Martina Welke and Britta Jacobs – Co-Founders of Zealyst

[quote style=”boxed”]Treat everybody with decency and respect. Take meetings with people who seem like random connections. So many of our breaks and breakthroughs happened from seemingly unlikely situations.[/quote]

It all began one magical day at SeaTac Airport. Britta Welke and Martina Jacobs were both waiting to fly to Los Angeles, California, for a conference to begin a year of service as AmeriCorps VISTAs in western Washington. The two served in different departments at a large human services nonprofit, and quickly became best friends.

After completing their AmeriCorps year, Martina and Britta started working at different startups and caught the pioneering spirit. They decided that they wanted to work together before they knew what they wanted to do. The two women set on a very long walk one day, with the purpose of coming up with a business idea. They kept circling around their professional strengths, market opportunities, and something that would be fun to do. Eleven miles later, the concept for Zealyst was born.

Martina believes that strong human relationships form the basis for a full, happy life, and this belief fuels her drive to create better opportunities for people to connect through Zealyst. She has worked in a variety of startup environments, from helping to launch a new publication to developing a new program within a large nonprofit. Her penchant for startups really took hold while working at Re-Vision Labs in Seattle, where she worked closely with clients on web presence and community engagement strategy. Since early 2009, Martina has been studying and practicing mediation and facilitation for businesses and community organizations. Her background in facilitation and her passion for helping people connect has equipped Martina to extend Zealyst’s reach, and she is excited to impact more people’s lives.

Britta’s deep-seated passion for people drew her to social business. With a background in psychology, she uses a scientific lens to view and understand human behavior. Her extensive experience working with groups includes developing educational programming, facilitating professional networking, and hosting some of the best theme parties around.

What are you working on right now?

We are building Zealyst, a curated networking service that hosts customized events and facilitates connections in the real world. We’ve developed software that makes targeted event creation and social mapping easy for businesses and community organizations.

Where did the idea for Zealyst come from?

We were both in jobs that required us to attend a lot of networking events, but we rarely felt like they were a good use of our time and we almost never stayed in touch with the people we met. Plus, they weren’t very much fun. We knew we could do better.

What does your typical day look like?

It starts early with a walk. Computer time is interspersed with collaborative time. Evenings usually involve events (either ones we run or ones we are attending for research, marketing and networking). The best part of our work happens in the evening, when we are hosting our huddles. Interacting with our members and clients, testing new games and watching new relationships begin is exciting and rewarding.

How do you bring ideas to life?

It’s a social process. We try to spend the minimum amount of time in the initial design phase, so that we can move into testing as quickly as possible. There’s usually a huge amount of work to do after testing a new idea, and we like to learn as much as possible early on–even if that means accepting imperfections–so that we ultimately create the experience or product our audience really wants, not what we think they want.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Affogatos, the sensational pairing of espresso over ice cream, and the critical thought around human interactions that online social networks have spurred. A lot of research has recently been popularized in response to Facebook’s expansive influence, and it’s exciting to see professionals from a variety of disciplines participating in the conversation. Our communities are more virtual and fluid than ever, which has both wonderful and disappointing consequences. Opinions differ on the channels and methodology, but ultimately everyone seems to agree that building strong connections is a positive and essential thing.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Britta: My worst working experiences were due more to a crummy fit than the actual work involved.

Martina: My very first job was organizing back-logged medical records, which meant I had to spend an entire summer alone in a suburban storage container, leafing through thousands of patient charts. It was also my highest paying job until after I graduated college. I learned that interacting with people and exercising creativity are absolutely paramount to me, and no amount of money is worth sacrificing those values.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

We’d talk more openly about our ideas and involve more people in the creative process sooner. We were very guarded about the whole thing when we started, partly because we hadn’t figured out the details, and partly because we were worried about people stealing our ideas. When we finally started making information public and hosting conversations with people who wanted to help, we learned a tremendous amount and made better decisions.

We’d also learn to code.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Treat everybody with decency and respect. Take meetings with people who seem like random connections. So many of our breaks and breakthroughs happened from seemingly unlikely situations.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We realized fairly early on that our original business model was not going to be financially sustainable, but we also knew we were building something with a lot of value, so we stuck with it and started thinking about other opportunities to monetize. Around the same time, we started getting approached by small business owners who had an interest in hiring us to apply the Zealyst model to their networks (employees and customers). We ran a few pilot events and discovered that the model translated well and was a more lucrative revenue stream. We’ve been able to maintain the original integrity of our concept while finding a more financially viable way to expand.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Video chat with ability to see, hear and feel the other party. How handy would it be to be able to hug at the end of a Skype chat?

Tell us a secret.

We have matching zebra leotards that we break out for special occasions.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

  1. Google Suite for auto saving and easy mobile integration. All of our stuff is already there.
  2. Norada offers profoundly sexy CRM.
  3. Formstack is a great, inexpensive tool for collecting data. It’s also easy to customize.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. It has an unfortunately “self-helpish” title, but is a really thoughtful study on coping with and learning from change (which is a constant for an entrepreneur!).

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

  1. @GuyKawasaki is entertaining, informative and unexpectedly exciting.
  2. @women2 (Women 2.0) is a great source of info for startups. It’s interesting for women and men!
  3. @Richard_Florida offers a provocative array of information about urbanism and business.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

We laughed this morning when we were trying to find a photo of us; we got to relive many of our delightfully silly moments.

Who is your hero?

My co-founder.

What was a pivotal moment in the creation of your company?

When we decided to get really scrappy and do everything from scratch. After we had cemented an idea, we started looking for a technologist who could read our minds and build us the perfect software that we couldn’t even describe. We stopped looking for a magician/mind-reader and rolled up our sleeves to do it ourselves. We ran a pilot to test our idea using a hodgepodge of online tools, and we learned so much. When we were eventually ready to build custom software, we were able to explain exactly what we wanted.

Is it difficult working with your best friend?

No. It’s difficult to imagine working any other way. We trust each other with every detail–personal and professional–and there aren’t very many people in the world with whom this is possible. We also know each other well enough to anticipate needs and figure out if something isn’t working. We cheer each other up when one of us is down, and if we’re both down, we get ice cream.

We check in with each other constantly and push when we notice something is wrong. We made a commitment from the beginning to be honest about struggles and deal with conflict directly, because we recognized that we were risking our friendship by starting a business together. There have definitely been a lot of difficult conversations, but we’ve been able to work through it together because we don’t let things fester and grow into something more insidious.


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