You don’t meet many founders who began their career as a glass blower. Come to think about it… you don’t meet many glass blowers!
From the Corning Museum of Glass, to getting his foot in the door at Square in the food services team, to launching Zacht Studios in Amsterdam, Zach’s tale is full of twists and turns and jam-packed full of great startup advice.
Now, Benjamin couldn’t make this shoot, so Tristan went solo to meet Zach at his co-working space off Vondel Park. Tristan was so captivated by Zach’s story breaking into design — including a two year stint at Figma — that he completely lost track of time and their conversation went for well over an hour.
What follows is our longest interview to date, but I can guarantee it’s worth the read. So pour yourself a coffee and let’s get going.
In a couple of sentences, can you tell me what Zacht Studios is and what you do?
Yeah sure, Zacht Studios is a presentation design agency, we help companies with their company storytelling and investor fundraising.
We probably help anywhere from three to six companies a month fundraise. Most of our clients are early stage, anywhere from pre-seed to about series B — early stage companies trying to raise funding and, for various reasons, need help with their fundraising decks.
They either don't have anyone on their team that has done it before, or they've got people on their team that have done it before, but don't have time. It's a lot of work to put together a pitch deck!
Once companies start getting further into the fundraising — that's like series C... series D — they're usually larger organizations. We get one of those clients about once every three months, but usually at that point they've scaled and have a pretty large design organization.
How big is your team?
Our team is three people right now. We're distributed between Amsterdam and Toronto. One of our team members is actually in Tenerife during the pandemic so we're now in three locations.
And how did you end up in Amsterdam?
When I moved to Amsterdam, three years ago, I was contracting for Figma, the design tool company. I worked there for 14 months running design education and community advocacy for Europe.
When I left, I intended just to freelance and help companies create their pitch decks. I wasn't looking to start a company.
I met our Content Director, Dona, in Dutch class and within a couple of months brought her on the team and that's when we started to grow into an organization. We then hired Chi, our Creative Director based in Toronto, who has a background in business strategy and presentation design — she is such a great addition.
Where the name Zacht Studios came from?
My name is Zach, Z-A-C-H, and the Dutch word for soft is zacht, Z-A-C-H-T. When I started operating as a freelancer, I had to form my B.V. for visa purposes. There was no other company in the Netherlands called Zacht Studios and I thought it was a funny, bilingual play on two very similar words. I didn’t mean for it to be a public-facing name and I didn't take the branding of my own company very seriously.
Because it was the name that was online, on my payroll forms, and my invoices, the name naturally stuck once we scaled into a company.
I understand you started your career as a glass blower. Can you take us on the journey of how you went from there to launching Zacht Studios?
An absolutely great question — it wasn’t a direct path. I'm from Corning, New York which is in Western New York, very far from New York City and it’s known for Corning Incorporated, the company that makes all the glass — on your phone, a lot of places where you see glass, it's probably Corning. It's pretty much a company town since most of the people that live in Corning either work for the company or work to support the company.
There's also the Corning Museum of Glass, which is the largest glass museum in the world and where, as a 15 year old, I got my first job as a tour guide. At the end of the exhibits, there's a live hot glass show, with real glass blowers, periodically throughout the day. It's a pretty exciting, entertaining show and the glass blowers were sort of like rock stars. As a 15 year old looking at that, I was like, “I want to do that!”.
I started learning to blow glass, both by working at the Corning Museum of Glass and in two studios in the city. One of those studios made me an offer to come on as a 4-year apprentice. The drawback was that I couldn’t go to university.
But there was just something in the back of my mind and I thought, I should probably get a well-rounded education.
I decided to enroll, and was accepted at a small university an hour outside of Corning called Alfred University that offered glassblowing. About a year in, I started exploring other art forms like metal sculpture, black and white photography, and fell in love with sound design and video art. I also took one graphic design class at my Dad’s suggestion to ‘do something that’s employable’.
