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Lamine Zarrad: One Lithium Processing Plant Away from A Life of Fortitude

Lamine Zarrad is the SVP, Financial Services, at ZenBusiness, a public benefits corporation that provides end-to-end digital tools for very small businesses in the service sector, including many “solopreneurs.” 

He began his entrepreneurial journey after immigrating to the United States, after which he went on to serve in the United States Marine Corps. His refugee experience shaped his work ethic, attitude, and outlook. After the Marines, he built an expertise around banking regulations and financial services through work at Merrill Lynch and the U.S. Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. With ZenBusiness, Lamine combines his passion for inclusion with his banking skills to create ZenBusiness Money.

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: What’s the One Away moment you want to share today? 

LAMINE ZARRAD: I always like to start with my personal story. A professional wrapper on our lives is just that. It’s a wrapper. It’s part of life, but it’s the external output of what’s inside of you. What’s inside of you is a compilation of all these experiences that you’ve had in life. Even in interviews, when I ask folks those questions, I want to know who they are because that reflects your work.

I’m also a product of my experiences that I think are pretty unusual, for the most part. My childhood and my origins are in a country that no longer exists—the USSR, the Soviet Union. My mother is from Azerbaijan, a country that, back tahen, was one of the republics of the USSR. My father is from Tunisia, North Africa. They met while he was studying there. Very unusual as well. I was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and had a very privileged childhood. Unlike my fellow citizens in the Soviet Union, I was able to travel outside of that country. The borders weren’t locked for me because of my father. I spent summers in Tunisia on the Mediterranean. I usually came back during the rest of the year and studied until I was ten years old in 1989-1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart. 

Typically, when you hear about the USSR story, it’s the opposite for most people who suffered under the Soviet regime, and then they were sort of free. For me, it was the opposite. Soviet rule was far away from Azerbaijan. It wasn’t as stringent there, but it created stability. It created stability as it relates to ethnicities living together, co-existing, different religions. Religion was outlawed, but people still practiced in private. Everyone sort of co-existed in harmony. When that veil was lifted, people went back to their old tribal ways.

Various ethnic minorities were driven out. My mother is half Armenian, and Armenians are one of those target groups. My mother is half Azeri and half Armenian, which is an interesting combination. These are the people that we’re fighting and killing each other over a piece of barren land. It’s mind-blowing. 

Long story short, we fled when I was ten on the train to Moscow and spent six years as refugees, which was a completely, radically different experience. It was a complete 180 from that privileged existence where my family could afford nice things. I did all kinds of curricular activities to now being completely poor. We fled with a bag of clothes, and that’s it. No money. Nothing. No savings.

We ended up in Moscow in 1990 when there were no programs, no housing. We had to find housing. A bunch of us got together and moved into this dilapidated lithium processing plant where many laboratories were abandoned post-Soviet state. We moved in and made a home in those facilities for six years. In that time, this is where I truly learned my entrepreneurial spirit. 

When I was a kid, I was always a natural entrepreneur. I did crazy stuff like buy hamsters at a pet store, feeding them for a couple of weeks, fatten them up, and try and resell them. It never worked out for me as a business. I was like 7 or 8. Here in Moscow, I had to make something that worked out to make money. I couldn’t buy hamsters. I got into bootlegged VHS tapes. That worked out. I sold them in the markets and did all kinds of stuff like that. 

BRYAN WISH: You were still in Russia at this point?

LAMINE ZARRAD: In Russia, yeah. There were no laws. Middle of the 1990s, there were no rules of any kind. It was free. It was complete anarchy. This was when a lot of people went completely broke. Many died at that time. You had to figure things out for yourself. It was pure Darwinism. If you have any sense of resilience, this is where you’re going to hone it, and we did. Long story short, we figured out a way to escape, and we came to the U.S. The United States permitted us but not the resources or the means to get here.

We crossed seven borders with fake paperwork across Europe, into Germany, then into the Netherlands, and then came to the U.S. from Amsterdam. That’s my childhood. I was 16 when we came to the U.S. It’s not me. It’s part of me. I joined the Marines after that for many different reasons. 

