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Are You Dreaming of Becoming a Unicorn or a Zebra?

With the ever-changing and evolving world, we as individuals look for innovations and inventions that show the capacity of collective human intelligence. We have learnt to look at solutions and not the problem. We ideate and set up startups and businesses in order to implement solutions to problems, which makes us problem-solvers. Sir David Attenborough, while delivering a speech on the destruction humans have caused on earth, also emphasised on how humans are problem-solvers.

“However, while trying to solve these problems, have we become myopic?”

Do we develop tunnel vision and use the notion of solving a problem to set up our businesses, and then sacrifice the purpose for profit? Can we look at a healthy balance of a purpose and profit formula to create a sustainable world?

Perhaps we can… As a starting point, let’s focus on existing startups and venture capital culture. Maybe, it’s time to give more prominence to Zebras than Unicorns.

Unicorns Vs. Zebras

A Unicorn is a privately held startup valued at over $1 billion. The viewpoint of most VCs is that if your startup doesn’t have the potential to rapidly grow and reach this milestone, then you are not even worth being considered for VC investment.

Unicorns are a rare finding, just like the name suggests . Unicorns are startups that operate in a lone and discrete environment. However, the Unicorn culture predominantly looks at its worth and tends to forget the purpose it’s trying to address, which gives it a bloated valuation that could be sustainable in its own right but not necessarily in the long run- doing greater good for the world.

Although there are Unicorn startups such as Uber, Airbnb and Pinterest that grew into global brands, there are also countless other startups that grew exponentially through VC funding, yet died unnecessarily, due to the mythical stories they went after. Anyone familiar with “foie gras effect” knows this is what exactly happens to many who follows the mirage of Unicorns.

Just like the health risks involved in consuming force-fed geese and ducks, the majority of startups which decide to move on with a Unicorn-inspired business model without proper purpose, can, if not careful, suffer health risks and deflate due to pressures of hypergrowth.

The Zebra is a counter-concept for Unicorns. A Zebra simply runs the startup with a black and white formula. This means the purpose of a startup should complement its profit and vice versa. This encourages the startup to go on a sustainable journey of maximising both profit and purpose while contributing a positive social impact to the greater good of the world.

Zebra startups are more realistic, more similar to the animal kingdom. We are taken away from the mythical kingdom of a bloated wealth to a more realistic way of purpose-driven startups. Just like Zebras live in herds and nurture together, we are also called to run our startups with a purpose in unison with fellow startups.

Today, we need more Zebra initiatives than Unicorns. We need to break away from the mirage of Unicorns and look to combine a strong formula blending Purpose with Profit that would cement our journey towards building a sustainable social impact.

However, even if you go ahead with the Zebra approach and steer into a purpose-driven, profit-blended initiative, there is always room to lose sight of the initial purpose that would have contributed towards a sustainable social impact. When operating in the red-ocean, under the pressures of the business environment and growth, the more your initiative grows, the more you will face pressures to focus predominantly on profits.

Sustaining a Purpose-driven startup

It’s always advisable to identify smarter ways of differentiating and staying ahead of your competition. One best practice would be to get the attention and recognition your purpose-driven initiative deserves. This can be looked at from a local level from within your country or, better yet, at the international level. This approach can provide your purpose-driven startup with an unfair advantage to stand significantly apart from your competition.

In order to ensure that your purpose is still intact, and you don’t succumb to any red-ocean pressures, you can perhaps focus on the following STAMP approach:

SET UP and align your purpose to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations as helpful guidelines.

Build and surround yourself with a TEAM that believes in the same purpose and vision as you. They should need to work towards this purpose not because you say so, but because they too deeply believe in it to make a positive social impact.

Put your ideas into ACTION by precisely focusing on your bottom line blended with the parameters of your established purpose.

Implement strict measurement metrics in place to continuously MONITOR your progress and execute necessary micro-adjustments as and when required to keep you always on the intended purpose-driven vision.

Get the PRESTIGE, deserving attention and recognition to your purpose-driven initiative via a renown global platform.

It’s pivotal that you look for platforms of international recognition which itself shares and is built on purpose-driven fundamentals. One such global platform is the World Summit Awards (WSA) organised within the framework of the United Nations.

World Summit Awards (WSA) contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda by giving opportunities to digital innovators from over 182 UN member countries, to showcase their ability to bring about positive Social Impact, by aligning their work to the 17 SDGs.

It is amazing how World Summit Awards has become the foundation to recognise such impactful local innovations from UN countries around the world, that are geared to supporting the UN 2030 Agenda.

“As a former WSA winner, I have vividly witnessed the power of World Summit Awards. It had a profound impact on my startup mainly in terms of the visibility I got as well as the opportunities I was able to tap into with the help from within the WSA network itself. At the same time, it transformed me as an individual. The immense exposure I got helped me to accelerate my professional growth…”

Whether you win or lose, by being a part of the WSA journey, you can build your network and become nurtured. Just like a herd of Zebras nurture its members, grow your network and work towards sustaining your purpose-driven digital innovation.

“Success is never a linear upward climb and failure is just another milestone in your journey towards success…”

As the National Expert for WSA Australia and a Member of the Grand Jury for the World Summit Awards global platform, I would like to invite all individuals, startups, businesses and government initiatives to connect with your WSA National Experts in each UN member country and take your purpose-driven digital innovations to the Global Stage of World Summit Awards.


Sachi Wickramage is a Strategist, Business Developer, Usability Engineering Expert, Mobile, Wearable and Cloud Technology Specialist. He has co-founded numerous mobile/wearable ventures including FlipBeats and Expense Tracker 2.0, which have an active user base of over 1,000,000 and have won 13 international awards to-date. Sachi is currently the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at i4Tradies. He is also a Jury Member for United Nations World Summit Awards and the National Expert for World Summit Awards Australia. @sachiwickramage

Jay Boolkin
Jay Boolkin

I'm passionate about positive social change and the power of social entrepreneurship to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. I believe that for-purpose business models can become part of the mainstream and I am enthusiastic about advocating for business models that are genuinely built around a social or environmental mission.

1 Comment
  • Avatar

    thank you for the article

    February 20, 2023 at 6:24 pm Reply

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