Zeus Jones Invests in the Future of Business
photo: c/o Zeus Jones

Zeus Jones Invests in the Future of Business

Co-founder and chairman Adrian Ho on why his Minneapolis branding agency just launched its own investment fund.

When you work in the business of transformation, it’s only natural to be inspired by your own advice. After 15 years of providing creative and strategic counsel—launching brands, loyalty programs, and helping big name clients including General Mills, Target, and Nike stay ahead of trends—Zeus Jones decided last fall to add investing to its portfolio. The Minneapolis branding agency’s new early-stage investment fund Demos closed its first $1.5 million funding round at the end of 2021 and made its first seed investment of $100,000 in Dimensional Energy, a startup incubated at Cornell University that converts captured carbon dioxide into sustainable aviation fuel. The bio-engineering startup aligns with the Demos focus on transformational business; industry targets include the convergence of food and health care, agriculture, and artificial intelligence.

Demos isn’t the agency’s only spin-off. Along with the investment fund, Zeus Jones launched Hellen, a consulting group focused on membership and brand loyalty programs. There’s also Nostos, a membership community of independent marketing, design, and tech companies, created by Zeus Jones as an independent entity three years ago. 

At the helm of this growing constellation of companies is Zeus Jones co-founder and chairman Adrian Ho. He talked to us about his purpose-driven approach to business and innovation.

As popular as it’s become for established companies to get involved with startups through incubators and accelerators, creating an investment fund seems a bit novel for a branding agency. What prompted it?  

The impetus was really the events of the last two years. Like everyone, we felt horrified by what was happening in our world and wanted to see what more we could do to help. That started the process of thinking about assets of ours we could potentially use in other ways. We are an innovation company. There are three kinds of innovation we’re doing: 

  •  New brand innovation—launching products in food, oral care, etc. 
  • New capability innovation—building new functions within a company, like Nike’s 365 Studio, a global editorial studio, which we helped to build out.
  • New category innovation—working with clients to look at 5-, 10-, 15-year trends into the future to try to figure out what are the businesses that make sense in those timelines. What’s the path for migrating from where we are now to where we want to go?

Demos came out of the last form of innovation—new category—where increasingly, we were imagining entirely new industries and thinking about different ways we could help accelerate those.

“We’re not going to fix the things that need to be fixed unless we work together.”

Did you follow any sort of industry blueprint for creating Demos? 

Bullish is a branding agency and investment firm in New York. We’ve had this fun relationship—they called for advice when they were starting out. Their focus is direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker and Casper. When we were starting up [Demos], we begged the favor back again. The more firms like ours are doing this, the easier it is for another investor to say, “I’m going to take a chance on you.” For Demos, we brought in a partner, Brandon Small, who comes from the investment world, because we knew we needed that financial expertise.

Is the investment fund about cashing in on your expertise? 

The secret about venture funds is they’re actually not that profitable. It’s not really a great way to make money. We are not a traditional VC fund. What we know about is long-term strategy in a very special set of industries that we all know will be really good if we can achieve them. We want to connect more quickly those entrepreneurs who are also trying to target those industries with other people they need to work with. We can partner with other much larger investment funds. The idea would be maybe they can bring more money to solving these problems than we can. 

Corner of building

What’s an example? 

Let’s take the convergence of food and health care. It’s pretty clear that health care costs are rising to the point that no one can afford them. As a result, other kinds of categories, most notably, food, are taking on health care properties. What the science is showing is that food is much cheaper, much better in delivering healthier outcomes for a wide range of chronic diseases. But there are challenges. It’s very difficult to convince insurers and government that food is an acceptable treatment for disease—you need research and policy changes in order to make that work on the payment side. On the food side, you need food not to taste like medicine. You need a bunch of science to help develop foods that are nutritious and delicious. And then on the data side, if we can understand what drives you, the consumer, we can probably deliver food that’s much better for you. 

We’re going out there to find companies that can help move this category forward. We bring some small amount of capital, strategic guidance, and an ability to align these startups with other players in the space. Big health care, food, tech—they’re all clients of ours. Progress breaks down because of missing pieces, because companies don’t work together properly. We’re in an interesting position here. Could we help more? We could at least try.

Money is terribly unevenly distributed. There’s too much money for some of the wrong things, not enough for some of the right things. We’re looking at where the money is, where it should go, and figuring out if you can create that bridge. 

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“There’s too much money for some of the wrong things, not enough for some of the right things.”

What appealed to you about investing in Dimensional Energy? 

They are uniquely placed at the center of transformation in the energy business. The aviation industry is extremely hard to decarbonize through traditional renewables as electric batteries can’t support long flights due to weight-to-power ratio limitations. Meanwhile, traditional jet fuel prices are rising and airlines are under cultural and economic pressure to make flying more sustainable. Dimensional Energy’s proven solution is solar-powered, allowing them
to deliver 100 percent renewable, affordable, carbon-neutral fuel at scale in the very
near term.

Rare is the startup today that doesn’t have some sort of mission proposition. Do you think your more traditional Zeus Jones clients will see Demos as added value? 

We’ve been urged by clients to get into this space previously. The innovation world is quite difficult. For big companies, it’s easier to buy innovations than to build them. Clients advised us: If we could help grow companies, and they could buy them, that’s actually easier. There’s more money available for acquisition than creation within large corporations. 

If Demos is born of category innovation, what of your new consultancy Hellen?

That’s about new capabilities. We’ve done an awful lot of work in loyalty, including the benchmark case study for Nike Plus [a membership program that provides access to exclusive products, customization, and special offers]. We realized we could scale that as well, particularly with Nike’s former VP of global membership, Pierre-Laurent Baudey, as our partner. There are ways we feel we can make more of a difference, including how companies think from a loyalty mindset rather than an acquisition mindset. 

As a future-focused agency, what are your thoughts on the future of work? 

At a very basic level, we need each other. We need to be with each other. But I don’t think we’re going to go back to what we had before—the idea of one big space. We are  redesigning our Minneapolis office to be better for the hybrid mode of work we are currently in. We’ve brought on several new tenants to the Nicollet Avenue space, which will allow us to invest more in distributed workspaces and travel. We’re planning an all-company retreat, and we’re trying to figure out how to be together in different places and in the right times. 

Zeus Jones is a certified B Corp., and you seem quite clear on using business as a vehicle for problem-solving. Can the same be said of most businesses you encounter today?

There are a lot of good people who want to do really good things. In every single category, we’re dealing with someone like that. Every single one of our clients knows that within their industry a transformation is happening. We’re not going to fix the things that need to be fixed unless we work together. Part of it is being in Minnesota—there’s an incredible amount of important industry here and a lot of will to do good stuff. ν