The 25-year-old Angeleno has built three businesses — and sold two — over the course of his relatively short career. He has pitched and secured investment from Mark Cuban and Mark Burnett and received a $100,000 fellowship from billionaire Peter Thiel to drop out of college.
Zhang achieved all of this despite a devastating accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down at the age of 21.
Born in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents, Zhang spent his early years following his father’s work to international finance hubs such as Hong Kong and Frankfurt, Germany.
He had his first experience with entrepreneurship while in high school, where he founded a social enterprise that recycled used SAT and ACT study materials for students who couldn’t afford them.
“It was just me and my laptop,” Zhang said.
That one-man company closed shop when Zhang left for college, but he said the experience gave him a taste for entrepreneurship.
“(Creating the company) was much easier than I thought it would be,” he said.
Zhang entered USC at 18. He wouldn’t graduate but instead would land on the idea that would become his first major business.
USC, Zhang explained, “is not in the safest area.” The University Park campus locksdown at 9 p.m., preventing food from being delivered inside the area at night.
“We had a lot of late nights at the library studying, and my friends and I were starving,” Zhang said. “One night, my friend said, ‘I would literally pay someone $10 bucks to give me a Chipotle burrito.’”
“I was like, ‘Really?’” Zhang said. “I wasn’t that busy, so I took the money and went and got burritos for both of us.”
Since Zhang had a USC student ID, he could travel freely around the campus at night. After repeating this process several times with different friends, Zhang said he decided to see if other students would be interested.
He printed off and posted flyers advertising late night on-campus delivery services.
“It just had my phone number on there and said to text me,” he said. “I got swarmed with orders the first weekend that I did it.”
The gig business, which Zhang said was mostly a “side hustle” in its early days, started to gain traction when his friends asked if they could start doing deliveries, too. “They wanted to make like $50 or $100 bucks a night (like I was),” he said.
All of the orders for this early service were done through text messaging, according to Zhang. This changed when a computer science student — who Zhang says was a frequent user of his late-night delivery service — offered to build a mobile app for the fledgling business.
A ‘Shark Tank’ moment
A ‘Shark Tank’ moment
“At the end of the night, (the hosts) asked if (Cuban and Burnett) wanted to do a college version of Shark Tank,” Zhang said. “I was waving my hand like crazy. I got picked. It was so surreal.”
Zhang pitched his company, by this point called EnvoyNow, to Cuban and Burnett. After fielding a series of tough questions about the business, the two investors offered Zhang $100,000 for a 10% stake in EnvoyNow.
Just two months later, the young entrepreneur received a phone call from the Thiel Foundation, offering him an additional $100,000 to drop out of school and focus on EnvoyNow full time.
“I had already been considering (dropping out),” Zhang said. “I had already been getting feedback from other entrepreneurs that I wouldn’t get taken seriously by investors if I was a student doing this on the side.”
Zhang took the Thiel offer and left USC to focus on building out EnvoyNow. The company grew rapidly, expanding to 22 college campuses across the country at its peak. Despite the stresses of being a very young CEO, Zhang was riding high, and the company’s prospects were bright.
“I was in the (intensive care unit) for five weeks, on a ventilator for three months,” Zhang said. “I couldn’t run a company. I couldn’t even breathe or talk.”
Six months into his recovery, Zhang said he “felt ready to face the world again.” When he called to check on his company, however, he learned that the business was struggling and the other co-founders wanted to quit.
“I told them, ‘I don’t want to quit. If you guys want to leave you can leave,’” Zhang said. “I called up all of our investors, all of our executive team that didn’t want to leave. I told them the business was still valuable and that we could still get acquired.”
Working remotely from the hospital for the next six months, Zhang put the company back together. EnvoyNow reached its largest point during this period, positioning itself for an acquisition by delivery company JoyRun Inc. in early 2017. That company was itself acquired by Walmart Inc. last month.
“In the moment it was really helpful to have something else to focus on other than myself and my body,” Zhang said. “What I learned from that is that you can’t give up. I didn’t give up on the company; I didn’t give up on myself and my team.”
Zhang spent the next year at JoyRun as part of the sale agreement before moving on to explore other avenues for entrepreneurship. After that, he did consulting work, founded and sold a second startup and worked at Santa Monica-based cryptocurrency investment platform Blockfolio Inc.
The latter sparked Zhang’s interest in alternatives investing.
“The main thing separating someone with $100 million in investable assets and $100,000 in investable assets is not the stock markets,” he said. “It’s access to alternative investments.”
Rather than investing in cryptocurrency, however, Zhang saw the greatest opportunity in an even more niche investment class: wine.
After reading a news article about the historically strong performance of wine as an investment class, Zhang and his then-colleague Brent Akamine began investing in fine wines. Zhang said the relatively high barriers to entry he experienced during this process made him realize the sector could be ripe for disruption.
“There weren’t really any other things like it in terms of its accessibility,” he said. “It was really archaic.”
Zhang and Akamine hatched the idea for a technology platform that would allow average people to easily invest in fine wine. Their business, dubbed Vinovest Inc., would present investors with clean interfaces and dashboards where they could build, track and manage a wine portfolio similar to a portfolio of stock and bonds. It would recommend investments to wine novices based on their investment timelines and risk appetites, as well as the amount they were looking to spend. It would also handle the sometimes messy logistics associated with sourcing, authenticating, insuring and storing the product.
Wine as an investment
Wine as an investment
Hershel Mehta, a local venture capitalist, founder of multifamily office Mehta Ventures and investor in Vinovest, said the company caught his eye as a way in on an emerging trend toward nontraditional investments.
“When I look at some of the predecessors that created marketplaces and/or exchanges for alternative assets (Coinbase for cryptocurrency; StockX for sneakers; AngelList for early stage investing), there is an obvious massive trend toward underground niche investments emerging as legitimate asset classes,” Mehta said in an email. “Hence, the bet for me is actually on fine wine becoming an asset class akin to high-end sneakers or cryptocurrency.”
Launched earlier this year, Vinovest hosts several thousand active users, according to Zhang. He said next steps for the company will involve building a wine-trading platform into the app — a feature to be launched sometime in 2021. Eventually, Zhang said the platform may grow to include other nontraditional, relatively inaccessible investment classes beyond wine.
Despite the difficulties of growing another company from the ground up, Zhang said he feels passionately about his new business and the opportunity to “really create something that’s my own.”
“I love this business I’m doing and the opportunities it has provided to me and other people,” he said. “I would recommend that anyone who has an idea (for a business) and a passion to go do it.”
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