moral, and otherwise. We connected everyone in a Google group ahead of the conference and found such delight in hearing everyone’s stories. The dazzle was forming.
To meet this need for community at DazzleCon, we found beautiful spaces that felt open and full of possibility, where people could serendipitously collide.
Photographer Jacob Hinmon took gorgeous photos of the founders (see some portraits throughout this post). We asked everyone to put an “ask” and an “offer” on a tag next to their picture, so they could find one another if they had something specific to give or get. (We’re currently processing all of the asks and offers to share with back with the group!)
We had an opening reception for mingling, and catered stellar food throughout, leaving mealtimes open so people could find each other and make new connections. On our second day, we embarked on an exercise to group together people working in similar verticals and markets (E.g., healthcare, journalism, food) so they could discover comrades within the greater dazzle.
2. Aligned Financing. The second need that emerged from applications was funding. Many people said they wanted more information on business structures, funding options and alternatives.
To meet this need, we gathered top thinkers and funders ranging from angel investors to foundations to cooperatives who are carving new paths for capital flow. From the main stage, they shared their investment thesis, their stories, and their learnings.
3. Targeted learning. The third theme noted was around targeted learning. Founders wanted to get advice from others trying to build similar businesses, and to talk about emerging technologies and approaches for scaling. The attendees also wanted to know about other cultures, disciplines and moments in time in which people tried to solve this same tension between community or profit. (Zebras are not the first group by a longshot to espouse the ideals we all connected around.)
We planned a few ways to meet this expressed interest. We hosted an “Unconference” one evening, generously hosted by Uncorked Studios and curated by Rebecca Gates, where people could propose their own sessions and convene the conversations they wanted to have. Topics ranged from blockchain to how to balance parenthood and startup life.
Our final section focused on targeted learning around culture and ethics. We had speakers who covered topics ranging from Islamic finance, to American Indian principles applies to entrepreneurship, to lessons we can learn about building sustainable systems from nature and our bodies. And founders shared their own hard-earned wisdom - like why they regretted taking VC funding, how difficult it was to fundraise as a Public Benefit Corporation, and how they got through very tough moments for their companies.
Swag & Resources
- Modern Medicine - by Jonathan Harris
- It All Turns on Affection - by Wendell Berry
- Two Wings of a Bird - The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States
- Design Justice Zines 1 & 3 - Created at the Allied Media Conference (Special thank you to Sasha Costanza-Chock and Una Lee)
- A pen made by Zebra brand (no brainer!)
ScoutBook for notes
- The first two chapters of Sarah Bray’s book, Gather the People, exploring a more human approach to marketing
Each attendee received membership to the Long Now Foundation, our presenting sponsor for the opening keynote program. They have a treasure trove of information and resources on long-term thinking.
Thanks to Microcosm Publishing, we curated a bookstore within the venue that featured titles suggested by our attendees, with topics ranging from management, to culture, financing and beyond. Microcosm was kind enough to make an online bookstore. Have at it with discount code ZEBRASUNITE2017
Here's Who Came
We had 216 people in attendance, mostly founders, and the rest were a mix of funders, lawyers, foundation officers and consultants. Dazzlers came from across the USA, and we had a dozen international attendees from as far away as Spain and Melbourne. Of the founders, 31% identified as while man and 69% identified as women and/or people of color.
If you’re in the startup world, chances are you’ve heard a lot of talk about the “pipeline problem” - which is shorthand for the issue of not having enough women and people of color in the mix. We can’t help but wonder, what if it’s not actually a pipeline problem? What if the pipe itself is the problem? What if the answer is not adding more colors and genders to the current system and its distinct set of incentives, but it’s instead designing a system that’s fundamentally more attractive to these founders? ? This question is at the heart of the zebra ethos and DazzleCon.
Here's What We Learned
By coming together, in the same space, we learned first hand that although each of face set of odds stacked against us, we are not alone. We can inspire and support each other.
Zebra founders have remarkable vision and creativity, and they are building the kinds of companies the world needs most right now. They’re building drone delivery companies to serve humanitarian disaster zones.They’re making library and museum collections more accessible and searchable. They’re connecting citizens to NASA to document climate change in real time.
On the practical front, we learned that for the next DazzleCon, we’ll pack the schedule with fewer speakers, format with less “sage on a stage” talks, and instead have far more time for people to self-organize and facilitate more hands-on, problem-solving sessions. For some candid and honest feedback from our attendees, we recommend the following posts:
We received the following press and blog coverage:
- “The female tech bosses who want zebras not unicorns”, BBC
- “Should tech investors be chasing zebras instead of unicorns?”, Marketplace
- “A Radical New Tech Start-Up Movement Gathers in Portland This Week”, Portland Monthly magazine
- “Zebras Uniting at DazzleCon,” Brad Feld, FeldThoughts
- “Can “Zebras” Fix What “Unicorns” Break?” Blog of the Long Now Foundation
Here's Who Supported the Event
We received broad support from a wide range of sponsors and allies across sectors.
Many thanks to the Knight, Rockefeller, MacArthur, and Long Now Foundations; Prosper Portland, our local economic development office; forward thinking investors like Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor; Purpose, indie.vc, Cascade Angels, Tiny Capital; companies committed to helping zebras grow like JLL, Buffer, Smith & Connors
A special thank you to Rand Fishkin at Moz, Corey Ford at Matter VC, Rimma Boshernitsan of InDialogue, and Mo Clancy who hosted friendraisers in Seattle and San Francisco.
Tremendous thanks to our volunteers, especially Beth Cohen, Crystal Beasley,
Here's What Comes Next
On the final day, founders gathered for an interactive visioning session. Our goal was to hear from them about the support they needed and how this growing movement could be helpful. Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s presenting the idea of visioning. Led by our collaborators BoominGroup attendees worked in groups to identify the core values of their companies which, in turn, would inform the core values of the movement. We'll be sharing this vision in March.
Ready to get involved?