Meet the 2014 Startups: Warrant.ly: Neutralize Murphy’s Law

Today we catch up with Nikola Todorovic, of Warrant.ly, the cloud based mobile platform for point-of-sale warranties and warranty digitization. The company aims to eliminate the paperwork involved in product claims, and save customers tons of money, while improving relationships between end users, manufacturers, and resellers. 
Nikola Todovoric, Founder and CEO of Warrant.ly

Nikola Todovoric, Founder and CEO of Warrant.ly

Hi Nikola, tell us a little about Warrantly. What does the app do?

Warrantly is a cloud-based warranty management service. It alleviates the pain customers are facing with existing paperwork– the kind that you usually just put somewhere and forget about it. With our app, you can totally forget about it as well, but when you inevitably have a broken appliance, you’ll always know your papers are securely stored on our servers, just a few clicks away whenever you need them. It will also allow retailers and manufacturers to issue warranties at the point of sale and create a lasting bond with their customers.

What do customers currently do with their warranties? 

A surprising number of people actually just throw them away. Our customer survey showed that up to 90% of warranty information ends up in the trash without being used. Otherwise, people just throw it in a drawer somewhere. Very often, in places like the EU where certain items have statutory 2 year warranties, people don’t even realize this fact, and they discard paperwork that could save them a good bit of money.

Even if people do save warranties, the process of redeeming them can be annoying and frustrating. Finding the paperwork, going back to the store, and having to deal with the process is a reason to just forget the whole thing.

How did you strike on this idea? It’s surprising that there isn’t already a good digital solution for this issue. Why do you think it hasn’t been tackled before?

It actually came out of a personal annoyance! Warranty claims were always a frustrating experience for me, having to dig through all the paperwork trying to find that one warranty which always mysteriously disappears for some reason. There’s probably a “Murphy’s law” type of thing for this…

So the prospect of “digitizing” warranties seemed pretty exciting to us, to pioneer the transition which seems totally logical at this point. Up till now, people have been trying to address this individually in an ad-hoc way (like taking warranty snapshots and storing them, for example), but this whole area seems more like a cascade of issues that we’re trying to tackle with an all-round after-purchase solution. It’s not obvious until it’s right there for the customer.

What do you see as your biggest technical and business challenges in the near future?

Getting the product out there will be a challenge. Our team is small at the moment, and while we’re fully committed to develop the most perfect warranty management platform out there, that alone will not be sufficient to convince people to use it. We need marketing and sales professionals that will help us with the campaign, and let people know there’s a new, much more practical way of handling product warranties.

Your team comes from Serbia. Do you plan to grow in the Southern European market, or is the CEE a better test-bed for your platform?

We do plan to make Serbia the initial market for our platform. In some areas it’s pretty underdeveloped compared to the CEE, but we see that as an advantage. We will be the first ones to offer standardised extended warranty plans, and deliver a choice for people who would like to prolong the peace of mind when it comes to their favourite gadgets.

What do you see as your best prospects for revenue generation in this market? Is this ultimately a consumer-facing service, or an added-value for manufacturers and retailers?

In a way, it’s both. Consumers will use the service to access their product warranties, but we intend to keep the way things are at the moment, so the service will be totally free of charge for individuals. We plan on charging manufacturers and retailers a symbolic fee per issued warranty. No hidden expenses, fair and simple. In return, they can completely forget about fitting unnecessary papers in their product packaging and having them signed or stamped at the point of sale. They will also have access to various analytics about their own products, and even be able to communicate directly to a customer to resolve potential problems and build brand loyalty.

Walk us through that process. How do you picture a customer purchasing a warranty, using your app? How will they resolve issues with manufacturers?

Customers can simply download our app, or use the web app in the browser to upload all the warranties and receipts, let our OCR software take care of all the data, which is afterwards presented in a clear and intuitive way.

No input on the customer’s side, unless some of the files are simply unreadable for our system. After the partnership with manufacturers and retailers gets underway, the user will only need to give the seller an email address he/she used to sign up with our system (or receive an email invite in case they’re not existing users), and the product with its associated warranty shows up in their account. If, god forbid, they have a problem with any of the products, a simple tap/click of a button reports the issue to the person in charge of warranty claims, and the user is presented with the solution.

Let’s talk about your team. How did you come together? What kinds of people are you planning to add in the near future?

We’ve known each other a long time, some of us even worked together in the past, so everything came rather spontaneously. At one point I mentioned the idea to the other guys, and got the same reaction – “let’s do it!”

It’s one of those problems you can identify with instantly – being so interested in gadgets and tech, we all had phantom paper stacks that occasionally drove us crazy. Considering we’re a bunch of geeks, we’ve got the development covered, so we’re in need of people dealing with the business side, especially in areas of marketing, finance and sales.

Cofounders of Warrant.ly: Nikola Todorović, Marko Simić, Svetislav Marković.

Cofounders of Warrant.ly: Nikola Todorović, Marko Simić, Svetislav Marković.

How has your experience been with StartupYard? Which of the mentors have had the deepest impact on your approach to Warrantly?

