Today it was announced that Zinch has been acquired by Chegg. What a special day. I’m excited, grateful and proud. I never would have imagined this happening 5 years ago when I dropped out of Princeton to join up with Sid Krommenhoek and Brad Hagen. This is the sort of thing every entrepreneur dreams of…but it rarely happens. It’s been an amazing journey.
The Zinch team deserves all the credit. What a talented group of people. They’ve worked incredibly hard to make Zinch what it is today. Enough can’t be said about them.
And without Anne Dwane, our CEO, none of this happens. It was the best decision we ever made when we decided to hand the reins over to her. She is one of the best CEOs in Tech today. Not enough people know that. I’d tell Yahoo! to hire her but then we’d be losing out on a powerful leader. :)
Zinch still has a lot to prove and a lot of work ahead. I’m certain that it’ll reach its full potential under the wings of Chegg. The future is most certainly bright.
Zinch is a perfect fit for Chegg. For years now we’ve worked with Chegg as an advertising client and they’ve always been impressive. They’ve got great investors (Kleiner Perkins, Foundation Capital, Mike Maples) and a great CEO. And they are on a tear. There’s no company i’d rather be selling the company to than Chegg. They’ve quickly established themselves as a leader in education and of the “student graph.” It’s a high growth company and i’m ecstatic to be a shareholder.
My first startup exit is now under my belt. And it feels awesome. Hopefully this is just the first of many — once you’re lucky, twice you’re good.
Now let me go savor this moment — the last 5 years haven’t exactly been a walk in the park. I love this game. #startups
These last 6 weeks have been crazy. As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been pretty radio-silent on my blog and twitter. I’ve been heads-down writing code. 14-16 hour days, sometimes more.
A lot of people email me asking how I’m starting this company. This is my second startup, the first is all grown up and well past startup stage. So what am I doing differently if anything? What’s my plan? What’s my approach? What’s my strategy?
First off, there are a lot of ways to get a company going. There’s no silver bullet. It’s hard. It’s complex. There a lot of moving pieces. It takes good timing, good luck and and incredible amount of determination to keep getting up when you get knocked down. Despite what “experts” may say, there are no secrets. It’s more about survival at this stage than it is about world domination.
But let me tell you some of my approach for startup #2.
Right now I’m 100% focused on product. I’ve done plenty of customer development and i’ve played the #LeanStartup game. I’m past that. I’m heads-down coding. Nothing else matters right now. A picture is worth a thousand words — so is a functional product. No matter how well I can articulate my vision to potential investors or hires, it comes to life with a real product — something they can use and play with. They see it. They see what I see. A light goes on. It’s a tangible representation of the vision in my head. And that’s powerful. My dreams at night are in Python and Django. Product has been and will continue to be the biggest priority.
As the alpha product nears completion, a fraction of my time will move away from product and into recruiting/hiring. This is where the fun begins — the real work. And these decisions keep me up at night.
A lot of people wanna work with me because they know i’m a pretty good entrepreneur. I’ve already interviewed dozens of folks. But so far, i’ve been and will continue to be insanely cautious and patient when it comes to people. I know this might slow me down a bit, which is risky. But i’ll take my chances. There are so many unknowns in a startup. The more unknowns you can minimize, the better your chances are at success. People — especially people i’ve never worked with before — present huge unknowns to a young enterprise. If they are stars, they can make an incredibly huge positive impact. If they are bad, you can lose months and months of precious time and work dealing with their drama, damage and distractions.
These early people decisions are the absolute biggest decisions a founder can make at this stage. My idea will change. My product will morph. But my early people are constant. Startups die because of people, not competitors.
I plan on raising some seed capital. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of unknowns in a startup. Startups are extremely fragile. If you don’t have extra cash in the bank, with one stroke of misfortune and bad luck, you can be out of the game. Out of money and into the dead pool. Done. Check Mate. I’ve been through near-death experiences before. I don’t wanna flirt anywhere close this time around. Nothing ever goes according to plan. It’s impossible to flawlessly execute. So much is beyond our control. Consumers are fickle. Market conditions change. Competitors come and go. You hire the wrong person. Yadda Yadda Yadda. Crap happens — it always does. So much of starting a company is not what you do but how you react. Not having cash reserves is just a little reckless and irresponsible.
To really hit the ball out of the park, you gotta take a good amount of swings. Sometimes even the best entrepreneurs strike out. It’s to be expected. But the best entrepreneurs make sure they put themselves at bat long enough to connect. It’s a numbers game. Money can buy you more at-bats.
As far as who I take money from… unlike startup #1, I plan on being super selective. Everything I said about hiring/recruiting applies here. I’m looking for investors who are patient and see my longterm vision. And they either need to be top-tier (great brand) or incredibly valuable (proven distribution, product strategy, well-connected, etc). All money is not equal.