I decided to pursue a profession in video editing and after I had an exhibition in New York City after graduation, I didn’t have any plans. So my brother, who was living in the Bay Area at the time and working in the tech industry, was like, “come crash on my couch.”
I feel very privileged to have had that opportunity to move into the heart of San Francisco right out of college. But this was right after a recession and I didn’t realize at the time but I was moving to a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
I spent three months, 11 hours a day, seven days a week, just applying for jobs. I applied to 950 jobs and I got three interviews. One of them was at an Apple store, where I took a job repairing iPhones at the Genius bar. Every night, I was having nightmares of my phone breaking because I would see like 20 broken iPhones a day.
It was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the start-up, even if it meant taking a pay cut.
I ended up moving into a role that doesn’t exist anymore, which was teaching people how to use Apple software, including Keynote — which at the time, I didn’t think was a useful skill for me to have. In that role, I had this amazing Senior Manager who left to work at Square, the payments start-up. I loved working for him, so after he messaged me about an opportunity to join his team, I jumped at the chance to talk about the role — which turned out to be on the food team.
I really felt disheartened by that. I didn't really want to work in food service. I don't mean to speak poorly of food service. It just wasn't on my career path. But he was like, "Just come in and talk to me, trust me."
It wasn’t a step I’d imagined in my career path, but trusting him, I went in for an interview. It was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the start-up, even if it meant taking a pay cut.
I took the job, which was in the cafeteria where Square employees would eat their lunches. They had catered meals which were paid for through our POS system. Everyday, we’d install Square’s latest beta build and test with employees paying for their lunches. I would swipe people’s credit cards, tell them what was on the menu, be generally helpful, and file bug reports.
Then after lunch I would fix the kegerator — which broke every week.
The kegerator. You know, it's got two kegs underneath and taps on the top.
At the time the closest exposure I had to the design team was pouring champagne when someone was getting promoted or leaving to work at a different company. So I'd pour the champagne and leave.
I was at Square for about seven months when an opening for a presentation designer became available. And I thought, “That's kind of interesting”.
I'm trained and certified by Apple to teach Keynote and I knew the fundamentals of graphic design from one semester’s worth of college-level design classes. Square is also really, really good at hiring quality people and developing them into the roles that are natural fits for them.
By working in food services, I’d developed a network with every employee because I stood between them and their lunch! The hiring manager recognised me and asked to see my portfolio, since he knew I wasn’t a designer. There were screens all around the office — dashboards for engineers, live tweets of our mentions, lunch menus, and other things like that — that I’d designed, so I was able to point out all these things I’d made.
Was it part of your job to be doing these design tasks?
It wasn't at first. But naturally I was like, "Hey, can I design the menus and screens?" and my job description was expanded to include that.
But this role opened up on the design team and they were like, "We're going to give you a chance. If it works out, you can stay. If it doesn't, you go back to the food team."
So I put all of my time and effort into it and I was a presentation designer for a couple of years. I was designing 10 to 15 presentations a week, including the company all-hands meetings and fundraising events — which is where I started building the experience that led to founding Zacht Studios
Over the course of company restructures and growth, I started the Communications Design Organization (presentations and reports, infographics and data visualisation, and other projects that didn’t neatly fit inside other design teams) and grew that into a team. And once I hit five years at Square, I moved to Amsterdam and that's where this part of the story starts.
I was part of Figma’s Alpha Program — which made me one of their very first users. So I’d gotten kind of close to the Figma team over the years. And as they were growing and building features I'd go into their office and do some user testing, chat with the team, and write some blog posts with them.
Right before I moved, they're like, “Oh, we'd love to see you one last time before you leave, we have this new COO, you should meet — and a new head of marketing, you should meet her too!”
And so I went in thinking it was just a coffee chat, a say goodbye situation. As I was in the process of moving our whole lives to another country, I was wearing a stained t-shirt, fighting a cold, slouching in the chair and not really paying much attention to the thoughtfulness of my answers. Then Eric, the COO at the time, pitched me his big picture vision of starting an education program which sounded awesome.
