2023 Fellow Yehong Zhu credits her upbringing as a “second-generation journalist and first-generation immigrant” and her years working in newsrooms as the primary inspiration behind her media tech startup, Zette. As the COVID-19 pandemic laid even more bare the systemic barriers that separate people from trustworthy information about the world, she realized she had to be the one to make a change.
Yehong Zhu almost didn’t create Zette. Her idea for a centralized, subscription-based platform providing access to thousands of reputable journalism outlets without a paywall seemed too obvious. Surely, she thought, someone must have thought of this already.
“I just thought, there are platforms that give us access to millions of movies, TV shows, songs, and books,” Zhu recalls. “So why shouldn’t we be able to access premium news the same way?”
It was early 2020, she remembers, and everything seemed to be in flux. The American public was only months into a pandemic that would span years, facing an endless barrage of harmful misinformation about mask wearing, social distancing, and election fraud plastered across social media platforms.
By that point, Zhu already had years of experience as a journalist—first as an undergraduate staffer on the Harvard Crimson, and then professionally at no less prestigious a publication than Forbes. She’d seen firsthand the rising costs that had been pushing news outlets to publish articles riddled with ads and to adopt the kind of “five free articles per month” paywalls that had become ubiquitous by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And according to Zhu, those tensions didn’t just hurt readers who couldn’t afford pay-per-read access.
“Even journalists writing for the biggest media brands in the world were not getting paid as we should have been, especially relative to the amount of value we were creating for the world. For such an important industry, there was something fundamentally misaligned with the business model of journalism.”
Zhu remembers feeling so certain: there had to be a better way to ensure sustainable profit margins for news outlets that didn’t hamstring readers with paywalls and advertisements. The idea for Zette struck her less as a flash of inspiration and more as a logical conclusion.
“Instead of competing against other publishers for new subscribers, the industry could cooperate [and distribute the revenues from a single recurring subscription model amongst themselves]. Then readers could get access to all the journalism they wanted, rather than having to pick and choose the one or two subscriptions that they could afford.”
For Zhu, it all felt so intuitive that she was convinced that she’d read about a startup piloting this very model any day.
But she didn’t.
Years passed and Zhu, now working at X (formerly Twitter) while grappling daily with the problem of misinformation and a broader lack of access to credible news sources, saw no sign of that magical startup. That was when she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“If no one else was going to do this, then this was a problem that I needed to take on. Because of my background and experience in both journalism and tech, I saw the potential for what this could become, and just how big it could be.”
So Zhu left her lucrative tech job and set herself the enormous task of founding a startup in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis. The traditional startup playbooks for incorporation, fundraising, recruiting, collaborating—everything had gone out the window.
Yet even as she navigated every kind of obstacle and uncertainty the universe could throw at her, she held onto her certainty about Zette.
“There are definitely moments of delusion as an entrepreneur,” Zhu says. “There’s always a risk you’ll be working on an idea that no one cares about. But in this case, I knew—from talking to users, from working in newsrooms, from interviewing hundreds of people who’ve all hit paywalls—that this was a genuine societal problem.”
“Even in a time of such extreme mental, psychological, physical and financial instability, I knew the world needed this. And so there came a point when I just decided, ‘I’m going to keep going, and the world can either get on the bandwagon or not’.”
Two years, one towering venture round, 100+ publishing deals, 10,000+ readers, and one feature in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 later, Yehong Zhu joined the Future Founders Fellowship.
“I didn’t know what to expect heading into the program,” she recalls. “But when I arrived in Chicago for the program’s first in-person retreat this past April, I was blown away by the caliber of people I met and all the stories they shared.”
Future Founders felt like a different kind of founder community, Zhu says.
“A lot of my circles in the startup world have tended towards relative privilege. Future Founders, in the best possible way, has felt like the opposite of that. I’ve been amazed every day by my cohort, how gracefully they’ve navigated extraordinary obstacles, and how they’ve been able to spin gold from adversity.”
In addition to all she’s learned through Fellowship programming, it is the deep, mutually inspiring relationships Zhu has forged with her colleagues that will stay with her into the future.
And what might this future hold for Zette?
“World domination,” she replies wryly, before continuing.
“In all seriousness, I didn’t do this to have a small impact. I did it to have a world-changing impact. If I have a strong mission for why I’m here and a strong vision for how I want to do good for humanity, then I need to give it my all.”
Zhu is clear-eyed about the challenges of the startup journey—the isolation, the endless ‘no’s, the sheer improbability of success. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve always thought [Zette] was such an obvious idea, so obvious I assumed that someone else would do it. But that’s exactly the issue, right? We have to be the ones who are brave enough to take that first step forward, because an idea that’s obvious to me might not be to everybody else until it’s undeniable. I founded this company because I needed this product to exist and I was uniquely positioned to make it happen.”
And she did.
For Yehong Zhu, Zette represents both an obligation and an opportunity. The same entrepreneurial spirit that drove her to take responsibility for creating the change she saw the world needed drives her company’s vision for the future.
“We want to light up the world by giving everyone access to knowledge,” she says. “The stories you read are just another form of education, something that no one can take away from you. If you have access to the right information, you can create abundance for yourself, for your family, for your community and for future generations. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Learn more about Zette and try out the beta version here.
Learn more about the Future Founders Fellowship here.
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