I’m going big and aggressive with this startup. This isn’t college admissions anymore. This is a growing market and a massive opportunity. I’ve already created a company that’ll value north of $100mm with startup #1. I’m now working to build one that values north of $1b. That’s practically impossible. All the moving pieces need to fall nicely together. And yes, it’ll take some good luck and great timing. But that’s where my sights are set.
I’m having the time of my life. Every day i’m bouncing off walls and oozing with passion. I love startups. I love creating something out of nothing. It’s hard. It’s challenging. But i’ve been down this path before and I know exactly what to expect. Much of it can be prepared for, but much of it can’t. The unknowns are what make this ride so exhilarating.
I’m still an outsider here in the Valley. I moved here last year and i’m still unknown. Recruiting the best people and getting to know the best investors will be challenging. But I will find a way. I always do.
I’m 100% committed. The boats are burned. There’s no turning back now…
Back to the hustle.
We launched Zinch.com on March 12, 2007 — four years ago last Saturday. We attended (and had a booth) that same year in Austin at the NACAC National Conference — the biggest annual event in college admissions. That year in Austin was our big coming out event.
I’ll never forget what we heard there from the incumbent companies. Paraphrasing: “We see this every year. Startups come and make a big splash at NACAC, and then next year they’re nowhere to be seen. Deadpool. This will be your first and last NACAC. Good luck.”
I love doubters. Success is the most effective silencer. Below are a few highlights of where we stand today.
The business continues to grow. We work with more than 900 colleges and universities — big schools, small schools, public, private, top tier schools like Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. We continue to provide immense value to our clients. Admissions and recruitment is going increasingly “social”; students have been yearning for a more humanized college admissions process. Zinch is at the forefront; we pioneered this category and we continue to blaze the path.
We have more than 3 million user profiles. We have a China-specific version of our website, Zinch.cn, along with a handful of other micro-sites that are rapidly growing. We have great partners. We’ve built a product platform that allows us to aggressively expand to other countries and more verticals within education (transfer recruitment, graduate school recruitment, etc).
We now have offices in three locations (San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Beijing) and sales reps all over the world. People are the most important component to any enterprise. Zinch is only where it is today because of the amazing people who are on the team. Fun fact: Four Harvard Business School alum are on the team — including our CEO.
We continue to get great media attention. We were recently highlighted in a White House Press Release. A wave of press will be coming soon with the launch of our new book, Getting In! The Zinch Guide to College Admissions & Financial Aid in the Digital Age. We’ve been on the NBC Today Show and ABC News. We’ve been in print media like the US News, New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Examiner. We’ve been highlighted in education-specific publications like Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Education. We’ve been in collegiate newspapers all over America like Yale Daily News, Daily Pennsylvanian, and The Phoenix. Zinch has a great story and a great product. This is just the beginning of Zinch in the media.
Early in the Zinch history, we cleaned up at business plan competitions. We won student competitions at BYU, Princeton and Utah. Bam bam bam. More recently we won a Webby Award, a Stoel Rives Innovation Award, and a uv50 award. We were also selected as a Red Herring Top 100 North American Tech Startup. Kinduva big deal. We have a great product and i’m sure we will continue to be recognized for it.
We have a team of great investors, advisors and mentors. A few weeks ago I wrote a popular yet controversial post about how I don’t like how certain investors treat their portfolio companies. We are fortunate that this is not a problem at Zinch. I really enjoy working with our investors/advisors. They are smart, thoughtful and extremely helpful. Our VC backer is New World Ventures, out of Chicago. Chris Girgenti and Adam Koopersmith have been a pleasure to work with. A few of our angel investors include Mike Levinthal, Chris Michel, Aydin Senkut, Rich Ferguson, Levi King, Josh James, Morgan Lynch, Tom Ngo and Larry Rosenberger among others. Our advisors have also been fantastic. They include Will Harbin, Stan Chudnovsky, and Aurelie Guerrieri. This paragraph is packed with some of the smartest people I know. We are lucky to have these folks involved.
There are no signs of this business slowing down. In fact, growth seems to be accelerating. Zinch is in a great position to become the next big juggernaut in education — with the likes of Washington Post Company or College Board. I’ve never been more optimistic about the company and its future. We have a great CEO at the helm along with a team full of talented people.
The thing I love most about Zinch is that we have lasting social impact — we’re helping students achieve their higher education goals as well as helping them pay for it. We’re doing good and doing well. We’re making a real difference in students’ lives — we hear stories every day.
It is so humbling and fulfilling to see how far this company has come. I couldn’t be more proud. I’m lucky and fortunate to have been even but a small part of it. I look forward to the many years ahead. This company is here to stay. You’ll be seeing us at many more NACACs. :)
Happy Birthday Zinch. You’re growing up.