I have always been fascinated by how a neighbourhood can define who you are and what you do with your life. A real generalisation I know, which probably therefore, means nothing. I have not done the research on the subject, but I have written before about how successful just three of the kids that I grew up with in my sleepy, suburban and very ordinary neighbourhood in Port Elizabeth, South Africa are: Stanley Bergman, Chairman and CEO, of Fortune 500 company Henry Shein; Colin Sapire, Founder of Nutribullet, which he sold to Private Equity for a sizeable chunk of change and he has now started a company to go head–to–head with Nutribullet called Beast Health; and Sir Mick Davis, former CEO of the Conservative Party but better known as CEO of the mining company, Xstrata, which he merged with Glencore in 2013.
In Port Elizabeth, I grew up in the same house that I was born in and our family lived there for 45 years. As it happens, I have lived in the same house now for 25 years in North West London and I can’t ever see myself moving. Interestingly, within 6 houses of each other, we have 3 successful tech entrepreneurs who have all raised venture capital funding: Rafe who founded Sofar Sounds and raised $25M two years ago; David, founder of Signal AI, who has raised $45M to date; and Zach Wise who has just raised $50M. A few houses down, the hip hop band NDubz was formed where one of the members, Fazer, lived. (NDubz stands for our post code, NW!)
About 15 years ago, a young American family with three little boys moved in next door to me and left to return to Los Angeles just as their middle son, Zach, was entering high school. I visited the family every few years in LA and watched Zach go through high school and then on to business school at the University of Southern California.
Fast forward to 2021, and Zach is now co-founder of Emotive, a marketing business with a $400m valuation and plans to double the number of colleagues to 250 by the end of this year. Remarkably, he is just 24 years old.
I caught up with Zach a few days ago, to discuss how he and his high school friend Brian Zatulove built their business, his predictions for the future of marketing, and what he misses about life in the UK.
“Emotive’s vision is to humanise the internet,” Zach tells me when we sat down over Zoom. “The world has moved online but we’ve left behind what’s important in commerce: human interaction and true customer engagement.”
To counter this, Zach and his co-founder Brian are transforming the way brands and retailers talk to their customers, by offering ecommerce businesses conversational text messaging solutions. When a customer adds an item to their cart then leaves the site, for example, Emotive’s technology allows retailers to ‘nudge’ them with a friendly text, ultimately driving up conversion rates. The next ‘layer of the internet’, Zach predicts, is this sort of humanised communication at scale.
Zach’s life as an entrepreneur started at USC, with the launch of a marketing platform for the cannabis industry. “It was a burgeoning market without any software platforms for sales or marketing,” Zach explained, “so Brian and I set up Reefer to fill that gap.”
“The biggest learning is that the way consumers and businesses were communicating was going to change fundamentally in the next three to five years. Email was oversaturated, and not fit for purpose for the millennial consumer. SMS was definitely the most obvious channel.”
“The biggest learning is that the way consumers and businesses were communicating was going to change fundamentally in the next three to five years,” Zach told me, “Email was oversaturated, and not fit for purpose for the millennial consumer. SMS was definitely the most obvious channel.”
Driven by this vision, Zach and Brian pivoted towards the ecommerce market in 2018 with the launch of Emotive.
“We stumbled across a friend who had started an ecommerce business and asked him whether we could test our theory on his customers,” Zach recalls. “We sat in our shared apartment, using our own cell phones to manually text his customer list trying to increase sales.” As you might have guessed, their theory proved correct: over the course of just two hours on Black Friday, the boys had driven more than $15,000 of sales. Emotive was born.
The company has grown from zero revenue to $14m since October 2018, with big plans for growth and a target of a multi-billion dollar valuation in the next few years. They have offices in LA, Boston and Atlanta.
I wondered how he’s found his experience as a young founder?
“The most challenging thing is the levelling up required with this sort of growth,” he explained, “every six months it feels like I have a completely new job where I have to almost start again and go through a steep learning curve.
“The most challenging thing is the levelling up required with this sort of growth. Every six months it feels like I have a completely new job where I have to almost start again and go through a steep learning curve.”
“Being a younger founder, inherently you’re less experienced so I really lean on my executives who are mostly all older than both Brian and me and have done it before. They push us to where we need to be as founders.” Zach has built an excellent team around him, made up of executives from the space’s leading businesses, such as Drift and Salesloft.
Certainly, there are exciting times ahead. The US ecommerce market grew by a whopping 44% in 2020, of course boosted by the impact of Covid-19. Shopify, which Zach describes as the ‘proxy’ for the market, grew its Black Friday sales by 76% last year, generating $5.1bn from the more than one million brands powered by its platform around the world.
Shopping has changed: direct-to-consumer, multichannel models are coming to the fore, and how these businesses communicate with their customers has never been more important. Drift, the SaaS firm recognised for creating the ‘conversational marketing’ category, has more than 50,000 companies on its platform, and in the UK more and more businesses like Acoustic are exploding on to the scene.
I remember a time when online shopping felt like the most disruptive development in retail. Now, speaking with Zach, I realise that the next generation of startups are disrupting the disrupters… so where do we go from here?
Born? In London
School? Lyndhurst House in London and then Campbell Hall in LA, before USC
Book or film? I’m not a big reader but I consume a lot of content. My favourite is Saastr, a podcast series about SaaS! Favourite film has to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood
Mentors? David Cancel at Drift is really inspiring. He speaks about marketing being one of the ‘bloodiest spaces’, with lots of competition but lots of demand.
Legacy? I’m young so that’s difficult to answer and I am trying to figure things out. The goal has always been to build a game-changing business with a massive impact. I aspire now to building a unicorn.
What do you miss most about the UK? I miss how small and intimate London was – LA is very spread out and people keep themselves to themselves. I miss going to the football and I wish that I did not have to wake up at 4:30am to watch Liverpool. I really miss Cadbury’s chocolate and Nando’s!