I wish I knew the VC lingo so I could more seamlessly figure out what people were actually saying. E.g. “I’m in if you get a lead” does NOT mean the investor is interested. It is code for “I am passing, unless a miracle happens and Jeff Bezos/MarkCuban/Google Ventures (or some other “rock star’ of the startup world is investing… In which case, I definitely don’t want to look like the fool that passed.”
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zoe Barry, a serial entrepreneur, Mentor in Residence with Techstars, and an angel investor.
Currently, Zoë is the Founder and CEO of Zingeroo, her second venture-backed tech startup. The company is currently operating in stealth mode and has raised over 5.5M dollars to date.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career on Wall Street working for John Dawson, best known as the founder of Pequot Capital. I was inspired to found my first company, ZappRx, in 2012 when a family member was diagnosed with a severe condition that required specialized therapy. ZappRx was best described as the “Amazon Prime for 100K dollars/year specialty medication.” As a sole-founder, I raised over 42M dollars for ZappRx before the company was acquired by Allscripts in June of 2019.
I took time off for family life — but the startup bug bit me again.
I was having a heated debate with my brothers about the direction of the stock market. I had actually worked for a hedge fund (Dawson Capital) whereas my brothers were taking econ classes in college. To settle this debate, I tried gifting the concept of a competitive trading experience to my family that Christmas, only to find that the concept didn’t exist! We weren’t interested in a year-long analysis of portfolio management — the ‘set it and forget it’ approach — we wanted to compete and track performance on individual trades. I thought the idea was so obvious, it was like inventing the Post-It note. How could there not be a way to do real-money trading, banter, and track a leaderboard of individual trades? Thus, Zingeroo was born!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was supposed to be on vacation with my friend in Miami — I told her I’d take my first glass of champagne as soon as I finished investor diligence. I had so much work on my plate, even she started taking my phone calls by the pool.
A man walked by our cabana, intrigued by the women holding laptops on lounge chairs. He stopped by — once, twice, three times… Finally, he asked, “What work could you possibly be doing at a resort that needs a laptop??”
“Building the next great startup,” I shot back, barely lifting my fingers from the keyboard.
He was so impressed by my hustle that he invested 250K dollars on the spot.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Don’t be an acronym junkie! As a new founder, I was puffing up my feathers and going on about how I would revolutionize healthcare with ZapprX, notably by deploying “bidirectional, active pharmaceutical ingredients.” 45 minutes into a 1-hour meeting with a pharmaceutical company, the senior-most person in the room finally asked me — “Excuse me, what is a bidirectional, active pharmaceutical ingredient?” He looked at me as if I had 5 foreheads.
In my effort to look sophisticated, I used an acronym that did not track with the pharmaceutical company. I was using tech terms with a biopharma group, and they had no idea what I was talking about. I paused, redefined the term, and remembered my audience. There’s a way to be credible and down to earth, and I hope I’ve mastered that over the course of my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Nancy Lieberman is a role model, mentor, and former board member from my first company, ZappRx. Nancy is now an angel investor and advisor for my second startup — she is also the youngest person (male OR female) to ever make partner in Skadden Arps’ history. Midway through her career, Nancy was injured in a skiing accident and came out of surgery a quadriplegic with limited lung capacity. Nancy did not retire. Nancy did not give up. Nancy returned to Skadden just a year after her accident. I’ve faced many challenges in my journey as an entrepreneur, but everything I have seen pales in comparison to Nancy. Nancy has been by my side for some of the darkest and brightest moments in startupland. She has taught me to persevere, to never underestimate myself, and to always turn my Achilles heel into my greatest asset.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Knowing the reality is disheartening — despite progress towards gender equality, women still face “little girl” valuations and significant blowback when negotiating. Even when women manage to get VC funding, their companies face heavier dilution, they have more pernicious terms that play into corporate governance, and they must give up control for far less capital. Recognizing these circumstances while watching men play the game is enough to disempower anyone.
However, when women do start digging in and realize they have venture-backable businesses, they’re more likely to go directly to customers. Even if they’re not looking towards VCs to prop up their businesses, strong women with great ideas are bold enough to get their projects off the ground, in spite of the obstacles.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Invest in women! Invest in party rounds; invest where there’s no clear lead but there’s a killer CEO at the helm. Furthermore, once you invest, ask the only question that matters: “How can I help?”
