Movers & Shakers: Will Zell on Columbus entrepreneurship, his ever-evolving career path and his new venture capital firm
Will Zell has been a part of the central Ohio entrepreneurial scene for the better part of a decade, founding multiple startups in diverse fields and racking up the stories along the way. The Nikola Labs founder and president has also added a new project to his plate, the formation of his new venture capital firm, Zell Capital. We caught up with the Columbus enthusiast and serial entrepreneur to talk about his new venture, running for city council as a high schooler and turning Columbus into the next Silicon Valley.
For those who aren’t familiar, what is Nikola Labs?
Nikola Labs is a spin-out from the Ohio State University that focuses on solving problems related to the Internet of things. It’s built on deploying sensor technology in any given environment, whether it’s a smart home, smart city, smart manufacturing facility or smart farm, whatever it may be. What makes something smart is that you have sensing technology capturing data and delivering that to the end user. One of the big problems with those sensors is power — if you have thousands of sensors but a battery that only lasts for six months, it’s a problem. We launched Nikola Labs around solving that power problem and built ultra-efficient energy storage that can last for a very, very long time.
What accomplishments with Nikola are you most proud of?
We’ve gotten into wireless power, a technology that is still very nascent with a lot of regulatory restrictions around the technology. We found that wireless sensor-based condition monitoring is a great market to build a very robust business. At the end of 2018, we launched Vero, which is our sensor-based condition monitoring platform. Vero helps manufacturing organizations reduce unplanned downtime in their facilities by monitoring vibration on critical components. We can see failure coming weeks, if not months, ahead of it actually happening. We’re like cardiologists doing an EKG to discover a blockage before it leads to a heart attack. So I’m most proud of successfully bringing Vero to the market and building a customer base of nearly 50 manufacturing organizations.
What excites or motivates you?
In my early 20s, I started to think about the long term. I went through this process of trying to project a vision of my life when I was in my 80s. I thought, ‘What value do I want to create?’ At the end of my life, looking back, what would make me happy? I found that it really boiled down to solving big problems that we face in our country that are relevant and that I care about. That’s what I think about; that’s what motivates me. I look at entrepreneurship as an artistic, creative expression like an artist working on a masterpiece. It’s that kind of creative expression and it’s a canvas that you can paint on over multiple decades. I’m still in the early phases of painting my canvas.
What was the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey?
I started my first business when I was in my early 20s investing in real estate in Logan County, where I built up a portfolio over a few years. But then, around 2012, I had this personal evolution towards technology startups and decided I wanted to leverage technology to solve big problems in the world. I attended a conference that really sparked ideas and a vision for what I wanted to do next. I started thinking through problems that I wanted to tackle and how modern-day technology could solve them and do so at a scale that’s significantly greater than what a local real estate portfolio looks like. So I set out to do just that.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Logan County in West Liberty and then Bellefontaine, where I graduated from high school. I’m the fifth of seven children and grew up in a family where my father was in construction, a carpenter, and my mother was a teacher before she was a full-time parent. When I graduated, I was accepted into Ohio State and had already looked at the dorm that I wanted to stay in. I was very prepared to come to Columbus and have the full experience at Ohio State, but I changed my mind and made my first entrepreneurial decision, which was to run for city council in Bellefontaine as a senior in high school.
How did that experience shape your future?
I ran in the primary while I was still a senior and it really changed the course of my life. You can’t be on campus running a campaign in your hometown, so I ended up staying local and commuting to the Ohio State Lima campus for a couple years. I didn’t win, but it kept me planted locally, which has been a great base for my life. I love my community. There are a ton of amazing things happening in downtown Bellefontaine right now. It was a great experience nonetheless, and led to the next phase of my life.
You weren’t always an entrepreneur though, right?
