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Taking Networking Events To Entirely New Heights – Interview With Zealyst Founder Martina Welke



Creating monthly events tailored to your professional needs and interests, Zealyst is a networking catalyst powerhouse based in Seattle. By creating personalized networking opportunities with personal profiles, Zealyst makes networking events much more interesting by incorporating elements such as group games into the mix. Building immediate trust and connections with these kinds of innovations, Zealyst has been able to change the game combining this with their robust technology and design.


The result is that attendees of Zealyst events find themselves listening to each other’s stories more and in turn they become more willing to share their own story instead of just pitching or trying to impress. In fact, many Zealyst attendees note that it’s not like networking at all: it’s better and more rewarding.


We had a chance to speak to Zealyst founder Martina Welke recently, and here’s what she shared with KillerStartups:





How’d you come up with the name for your company?

Through a long iterative research process, we discovered that “zeal” is a term for a group of zebras (like “murder of crows” or “pride of lions”).  After further investigation, we learned that there are two types of zebras in the world – one of which is flourishing and the other gradually going extinct.


The primary distinction is that the flourishing variety for strong social bonds that persist throughout time.  Our company is a catalyst for those type of strong social connections; hence “Zealyst.”  As an added bonus, the domain was available.


What’s the very first thing you do at work everyday?

My co-founder and I almost always take a brisk walk together to discuss plans for the day and anything else that’s on our minds.  We find it’s an invigorating way to get the morning started and helps focus us for the rest of the day.


How many people did you start the company with and how many people work for you now?

I co-founded Zealyst with 2 partners.  One of my co-founders is still working with me full time, the other has stepped back to an advisory role.  We’ve brought three more people onto the team, along with 2-4 developers we contract for product development.


Remember the early days starting up?

We started out with a strong collective understanding of technology and managing software projects, but no actual engineer on the founding team.  We searched for a few months to find the magic technologist who would solve all of our problems, but when we didn’t find that fantastical person, we decided to get down to business and start doing everything manually first.


We designed our first events by building social maps on the floor of my apartment using hundreds of small slips of paper. We learned a great deal from that process, and ultimately designed a much better software product because of it.


How do you handle frustration?

There are a lot more people involved in Zealyst now- our growing team, advisors, and investors- which means there are a lot more opinions and opportunities for miscommunication.  I recently received an alarming email from a client who had seriously misunderstood information I shared during a phone conversation and communicated that misinformation to his manager.


Rather than write an immediate reactionary reply, I consulted one of our advisors and took time to carefully craft a response so that the mistake wasn’t amplified.  Having trusted people to call upon in those kinds of moments is essential for good decision-making and effective leadership.





What’s your office environment like?

We had permanent office space early on, but ultimately decided to forgo that space to minimize overhead and give us more flexibility. We often work from our partner venues, which is nice because it gives us the chance to build stronger relationships and utilizes really great spaces.


We are now at the point when we’ll be moving back into a dedicated office- it will undoubtedly be anything but traditional and probably decked out in zebra print.


How do you picture your company in 5 years?

We’ll be working with many of the world’s top companies to build healthier, more productive corporate cultures.  If we’re doing our job right, we’ll also probably have several competitors and have evolved to provide more comprehensive services and features than we’ve offered thus far.


I’d like to also start a social impact arm of the business that will allow us to work with more nonprofits and community organizations with budget constraints.


Who or what inspires you?

I run almost every day to preserve my sanity, and it’s also the time when I get some of my best ideas. The most inspirational part of my work, however, is attending the events we host and experiencing Zealyst’s impact firsthand.  When our members tell me stories about how the connections we’ve facilitated changed their lives, it brings meaning to all the more mundane aspects of running a business and motivates me to push forward.


My co-founder and I have also been known to sponsor  afternoon treats involving sugar or caffeine.


How’d you fund this venture?

We did a small friends and family seed round last year that allowed us to build the first two versions of our software and fueled operations this year.  We are now in the midst of another round of funding, which will most likely be a mix of angel investors and VCs.


Got any great bootstrapping tips for the lean startups out there?

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!  There are some jobs that are definitely worth paying for- like a good lawyer- but a lot of the grunt work can be done by the founders.  I don’t implement much of the day to day operations any more now that we have a bigger team, but I’ve done every job at some point so that I know what it takes to make it happen.


I also worked as an independent consultant for a few months while getting Zealyst off the ground, so I didn’t give up on a paycheck entirely.  I saved for a few months before raising our seed round and planned for a lean year ahead, which made the transition easier.


What would you be doing if you had one year off and $500,000 to spend ?

I’d travel to cities around the world and meet as many entrepreneurs as I could. There’s so much to learn from other entrepreneurs’ experiences, and I’m always inspired after talking with someone who is passionate about what they do.  Then I’d invest in some of my favorite startups and get back to work.





Do you consider yourself a successful entrepreneur right now?

I get uneasy when people call us successful- not because I’m not proud of our many small successes, but because I’m very aware of the long road ahead.  I think it’s very important to celebrate triumphs along the way, but there will always be new challenges to tackle and bigger dreams to chase.


I feel successful in the sense that I’m fulfilled by what I do and excited for what’s to come.  Still, I want to continue to seek out further success and bring more people into the equation to share that success with.


Website you couldn’t live without and why?

I love reading Geekwire each day to stay up to date on the Seattle startup scene.  The community here is small enough that if I read about someone there that I want to meet, I can usually figure out the degrees of separation and connect with them relatively quickly.


Mobile App you’re in love with and why?

It’s a tie between OneBusAway and Uber.  I’m always running around town, and I try not to drive whenever possible.  These two apps have both saved me in a jam and helped me to make it to meetings on time (and relatively dry- which is difficult in Seattle!).


What’s the greatest thing about your startup?

We get to see our customers benefiting from our service and engage with them in the real world as well as online.    I love thinking about the endless possibilities that will result from connections we create- that positive ripple effect is thrilling to imagine!




Where can our readers get ahold of you?

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Photo Credits

Courtesy of startup founder | Zealyst

Author : Sam Melon

Sam finds writing to be a positive and relaxing way to process his experiences. Luckily, he's in a position where he can spend much of his time doing just that! When he's not writing, he enjoys taking photographs, playing music, and having a nice chat or two.

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