The Zebra Embassy founders (from left): Matthias Hecht, Pierre Dominique Ostrowski, Stefan Höhn and Philipp Nägelein
© Zebra Embassy

“Our vision is to establish Zebra Embassy as the ‘McKinsey of the Zebra Movement'”

Kinexon, Everdrop, Freeletics, Edurino - a number of Munich-based startups have already sought advice from Zebra Embassy. The consulting firm specializes in supporting startups and scaleups in applying for and using government funding. It has been able to generate over 50 million euros in funding for 150 startups in two years. In this interview, co-founder Pierre Dominique Ostrowski explains what distinguishes zebras from unicorns, how Zebra Embassy works and how he assesses the current market situation.

Munich Startup: Everyone in the startup cosmos is probably familiar with the term unicorn, but the zebra is still fairly new. Can you briefly explain what this is all about?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski, Zebra Embassy: In the business world, zebras represent startups that strive for sustainable profitability while aiming to become profitable quickly. The focus on sustainability, social responsibility and creating long-term value clearly sets them apart from the unicorns, who focus on fast growth and a billion valuation. Especially in countries like Germany, which are dominated by medium-sized companies, it becomes clear that not every company needs to aim to become a unicorn. The zebra business model therefore focuses on sustainable growth and creating positive social and environmental impact, rather than focusing solely on rapid scaling and disruption.

“Zebras need an environment that supports sustainable and stable growth”

Munich Startup: So that means a zebra needs different conditions to grow?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: While unicorns often grow in an ecosystem that promotes rapid scaling and market dominance as quickly as possible, zebras need an environment that supports sustainable and stable growth. They look for funding opportunities that support their vision without pushing them to cut corners on their values or social mission. Rather than rapid expansion at any cost, zebras value collaboration, community, and the creation of real, long-term value. In this sense, a zebra’s growth is often more organic, more deeply rooted, and more in tune with the needs of its stakeholders.

Munich Startup: And this is where Zebra Embassy comes in? What exactly do you do?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: This is exactly where we come in with Zebra Embassy. Our mission is to accompany companies on their journey and to integrate the mindset and values of Zebra companies into their business models and strategies. This is not just about startups or smaller companies. Even companies that aspire to or have already achieved unicorn status can benefit from the zebra philosophy. In times of crises, efficiency pressures and cost-cutting constraints, the zebras’ sustainable, community- and cooperation-oriented approach can offer decisive advantages.

Zebra Embassy provides assistance in applying for government funding

Currently, we focus primarily on supporting startups and scaleups in strategically applying for and using government funding. We are not only concerned with pure funding, but above all with creating a balanced funding mix. In particular, the research grant, which can be applied for retroactively for up to four years and allows for up to one million euros in funding per year, has established itself as a crucial source of financing for many young (tech) companies in Europe. To date, we and our team have generated over 50 million euros in funding from the research allowance for our partner companies, among other things.

Our vision is to establish Zebra Embassy as the ‘McKinsey of the Zebra Movement’ in the coming years, laying the foundation for sustainable growth of startups and scaleups in Germany.

Munich Startup: Can you give examples of this?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: So far, we have advised over 150 startups from a wide range of industries, including Munich-based companies such as Kinexon, Everdrop, Freeletics and Edurino, among others. Each of these startups had unique requirements and challenges in the area of government funding. With our expertise, we were able to effectively guide them through the often complex application process and help them get the financial support they needed to advance their sustainable and innovative projects.

Munich Startup: And how does that pay off for you?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: Our business model is based on a commission-based structure. This means that we only get paid if the startups we advise actually receive government funding. This model not only preserves the companies’ liquidity, especially in the critical early phases, but also ensures that our interests are closely linked to our clients’ success. If an application is unsuccessful, companies do not have the additional financial risk of a consulting fee. This model also promotes our commitment to doing the best possible work and providing the best possible support for our customers.

“Solutions for sustainable financing in the startup industry”

Munich Startup: What prompted you to found Zebra Embassy?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: Having worked in various capacities in the startup world such as Freeletics, Unu and XO Life over the last decade and having experienced first-hand the challenges of funding, we saw the need to support startups. The diverse perspectives and challenges in funding startups motivated us to develop solutions for sustainable funding in the startup industry.

The shift from unicorn hype to a more sustainable ecosystem in the startup industry has been a key driver for us. Our interdisciplinary team combines expertise from technical, legal and financial fields to ensure holistic advice. Thanks to our deep knowledge of both the application process and the startup and tech industries, we bridge the gap between these two worlds.

Munich Startup: What makes a successful startup anyway?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: A successful startup is defined not only by rapid growth and high profits, but also by its ability to create long-term value, both for its stakeholders and for society as a whole.

Zebra Embassy: Sustainability and sound business practices regain importance

Munich Startup: How do you assess the current market situation for startups, whether zebra or not?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: We are currently in a particularly exciting economic phase. Particularly in the last ten years, favored by the zero interest rate environment, some abstruse business models were financed that were purely designed for “growth at any price”. It seemed as if the mere idea was enough to secure considerable sums of investment. This trend has recently slowed down, partly due to a generally more challenging investment climate, but also due to an increased sensitivity to sustainable and robust business models. Despite these challenges, we firmly believe that if a company sets itself up in a solid, transparent and sustainable way, it will do relatively well in any economic phase. It is encouraging to see that sustainability and sound business practices are regaining importance in the current economic situation.

We recommend startups to build a community in the spirit of the zebra movement and join networks that share their values. Together, you can often achieve more than alone – this is especially true for niches that don’t make headlines in the newspaper every day.

Munich Startup: Is the Munich startup scene the right environment for a zebra?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: Munich offers a dynamic and growing ecosystem for startups. With a mix of tech hubs, investors and a strong network of entrepreneurs, it is fertile ground for zebras seeking sustainable growth and cooperation. As graduates of LMU and CDTM, we benefit from a large network in the Munich startup industry. Philipp also did his PhD at CDTM and was part of the management team. During his teaching career, successful startups like Personio were founded.

“We focus on collaboration and co-creation”

Munich Startup: Do you actively go about canvassing or should founders contact you themselves?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: So far, we are not actively involved in sales. Our customers mainly come to us through recommendations and our network. However, we are always happy to hear from founders who proactively seek support. Currently, we are focusing more on public relations to promote the Zebra Mindset and sustainable growth in the startup scene. Our vision is to embed this philosophy within the startup scene by highlighting opportunities for positive change. We focus on collaboration and co-creation instead of elbow wars to create a better future for startups.

Munich Startup: And if a startup wants to approach you, who can they turn to?

Pierre Dominique Ostrowski: Interested startups can contact us directly via our website. All relevant contact details can be found at www.zebra-embassy.com.

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Maximilian Feigl

Maximilian Feigl berichtet seit 2020 über das Münchner Startup Ökosystem. Dabei haben es dem studierten Politikwissenschaftler vor allem Deeptech-Themen angetan.

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