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The “Zebra Effect”: Why collaboration matters

The corporate unicorn was yesterday — now we should consider the wisdom of black and white stripes.
Experiencing the zebra effect, a zebra stands near a baby zebra.
Olaf Kraak / ANP / AFP / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • Zebras have a unique black and white striped pattern that helps them blend in and confuse predators when they move in a pack.
  • The Zebra Effect is a business model that promotes collaboration, sustainability, and ethical purpose, in contrast to the dominant unicorn model focused on disruption and profit.
  • Companies can benefit from forming partnerships and alliances with like-minded organizations to achieve mutual success and overcome challenges.

Zebras are, on first impression, ridiculous. They are herbivorous pack animals, and their natural habitat is usually some kind of treeless grassland or savanna — green, yellow, and brown. You’d think then, given the predatory appeal of their lean meat, that zebras would try and blend in more with a bit of camouflage to make themselves inconspicuous. But no. The zebra struts around in black and white stripes. It flaunts both its color and its design in such a way as to say, “Hello savannah! Here I am: a tasty, trotting crosswalk of a feast.”

If we dig a bit deeper, though, we see the genius in the zebra’s game. Yes, alone, a zebra is ridiculous, but in a pack and moving at speed, they become brilliant. Because when you have a lot of black and white stripes jumping up and down, darting to and fro, and kicking up a dusty hullabaloo, it’s really hard to see what’s going on. Your eyes start to blur. Your head starts to spin. Imagine you’re a lion about to make chase. One minute, you’re salivating over a piano-key dinner. The next, you’re chasing an optical illusion.

A zebra’s striping works because it lives in a pack. Its strength lies in working together. This fact, known as the Zebra Effect, has a great many practical applications in our own lives.

Unicorns and zebras

Once upon a time, in the corporate world, the unicorn was the ultimate symbol of success — a rare, almost mythical creature representing companies with explosive growth and billion-dollar valuations. It’s been about disruption, innovation, and profit-centric models. The Zebra Effect (sometimes called the Zebra movement) is a different wisdom. In some ways, it’s even a pushback against the dominant unicorn model. Zebra companies are about slow and sustainable progress. They tend to collaborate often and early with other Zebra-type companies and look to balance profit with an ethical purpose that prioritizes democracy and resource sharing. The Zebra Effect is a business model that is less predatory and dog-eat-dog ruthless but one that aims to pursue mutually beneficial collaborations, which in turn create a more inclusive and sustainable business ecosystem.

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The Zebra Effect is seen most obviously today in start-up culture. All start-ups need energy, innovation, and an idea. Ideally, they need some USP that will make them stand out. But there are also many advantages that come from collaborating with like-minded start-ups. Zebras Unite is a website that focuses on this idea and believes that cooperative business ventures are not only profitable but sustainable and “better for the world.” Start-up culture is obsessed with Steve Jobs disruption, or the obsessive profit-driven, crunch culture that dominates Silicon Valley. But Zebras Unite serves the “overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs who don’t fit that mold.” There is no law of nature dictating that success and entrepreneurialism need to be unicorns.

Flaunt your stripes

Of course, as in life, the answer to success probably lies somewhere between a unicorn and a zebra (a hybrid I’d pay to see). Profit and growth depend on a balance between standing out and fitting in. But, for those wanting to apply a bit more zebra-wisdom to their company, what practical examples are there? Here we look at three, outside of the startup world.

The power of the consortium. Just because another company (or even a person) is competing with you in one key area doesn’t mean that you need to compete in all areas. For instance, in the 1980s, there were dozens of semiconductor manufacturers in the US. They were all in global competition and they all had the same problem: Japan. Japan’s “lean manufacturing” meant they developed better and more advanced semiconductors, which in turn catalyzed their automotive and electronic sectors. The US companies couldn’t keep up, and so the “rustbelt” emerged. This led to a Zebra tactic. Intel’s Robert Noyce oversaw the creation of SEMATECH, a consortium of 14 semiconductor companies, which, together, restored the US leadership in semiconductor innovation. In this case, the “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and zebra semiconductor companies decided to stick together.

The right side of history. Sometimes, it’s a bad idea to stand out. Startups might succeed by being different, and businesses grow thanks to innovation, but on some issues, you need to follow the crowd. A good example of this is with advertisement revenue or investor confidence. For example, around 2017/2018 the issue of hate speech and misinformation on social media had grown so egregious that it was impossible to ignore. So, companies like GoDaddy, Google, Spotify, Reddit, Facebook, Apple Pay, YouTube, and PayPal took steps to limit the spread of hate speech and misinformation. They ran together. It’s okay to be a unicorn, but not a unicorn in favor of malicious propaganda.

The mutually beneficial relationship. No one can get through life alone. We need a network of friends and family to help us, and a network of civil society to let us live the life we want. We are born into dependency with others, and life involves learning to rely on others. So, too, with business. This is the wisdom that Hector Ruiz, founder and director of ANSI Capital LLC, shares with us on Big Think+. A zebra cannot outrun or outfight a lion. They need collaborative strategies. So, too, with many smaller companies. Ruiz puts it like this: “When you’re a small company trying to compete with a behemoth, it was really critical to try to see if you could partner with others to be able to punch above your weight. And so it became very important for me to look around to see who I could count on. Who could I ask for help? Who could I go to?” The trick is to find a symbiotic, mutually beneficial partnership with another company.

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