Alumnus Profile: Dave Zito (BS '97)
Dave Zito (BS '97) is a 9x builder of early-stage startups, raising over $30 million in venture capital funding and running consumer software teams with exits exceeding $250 million. Zito's career in startups began at Idealab, where he worked under the guidance of Caltech engineering alumnus and trustee, Bill Gross (BS '81). Since his early days at Idealab, Zito has worked with PayMyBills, Overture/Yahoo, Cramster/Chegg, Miso Robotics, and more.
Zito is most known for being the creator of "Flippy" the hamburger flipping robot, and he is also the co-inventor of the flameless candle. Zito's current endeavor, Duel Trends, is focused on fixing the attribution and compensation problem for creators in social media. Zito is a Caltech Basketball "booster" and proud father of two girls.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your career and professional contributions?
Dave Zito: I love building things. In '97, a friend who graduated the year before me said, "Hey, I'm working with this guy, he's an alum, his name is Bill Gross, I think you should meet him. You guys are totally alike." So, I met him, and the rest is history.
Idealab then launched a new startup called IdeaMarket in 1997 and I was the sole customer support representative. This was a happy accident. By being on the front lines of web products when consumers were still getting used to the web, I received a trial by fire to learn what I do now, which is called product development.
Fast forward, I'm on my ninth startup in 20 years. It's a hard life, but it's a lot of fun when it's cooking. The most famous thing I've built is Flippy, the hamburger flipping and French-frying robot—I built it out of a garage with other Caltech alumni and it went super viral. I've had many lives, and it is curiosity that has guided me, and it is curiosity that has not yelled killed this cat.
ENGenuity: Is there a project you're most proud of or felt was the most challenging?
Zito: I don't feel like I've created a legacy platform yet. I don't feel like I've even gotten into my groove and fully integrated all my skills yet, which sounds odd at 46, but that's just the beginner's mentality that I bring into every new project.
The project I'm currently working on is probably the one I'm most proud of and most excited about because the story of it isn't written yet. It gives me the most hope with its potential to have a positive impact on the world. I'm focusing on what I'm launching, but everything that I've worked on has a place in my heart and certainly has taught me important lessons.
ENGenuity: How has Caltech influenced you and shaped your philosophy?
Zito: The thing that most resonates for me with the Caltech culture is the freedom of curiosity—the idea that no one should prescribe your daily anything.
Caltech has given me the bravery to seek and take on the hardest, seemingly most improbable challenges. With startups, it's a challenge to pull things off with such a small team and few resources, but you just go and do it. This challenge provides the motivation you need to prove the world wrong, and that's a good thing. The bad thing is that you sometimes think that if things are too easy, then it must not be working or it's not going to be ok. In business, that isn't true. If it's too difficult, it might not be worth it, and that's a really hard thing to figure out. How do you know whether you should row back to shore or keep going and get to the other side? You have to rely on and trust your team—my favorite quote speaks to this: "Startups, like life, are better played as a team sport."
One of the nicest things about the Caltech culture is that it is not obsessed with material success. It was a weird culture, but I felt very at home. It was a safe place for people to become authentically themselves. To that extent, I try to be an alumnus who carries that flag. Embrace your weird and follow your path, whatever that is, and don't worry about what people are going to say about you.
ENGenuity: What advice do you have for the next generation of Caltech students or alumni?
Zito: EQ over IQ. Even just a little bit of effort in learning how to relate to others, how to put yourself in others' shoes and connect more deeply, more presently, and increase your self-awareness, will pay more dividends than getting that much smarter than your colleague.
ENGenuity: Is there a class or professor at Caltech that had the biggest impact on you?
Zito: In my second year, Chris Brennan [Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus] was my mechanical engineering professor in fluids. The class covered non-deterministic differential equations, so it's very challenging math. It was just beyond me and over my head. I remember being devastated by a low test score, so I went into a one-on-one with him and said, "what am I doing here?" Chris looks at me and said, "Zito, are you going to become the next professor of thermodynamics around here? No, this isn't your bag. Are there kids in this class that are way better than you? No doubt. But don't give up. It can be hard to see it right now while you're inside this classroom and in this school, but what you have will be more valuable for making an impact in society. So don't give up. I'll help you get through it. This isn't your thing, so what?"
Those words still mean the world to me. I owe my degree to Chris Brennan for sure. There are many others who helped me along the way, but Chris especially.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story or media that you watch?
Zito: Succession, PhysicsTok (on TikTok), and the NBA – all things basketball. Go Beavers/Clippers!
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Zito: Kona, Hawaii with my family.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Zito: That moment when something you imagine becomes real and finds true product-market fit—usually indicated by a user complaining about something that's broken.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Zito: Right now, it's usually one of my young daughters.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Zito: See: what keeps me up at night. But also my drive to use technology to make a positive impact in the world—not to mention the desire to provide for my family.