BRYAN WISH: You have some incredible fortitude to keep going in the midst of struggle and despair. Most people would just accept the reality, and you saw a better way through. You said you lived in a liquid processing plant for that time you were in Russia. Is that what you said?

LAMINE ZARRAD: Lithium processing. 

BRYAN WISH: Tell me about that experience. 

LAMINE ZARRAD: If you’ve seen the HBO series Chernobyl, you have these drab-looking Soviet buildings that are rectangular with many apartments. In the late 80s, the Soviet Union had this thing called perestroika which was the restructuring of some of the old processes where the Soviets opened up commerce. That building that we stayed in was one of those experiments where they’re allowed these laboratories that were run by private companies but under the guise of state scientific something or rather. They developed different chemicals, and lithium was one of those things.  

BRYAN WISH: [0:08:45 re-asking question because of bad connection] You lived in a lithium processing plant. It takes a lot of fortitude to go through what you were doing. How do you think about your life? Was it just getting through each day, or were you mapping out this master plan, this better plan for yourself to get out of Russia?

LAMINE ZARRAD: Imagine living in those conditions. This is like drab 1960s rectangular Soviet buildings where laboratories existed at one point, and they’re abandoned. You’re in those conditions. You’re thinking about survival every day. What you’re also thinking or at least feeling every day is, “I don’t want to be here.” That’s a huge motivator. Not wanting to accept the reality in the sense that you want to be somewhere else. I had no idea. I didn’t have a master plan. I don’t think people in situations like that have master plans. I think what you need to have is a desire, a strong drive to figure a way out.

You’re sort of treading water or looking for the next raft that floats your way so you can jump on it. You’re not thinking, “If I swim 100 meters and then take a right, I’m going to make it.” It’s mostly about treading water. It’s mostly about making it through the day. That’s entrepreneurship. You may have a vision, and vision is important, but really, the companies that survive, much like people, survive because of resilience and just being around long enough, and something comes along. There’s a saying that if you want something really bad, the universe will conspire to get you there. What that means is you’ve just got to stick it out long enough. You have to be creative, and you have to constantly optimize.

You have to constantly look at your environment. “These are the conditions. How do I optimize them? Okay, the conditions have changed. How do I optimize now?” That’s it. Then eventually, when you have some stability, you have to start thinking more long-term. That’s kind of my strategy in life.  

BRYAN WISH: When you think about your experiences where you’ve just treaded, how do you tread water effectively? How do you stay strong and have grit? What are the processes you find yourself going through when these situations come up? 

LAMINE ZARRAD: At first, you start with mindset. It’s probably one of the most important things. Have the mindset of resilience, which means many different things to many different people. To me, it’s basically a refusal to accept what you have now. Not in a bad way but saying, “I’m grateful for what I have, but I want to be there.” That’s one thing. Refusal to give up when you’re not there. You constantly keep looking for new ways. Flexibility to change your direction. If you’re beating your head against the wall, the chances are you’re probably going to break your head and not the wall. You need to think about walking around that wall, at some point, or digging under it, or climbing over that wall. That’s a general framework for me.

It’s being a creative problem solver and refusing to say, “You know what? I’m not doing this anymore.” I will provide a caveat to that. It’s incredibly important to know when to quit as well because not every pursuit is worth it. I learned that later in life. I’ve always been so freaking hardheaded, and sometimes it took me down wrong paths, and I spent way too much time down those wrong paths. Later in life, I learned that sometimes you have to say, “This isn’t going anywhere. Let me find another path. I absolutely have to quit.” No matter how much emotional investment you’ve made into that pursuit. 

BRYAN WISH: I love that. Resilience, creative adaptability, and also knowing when to quit. The good formula you’ve got. You escaped and were able to get to the U.S. When you first got here, where were you? Why the Marines?

LAMINE ZARRAD: Let me take a quick step back and add another component to the mindset. This will explain why the Marines and my early career. Another thing you have to have to be resilient is you really have to believe in yourself. It can be done in a healthy way and a not-so-healthy way, like narcissism. On one end of the spectrum, you see a lot of entrepreneurs that have fallen into that condition for that reason because it’s a survival mechanism. Early in life, my grandparents, especially my parents, made me believe that I was special. Life kind of slaps you in the face daily, saying, “You’re not special.”

