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Industry: Email Marketing & Communications
Location: Irvine, CA

Capitalizing on Opportunity

UC Irvine alumnus Ajay Shah (’98) co-founded Zustek with the goal of becoming the top provider of email marketing software and services in the US. For Shah, Zustek’s CEO, the start-up was his second entrepreneurial endeavor after successfully establishing OSI, a leading Oracle integration and enterprise solutions firm with offices located in the US and India. While at OSI, Shah observed that many of his clients were in need of low-cost, high-quality email marketing software and service solutions. Recognizing the lucrative potential for developing a business that delivered custom email marketing solutions, Shah along with three business partners began to put together Zustek’s business plan.

“We knew what we needed to do to get Zustek up and running,” Shah explains, “but in high-tech businesses in particular, there is a high-degree of directionality.”

Navigating Challenges

Opening its doors in May 2001, Shah first directed Zustek’s email marketing solutions toward clients in the travel industry. Zustek soon encountered a rapidly shrinking market for its software and service solutions in the wake of a collapsing US travel market brought about by the 9/11 attacks. “The largest challenge we had to overcome was our timing,” Shah recalls. “We were self-financed by four partners and we gave ourselves some breathing room, but what we hadn’t anticipated were the 9/11 attacks.” Shah quickly retooled Zustek’s marketing focus to include a wider range of vertical markets including the entertainment and publishing industries. Within months, Zustek’s business was again growing and revenues were on the rise.

Zustek’s profitability opened up opportunities, but led to new challenges as well. Once generating healthy profits, Shah sought assistance from SCORE business councilors to help him maintain Zustek’s positive growth. “Having a high-degree of understanding of the nuts and bolts of your cash-flow helps determine the directions your business can take. Thus, profitability expands options – SCORE helped us analyze cash-flow so Zustek could take a positive growth direction.” Now one of the premier providers of email marketing services in the US, Zustek services a variety of clients across the country including numerous Fortune 500 companies such as Time and Sony.

The Benefits of Entrepreneurship

Having built Zustek into a leading email marketing firm employing over 100 professionals, Shah sold his stake in the company to pursue other business ventures. While acknowledging the importance of the financial rewards that go along with owning a successful business, Shah also recognizes other motivating factors that have influenced his decision to become an entrepreneur. For example, Shah believes that owning his own business has given him the opportunity to participate on a variety of compelling projects, have a greater impact on the outcomes of those projects and have the chance to work with interesting and highly motivated people.

For Shah, the process of building Zustek was an exhilarating experience, “When you land a big brand name client, it is very affirming of your business strategy.”

Shah attributes much of his entrepreneurial success to the skills of his partners and his employees as well as to his understanding of his own capabilities and limitations.

“Be very self-aware and understand what you can do well. Find people who you trust and get along with to fill holes that you can’t. No one person has all the necessary skills to do everything.”

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