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
There is no greater joy than realizing what you are capable of. Being an entrepreneur isn’t about becoming a billionaire. It is about biting off more than you can chew then figuring out how to chew it. There is no better payday than creating your own success.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
Here are 2 myths I’d like to dispel — that people who start businesses are “starving entrepreneurs” and that “it’s lonely at the top.”
People think life on Wall Street is glamorous, but it isn’t. I made way more money being an entrepreneur than being a lowly analyst at a hedge fund. What’s more, Wall Street was grueling and painful in a way that being your own boss isn’t. While it can be lonely to be an entrepreneur, I have actually found that I’ve gained an incredible network of people who are #bossbabes and powerhouses across industries. When you connect with people who have similar scar tissue, battle wounds, and funny stories… The wine flows!
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe anyone can be a founder — it is just a matter of risk appetite. By this I mean, some people are naturally comfortable taking major career risks, having no income or health insurance… On the other side of the spectrum, stand individuals who have the potential to be entrepreneurs but put their ambitions on the back burner — until a catalyst forces them to take a leap of faith. These people could be fed up with corporate life or find themselves suddenly unemployed with few job prospects due to a recession. These people are just as hungry as the entrepreneur who quit their job and dove head first into startup land, but might have different reasons for doing so.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
There are so many things I wish I knew before launching my first startup. I have now founded 3 companies and invested in over 20 deals as an angel, I am even an LP in 3 venture firms. Here is what I wish I knew before I started down this path…
- I wish I knew how to force a round to come together.
- I wish I knew what bad looked like, because I was thrilled whenever anything was happening, and I thought it was all good. It wasn’t.
- I wish I knew the VC lingo so I could more seamlessly figure out what people were actually saying. E.g. “I’m in if you get a lead” does NOT mean the investor is interested. It is code for “I am passing, unless a miracle happens and Jeff Bezos/MarkCuban/Google Ventures (or some other “rock star’ of the startup world is investing… In which case, I definitely don’t want to look like the fool that passed.”
- I wish I had paid attention to PowerPoint lessons in high school — now I just hire experts to do that for me.
- I wish I knew how to create a work-life balance. I force myself to do it now, but I am honestly still obsessed and love rolling over at 3 am to check my emails. I know this means I face potential burnout, but I don’t know how to quit so fuck it.
These experiences taught me the importance of learning on the job — more significantly, they underscored the need for mentorship, especially for young female entrepreneurs. My adventures of jumping headfirst into startup life were both exciting and challenging and I’m always looking to share the lessons I’ve learned with others.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Every panel I found myself on would quote the standard, “just 3% of venture funding goes to women-led companies each year.” I made up my mind that it wasn’t good enough to keep repeating that statistic, as I was not actually putting my money where my mouth was!
Despite my mentoring and advising, the stats were not moving. I had just 5K dollars saved, but realized that I could pool it together with others who were passionate about changing the way funding is distributed. Together, we could snowball our small checks to one larger investment — 25K dollars, 50K dollars, or even 100K dollars!
This led me to start xxAngels (www.xxAngels.com) with Elizabeth Lawler. Together, we have done over 40 deals — 90% of them with women/ minority-led companies. It isn’t enough to parrot the data, sometimes you have to put on your big girl pants and write a check.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I were to start a movement that could bring the greatest amount of positive change for the greatest number of people, I’d increase momentum around “party rounds.” This would enable women and minorities to close money quickly and efficiently. Publish seed terms online, make documents for SAFE or Promissory Notes, even priced rounds, publicly available. We need to demystify the nonsense of having a “lead investor” where VCs effectively fund junior versions of themselves. Instead, we should create real momentum around all entrepreneurs.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Sophia Amaruso is my hero. I would die and go to startup heaven if we had drinks together — she has candidly expressed her struggles, her doubts, her personal and professional challenges. It would be an honor to hear how she managed it all, then turned it into one epic, graceful story. Sophia, if you’re reading this — let’s grab drinks!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
This series was inspired by Female Founders First, a program by Barclays and Techstars designed to provide female founders with resources to grow, scale and advance their businesses.