Here you are, thinking, “No, I am special.” When you believe that you’re special, you want to do special things. You want to do things that other people don’t do. When I came to the U.S., I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I was going to do something great. I had no idea how to get there. I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know the framework like how to play the game. I didn’t know the rules. The only thing I did know was that I could join the military and get some money for college and maybe spend four years learning about the culture and how to assimilate better instead of figuring it out by myself. Another reason the military was an influence for me was when we were immigrating to the U.S., we spent a lot of time in the U.S. Embassy, and I had an amazing experience with the Marines there. One of them basically saved my life after there was an explosion.

Someone shot an RPG on a different side of the embassy. People were running. All of that put together kind of left this impression that Marines are special. They’re elite. If I did that, I’d make myself even more special because I believed that I was. Then there’s a pragmatic aspect. I’ll get money for college. I’ll have four years to figure things out. I’ll be able to assimilate better. I’ll be able to speak English better. I’ll be able to get skills to help me throughout life. That was the very simplistic, very reductionist view of a very complex problem and a decision. Generally speaking, that was it. 

BRYAN WISH: It sounds like you were mapping out your strategy a bit when you got here. What is the path of least resistance to help me maybe get to where I wanted to? I think the nostalgia or the special experiences you had at the Embassy and the ability to assimilate sounds like a very smart decision at the time and well thought through. 

You went to the Marines, and you were a part of the military. What happened? Did you stay there and went off to college? What were some of the key lessons you feel have molded you in to your world as an entrepreneur? 

LAMINE ZARRAD: The Marine Corp was an amazing incubator for entrepreneurship. Yes, you get disciplined, and you learn how to be even more resilient and confident, but really, what it demonstrated to me is that large organizations are inherently inefficient. Small teams are very efficient and do things in a contained way. The bigger you are, the slower you are. One of the challenges that entrepreneurs face is this fear of saying, “Who am I to solve this problem? There are smarter people with more resources.” In the Marine Corps, I learned that’s a fallacy. If you want something bad enough and if you really care about the problem, you probably know it better than 90% of the experts. 

When I deployed to Iraq, I deployed with an infantry unit. Our supply chain was pretty inefficient. The way we got water, we had water pipes that were constantly compromised. We flew in water from somewhere else. We then managed that infrastructure in a very inefficient way. I started identifying ways to improve it. I approached the colonel who ran that base. I pitched him on the concept. I was a corporal. Knowing damn well that I could have been cleaning shitters for the rest of my deployment for going outside of my lane and pretending to know what I’m talking about. He liked it. He hired me. He pulled me out of my unit into what the Marine Corp called the mayor’s call to basically run infrastructure for 20,000 personnel posts in the middle of a desert.

The ideas that I had that I thought were kind of crazy were actually not as crazy, and people thought they were good. I got a chance to implement them. This is so empowering. In this giant organization, in the middle of probably the most structured experience of my life, a vertically integrated command chain, I was able to be entrepreneurial. I was able to create something new, fix the processes. At that point, I had the bug. I was like; I absolutely had to create stuff. 

BRYAN WISH: I think what’s so interesting is you took your experience on the ground floor, and you went up to upper management in the Marines. You said, “There’s a better way to do this, and it’s going to impact everybody on the ground floor and the function of the entire organization.” I’ve always believed that the best ideas are the ones that come from the ground floor because they can see the things you can’t see when you’re not in the weeds of everything. What happened as a result? 

LAMINE ZARRAD: Imposter syndrome is a real thing. Every time you step outside your comfort zone and you realize, “Oh crap, I’m faking it, but I haven’t made it yet.” It’s kind of a fake it until you make it scenario. Here I was, and I’m attached to this cell that operates the entire installation. I’m liaising with the local Iraqi officers. The first thing I had to figure out is how to optimize our water processing plant. I knew nothing about that. There were chemicals involved. There were enzymatic processes. There were mechanical processes. All that stuff was broken. We blew up all the generators when we first got there to disable the capabilities of Iraqis that were on the base before us. It all had to be built up. All that had to be built up.

