You can find “Zealify is Closing Down (Part 1)” here.
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”
Around a month ago we decided to close down Zealify. Over the past few weeks, several people have asked me to write up our lessons and how it felt to let go of something that we’d worked so hard on for the past few years. So here are some of our lessons and a small insight into how it can feel to say goodbye to something you’ve put your all into.
One criticism/compliment that has often been made of me is that I can be too honest. If things are going badly I can’t hide it. Often I would participate in panels and call other founders out when they would say they were ‘killing it’. To me it was crucial to tell the whole truth, not just a part of the story you’re creating. At a talk, I once spoke of the ups and downs of entrepreneurship saying “some days I’ll skip into work other days I’ll cry in the shower”. After the talk 3 founders spoke to me of the pressure they felt to never admit they weren’t ‘killing it’. Considering this honesty throughout my journey I felt it my duty to continue that right to the bitter end. So here I am, laying my soul bare and if it helps one person feel less alone, or learn from our mistakes, then it was worth it.
Any entrepreneurial journey is littered with emotional challenges, moral dilemmas and unending sacrifices. It takes its toll on you as a person, on your personality, your friendships and your life. When times are really tough, there are some days when you can barely crawl out of bed, struggling to fight your way through all the problems that seem to fall on your lap. But you persevere (rightly or wrongly) believing/hoping/praying that you’re doing all this for better days ahead. But what happens when there is no more belief, no hope, no more money?
I’ve read 100’s of post-mortems by startups that outline where they fell down and what they’d do differently. But the hard truth is 8 out of 10 businesses fail — as an entrepreneur you always believe you’ll be one of the two that succeed, but unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. You work hard, you sacrifice and you are dedicated but sometimes it just isn’t enough. Nevertheless, I’d like to share where I feel we struggled and what I’m proud we achieved.
I’m proud of:
- the amazing clients we worked with, including some of the UK’s top startups (GoCardless, SwiftKey, Pusher and more).
- raising investment from intelligent and impressive investors that chose to believe in us.
- the innovations in talent attraction we executed. Such as achieving a 4x engagement in our job adverts of the industry average.
- attracting 15,000 monthly candidates with zero marketing spend.
- the fantastic candidates who found jobs through Zealify and candidates that engaged with the content we provided to help them develop their career.
- running a revenue-generating business for over 3 years which, for a time, was ramen profitable.
Paul Graham once spoke of doing things that don’t scale, I think at times we took that advice too literally. We were wanting to get our hands dirty and do everything manually and we didn’t have enough focus on scalability. We ended up being a tech company that was tech enabled rather than tech driven.
Learning: Do those ‘things that don’t scale’ but make sure you don’t get too sucked in and become a service, tech-enabled business.
Myself and team Zealify firmly believe employer branding is a growing market. Every company has an employer brand whether they realise it or not. We’re seeing many of the smartest and most forward thinking organisations consciously controlling their employer brand and over the next 3–5 years we’ll see many more organisations trying to catch up to speed. Unfortunately, 3 years is a long time for a startup to ‘wait it out’ for a market to mature. Although we had some incredible clients and great advocates it was a constant struggle to convince clients of the value of employer branding. Even when we managed to showcase the ROI, the structure of payments (yearly subscription) was another hurdle we had to overcome. It was polar opposite to the low risk/high reward fee structure of the recruitment industry that HR managers often struggled to understand.
Learning: Understand your market. Are you too early to disrupt a market that simply isn’t ready?
We were lucky enough to have some incredible investors and advisors that we have worked with through Zealify. They’ve brought us back down to earth when our heads are in the clouds and challenged our decisions to make us really think on what our next steps would be. However, we didn’t maintain a consistent schedule with our advisors so any advice often came at intermittent intervals.
Learning: Find 2–3 key advisors and maintain a structured feedback schedule with them to ensure you receive consistent & relevant advice.
I’m incredibly proud of the candidate feedback we received about Zealify. Our jobs@ inbox is consistently full with fantastic (and unsolicited) feedback about the platform. However, we assumed that having the candidate side of our marketplace love the platform would be enough to attract clients, BUT they were not the side that would pay. In hindsight we didn’t take the correct course to grow the marketplace.