We're kind of riffing on it and I was throwing some ideas out and about 45 minutes in, I realized that I was in a job interview. So I sat up a little bit and I started focusing more on my questions and being a little bit more thoughtful with my answers. And within minutes of that, he was asked, "So when would you like to start?"
And I was like, ”I don't know if you heard, but I'm moving on Thursday [to another country].” Figma at the time was anti-remote. But they were willing to make it work and made an exception for me. So when we landed in Amsterdam I had the possibility of a job at Figma, but no guarantees.
I started at Figma exactly one month after landing as employee number 32. Figma was growing so fast that in my 14 months working there, I'd had three or four managers. And my job kept shifting and evolving into something else every couple of months.
I was sort of the one employee in Europe, just over here, writing a book full time. The whole idea was to introduce design to people that didn't have access to design education. You know, globally only about six and a half percent of the world's population have access to higher education. And most design, at least in the academic sense, is taught at a higher education level.
So it's pretty inaccessible to most people. One of the benefits of Figma is that it works on any computer and it's free for individuals. So all of a sudden people that didn't have access to special software or expensive Mac hardware had access to design. And so the whole goal was to do the same with design education.
We quickly evolved the book into a web-based experience to make it more accessible as well. And then by the time I got maybe like halfway through writing it and developing the program, my job changed maybe another three times pretty quickly.
I was put in charge of the Figma European Community which meant that every two weeks I was in a different European city meeting with potential customers or existing ones that wanted a little bit more high-touch.
So that's when I left to start Zacht Studios.
So wanting to get back on the tools was the primary motivator?
Yeah. It also just felt right. When I left Figma I was freelancing and had about three month's worth of inbound work.
I sort of had the expectation that within three months I'd be applying at companies in Amsterdam that I’d gotten to know through my job at Figma. I thought, “In three months I'll be at one of the agencies or I'll be at Booking.com.”
But the freelance work just kept coming. I still feel really privileged. I do almost no outbound work at all. Just get tons of word-of-mouth referrals. People see our work, they want to hire us. Or they ask somebody and that person just happened to work at Square.
There's lots of that. People in the tech industry, especially in San Francisco, work somewhere for a year or two years, then they go work somewhere else. So I luckily have this huge network through startups and a lot of these very smart people leave their job and start a company.
Oftentimes, I'm one of the only people they know who does presentation design. So that's how I get a lot of my clients. And that started the flywheel effect and three months turned into a year really fast. And now it’s been over two years.
Have you always had a knack for making presentations, or is it something you've learned over the years?
Yeah, it's funny. I was trying to remember like the first presentation I ever made and it was definitely at University. It was like a PowerPoint presentation for an art history class.
I remember it being very bad. I remember having a lot of unearned confidence that I could make a presentation because I know how to use computers. And then getting to the day before being like, "Oh, I'll just put my slides together" and realizing I'd never used presentation software before and really struggling with that.
So I definitely didn't naturally take to it. Obviously I mentioned that being trained at Apple to teach Keynote was a huge part of it, but I also had this great teammate when I first became a presentation designer at Square. I got the vibe that he was fed up that he had to show me this stuff — so I knew I had to pick it up really fast.
And so when he would throw something my way he'd remind me "You have to work on a grid system... build a grid system... here's mine" And he'd show his screen for like five seconds then he put his headphones back on. I remembered grid systems from art school so I'd buy a bunch of books and spend all night studying.
I remember dedicating a lot of time to it early on to get those fundamentals. Because I knew it was between me and going back to working in food service.
Ha! So there's hope for us mere mortals yet!
Absolutely. I think anybody can design presentations and there's something really unique about it because for most people, the only software on their computer for them to visually express an idea is the presentation software. You either have Windows computer with PowerPoint, or a Mac with Keynote, or a Chromebook with Google Slides. And that's something that's really unique. Most designers if they're working in, let's say, Illustrator have a high barrier to entry. It's expensive!
