Matteo Penzo: ‘Entrepreneurship isn’t for everybody’

Podcast Ep 184: Matteo Penzo on being a proponent of faster learning and why he located his latest venture Zick Learn in Dublin.

During my conversation with Matteo Penzo he admits I touched a nerve by pointing out that among the highs and lows of entrepreneurial life is the loneliness that many start-up founders endure as they try to impress their vision on the world.

Penzo, founder of Zick Learn, is something of a serial entrepreneur and investor. The Milan native’s latest venture Zick Learn recently secured €500,000 in funding to increase its headcount and accelerate growth in Ireland and overseas markets. This latest round was led by renowned Italian edtech investment firm Zanichelli Venture, and backed by a number of angel investors.

“We are expected to be able to work from anywhere in any moment. And why should training or learning be different?”

Headquartered in Dublin, Zick Learn is an innovative text-based microlearning platform that aims to revolutionise the training process for companies and their staff. It delivers lessons to their mobiles through platforms such as WhatsApp and Slack and can be integrated into existing IT structures to help transform corporate training, empower education for deskless workers.

This funding will see the business double its workforce in Ireland, and increase its global headcount by 50%. It will also enable Zick Learn to further develop its product offering, and extend its reach to new platforms. The investment will expedite integration into several new platforms, including Google Chat and Instagram, ensuring learning is just one text away.

A passion for building things


Penzo, a seasoned entrepreneur co-founded Talent Garden, the pan-European co-working business that has a campus in Glasnevin. He also served as director of Technology at Frog Design, the global creative and design consultancy, between 2010 and 2020.

An established thought leader, international keynote speaker, and a pioneer in the edtech and L&D space, Penzo is passionate about the implications of new work patterns in the digital age. In particular, through Zick Learn he is a proponent of the 4-day week which he believes leads to improvements across a wide range of well-being metrics, including positive affect, work-family and work-life balance, and several domains of life satisfaction, as well as how microlearning eliminates redundant and time-consuming learning modules.

“I currently describe myself as a recovering consultant, because I spent the past 10 years of my life working at Frog Design. Frog is one of the largest product design and strategy firms globally. It’s the company that designed the Macintosh back in the 80s with Steve Jobs, it’s the company that designed the experience for the Disney theme parks. And also while being there, I was leading the technology teams in Europe,” Penzo explains.

“My passion for entrepreneurship was so strong that even before joining Frog, I put on paper with them contractually that it was allowed to build new ventures on the side, obviously, as long as they were not competing with Frog itself. So I founded two companies while I was at Frog; one was Talent Garden at DCU. Talent Garden was born as one of the major co working campuses in Europe and the other was the Frontiers of Interaction conferences. Our main product today is called Frontiers Health, which is a conference entirely focused on digital healthcare.”

In terms of his decision to locate Zick Learn in Dublin, Penzo said it made sense from a skills perspective.

“I think Dublin and Ireland at large is one of the best places in Europe to build up a new venture. If you look at the Government supports and legislation it is so much easier for entrepreneurs to build a new organistion and hire a team, it’s much easier than other parts of Europe.

“The second reason is the talent pool and its draw for people all over the world. The tech giants have settled their headquarters there and for a small tech company like ours you don’t need to worry about your tech hires relocating from all over Europe because they are already there.”

Penzo said that he has exited Talent Garden and Frontiers to focus all of his energies on Zick Learn.

His passion is transforming ideas into products and services and bringing them to market. “I would describe it as an urge to build something and to me the best way to build something is to create a company around it, and then bring the product to market.”

Discussing entrepreneurship, he believes people need to think carefully before starting a business.

“I don’t think it’s for everybody. It’s a tough job. You touched an open nerve about entrepreneurship which is about the loneliness – even when you have a large scale team as an entrepreneur, you’re guided by your vision. And you need to be sure that you’re sleeping, eating and drinking this vision, and working constantly to bring this vision to execution. And that’s why I believe that, for at least me, personally, it’s of the fundamental importance of being surrounded by co-founders I can rely upon, because everybody of us will have highs and lows. So it’s good when you are in in your lower moment, you have somebody on your side that can help you support you and guide you further.

“And the other skill that I believe is of fundamental importance is the ability of constantly giving 200% of yourself to your enterprise. I’m not saying I don’t believe to the fact that an entrepreneur is somebody that doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, doesn’t travel doesn’t have any fun, because there’s only the only the enterprise to for him to or her to be focused upon. But at least for myself, even though when I’m partying or traveling, the constant focal point of my thoughts: it’s always my product. It’s always my client.

“If you do it [entrepreneurship] for the money, probably, you’ve made the wrong decision. There are so much better options for you on the market. The reason I build ventures as I said before, I have the physical need of bringing my ideas to reality.”

A revolution in learning

No matter what job you are doing today, it is widely accepted that the need to learn and train continually is part and parcel of what you do. Penzo believes that professionals will need to absorb information faster and train continually.

“We focus on learning for large to very large scale corporations. And if you look at that specific market standard, the learning is failing almost everywhere. 95% of the training that people should be having in large scale corporations are just simply not happening, either because people are deciding not to do the training, or because even when they decide to do the training they transform it in to what we call skip factories. I think you know, when you when you start the training, and then you start pressing next, next, next, just to get to the very end of the training, so that your HR is happy, because the training has been done. But you learned nothing.

“Employers today are just training their employees, but they are not making them learn. So there’s something broken in in the market, and it’s broken for both sides of the table.”

Penzo points to the old internet joke about employers worrying that by investing in their workers’ skills, what will happen when they leave. “But what if they stay,” comes the riposte.

Penzo has a point, especially following the pandemic where entire life and workstyles have changed to a more fluid, hybrid dynamic.

“People used to have to put a block on their diaries or agendas in order to make time for learning. But that’s not how we live any more.

“We are expected to be able to work from anywhere in any moment. And why should training or learning be different? Training should be able to adapt to our own lifestyle instead of doing exactly the opposite. And that’s what we’re trying to do with Zick Learn, because since we’re delivering micro trainings to the major corporate chat clients we have on the market, namely WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, Slack, WebEx, in that way, we’re delivering trainings right in the pockets of the employees in writing their flow of work

“So I don’t need to block my agenda because I need to perform a training a micro training on Zick Learn. When we performed our tests in a controlled environment, the maximum time, to finish a lesson was less than three minutes, with an average of a minute and a half.

“And every one of us have pockets of free time, multiple, multiple times throughout our day. So that’s how we’re trying to revert the equation. It’s not about finding or saving time to do the training. But it’s the training being available in our pocket for when we have time for it.”

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John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.