CEO of Foundersuite.com, which makes software for raising venture capital and managing investors.
Zuleyka Strasner’s honeymoon was a life-changing experience, and not just because she was newly married. What was meant to be a romantic vacation in Nicaragua became the catalyst for her transforming her lifestyle and founding her own company.
The Corn Islands were beautiful, Zuleyka remembers. But the ocean was a stark reminder of the world’s state of pollution and waste.
“I was astounded by how much plastic and trash there was in the sea, absolutely astounded,” Zuleyka says.
When she returned home to San Francisco, she got rid of all single-use plastic in her home. She cleaned out her kitchen cupboards. Her grocery trips turned into three-hour adventures. And she realized exactly how challenging it was to live an environmentally conscious lifestyle.
So, Zuleyka decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2018, she founded Zero Grocery, a plastic-free online grocery store in the Bay Area of California.
It wasn’t easy, especially since Zuleyka began without any capital. But she eventually raised $4.7 million within two years. In an episode of How I Raised it, Zuleyka tells the story of how she went from $2,500 of her own money to turning down checks in 2020.
Use your connections (and don’t feel shame)
When Zuleyka felt ready to begin raising money in 2018, she thought she’d meet with maybe 20 people. A few might cut her some checks and she’d be good to go, she assumed.
In reality, she presented 263 pitches between September and January — a five month timespan — all on her own.
Throughout the fundraising process, Zuleyka made use of her secret weapon: Connections. Since she previously worked as an operations manager at Felicis Ventures, she had the contacts she needed to set up meetings.
“I had an early network, I knew a lot of VCs, I knew a lot of angels, I had made just a lot of friends because I like people. And I also have little to no shame,” Zuleyka says.
When one potential investor turned her down, she asked them for more names: “Each one person can unlock for me another three or four people … You just keep that pipeline going,” Zuleyka says.
It was that boldness that led to her success. During that hectic first round, she raised $500,000 from six investors.
Don’t waste your time with those who don’t care
Over the course of her 263 meetings, Zuleyka spoke to a drove of potential investors.
“There were some people I really tried hard to win over and over and over again,” Zuleyka says. “And the honest answer is they’re just not that into you … they’re just not that into your company.”
Instead, save your energy for the people who legitimately care. For Zuleyka, that person was Charles Hudson.
Hudson (who also appeared on the How I Raised It podcast), managing partner at Precursor Land Ventures, believed in Zuleyka from the get go. He seemed genuinely interested in her, how she operated, and the idea behind Zero Grocery. In the end, half of that initial $500,000 came from Hudson.
Underdogs have superpowers
Zuleyka, a black trans woman from East London, is not what the majority of Silicon Valley looks like.
She never brings this up in pitch meetings: “It really isn’t the basis of any of the discussions that we have, nor is it the basis on which I’m building this company at all. So I don’t really ascribe to any of that identitarian politics at all, but it is important for us to recognize.”
When it came time for Zero Grocery to hire employees, Zuleyka looked to people from a variety of backgrounds, but especially those who had struggled or suffered in some way. She values the “true underdogs” who may have been overlooked in the past. These individuals bring an intense will to succeed, which Zuleyka considers a superpower.
35X growth isn’t easy, so you have to stay resilient
Zuleyka recalls times when Zero Grocery was days and even hours within shutting down completely. But she always pulled through.
Her persistence was especially put to the test during the first round of fundraising, when she spent her days in and out of meetings. Not every potential investor liked her ideas; some dismissed or tore her mission up completely. But “every meeting you go into, you cannot take the baggage from the last meeting,” she says.
Ultimately, it was Zuleyka’s belief that her company was doing something good for the world that kept her resilience intact.
In 2020, the company grew 35X. By the end of the year, Zero Grocery had nearly 100 employees, up from six workers in March.
A large component of the company’s fundraising success — and the massive growth of its customer base — was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With people avoiding public spaces, more and more individuals turned to online grocery shopping. And that meant more and more people found Zero Grocery.
“If I could click my fingers and this would all be over tomorrow, I would do it instantly,” Zuleyka says. But at the same time, she recognizes that Zero Grocery has provided a useful purpose to many: “We’ve at least been able to take up that responsibility to service people and service folks and enable them to not leave their homes.”
Zuleyka feels hopeful about the future of Zero Grocery.
“Maybe it’s bliss, ignorance or being blind, I’m not sure. But it’s incredible what the human spirit can do,” Zuleyka says. “This company, this idea, this mission is so much bigger than me.”
Nathan Beckord is the CEO of Foundersuite.com which makes software for raising capital. Foundersuite has helped startups raise over $3 billion in angel and venture capital since 2016. This article is based on an episode of Foundersuite’s How I Raised It podcast, a behind-the-scenes look at how startup founders raise money.
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