The first thing I recognized, and it was completely intuitive at the time, is that “Hey, we shouldn’t rely on these U.S. contractors that we hire that have no idea how to fix any of this. They bid on every single contract. We should hire these locals because they know and have been working on this base for quite some time.” It was a little counterintuitive because we initially didn’t prefer to hire locals. It’s a trust issue, security issue, and a number of other things. I really went to bat for these local contractors who were former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army. We ended up hiring these guys. They’re amazing. They brought in experts. They brought in these PhDs who could fix the water Ph balance and all this stuff that would have taken us years to figure out ourselves. That’s probably the coolest accomplishment in that experience. 

BRYAN WISH: Super cool how the military let you enact your entrepreneurial spirit a bit more. It gave you the confidence to look back on what you do today. Tell me a bit more about after the military and how you went about doing things. 

LAMINE ZARRAD: It was definitely college next. I was taking classes while I was in the military when I could. I accumulated some credit. I knew that I wanted to pursue business. I had a business and entrepreneurial mindset but really needed to have more of a theoretical framework to hang my intuition on. I went to several different schools because of the military because I was taking courses. Then I ended up leaving, graduating, and getting a business degree with a focus on international business. I was fascinated. One of the things that absolutely fascinated me was finance as it relates to international transactions.

That world, banking and finance, and payments are some of the most complex things out there. The way companies would leverage different global rules to optimize for their own benefit and their own treasuries, that’s something I wanted to do. When I graduated, the first opportunity that came my way was actually Merrill Lynch. Merrill Lynch was an interesting proposition. It was an organization, an established one, that carried lots of clout and prestige. I’d be lying if I didn’t care about those things then. I certainly cared about it. I was in the Marine Corps, for crying out loud. It also kind of proposed an entrepreneurial path for me that said, “You’re going to join here. You’re going to manage a ton of wealth for folks.

You can manage your own clients. You get to learn a lot about finance.” I needed to learn more about finance. Despite the fact I got my business degree, I felt I was this poor kid from Russia who really didn’t even know how to balance a checkbook at the time. I wanted to understand how to build wealth. I know how to create things. I know how to improve things, but how do you build wealth? Capital markets were a complete mystery to me. I studied those things. I accepted a role with Merrill Lynch, and lo and behold, 2008 comes around, and the financial crisis hits. I’m in the middle of a freaking storm where companies are failing.

These companies were giants among giants. Lehman Brothers. Bear Stearns. Our CEO, at the time John Thain, would talk to us weekly. He’d come out and be like, “Look, guys. We’re in the best position on the street. We have the absolute best balance sheet. Nothing toxic.” Of course, we had probably the most toxic balance sheet on Wallstreet. We were crumbling on the inside, deteriorating. Then Bank of America scoops us up for pennies on the dollar before we failed. I was like, “What the hell? The world is ending as I understand it.” The concept of Wallstreet was god-like. It was the engine not just for the United States but for the world.

This is where everyone brought their money to and invested. For me, that myth has just evaporated in a matter of months. All of that is like a house of cards. I did learn some interesting lessons that banking is so incredibly important. This is why we have this too big to fail stuff. What I’ve decided to do is forget capital markets. I really wanted to know about banking and payments. That is the most tangible part of this house of cards. I went back to school. I went to grad school and studied public policy with a focus on fiscal and monetary policy, just trying to understand how do federal governments or governments, in general, raise money. How do they invest money? What do they do with that money in terms of monetary policy? How do we impact economic development by printing or constricting supply and so forth? I did that. When I graduated, the natural path for me was the public sector. I accepted a role with U.S. Treasury and became a federal bank regulator. I came back after these banks with a big, bad federal government bat. It was a cool experience. 

BRYAN WISH: You’re a man following your curiosity and maybe intuition a bit. Okay, this happened. What’s the next best thing that I should maybe think about? What am I interested in a kind of equip myself with the experience, knowledge, and relationships to help me figure out what’s next? That’s such a useful way to navigate through life. Merrill Lynch may have crumbled, but it opened your eyes up to new frontiers in finance payments in such a beautiful way. You got to the public sector with this newfound knowledge. Then what?

