Enology 101: Three Things Every Startup Should Learn from Seattle’s Zino Society

The results of last Thursday’s investment forum organized by the Zino Society are still wafting through the Seattle business community. Six finalists were chosen for two $50,000 investment prizes—Photon Machines, Enroute, and Giftango in the “tech” category, and MicroGreen Polymers, Harbor Wing, and Zero Crossing in the “non-tech” category. Zino founder and CEO Cathi Hatch tells me her team will have to select the two winners more quickly than expected, probably by the end of this month, because some of the finalists are getting ready to close outside investment rounds.

The Zino Society has invested close to $13 million of angel financing in startups over its four-year lifetime as a business-social network that connects investors with entrepreneurs. Investor members vote on the companies, and the fund makes investments from a common pool. Hatch says one of her key takeaways from last week’s investment forum is that the passion of entrepreneurs is crucial to a broader economic recovery. “Innovation is really what’s going to help drag us out of the doldrums,” she says. And the 28 presenters from the Zino forum are the “poster children” for innovation, she adds.

Hatch also told me some intriguing tales from Zino’s history. Having a nose for this sort of thing, I thought a few of the piquant tidbits could be turned into somewhat unconventional lessons for any startup venture. In fairness to Hatch, she did not lay them out as lessons in entrepreneurship, so these takeaways are strictly mine:

1. Don’t be afraid to change course.

Hatch says she originally started Zino with the idea that it would be about wine investments. People could invest in wineries, software involved in tracking wines, and so forth. Hatch asked one of her angel investors to help develop a logo, which to this day has a grapevine running through it (see image above). “Before we got to our first investment meeting, I decided this makes no sense,” Hatch says. “If someone invests in a winery, they’re not going to invest in a second winery. They’re going to want to diversify.” At Zino’s first investment forum, only one pitch had to do with wine. Since then, the group has been open to all kinds of startups—though wine remains a peripheral theme to Zino’s events (more on that below).

2. Don’t label yourself prematurely.

At last year’s Zino Zillionaire investment forum, presenting companies were asked to sort themselves by “tech” versus “non-tech.” One company gave itself a non-tech appellation, and didn’t win an award—but Hatch says the investors would have voted for it had it been in the tech category. So at this year’s forum, Zino uncorked the categories and let the investors decide for themselves. There was no hard-and-fast rule, but “non-tech” ended up including companies focused on materials technology and physical products.

3. Do choose your name wisely.

I asked Hatch where the name Zino came from. She says she used to be in the restaurant business, where names are particularly crucial. Names that start with “Z” are good because people remember them, she says. Hard vowels are preferable as well. Lastly, Zino rhymes with “vino,” which takes us back to the original idea behind the group. At its forums, receptions, and dinners, Zino often invites wine makers to attend and serve their featured vintages. At last week’s forum, the attending wineries (all from Washington state) were JLC Winery, 428 Wines, and San Juan Vineyards. As David Brent would say, el vino did flow.

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