There's something really special about presentation design, because everybody around you has some toe in that pond, which I think is a great space to play in.
So if presentation design is, as you say, so accessible, why don't more people just do it themselves? Why do so many companies enlist the help of Zacht Studios?
If you're fundraising there's a lot of moving pieces and usually at the same time you're trying to scale your business. You're building features, trying to keep your site up, answer customer support requests, get new clients... you’re doing a ton of work! And so you just don't have time to do some of this. That's one of the advantages we've got. You can bring us in for a month and we can dedicate all our time and expertise to it.
We've designed pitch decks for tons of companies across tons of industries at various sizes, stages, and with different personality types. And so, you know you're getting our expertise as well as our design skills that make for a cohesive deck.
Oh, and I guess the other reason is we now have this huge network of founders and investors. So we can also help connect those dots for you. So if you were a European startup and looking to fundraise from Silicon Valley, we can introduce you to a bunch of investors in the Bay Area.
I'm curious to hear about your design process. What happens after a company hits you up and says, "Zach, we need help doing X, Y, Z"?
The most fundamental part is their story — we always start with the story. Now, in your example of a potential client calling us up, we first figure out where they're at in the process. It could be anywhere from a group of founders who are starting to fundraise, to a scheduled investor meeting in a few days where someone says the deck doesn't look very good.
We can enter in the process anywhere along that path. And so sometimes our clients say, "We've got nothing. We just know we need to fundraise."
We obviously do the discovery calls, the onboarding, sign the contract... But after that, we have a kickoff and we want to hear the vision. Where are you going ? What's the ten-year plan? Who's your ideal customer? Where are you in the process of having customers, making money, developing products... all that.
We get as much of the story information as we can and we storyboard first. We think about both the very short elevator pitch of the company, but also a longer presentation of maybe 15 minutes... maybe 30.
Oftentimes, especially with early stage companies, we're the first people outside their company to hear these details and their pitch for the first time for their fundraise. They've had that conversation within their team. They've socialized it with their advisors and existing investors. But all of those people already have the context of the company and all of the backstory.
So we do offer that fresh set of eyes and I think it's a super important part to help us craft the story as best we can. We start pulling content that they've given us, have that conversation, and start iterating.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, it's usually the founder or CEO that's doing the pitch. And they've got to be comfortable telling that story. We can't just write it for them and say, “Here's your script.” It's got to work for them and their storytelling style as well, which we try to get a sense for.
So we start iterating with our customers and then we start visual design.
Now this is a really unique space because some companies have no branding yet. So they hire us to do the branding as well. Some companies have very recently hired a different agency to do the branding. And so it's strictly adhering to a brand guidelines, sort of pushing its boundaries, finding the edges of the brand guidelines that are pretty new still that the company hasn't yet pushed and sort of pushing them further, developing them where we can for presentations.
Especially when the two founders, maybe they're two technical founders, named their company when it was the two of them. And now that they have a range of products being built and a range of customer types, the name no longer works. So we can also help with that.
What's the ideal timeline for a design process like this?
An ideal timeline is quite long, but most of our customers are like, "Hey, we're pitching next week. What can we do?" So we're doing this process over maybe a week, maybe three weeks… but hopefully longer.
Often our clients will tell us when they have their first investor meeting and we work toward that goal. We obviously want to have something that they can rehearse with that's done sooner. But what we've noticed is a lot of investors feel an obligation to give something. And so when they turn down our clients — which sometimes happens, unfortunately — the investor feels obligated to give them advice.
And often it comes as advice on their deck. So they're like, "Hmmmm, you know, we're not going to fund your company, but you know what you could do with your pitch deck..." So we might have our deadline in three weeks but, they're like, “Hey, we heard from this highly respected venture firm that we need a slide on X or Y.” So we work with our clients to continue to develop their deck for their whole process of fundraising.
