A coffee with Yehong Zhu
Hi Yehong! I've been a fan of your writing for a long time and it looks like you never sit still! For the people that don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?
My name is Yehong, and I'm the founder and CEO of Zette. We help you unlock paywalled news articles all across the internet.
Prior to founding Zette, I was a reporter at Forbes magazine, a product manager at Twitter, and a Harvard philosophy graduate. I'm also a second-generation journalist, as my mother was a journalist before me. So I'm very excited to carry on the baton for media innovation.
After spending your childhood in the Midwest, what was your experience when studying at Harvard University in Boston?
I immigrated from China to America when I was 2 years old. I spent my childhood moving across Iowa and Ohio before settling in Georgia, where I graduated at the top of my class in high school before relocating to the East Coast for college.
As an undergrad at Harvard, I met interesting people from all walks of life. My classmates were brilliant, my professors were at the top of their field, and I received a world-class education. I also felt honored to be one of the only students from my hometown to ever attend an Ivy League school.
Following your graduation, you relocated to California. What made you decide to leave your dream job as product manager at Twitter?
As a product manager at Twitter, I was working with designers and engineers to build software for millions of users on a daily basis. Once I learned enough to be dangerous, I was eager to get started on a problem that had stuck with me since my newsroom days: democratizing access to journalism.
Whenever you get an “out of free articles” banner, that’s called hitting a paywall. Paywalls emerged out of the media industry’s need to monetize their business. I wanted to bring a new business model innovation into the industry—one that allows readers to pay per article, instead of a full subscription—so that everybody everywhere can read the news, while publishers still get fairly compensated.
That's why I left my last dream job as a PM: in order to create a new one as a CEO.
At the age of 24, you pursued your dream. Was entrepreneurship something you always aspired to do?
From a young age I was always thinking, how can we make this system better? How can we make this process more efficient? How can we make money by selling this service or that product? I was always leading activities at school, founding clubs, selling my artwork or doing any number of things to learn more about business.
In my early 20’s I realized that the opportunities for making a scalable impact were innumerous, because technology can give you almost limitless leverage. if you're able to create software innovation in a meaningful way, you can reach billions of people with just one product and relatively minimal overhead beyond that.
The sheer magnitude of that impact is, I think, the beauty of tech entrepreneurship.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Zette and how you got started?
I'll actually tell you the story behind Zette’s name. Zette is derived from gazette, which is the French word for newspaper. Gazette in French is derived from the Italian gazeta de la novità, which means spending a half-penny to buy the news of the day.
That’s exactly what we’re allowing users to do with our software—we’re letting them pay per article. With this model we can open up access to media for the 95% of casual readers who might just want a few articles, rather than the 1% to 5% of heavy readers who can justify the cost of a full subscription. This is how we plan to bring premium media to the mass market.
As you mentioned in one of your columns ‘It's not always about champagne and sushi. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a startup founder and how have you overcome them?
I don’t think there’s any other field where you can have your best day and your worst day on the same day, except for entrepreneurship. The highs and lows are so extreme because you're doing something no one has ever done before. You're moving an industry forward in a way that often feels impossible.
As a result, I've had to learn the true definition of emotional resiliency and resolve. I’ve had to grow a thick enough skin to handle 1000 no’s, to overcome a million obstacles and to sustain an unwavering belief in my ability to win. And because I've been tested over and over again, it really teaches you who you are.
Are you the type of person to back down from a challenge? Or are you the type of person to get up no matter no matter how many times you're beaten down? And that's one of the core lessons that I've learned through entrepreneurship: how to get back up no matter what. It’s hard to lose if you never give up.
Can you share any major milestones or accomplishments that Zette has reached that you are proud of?
To date, we've closed over 100 publisher licensing deals; we have over 10,000 readers registered on our platform; we're in the top 1% of paywall technology software integrated with publisher sites—with a patent pending for our core “unlock article” innovation; we’ve raised over $1.7 million in an oversubscribed pre-seed round backed by some of the top investors in Silicon Valley, and we were recently honored as one of Fast Company’s “World Changing Ideas” in 2023.
You’ve already accomplished a lot! What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
There's never a day without a challenge.
I think for most jobs you're only hired because you're already a master of your domain. It's rare that someone is hired for a job they “don't know how to do.” But in entrepreneurship, nobody knows how to solve the problem that you're solving—because if they did, it would already be solved. So every single day, you're figuring out how to do things that were previously impossible.
During most of my life I think I wished for more mental stimulation. I have a very fast paced mind that’s always working in the background. I was always mastering everything in front of me with fairly minimal effort. But in my startup, I've had to find tons of people way smarter than me—all thinking about the same problem—to make any kind of progress at all.
So when the ball finally starts rolling, it feels like a miracle. Right? Because it was so incredibly hard to move in the first place that when it happens, there's nothing more rewarding. That high is something that you can't replicate anywhere else.
Can you share the most valuable piece of advice that you've ever been given?
My number one piece of advice would just be to be kind, because you never know what someone else is going through. And even among top performers—the smartest, hardest working people you can find anywhere in the world—a lot of times people are struggling behind the scenes and are in need of compassion and generosity.
So I try to always be generous with introductions, with advice, and with my time. I know how many people had to help me for me to get to where I am: it takes a village. That’s why I feel like it’s my privilege and duty to pay it forward. I try to contribute back to the early-stage startup ecosystem, to associations that I've been a part of, or honestly to any community that has helped me become the person I am today.
What's next? What are your dreams for the future for for your business and also in personal life?
I’m looking forward to the day people rely on Zette to access the information that they need. I think access has been such a huge theme in my life. If you think about it, what are the kinds of people who get access to higher education? What are the types of people that get access to venture capital, or access to entrepreneurship, so that they can bring their ideas to fruition and create something that can realistically change the status quo?
Information is where it all begins. Knowledge is power, and I believe that with a mission like ours—making sure journalism is accessible for the masses—I think we’ll use the power of storytelling to connect everybody in the world, and that it's just a matter of time before we get there.