Zinc VC Q&A

Zinc VC exists to build and scale global companies that will solve the most important societal issues. The current cohort is focussing on mental health in young people.

I met with co-founders Ella Goldner and Paul Kirby to hear their story.

Ella & Paul give me some brief context. How did you meet and why did you decide to set up Zinc together?

We met via our third co-founder Saul Klein. We both connected with him as we were looking for our next challenge and we were both excited by the idea of entrepreneurship as a means to solving big societal issues. Saul had been chatting to us both separately before offering to connect us.

What does each of you bring? Did you define your roles from the beginning or was it organic?

We bring aligned vision, energy and can-do attitude. However we clearly have different networks, skills, styles and strengths.

We split some of the bigger chunks between us pretty organically: Paul leading on the science/R&D, as well as the legal and finance (we call those things the  Boring But Important department) while Ella took the leads on comms, culture, and ecosystem.

Interestingly we can look at the same situation from completely different angles and view, but we use that to motivate us to move into the same direction. This ability to see things differently, discuss our viewpoints and move forward together.

How has your way of working together developed as Zinc has grown?

The way we work hasn’t shifted dramatically, but we are proud to have been able to grow a team that, we hope, reflects our culture and values.

However, the level of trust has grown over time. There were times in the past where we had tension building: due to our differences and different styles. However, as we learned to communicate better and established a very strong level of trust, things have become much more smooth and streamlined.

Agreeing our values as co-founders and then with our team has really helped. They’re a great way of making choices about the type of business we’re building and holding ourselves to account against those choices. They can also channel tensions into positive energy. For example, as soon as we do something Paul always wants to do it better, whilst Ella believes it is important to celebrate what we just achieved.

We used this tension to define one of Zinc’s values: “We celebrate our wins, and then we aim higher”. This has become an important part of our culture, and reflects the power of an “and” rather than an “or” approach between co-founders.

Another important factor in building our relationship as co-founders in a start-up has been to discover what brings us the most energy and really ignites our passion.

The best way to discover this is to observe and discuss our body language and our emotional reactions as we go about our work. Through this process, we’ve confirmed that we are equally and most passionate about unlocking the potential of diverse individuals to solve the big, societal problems they really care about. As a result, we’ve kept Zinc focused on talent-investing: finding really diverse mid-career talent and helping their journey from being frustrated individuals (pre-team, pre-idea) to becoming successful co-founders of new ventures. That’s where our heart lies, and we’re building a business that will be the best place in the world for mid-career talent to experiment their way to impact at scale in our chosen missions.

At Zinc individuals who have never met before come together to form co-founder teams. From all the teams you have seen what have you noticed tend to be the attributes of a relationship that is likely to be successful?

Most importantly, aligned vision:  agreeing on WHY you’re doing it and WHERE you want to be in 5-10 years from now. Teams that know where they’re heading, (and why) and can work out their issues quickly and openly are more likely to succeed and deal with problems as they occur.

Open and honest communication is another key part: being able to resolve things quickly and openly. At the early stages of the relationship it’s important to establish that trust and ability to work things out quickly, before they get personal and emotional. It is being able to see the business’s success as the main goal and how each individual plays a role in making it happen.

Lastly it’s trust. Trust to divide the work so you can progress quickly. Trust to be able to say what’s on your mind: being vulnerable and also giving feedback. Trust that you are both saying what’s on your mind.

Conversely what tend to be the warning signs that the relationship won’t work?

It’s pretty easy to see. Lack of progress: which means lack of alignment, or lack of ability to divide the work.

Productivity and progress are a strong indicator of whether there is a good base to work off.

The other thing is that both are aligned in terms of the vision. If speaking to the founders you hear two different visions, it’s a sign that things are likely to fall apart at some point.

What is the number 1 tip you would give to co-founders starting out?

Think about prototyping the relationship. It’s not about having lots of chats, coffees and research, it’s about doing things together, setting goals and reflecting openly on that experience.

What does the future hold for Zinc and yourselves?

We are aligned about our vision to make Zinc the best place in the world for talent to experiment ways to have impact in our chosen missions. We want creatives, researchers, serial entrepreneurs, engineers, domain experts, policymakers to want to come to Zinc to develop, build and experiment with new solutions for the most pressing societal issues.

What partnership do you really admire and why?

Sesame Street is an organisation that we really admire.

It’s a perfect example of a mission-driven venture that has had an enormous impact across the world over the last 50 years, and is going strong today.

We have learnt a huge amount from how it was created. At the heart of that creation was the partnership between three individuals: Joan Ganz Cooney (a business executive from TV), LLoyd Morrisett (an educational psychologist working in an NGO) and Jim Henson (a creative who made the Muppets). They were united by the mission that TV could help disadvantaged kids be more ready for school, and through trial and error they figured out and scaled the magic of Sesame Street.

We have used the creation of Sesame Street to inform how we build our ventures, and we have used the Ganz Cooney, Morrisett and Henson partnership to define the skills needed in a successful mission-driven venture: the business person who can scale, the domain expert who is frustrated by the status quo and the creative who engage the audience.

And finally what’s been your proudest moment at Zinc?

Proud moments are the launch events of our new missions.

The last one – around childrens’ mental health – was held at Kidzania. We had the Secretary of State for Education there to mark the importance of entrepreneurs in developing new solutions as well as the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a serial entrepreneur and on the board of Sesame Street to talk about mission-led successful ventures.

And a great part of our ecosystem were there as well to wish our 70 founders luck, and support them as they took on this huge challenge: to build new solutions to support young people and children to fulfill their potential and have great mental health. Watch this space!

Thank you Ella and Paul!