LAMINE ZARRAD: Here I am. I’m a federal bank regulator. I have 36 nationally chartered banks in my portfolio that I examine along with a team of other professionals. Smart dudes and ladies. My mind is constantly optimizing and looking for deficiencies. I started to realize that there are a ton of deficiencies in the process. In the examination process and how frequently we do things, how we do it, when we ask for documents from our banks, for example, but the way we take those documents. There are so many ways we’re doing things that weren’t modern. The federal government takes a while to modernize processes.

I started to develop little tools and calculators to speed things up. It fell on deaf ears. People said the status quo prevails here because no one cares. It was soul-sucking in many regards. These were smart people who were seemingly really concerned and rather proud of what they were doing. They were providing stability to the financial system because they ensured that banks did what they were supposed to do. But also run their operations in the optimal way. We’d come in like strategy consultants and tell them how to do things better because we had a nice view of all other banks. We could tell them without revealing which bank was doing what. Saying, “Hey, have you tried this particular strategy?” 

At the same time, they could care less about optimizing and making things better overall as a system. I got frustrated and started to think, “Hey, how do I take these calculators and actually give them directly to banks and not go through the treasury?” There was no freaking way I could have done it. I decided I’m going to find a way to build something on my own and sell it to banks, make money, and do a business out of it. Ultimately, that’s what I did. I ended up identifying a really unique problem. That problem was the inability of certain businesses in a very specific industry, legal cannabis, to acquire access to banking and payments. I was part of a team that developed guidelines for our banks on how to engage with those particular businesses.

I knew how to get it done right in a way that was lawful. It was very difficult to execute. I said, “I’m going to quit, and I’m going to launch that first business. The rest is history.” The rest of it is the evolution of my entrepreneurial journey. That was my foray in true entrepreneurship on my own, self-funded initially, and then VC funded eventually, in building technologies that solve pretty complex problems. It started out with just being dissatisfied with the way regulators would examine banks, and the way banks would interact with their customers. 

BRYAN WISH: You got to a point where you got so fed up with the system. It maybe gave you that niche lens into where there’s that opportunity that would allow you to break away and get out there on your own. Was that your first business, Tokken? 

LAMINE ZARRAD: Tokken was the first official business. If you Google Tokken, we’ve got lots of notoriety. We came out with a bang while still in “prototype mode.” We had a few clients. New York Times profiled us on the front page of DealBook. We were getting published in stories written all over the world just because the problem is so crazy interesting and our solution was so out there. The problem was payments in banking for cannabis dispensaries. The solution was we build our own rails using cryptocurrencies and would completely circumvent traditional financial rails. Then we build this robust, overside system. Think of it as big brother, but dispensaries were willing to give up that information just so they can have payments. All of that together, and we had people that were former CIA operatives on my team, NSA, Palantir, which is a big technology company. The whole story was so crazy. It all came together in such a unique way that it was just very newsworthy. We got a ton of coverage. 

Tokken, we had a meteoric rise in terms of traction and growth. Then Donald Trump gets elected and appoints Jeff Sessions into the treasury. The flimsy little piece of paper that made that whole industry possible, the Cole Memorandum, was basically ripped up and thrown away. We lost a lot of our partners at that point on the banking side because they were like, “Nothing new has been released. We have no idea what was going to happen. We’re just going to sit this one out.” That was really truly the end of Tokken. We sold the assets. We still made some money. Ultimately, we never realized that dream of making it the bank for the cannabis space.   

BRYAN WISH: It must have been crushing that you didn’t get to realize the full potential of what you saw and envisioned. Your entrepreneurial journey was able to continue. Why don’t you give a snapshot of your journey over the last few years?

LAMINE ZARRAD: That’s part of that resilience. Part of that resilience is you get checked, and you have to stand up and carry on. What did Mike Tyson say? Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face? That is very true. We had a plan. We got punched in the face. We no longer had a plan. We had to come up with a new plan. Plans don’t live in a vacuum. You don’t just, “Oh, I have this idea,” and a lightbulb goes off. It’s a funny thing. Your brain has all this information, and some of the new rods connect the two disparate silos that are happening in your mind somewhere, and then boom, you have an idea. That was it. With Tokken, we learned that businesses are so difficult to underwrite for financial products. If you need to accept credit cards as a business online today, it’s still a pain in the ass to do it. You have Squares of this world and Stripes out there.