Learning: If you are building a marketplace you need BOTH sides of your market to love you otherwise it just won’t work. It doesn’t matter how much one side loves you, if you can’t get buy-in from the other side (especially the paying side) you simply don’t have a marketplace.
In Peter Thiel Zero to One there is a diagram (see below) that shows ‘how to sell your product’. We consistently priced our product at a lower price than we should have sold at, we made a small margin but always sold at a low price in the hope of increasing prices at a later stage. However, the low price point caused us many problems. Each new deal didn’t give us enough legroom. The opportunity to increase prices never came. Our price point was high enough that sales cycles were longer than we would like but low enough that buyers would question how much value we could provide at that price. And, on occasion, we discovered that the price point made some customers value us less and hence we struggled to engage them with the service meaning they saw fewer benefits. This inevitably led to weaker case studies and fewer referrals.
Learning: DON’T BE IN THE DEAD ZONE! Also, sell at the price that you are worth — don’t discount if you believe in your product.
I often hear about startups combusting due to founder or team disputes. I’m incredibly proud to say that through all the ups and downs in the company, our team stayed strong. We talked out our issues, worked through problems together and tolerated each other being unreasonable at times when we were struggling.
Learning: Choose your team wisely, they will be your support system through the good (and the bad).
Many startups often talk about the importance of having laser focus, but talking about it and executing on it can be two very different things. Working in an entrepreneurial, creative environment you see new innovations and ideas every day. At Zealify we discovered amazing insights that led to exciting possibilities but deciding what to focus on and what to forget about was a daily challenge. We imagined it all and so wanted to do it all but all that led to was half finished projects and, in the end, that was more demotivating than inspiring.
Learning: If you believe the project will reap rewards be bold but if you feel it is a distraction (as it often will be) just keep focussed. Keep an ‘ideas’ notebook and if you decide to create a new feature or product don’t pick it up and drop it for other ideas.
We had impressive cold email > response > meeting rates however once we were in meetings clients often found it difficult to understand our key proposition. We felt it was clear but, with hindsight, we realised we were doing too much by offering everything we could possibly do well. While some clients bought Zealify for the candidates, others purchased for the employer branding collateral (photography/videography/content) and some were buying for our domain expertise. This made it a challenge to truly understand what our customers wanted and deliver the value they expected. Once we’d started to do everything it was hard then to niche down when we needed to so we could grow the business.
Learning: Niche down. So many people ignore this (we did!) but it is probably the most important piece of advice we can pass on. Do one thing really well, and one thing only. Grow from there.
We had always been very keen to run a revenue-generating business, although we raised investment I was adamant that we could be self-sufficient. In reality, we could have been revenue-generating faster had we raised more investment. If we’re honest we were never 100% confident with how we were going to finance the growth of Zealify. We were always talking about the things we could do if we raised a big round of investment, but we also always had in the back of our minds a strong belief that it was possible to be a self-sustaining business. Because of this uncertainty, we made a number of contradictory decisions based on advice received from potential investor meetings, leading us down both avenues and not far enough down either one.
Learning: There is no one size fits all solution to financing your startup. Take advice but work through it on your own terms.
Through all these challenges and lessons something that has inspired me is the amazing compassion of people. Sometimes faith in humanity can falter but at the moment we felt we’d let the world down we received some of the kindest, most compassionate, messages I’ve ever had the privilege to read. For that I am truly grateful and thank you to everyone who has and still is supporting us
I also couldn’t end this post without showing my unending gratitude for the fantastic people who’ve been on this journey with me. To our investors and advisors; thank you for believing in us, for taking that chance on us to help us reach our dreams. To our clients, thank you for working with us it has been a pleasure to see inside your culture and showcase what makes each of you such unique, and excellent places to work.
I can’t express how privileged I have felt to work with my team, they are some of the most talented, intelligent and creative people I’ve ever met. They’ve made me laugh, cry and pull my hair out at times but there have been no other people I’d have shared this journey with.
We’re onto the next chapter of our adventure now, I don’t know where that will lead us but I know I’ll never regret the experience I’ve had no matter how difficult it has been or how painful it has been to leave behind. On that note, if anyone wants to chat to us about what we’re doing next we’re all ears — inspiration required!