Alumni profile: Jeffrey Zhao, A.B. ’16
Taking a different angle for design and marketing
During his senior year at Harvard, Jeffrey Zhao and classmate Karine Hsu launched the startup Campfire, an open, semi-anonymous discussion forum for Harvard students.
“Like many first startups, it didn’t really go anywhere, but it was an incredible learning experience,” said Zhao, A.B. ’16, a computer science concentrator at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “I taught myself a lot about design and product and how to think about a business, so that was pretty transformational.”
Five years later, Zhao and Hsu have reunited as co-founders of SLOPE, a full-service design and marketing agency that specializes in helping startups with branding, web design, and growth.
SLOPE, which the friends launched in 2019, has grown rapidly and served more than 300 clients, from nascent firms to Series C-level startups to established tech businesses. Their novel approach to marketing, and SLOPE’s 400 percent year-over-year growth, earned Zhao, Hsu, and fellow co-founder Phillip Hui-Bon-Hoa a place in the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30.
“We wanted to start SLOPE as the agency we wish we had when we were running our own startups,” Zhao said. “If you look at the services world, agencies are not structured to work with startups, and they are definitely not structured to work with high-growth companies.”
For instance, a traditional marketing agency often launches a rebranding project in a linear fashion—weeks of brand strategy discussions followed by user research, defining voice, and crafting visual identity. The months-long process can cost the customer hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the high cost and long timeframe make that approach unfeasible for many startups.
SLOPE partners with clients to determine the biggest value-add at a moment in time, Zhao said. Rather than focus on brand strategy, for instance, a better tactic for a young firm could be launching a sleek website to attract new customers.
His experiences at startups fuel his desire to rethink the way marketing agencies serve young firms.
After graduation, Zhao joined a tech startup as its third employee. He worked on design, development, engineering, and user experience for a company that was automating email marketing for small businesses.
After that startup was acquired by a larger company, Zhao decided to embark on some new challenges. He reunited with Hsu and they launched a fashion brand, And Comfort, a direct-to-consumer minimalist clothing brand in sizes 10 to 28.
“Starting a brand was always something that was very interesting to me. It is very creatively open. You can set the visual identity and the voice. A brand is like a person in a lot of ways; it has a personality, and crafting that was a fun experience,” Zhao said. “I also got to dip my feet in things that stretched me a bit creatively, like photo shoots and art direction, along with familiar things like web design, development, and growing a business.”
Zhao later joined a company in Los Angeles to work on product design, but found himself having more fun advising friends’ startups on the side.
So he and Hsu dove back into the entrepreneurial world together and launched SLOPE.
Drawing on their experiences with And Comfort, they focus much of their attention on the intersection of marketing and design. Zhao’s interest in design was sparked at Harvard when he cross-registered for a course at the MIT Media Lab.
“I like the way design enables me to take a certain problem and solve it by melding human psychology, usability, technology, and so many other concepts. And there is no right answer, there is no perfect design, it is always a work in progress,” he said. “But because of that nature of it, there is always a ton of optionality to explore and be creative and push the envelope.”
Combining that eye for design with outside-the-box thinking to help young firms succeed is what has led to SLOPE’s rapid growth, Zhao said.
The biggest challenges the founders have faced derive from that massive scale-up. Hiring, establishing processes for new services, and getting to know dozens of new clients in short order pushed Zhao and Hsu to their limits.
Now that the agency has gained momentum, he is excited to continue growing SLOPE, add services with an eye on new platforms, and continue to work with a variety of startups.
“To be able to touch so many industries and so many companies is something that I think is truly unique about this agency,” he said. “Getting to work with all these people who are so passionate about their industry and the problem they are trying to solve, and to get to learn from them, too, is just an incredible experience.”