If you’re non-traditional, good luck getting a Square account. While running Tokken, I was just looking at other industries because we always thought maybe Tokken could be applicable somewhere else. One of those things was the gig economy. Every time I take a Lyft or Uber, I chat with my driver, and I’m like, “Oh man, I didn’t qualify for a loan last year because I drive for Uber. I also do translations on the side. My income is nonrecurring. Banks couldn’t really underwrite me.” I’m like, “This is nonsense. All of that stuff is real. You’re making a real income. It’s recorded. We can pull that data. We can provide a better profile for you and underwrite you because you deserve a mortgage loan like anyone else. You made $200,000 last year.”

All those ideas finally came together with an obvious need for me to continue on the entrepreneurial journey that drilled it all together. I decided, “Why don’t we take all the learnings from Tokken.” The system we were building in Tokken, the Gestalt, was a way to conceptualize all those different disparate parts about a customer and bring it all together into one and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. That was the gestalt concept and gestalt psychology. We built that underwriting tool, and we said, “How do we access all that information? What is it going to give our customers?” The answer is pretty clear. They needed a bank account, the ability to accept payments into that bank account and to protect themselves against non-payment.

If you’re a freelancer or consultant, gig economy worker, unless you work for a platform, if you get paid via invoices, it is incredibly difficult to collect payments. Most people either don’t get paid or, more frequently, get paid very light on their invoices. We said, “If we know everything about you and your client, why not create this insurance-like product that guarantees they get paid if you use our system?” If you use us for invoicing someone, you can either instantly fund that invoice, and we’ll give you the money upfront before your customer pays you, which is a huge value add. You don’t have to wait 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. Or we can guarantee, if the client doesn’t pay on the 30th or 60th day, we will. That was Joust. Joust was born as a bank account for the gig economy or for any entrepreneur that needs the ability to do business banking and also guaranteed their receivables in a modern, streamlined, instant way, not like factoring.

Factoring is where a small business when they need lots of money or need money in general, they go to a factoring company or a bank, and they sell their invoices that haven’t been paid yet for a steep haircut, for like 30%. If you’re out $100,000, the bank will give you $70,000. That was Joust. Joust was a really exciting thing to run. It was really complicated to run as well. We bit off way more than we should have. With a small team, we were running a national bank. We had businesses in every single state. We were running a sophisticated underwriting operation for Pay Armor, that invoicing tool. We were running a merchant account operation which is like Square. Imagine a business bank, Square, and a Lending Club type thing all in on with a team of 10. 

BRYAN WISH: You attacked markets that were very specialized. You clearly thought about these companies for a very specific group of people. You used your financial and technical knowledge to kind of bring that together in a very fast and ambitious way. It seems whatever you’re going to do now, later, down the road, you have these incredible skillsets and foresight of the industry to apply to specific verticals. That’s an incredible proposition as a freelancer in the gig economy to say it is hard to collect payments. What’s a faster and better way to do that? It’s really cool, and I’m sure, extremely complicated. 

LAMINE ZARRAD: It sure was, but it was a fun ride. I agree with what you said. It’s important for folks to understand two things when you launch a business. Understand very specific pain points you’re solving so you can provide a product that addresses that pain point. When you start thinking about specific pain points, you tend to narrow down your market. It’s easy to think about consumer products like Facebook that are so broad and attractive. Anything consumer-facing is super attractive because it’s sexy and because we understand it as consumers ourselves. When you start thinking about business transactions, you have to think in a very narrow way. Otherwise, no one will buy it if it’s too broad. You need something very specific.

The other thing you have to think about is your own personal competencies. How am I qualified to solve this problem? You don’t have to be an expert. You can pick up those skills, but you have to pick up those skills. If you’re going to build something, especially something complex and technical, especially if it’s regulated, you have to know this stuff well because the federal government will come after you. The state governments will come after you. Your consumers will come after you if you screw up. That’s why I’ve always stuck to things that I knew well or were passionate about, and I got to know them well. I think that’s a good formula. At least, it works for me. 