Is that frustrating, getting so many outside opinions on your work?
It probably was at a time. But now it's pretty much the air I breathe. These things never happen in a silo.
There's always outside stakeholders who I don't know about. I try to discover that at the very beginning and ask things like, "Who else is going to provide feedback on this? Tell me about your advisors. Tell me about your team."
But inevitably, these opinions come from anywhere, like a founder might say "You know, my partner doesn't like this color." Which is a valid opinion, but not every designer loves to hear those opinions. But it's part of our job to get those opinions to make the customer happy.
I've [Tristan] spent a career in advertising dealing with very similar feedback. So I know these challenges very well. I’m curious to know how you got your first couple of clients.
Word of mouth. My very first client came from working at Square. Someone I knew was like, "Zach's the only person I know that does this!"
It's why you should do really good work, no matter what it is.
That's how I got connected to probably a good number of my first clients. It's why you should do really good work, no matter what it is. Even if it's an internal meeting presentation for a four-person team, it's important to put the effort in because those people go on and do other stuff and they remember you and they remember the work that you did.
So that's definitely the first number of clients. And then eventually it starts. You know, a client's investor is like, " Hey, who did you work with on this?" And they reach out, I get to know them. They start referring you to their network and yeah, that just sort of builds and snowballs.
Fantastic lesson. So you can tell me a little bit about the team you've built?
I love my team. We work great together. We have a very diverse range of backgrounds and skill sets. We have a nice group of overlap for those skill sets and our personalities too.
What gets thrown around a lot in the tech scene is “culture fit”. And as we learn more how problematic that can be and how that can lead to discrimination in the hiring process there's an element of just like “works well together”. I don't have better branding for it yet, but we're compatible in a lot of ways.
Right now I have two team members and about a year ago is when I hired my first person. So I didn't really have an intention of starting a company a year and a half ago. And so this is new and I'm still kind of developing that long view that in 10 years, where are we? But over the next year, I would like to bring on an account manager. Somebody to work with our clients more, be more hands-on so that I can spend more of my time doing some of the strategy pieces.
It's like a flavour of imposter syndrome, I guess. And I sometimes remind myself, that I have felt this way before
As a team of designers, we have some background in web but not enough to code a whole website for a large company. So right now we're developing our client's websites in Webflow. But I think this year we'd also like to bring on someone that's a web developer, maybe someone that's a freelancer themselves that's doing web design and development for clients and to bring them into the team and continue to expand offerings that we can bundle for our clients.
So what would you say the most valuable thing you've learned so far as being a founder?
I've learned a ton, especially bringing on very smart, capable people. There's a moment in nearly every project where there's the feeling of “I don't know what I'm doing”.
It's like a flavour of imposter syndrome, I guess. And I sometimes remind myself, that I have felt this way before with lots of other clients, I felt under water. I felt like I was too busy. I felt like I couldn't grasp their business well enough to tell their story in a clean, clear, consistent way.
And at the end of the day, we always do the job and give our customers a pitch deck that they go out and raise money with. So every time it's chaotic and it's scary and it's hard, it still works out in the end. I’ve learned to trust the process and just be comfortable in that chaos, because that's part of the creative process.
That's a really, really great piece of advice. What steps have you taken to create your company culture?
That's super important to me. One of the most impactful things — that I didn't initially think was going to be impactful — is our weekly team meeting. We meet every week and we have four types of meetings we rotate through. So once a month, there's one of the four.
One is a traffic meeting, where we go through all of our active projects, all of our clients, and potential clients. Sometimes we share a little bit of the work we're working on as well, depending on the priority.
We have one that we call open mic and everybody on the team gives a presentation about something not work-related. So they're usually very goofy or funny. Our team is naturally kind of funny which I enjoy everyone's sense of humor. And so yeah, that's what we do. We kind of laugh and enjoy that for an hour.
