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What Makes an Otto Award Winner? Look at Sphere & Zenbase

Let's take a look at two companies that applied in 2022 and highlight what made them great applicants.

Otto Pohl

Aug 15, 2023

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As we get closer to the opening of the 2023 awards season, a lot of you are emailing asking about what makes a great application. Today let me start an occasional series about last year’s finalists and winners. Today, let’s look at Sphere and Zenbase. Each company impressed judges.

To recap, the Otto Awards are looking for great startup storytelling. Companies can apply using any kind of messaging, including website text, video, pitch decks (just the deck and/or the presentation), PR campaign, and social media. Whatever the format, Judges are looking for something that makes a powerful impact with the intended target audience.

Today let’s look at two applicants who applied with their website. (Note, both websites have been modified somewhat since they applied last year.)

Sphere

When serial entrepreneur Alex Wright-Gladstein couldn’t find a 401k plan for her employees at her previous Climate Tech startup, she did some digging and found that there really weren’t any options. So she decided to create one at her new startup, Sphere.

While researching the market, she discovered two things: 1, lots of employees at companies wanted a climate-friendly 401k plan (ie big opportunity). And 2, companies tend to be very conservative about 401k plan selection due to regulatory constraints and the threat of lawsuits (ie big potential blocker). Alex calls the first group her Heart Followers, and the other the Rule Followers.

The process of building the website was slow and deliberate, with “literally everything” under the microscope for how it would play to each of these audiences. “We gave the dollarized treatment to the faces on the site, but used photos of everyday people,” Alex says, making them heroes, yes, but heroes of a business story.

Look at the Sphere site through the eyes of a company employee looking for a climate-friendly 401k and then again as a company investment officer. Judges loved how she succeeded in balancing the pitch to these two distinct audiences, each necessary for business success but each requiring a different message.

Sphere won an Otto Award. Selected judge feedback:

Aditi Roy, VP of Communications at Onward, and an Emmy award winner at CNBC: “The problem and solution are effectively laid out using punchy language and compelling data.”

Steve Clayton, VP Communications Strategy at Microsoft: “A great idea with professionally delivered comms.”

 

Zenbase

Zenbase offers (Canadian) renters the ability to pay their rent on a more flexible basis, while guaranteeing landlords the full rent on time. The mission of Zenbase is to help more renters stay in their homes and reduce the stress that strict rent payment schedules create.

Zenbase does a great job building on statistics that capture the emotional aspect of rent payments. CEO and co-founder Koray Can Oztekin wrote that “we don’t see our solution as rent now, pay later but rather a budgeting tool for financial health.” That is a subtle but powerful difference: it highlights the emotional value of the product instead of the transactional benefit. By building the website with this value clearly in mind, Zenbase is positioned as a financial wellness tool that democratizes rental housing affordability.

Look at the Zenbase site with that framing in mind. This article, submitted as part of their application, further highlighted the emotional mission of the company, and framed it as distinct from and more powerful than a simple budgeting tool.

Zenbase was a finalist but didn’t win an Otto Award. Selected judge feedback:

Justin Sternberg, Head of strategic narratives at Snapchat: “Love this idea — jealous I didn’t think of it… the idea is so strong I wish there was a little more pizzaz in the story.”

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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