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Focus on the journey

Zette lets news readers pay for individual articles instead of digital subscriptions

Please introduce yourself and the startup Zette to our readers! 

Zette is a media tech startup that lets news readers pay for individual articles instead of digital subscriptions; we share revenue with news publishers, funding great journalism and letting consumers pay less. 

Users can download the Zette browser extension to open, read, and share quality journalism behind paywalls; a single $9.99 subscription unlocks 30 paywalled articles each month. 

Zette was founded in 2020 by 26-year-old Yehong Zhu, a former Forbes journalist, Twitter product manager, and Harvard philosophy graduate. 

Why did you decide to start a business? 

My mother was a journalist, so I grew up with tremendous respect for journalism and the value of news in our society, particularly the way in which it keeps us informed and shapes our perspective on the world. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I dove into every student publication I could get my hands on and wrote for all the newsrooms on campus. 

My body of work landed me a gig at Forbes Magazine in 2016, where I was the youngest contributor in the business reporting department. It was in the national newsroom that I began to see the problems of journalism as a business model, particularly the difficulty that many outlets faced in transitioning from print to digital. 

At the time, digital content was being given out for free, and the margins on programmatic advertising were razor thin. It was clear to me that a lot of companies were going to transition to subscription paywalls. But if every outlet put up a paywall, it would put consumers in a bind. It’s unrealistic to ask readers to pay for unlimited access across every news site, and it’s also expensive and inconvenient to put your credit card down for more than one or two digital publications. 

To me it made a lot of sense to create a model where readers could pay directly, but just for what they wanted to read. The seeds for a “pay-as-you-go” model were planted when I was at Forbes, and started germinating after I worked in product at Twitter. When I started building features for millions of consumers worldwide, I understood the importance of accessibility, ease of use and a delightful product experience. 

All of those learnings inspired me to found Zette. 

What is the vision behind Zette? 

We’re unlocking access to legitimate journalism at an affordable price. Access to factual information is critical in a democracy, both for elections and for civic engagement. Particularly during times of great crisis or economic uncertainty, it’s important for everyone to have access to the right information in order to make the best informed decisions about their lives and livelihoods. 

Misinformation has spread like wildfire over the years, and the genesis of clickbait is due to monetary incentives. Online advertising makes money based off of how many eyeballs a content provider can lure to a page, not on how objective the story is or how valuable it is to readers—and overly sensationalized reporting brings eyeballs, which bring clicks, irrespective of the damage that fake content might propagate. 

That’s why at Zette, we fully believe in working with a vetted list of partners with reputations for high editorial standards of journalistic integrity. We introduce more audiences to premium sources so that they have access to a better content diet in their day to day lives. 

From the idea to the start what have been the biggest challenges so far and how did you finance yourself? 

Starting a company during a global pandemic was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The pre-pandemic playbooks that were written for recruiting, fundraising, and building culture for startups were all rewritten overnight. All guardrails disappeared. 

As a first time founder, I had to experiment tirelessly to figure out what strategies worked for me and the kind of company I was building. 

I recruited my entire team over Zoom before I met any of them in person. That requires a high degree of trust on both sides, especially during a pandemic, but we made it work. Sometimes it felt like we had to run through walls to make progress. As just one example, we built our initial publisher relationships by reverse engineering the emails of executives at publications we wanted to talk to. If a certain publisher didn’t want to work with us at the time, we’d be so persistent that we eventually got the meeting anyway. 

A lot of VCs couldn’t see the value in a tech-enabled consumer news solution because media as an industry had not seen much VC investment relative to pure-play software investments, and where money goes, money usually follows. But what we’re doing at Zette is important exactly because the media industry is in dire need of innovation—and in need of more smart people to figure out better solutions. We’re not a startup with a lot of copycats in the market; we’re one of the few actively working on an idea that is both overdue in the market and affecting billions of people worldwide. 

Who is the target group of Zette? 

Our target audience is Gen Z and millennial users not accustomed to reading the news—but who want to become more civically engaged and up-to-date on current events. Our easy-to-use Chrome extension is best suited for young users with familiarity around tech products. Also, Zette’s low price means we only offer a limited number of articles per month (30), so our product is best suited for casual readers. 

How does Zette work? What are the advantages? What makes you different from other providers? 

Users download the Zette browser extension and subscribe to Zette to receive article credits that refill every month. Each credit can unlock one paywalled article. Readers browse the news normally until a paywall pops up; a Zette notification will appear, allowing the reader to unlock the paywall with one click across all Zette partner sites. 

See our demo here

Zette, where does the road go? Where do you see yourself in five years? 

Zette is currently focusing on the American news market, which boasts vast potential: one in five Americans pay for at least one news subscription, and half of all Americans would consider paying for a news subscription if they could no longer get access to the articles they wanted to read. 

As such, the TAM for digital news subscriptions was $11 billion and growing by double digits in 2021, and we believe this industry has the potential to crown a new category king. In the next five years, we’ll certainly be working hard to fill that position. 

At the end: Which 3 tips would you give to future founders? 

I think a lot of first-time entrepreneurs see starting a company the way amatuer climbers see climbing Mount Everest. They see it as a kind of grand accomplishment, particularly when they picture themselves at the top. 

The problem with that framing is this: if you pin all your hopes on reaching the top of that mountain, you’re going to disregard your journey on the way there. Also, anything other than summiting will feel like failure. Through trials and tribulations, I learned that starting a company isn’t about getting to the top of the mountain—it’s about becoming the kind of person who can climb mountains, no matter how steep. 

Had I had this perspective when just starting out, I would have been a lot less discouraged by the setbacks and the obstacles that I faced. A mountain climber who goes out to climb with only the objective of reaching the top will get frustrated every time they slide backwards, by every trip and fall. A goal that ambitious will feel impossibly out of reach. 

But when you focus on the journey—on the love of the sport—and keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll look up one day and realize that you’ve reached your destination. 

More information you will find here

Thank you Yehong Zhu for the Interview

Statements of the author and the interviewee do not necessarily represent the editors and the publisher opinion again.

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