We have an educational one. It's something that comes from within our team where one of us is teaching something to the group. Maybe it's grid systems, maybe it's a tool thing, whatever. And sometimes we bring in a guest, so we'll have the guest speakers come in and that's been really nice. We've had some really exciting guests in the past.
And then our fourth one is happy hour. So once a month, we, you know, we just get together and have some beers and an unfiltered hangout. With time zones, it's getting complicated, you know? Somebody is always drinking a little bit earlier in the day, which I don't have any problems with, but I’m definitely conscious that everyone's got to feel comfortable doing that.
And as we scale our team across different time zones, I think this is going to become a bigger challenge. But I'm sure we can make it work, but I think maybe alternating time of day for everybody. These meetings are important. Part of our culture — it's time that we get to spend with each other.
Because the rest of the time it's often in Slack or we see each other's faces when we're in a meeting with our clients. And it's maybe the first time in three days that I've seen one of my teammates’ face is when we're trying to sell ourselves to a client or trying to work through a problem with them.
I'm very impressed you have such a considered framework to build your company culture, especially considering your size.
Well, I had the benefit of designing Square's all-hands meeting for years. And so being involved in the production process of that, and also just being in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, you hear so many of these culture problems that exist in organisations and it always comes back to who they were from the start.
It’s really important when you're starting a company to be considerate of these things. It's not all about pushing everybody to get the work done, to grow the company at early stage because you're building culture too.
How important it is having a diverse team and encouraging diversity at Zacht Studios?
It's super important. I think to show how important it is, it's easy to point at when there's a lack of diversity. It's like... if I just hired somebody like myself, that was also a white man from the United States that had worked in tech and maybe had a similar skillset... What is that adding to my team?
What is that bringing other than just more of me? And that's never good for a company. For myself, to develop as a person, bringing in people with other skills is how you do it.
The best hiring advice I ever got is to hire people smarter than you and then get out of the way and make sure they're not blocked so that they can do their best work.
So, I think it's super important to have a team that has different skill sets. As I mentioned, our team has these varying skill sets that allows us to not only offer our customers a comprehensive service design for pitch decks, but also helping you craft the story and the strategy around the business.
And I couldn't do that by myself — and not in the same way that I can with my team as a whole.
It's also the right thing. It's like the morally right thing to do is to not discriminate and only hire people like yourself. I think we've seen the consequences of that in many formats.
Absolutely. What I find so interesting about diversity is that it's not only the right thing to do, but it's fundamentally the best thing you can do for your business.
There's proven data that diverse executive teams and boards make more money. Women-led companies make more money. So to ignore that is also where people give these bullshit excuses like, "We're hiring the best people and they don't cross the bar” or whatever those idiots say.
Ok, this may be a tricky one to answer. But in your career, how many presentations do you think you've made?
I tried to count at some point when I was still at Square and I topped out at 1500. That was just at Square. That's like 300 a year. I don't know if I make that same quantity as I did then. I think the quality is even more important now, where it's like maybe a few decks over the course of a month, rather than like several a week. But yeah, definitely in the thousands.
That's a very intimidating number! Do you have anything else to add? Where can people learn more about what you're up to?
Zach.Studio is our site. It's styled as a presentation, so you can kind of scroll through the slides.
We also have a blog Presentation.Design. It's a presentation design-focused blog, with interviews from the CEO of Pitch about the platform, to writing about how to use different tools, different strategies, how to communicate stories, all sorts of things.
And we have a creative interview podcast called Bézier. Our goal is to amplify voices in our creative communities that don’t already have large platforms and aren’t working at a large tech company, living in SF.
Zach, thanks for the epic chat!
The Amsterdam Founder Series is a Troopl initiative with the goal of shining a light on entrepreneurs in Amsterdam and how they are unlocking growth in their companies. If you are, or know of, a founder in Amsterdam who would like to be featured, please get in touch.
Each interview is combined with a portrait photography session conducted by Tristan and Benjamin, co-founders of Troopl. Portraits are made available to participants free of charge.