“What is a zebra company?”

This is probably the question, I get asked the most these days, especially when I make new connections.

A zebra company is a company that seeks to build a sustainable business model that does not compromise people, passion or planet.

It’s simple really – and yet so very complicated. Why? Because the business world isn’t designed for sustainable businesses.

  • Companies who balance purpose and profit and build their organization for the long-term are often struggling to get funding (growing organically and not aggressively enough).
  • They are fighting to be taken seriously as real businesses by others than the very few purpose-driven angel investors (who the real investors also make fun of).
  • They are continuously asked to defend and explain the value of ‘doing good’ over ‘show me the money’/best-price-of-the-day attitudes that surround them.

Don’t believe me? Look at most large corporations around you. What does their sustainable strategy look like? A CSR-for-marketing-and-branding-purposes-plan? A let’s-move-into-CO2-neutral-by 2050-plan? Most companies are not ambitious enough when it comes to sustainability simply because they do not believe it can be done. (It = transforming their business into a sustainable business, without hurting revenue streams or profits.)

The most common misconception is that not compromising people or planet, compromises profit. What it really does is secure profit for the long run. It builds trust with people, who become return-customers/employees/investors. It ensures there is a planet for the future.

Most for-profit businesses today are driven by an ‘outside-in’ objective. Investors, owners, boards all look at one thing = short-term profits. ”How much money are we making this quarter?”

This focus breeds behaviour that leads to very unfortunate outcomes that compromise either people, planet or both. I know. I have seen it. More than once.

A couple of years back, I was inspired by this article published on Medium by Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz & Aniyia Williams. They talk about the unhealthy culture of the startup world that focuses on building unicorns (explosive growth companies), and how it’s time to build an infrastructure that breeds a new kind of startup.

It resonated with me at the same time as it made me sad to admit that I too had seen the diseases of corporate culture adopted and bred into the startup scene. It spoke to my mission of building companies that repair, cultivate, and connect in a world that needs healing more than anything else. I personally left corporate to make a difference in how we do business and I wanted to be part of a movement that supports companies with a long term, sustainable perspective. I wanted to not only influence the mindset of businesses today, where shareholder return trumps collective well-being every single time, but offer alternatives and support leaders willing to do things differently.

So now I build zebras. My team and I restructured our business and refocused our skills to building zebras. We decided that the impact we really want to make is help build organizations with an ‘inside-out’ objective, where we start by asking: “What is the point of this company? What impact are we trying to make?” If we start from there, we can build an organization that makes a profit, while making a difference.

We know how to design organizations that align with the point of the business. We know how to build systems that make the organization effective. And we excel in inspiring leaders to take the lead and walk the talk.   My point is, we refocused our existing skills and knowledge, and built a sustainable business. We said no to a few customers, declined a large project and invested some time in rethinking and redesigning our organization. But it wasn’t hard. All it took was a decision to believe that it is real. Zebras are real. Unicorns are not.