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Unicorns are dead. Why businesses should be zebras instead

Business goals are largely a reflection of the times we live in. Unicorns (companies with billion dollar valuations like Uber, Tesla and...

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3 min read

Business goals are largely a reflection of the times we live in. Unicorns (companies with billion dollar valuations like Uber, Tesla and Netflix) were glamorized shortly before the pandemic. And when Apple reached a trillion dollar valuation, the pegasus was born, an even more elusive goal.

Since then, five companies (Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and Tesla) now have a higher market cap than most countries’ GDP. It’s a disturbing fact that highlights the monumental shift in power from government to corporate, and with it the loss of regulatory control. That means companies can get away with things simply because of their valuation (see: WeWork and Theranos). Of course, while these unicorns focused on hyper-growth, they forgot arguably the most important aspect of doing business: the product or service needs to actually be profitable, and in Theranos’ case, it needed to actually work.

The great irony behind WeWork selling access to it’s community, is that it ended up gentrifying the communities it entered. And when it comes to the medical field, failed products can literally kill. While both company’s founders have been held accountable for lying to investors, they also reflect a harsh reality: the working world values growth and profit above all else.

As a result, society is waking up to the need for a more conscientious capitalistic framework. We’ve shifted targets from mythical beasts to zebras, a term coined in 2017 by Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz and Aniyia Williams, the team that published Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break, to describe companies that are simultaneously profitable yet attentive to the world’s social needs (hence the black and white stripes).

No one said companies can’t do good while turning a profit. Pivoting aspirations means rebalancing your priorities. Whereas unicorns are driven by growth and measure success by customers and profit, zebras prioritize customer success and the contributions made to their community.

Here’s how to be a socially conscious agency, without sacrificing revenue.

Expand your client roster

When it comes to doing good while making money, the key is to think AND not OR. Align your financial needs with your social impact efforts where possible by finding clients who fit the bill (and the cause). There are so many companies trying to do good now. Support minority-owned businesses and reach out to companies in the sustainability sector or non-profits with enough of a budget to work with you.

Wix Partner Lumo Design Studio worked with clients like Oui Finance, whose mission is to help clients level up their financial literacy, and KeepItCuteKitchen, a service that empowers black women living with autoimmune disorders to reclaim their energy through diet and lifestyle changes.

Run with the pack

Unicorns are creatures of solitude, but zebras ride together. While the former looks to be the last one standing in a competitive stomping ground, the latter embraces collaboration through diversity and strength in numbers. Fun fact: It’s probably why a group of zebras is called a dazzle.

Connect with mission-driven brands and individuals to embrace your core zebra. For example, last year, Czech Republic-based creative agency UON7 showed their stripes by hiring Ukrainian refugees who helped scale their business, a win for everyone.

“Dima is very native to the digital [world], so I have to keep up in some ways,” Julius Miko, founder of UON7, told us in Why this agency founder is committed to hiring refugees and leading with heart. “He’s really helped me elevate the brand’s sense of style, and he understands content.”

You can also join Zebras Unite, a member-owned co-op creating the capital, culture, and community to power a more just and inclusive economy. Members tap into rich resources of purpose-led VC funding and network with other progressively-minded companies.

Show your stripes

Naturally progressive, zebras seek to heal wounds inflicted by ‘business as usual’ practices such as environmental damage, mental health challenges and inequality. It all starts with leadership connecting the brand’s strategy with its higher purpose, as it sets the tone for all decisions thereafter.

The Ethical Agency is an excellent example of a sustainability-minded agency leading by example in reducing their own footprint and forging relationships to design and develop for eco-friendly organizations. Similarly, Quixotic Design Co. builds industry leading brands for female entrepreneurs.

The future is zebra

Ultimately, zebras aren’t defined only by how much money they make—their social impact matters, too. This shift in our culture’s business priorities presents the perfect opportunity to be a part of something bigger than yourself, or even your agency. You can get started by being deliberate in the clients you work with and the values you stand for.


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