Fellow Spotlight Q&A with Yehong Zhu, Founder & CEO of Zette
If you pin all your hopes on reaching the top of that mountain, your path up there will feel endlessly long and painful, and anything other than summiting will feel like failure. After countless 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 climbs mountains, no matter how steep they are.
4 min
November 14, 2022

Hey Yehong, tell us a little bit about you!

I'm a first generation American.

I was born in China and moved to the United States at the tender age of two. I spent my childhood in the Midwest, my adolescence in the American South, my college years on the East Coast and my post-grad life on the West Coast. So while I grew up mostly in Atlanta, the truth is I’m a pretty global citizen by now.

My mother was a journalist, so naturally I was curious about the world of media, the way in which stories transport us into other worlds. From a very young age, I was interested in storytelling. That's what I loved to do. And that's also the gift I want to share with the world, by making stories more accessible through technology.

I studied political philosophy at Harvard, where I started my first business, a college admissions consulting company that helped underprivileged high school students apply to Ivy League schools. I also worked as a business reporter for Forbes magazine. Afterwards, I worked as a product manager at Twitter on two consumer teams: the Tweets team in San Francisco and the Events team in London.

Currently, I’m the founder and CEO of Zette, an early stage media tech startup that lets readers unlock news articles behind subscription paywalls. Our mission is to democratize access to real news. I'm also an occasional angel investor and a scout for a couple of venture funds.

What were you doing before Day One? What led you here?

Before joining Day One, I was bootstrapping my own company in the midst of the pandemic.

I spoke to Andrew Hutton, the founder of Day One, and was intrigued by the accelerator he was building for early-stage companies. What drew me in the most was his emphasis on the community. The founder journey is often a lonely one, particularly in a fully remote world where I had fewer opportunities to meet new people. So a bootcamp like Day One really expanded my circle and led me to meet other great startup founders.

Why did you start Zette? What problem do you hope to solve in the world?

When I was working at Forbes in 2016, I had a front row seat to the problems of journalism as a business model. Media outlets were having a tough time transitioning from print to digital—typically offering digital content for free, supported by programmatic ads with razor thin margins. It was clear to me that sooner or later, newspapers and magazines were going to transition to subscription paywalls.

But if every media 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. 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, and for the profits to be shared directly with newsrooms. Like Spotify or Netflix, but for news. The seeds for this new business model were planted when I was at Forbes, and started germinating after I worked in product at Twitter.

All of these learnings inspired me to found Zette.

How is it going?

Phenomenally! In 2021 we raised an oversubscribed $1.7 million preseed round, backed by Afore Capital, with participation from Halogen, Hyphen, The Community Fund, MGV Capital, and some of the top consumer angels in Silicon Valley.

We've since closed 80+ premium partnerships across local, national, and international publications, including Forbes, The Miami Herald, Boone Newspapers, New Scientist, and Haaretz, with hundreds more media partnerships on the way, and we have thousands of early adopters on our waitlist.

For more updates about Zette, check out some of our latest press coverage in Forbes, Biz Journals, Poynter, and Built in LA.

What has been the hardest part about your entrepreneurial journey so far?

In the beginning, I was way too focused on the outcome. I’ve since learned that starting a company isn’t a race to the finish line—it’s a journey that’s meant to be lived, savored, and enjoyed.

Honestly, this is an easy trap to fall into. I think that a lot of first-time entrepreneurs see starting a company the way amateur climbers see climbing Mount Everest. They see it as a grand accomplishment, especially 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, your path up there will feel endlessly long and painful, and anything other than summiting will feel like failure. After countless 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 climbs mountains, no matter how steep they are.

What has been the biggest surprise about entrepreneurship that you’ve encountered so far?

Elon Musk famously said that running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss—after a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends. It's a great analogy for the high stress and often torturous path of being a startup founder.

Yet the biggest surprise I’ve discovered is this: If somebody were to take my company away from me, I’d be kicking and screaming. At the moment, there's nowhere I'd rather be.

What do you wish someone told you about entrepreneurship one year ago?

I wish someone had told me that as a founder, you need to prioritize your own well being and happiness over everything else. If you keep burning the candle on both ends, eventually there will be nothing left. That’s why they call it burnout.

As much as you want to be there for your startup, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. To go back to the mountain climbing analogy: If you don’t have time to breathe, there is no way you’re making it up Mount Everest. Taking care of yourself first is of vital importance and the best way to show up as a leader for your startup.

What has been the most valuable part of your Day One experience so far?

I’ve met incredible people through Day One. Seeing the breadth of companies and problems that people are solving from the very earliest stages has been inspiring to me, both personally and professionally. Being surrounded by so many founders is actually what encouraged me to start my journey as an angel investor.

I was constantly surrounded by brilliant people at the earliest stages of their fundraising and company-building journeys, and after being continually asked for fundraising advice, I decided to start writing small checks of my own into the most promising startups that I saw. One thing led to another, and I’m beginning to make a name for myself as an investor as well as an entrepreneur.

What is one question that people don’t ask you that you wish more people would ask you?

How do you scale yourself alongside your company?

Ultimately, a company is an extension of the founder’s vision and ambition. The more enlightened you are as a founder and the more you’re able to scale your own leadership abilities, the bigger your startup’s horizons will grow.

How can people get in touch with you and your company?

Sign up for our waitlist at zette.com for early access to our beta!

You can also get in touch with me personally through email, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

What is the best way for people to help you these days?

Zette is raising a $6 million seed round this fall. We're looking for investors interested in leading or co-leading our round—especially strategic investors who can either help us scale our consumer and enterprise offerings or support us with media partnerships.

Warm intros are greatly appreciated! You can reach me at y@zette.com.

Anything else you’d like to share with the world, either about yourself, your company, your entrepreneurial journey, or Day One?

I just wanted to share my immense gratitude. My path has been unconventional so far, but so rewarding. We’ve come so far since 2020, when Zette was an idea typed onto a blank Google doc in a San Francisco basement. I can’t wait to see what’s next to come!