BRYAN WISH: Your current company was able to merge with Joust, right?

LAMINE ZARRAD: With Joust, we always had a very broad vision. It would be a platform that serves the small business. We want to be the all-in-one, all-inclusive platform. It started on the financial side and then expanded into all this paperwork stuff to help you with your compliance paperwork. All this boring shit that no one wants to do as a small business owner. You have plenty to do by focusing on your business growth, your customers, and your product. All of that unnecessary minutia that you’d hire an office manager to do and then pay them a ton of money, and they still have to get the software to do their work, we wanted to automate. We ran a pilot and started to provide LLCs to our customers, which was a really interesting product that took off, but at the same time, we couldn’t support it because we were so small.

We then said, “Let’s look around. Instead of us doing it, let’s find a partner who does this really well.” We looked around at our usual suspects like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. They were just these big companies that were outdated, and their product was crap. I’m not saying LegalZoom is terrible. It was just really cumbersome. We thought we need to find something more modern. We came across ZenBusiness. ZenBusiness, interestingly, also had a very similar vision to us, but they started on the formation side, and they were moving toward financial services because they wanted to be a holistic platform as well. Here we are, two companies with a similar end goal, starting at two different endpoints, on a collision course. Ross, our CEO here at ZenBusiness, got really excited about what we built. We got really excited about what Ross and his team had built. We said, “Let’s just partner up. Let’s make a deal. We’ll operate independently, and you can resell our services. We’ll integrate with you. We’ll have a really tight integration. We’ll resell your services.” So, we did.

That was pre-pandemic. We went into it with a full partnership in mind. The pandemic sets in, and both ZenBusiness and us are thinking, “We don’t know what the world looks like from now on. We have no idea what direction this is going to take.” Interestingly, both Joust and ZenBusiness hit the highest growth during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, because Joust people were freaked out about their invoices. For ZenBusiness, a lot of people got laid off and were like, “I want to do my own thing now.” We didn’t know that was going to happen. We said, “We don’t know what the world looks like. We want to create the same thing. We share the mission. Let’s combine forces and do it together.” Kind of what PayPal did initially with X.

Technically, ZenBusiness was bigger than us and more mature than us, and so, they acquired us. In this acquisition, my entire team transitioned into ZenBusiness. We wanted to create uniformity across the board. We loved the brand that ZenBusiness had, and we said, “Let’s call Joust ZenBusiness Money, and let’s build this financial infrastructure out under the Money umbrella.” I was initially in charge of Money and am now in charge of the entire product offering for ZenBusiness. I’m the head of product there, which is exactly the mission that we set out to accomplish at Joust. 

BRYAN WISH: What a story. You guys were probably going to compete at a point in time. You ended up merging and joining forces to build a more powerful unit. A lot of intentionalities are a theme in everything you’ve done. You are doing it the right way and knowing where you want to go with forethought but then making it happen time in and time out, even when your back is against the wall. 

Legacy. You came here as an immigrant. You started a business in the U.S. and really navigated your way through a ton of incredible experiences. When it’s all said and done, with business, outside of business, what do you care to be known for? 

LAMINE ZARRAD: My answer changes a lot. I care about a few things. I’d say inclusion. I care a lot about inclusion. Me, my family, my friends, we’re kept completely outside of certain tools, if you like. Banking and certain groups we couldn’t permeate. It’s so damaging to a person and to a community and ultimately to society to do that to groups because you’re creating a culture of underperformance, a culture that is constantly one step or two steps behind. Then the whole society sort of suffers. For me, inclusion is incredibly important. You want to bring people in instead of keeping them out. You want to team up. This is like the theme throughout my career, including the most recent action. Team up with those around you because the tide rises and brings up all the boats. However, that saying goes. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind that people think about what I built, how it impacted lives, and it created inclusion and access. 

BRYAN WISH: So good. You have firsthand real-world and first-world experience with those issues. We just started our diversity training at the team, and it’s been very eye-opening to think about how to create environments of inclusion. I’m excited to see what you do next. Thanks for your time. 

One Away Podcast
Bryan Wish

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