While I was going to Ohio State, I was an insurance agent. So as I was commuting to school full-time I was also a full-time insurance agent and doing a bunch of other stuff. I’ve always been busy. But before I graduated Ohio State, I transitioned into full-time ministry service, which means I don’t officially have my degree from Ohio State. I had a very cool spiritual experience and journey that reshaped my life for several years and I was trained and served full-time at a church in Bellefontaine, and it was great. But I had started my first business in real estate at that time and my passion and conviction for being an entrepreneur was growing, so in the middle of 2012 I went fully into building businesses.
What were your projects before Nikola Labs?
I had two tech startups. One was called HuddleWoo, which solved the problem of access to one-on-one conversations with people that you admire. Take your favorite author that you follow on Twitter — how meaningful would it be for your life if you could actually have a one-on-one conversation with them? There are platforms that are emerging today that are solving that problem, but we were attacking it years ago. The second was a company called Connect To Home, which is really about rebuilding the news experience for an individual, starting in their local news all the way up. We were thinking about how someone interacts with what’s going on in their community and created a very cohesive experience to connect with where you live, starting with the news that you read.
What was your biggest lesson from those early startups?
I discovered that one of the biggest challenges of being an entrepreneur, especially outside of the coasts, is the lack of venture capital available to entrepreneurs in a meaningful way. Now, things are trending in the right direction. But back in 2012, it was tough. So I would read and digest all the content I could on how to effectively build a startup and learned all about raising capital. That time period and the pain of having to shut down both of those businesses was actually probably some of the best learning for me as an entrepreneur, and it is what teed up Nikola Labs and even my next project.
What can you tell us about your new project, Zell Capital?
Zell Capital is going back to that artistic expression. It’s what I would call my magnum opus, my masterpiece. It’s a new approach to investing in private companies and specifically investing in startups. One of the big problems that we face in our country is equitability and access. In this particular case, access into investing in startup companies and other private companies. The vast majority of people are locked out of investment opportunities, which are primarily restricted to accredited investors, institutions and high net worth individuals.
We are pioneering a new type of investment fund that we are calling an access fund, for obvious reasons. It’s open to all investors, not just wealthy, accredited investors or institutions. Anyone will be able to go to our website, create an investment account and invest in Zell Capital. The minimum investment is only $1,000. Traditionally, the minimum investment to get into venture capital funds is $250,000 or $500,000. So anyone can meaningfully invest. It completely changes the dynamic, which we’re pretty excited about.
Why has central Ohio been a good home for your projects?
I absolutely love Columbus and central Ohio. Sometimes, entrepreneurs have this idea in the back of their minds that things would somehow be easier if they moved to Silicon Valley. But for me, that’s never been the case. I believe Columbus and central Ohio have so much momentum and potential. We can be a thriving environment of entrepreneurship, capital investment and building great technology companies. Silicon Valley has shown that over time, startups rise and exit and new entrepreneurs and new capital comes in and as you go through that cycle, you end up with an incredible community that creates significant value. I believe we are at the early stage of that.
All you have to do is look at what’s happened over the last couple of years with CoverMyMeds and Root Insurance and now Olive. There’s a foundation that was built over the last 10 or 20 years, and now we’re in a very exciting time. We’ve proven we have the talent and the community to start and scale startups. I want to be part of that momentum and I want to be able to empower young women and young men from diverse backgrounds who are building great companies and help them become great entrepreneurs.
What piece of advice would you give to a young entrepreneur?
The advice that I would give to my younger self and to anyone else who’s starting an entrepreneurial journey is to learn what it means to be antifragile. Antifragile is a book written by Nassim Taleb, and it is a principle that has been completely game-changing for me. If I had a glass on a table and I knocked the glass off the table, it’s going to hit the ground and it’s going to shatter. You might think being antifragile means that if I knock the glass off of the table it hits the ground and doesn’t shatter. But what it actually means is that when you knock the glass off the table, it hits the ground and the glass itself gets stronger and gains strength from the conflict, the crash. I think it’s a very important mental model in the entrepreneurial journey. It’s a journey of conflict and of struggle and it’s very tough. You have to learn from and experience those challenges and not just withstand them, but get stronger.
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