In an era where digital content is king yet often locked behind paywalls, Yehong Zhu, founder of Zette, is on a mission to democratize access to premium news. With a robust platform that simplifies unlocking articles with a single click, Zette is not just another news aggregator but a movement towards open access. This founder profile dives into Zhu’s journey from noticing a critical gap in the media consumption landscape to creating a solution that seamlessly integrates into the daily lives of thousands, aiming to influence the industry significantly ahead of the 2024 election cycle.

Funding Round Details

Zette logo
Company: Zette
Security Type: SAFE
Valuation: $22,000,000
Min Investment: $250
Platform: Wefunder
Deadline: Apr 29, 2024
View Deal

In your own words, how would you describe your company?

 If you’ve ever run out of free articles, you’ve likely run into one of the biggest frustrations of modern-day internet browsing—paywalls. Zette’s software solves this by magically dropping paywalls with just one click. (No more cache clearing, password sharing, or incognito mode!)

We closed licensing deals with 110 premium newspapers and magazines and grew 5x last year to 50,000 readers. Not only are we one of the first legal pay-per-article solutions on the market, we’re also one of the only companies in the world to close our caliber of deals—which currently ranges from Forbes to New Scientist to Pulitzer-Prize winning news outlets. Our product is live on all of our partner sites, which users can access starting at $9.99 a month.

In addition to unlocking access to articles, we help with discovery too. We’re building an AI product to recommend the most relevant and interesting content across the internet, which we’re really excited to bring to the public before the 2024 election cycle.

What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?

My mother was a journalist, and my father was an engineer, so naturally, I’ve always been interested in the intersection of media and technology. However, my personal motivation to start this company stemmed from my experience as a business journalist at Forbes.

It was in the Forbes newsroom that I first discovered that the media was facing a huge business model problem. This problem affected both sides of the market, from the journalists producing content but not getting paid enough to the readers who were locked out of reading real journalism because they couldn’t afford to subscribe to thousands of paywalls.

And really this could be solved by having an easier way to pay for each article read. I just thought—there are already platforms that give us access to millions of movies, tv shows, songs, and books. Why shouldn’t we be able to access news the same way?

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

 My AI co-founder is Mo Samsami, a machine learning researcher who authored one of the top 1% of academic papers on deep learning. He graduated from the MIT of Iran, and is currently getting a master’s at the Mila Institute for Artificial Intelligence. It’s been amazing to work with him during the boom of AI, especially on a product that’s democratizing access to journalism during the misinformation epidemic that is spreading like wildfire in America today. 

I’m joined by an incredible Head of Business Development—my team member Axel, who has a decade of experience closing deals from a number of publishers that are household names in the US, and who has personally closed many of our existing deals with publishers.

My CTO, Alex Deeb, is a veteran founder himself. He co-founded an ed-tech company from the ground up with code that he built from scratch. He’s built nearly all of our back-end systems, integrated Zette with hundreds of publishers, and manages our engineering team as well. We’re also joined by a number of other top-tier team members, ranging from marketing and growth strategists to AI engineers and more. 

Our team really came together around our mission. Initially, I was the sole proprietor of the company. As we gained momentum, I was able to find and attract the talent who deeply resonated with our mission. When you’re working on something that big, it seems to attract only the people who are motivated to work on the world’s most pressing problems.

How would you describe your growth strategy?

In the beginning, our growth was almost entirely organic. We spent very little if anything on marketing, and people were spreading the word left and right about what we were building. It makes sense because paywalls are such a pervasive problem—once you become aware of it, you really notice how many paywalls you start running into—so naturally, you’ll talk about it.

Last year we also acquired news AI startup Below the Fold and folded their audience into Zette. This acquisition was officially completed in December, officially making us the new stewards of Below the Fold’s audience and users. So we’re very excited to introduce an entire new segment of readers to our product, especially the news junkies and heavy consumers of media. 

Finally, we have ambitious growth strategies moving forward. We’re planning to reach new users through our AI product, which we believe will drive strategic, viral-friendly growth of our platform—and we’re also planning to open both an enterprise arm and a university arm for Zette in the future. Everyone needs access to news, from busy working professionals to college students, and we want to be the one-stop shop for all types of premium news consumption.

What is the most important lesson you learned since you started Zette?

My biggest lesson is just to keep going. In the beginning, there were so many naysayers who told me that Zette was an impossible startup to found, and that it was going to be impossible to succeed. I think that there’s a big difference between things that haven’t been done before, and things that are impossible, and that it’s important to know the difference. Perseverance can move the world, and if I could give any entrepreneur a piece of advice, it’s to not give up before you know what the potential of the outcome could really be.

If we talk again in 12 months, which milestones will you have achieved?

Certainly, by the end of this month, we’ll have closed an incredible equity crowdfunding round with an amazing cohort of new investors! But we also have a packed roadmap laid out ahead of us—including the launch of our new AI product, the close of our next fundraising round, the addition of thousands of new readers to the Zette platform, local, national and international publishers in our pipeline, and 6-7 figure revenue milestones as we progress on our journey to become the next market maker in this space.

Looking further into the future, we want to become the new category king in the digital media sector, and we’re targeting a venture-scale outcome (100x return) with the end goal of an IPO within the next decade. This is going to be the journey of a lifetime, and we’d love to invite any interested investors along for the ride before our Wefunder campaign closes on April 26.