We are truly happy and honoured to be a part of StartupYard’s acceleration program. Leaving everything behind and coming to Prague for a few months is probably not something everyone would be ready for, but we always had the feeling it was the right thing to do, and now we’re just totally sure about it. Everyone from the SY team are devoted professionals that really helped us a lot with all the things we’ve been struggling with on our own.

Same goes for the mentors – for the first month we talked to a lot of them, gathered some thought-provoking feedback, went a full circle with different ideas and approaches, so right now we’re pretty confident about the direction we’re going. Viktor Fischer, amongst others, really impressed us with his approach and attitude, he is a really knowledgeable guy. Special thanks goes to Marcel Vargaestok as well for providing us with some valuable contacts with people inside the manufacturing business, and others who challenged our ideas and provided a fresh angle on the topic.

Meet The 2014 Founders: YourPlace, Where The Loyal Customer is King

Mark Okhman, Founder/CEO YourPlace

Mark Okhman, Founder/CEO YourPlace

We continue our round of interviews with the 2014 Founders from StartupYard. Meet YourPlace, a young team from Kazakhstan working on a location-based customer acquisition and loyalty platform for bars, cafes, and restaurants. I sat down with founder and CEO Mark Okhman.

Mark, tell us about YourPlace in a few words.

YourPlace allows restaurants, cafes, or bars, to target customers, and keep them aware of bonuses or loyalty rewards from their favorite places. At the end of the day, it helps them to answer a simple question: “Where to go?”

YourPlace is a web platform and mobile app that uses analytics to build long lasting loyal relationships between venues, and their customers. logo (1)

What makes this app different from familiar platforms like Yelp, or Groupon, or the Czech service Slevomat?  

To visualise our relationship to those players, I would say that we are at the intersection of Yelp and Groupon. YourPlace knows which places you, as a user, like. We’ve taken the following facts as given: when you’re loyal as a customer, you’re treated with love, and loyal customers spend more, and come more often. This is what YourPlace is all about.

We don’t allow reviews, but we learn customer purchasing behavior. For now, about 10 places are testing YourPlace’s features for merchants, which allow them to target different groups of their customers, track and digest results of loyalty campaigns, to grow loyal customers base.

Your team is the youngest at StartupYard. Most of you are still in University. Do you think your age is a barrier to making YourPlace a success?

Sometimes it feels like we are even too late. :laughs: Our university did a lot to give us an environment where we could achieve what we have now. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve met new people, exchanged experiences and through this we’ve grown. I very often hear the phrase: ‘your age is dependent on what you’ve learned, not on how many birth days you’ve celebrated.’ We have big aims: to help build relationships between merchants and their customers.

And your team also happens to be the only one from outside Europe. What advantages and disadvantages come with growing a new online business in Kazakhstan?  

There is a big niche to grow ,and people in Central Asia are open to new things in online and mobile. Penetration of the mobile internet is now high enough to grow whole new businesses. A few years ago, as in Europe, our market experienced a boom in coupon services. It was an interesting time! People were inspired, while places were waiting for the influx of customers, which, actually, didn’t happen. As one of significant consequences – merchants lost their profit margin because of high discounts and customer flow when they stopped this “ coupon madness”.

Our company today helps such businesses as restaurants, bars or cafes, to make discounts and give bonuses without losses in customer flow. I want to emphasize that this market in Kazakhstan is not small – about 4000 food-merchants in two biggest cities (Almaty – 3 mln, Astana – 800 000) Loyalty management systems are the next logical level, after coupon services. In fact, the Kazakhstani market barely uses Passbook in customer-merchants relationships, while we teach people to use this easy and efficient technology in their daily life.

In a few months we will enable our system to work with iBeacons, which will cover off-line customer-merchant relations. There is so much to discover and implement! We feel like we are helping our web environment to be more qualitative. One of our goals is to make life easier and more interesting for people in Central Asia. We can do this!

Let’s talk about the app itself. What have been some of your major challenges in making the platform work? What issues do you still need to resolve?  

You will not believe me if I tell you that YourPlace was first called MOSKIS, and it was nothing more than a search engine for places of any kind around you. Typical copy of Foursquare-like apps. After some time, we transformed it into a discount club, also called MOSKIS (the Russian equivalent of this abbreviature means “mobile discounts”). Now we are doing our best on the merchant side to attract the right people with interesting offers and continue doing this until they will become really loyal customers.We are a channel for building relationships.

On the tech side, we had some problems while preparing the platform for high loads. That was difficult, because we’ve never had to deal with it before. And again we are on the short list – we run YourPlace on high quality Amazon services, which is, in fact, the industry leading cloud service.

How do you plan to market YourPlace? What kind of market strategy do you think will bring you growth in the near term?  

First of all, we want to build a society of customers relevant to merchants. We are doing this through attracting people at the point of sale. Restaurants and bars want to know more about their visitors, so they help us with this. We also plan to attract people through activities around merchants who work with us. For this we will use our blog and creative team, who will put on events and provide interesting reading material. This is how we want to attract people to go to those restaurants or cafes, showing how interesting this experience could be. We use localization as a key for maintaining the relevance of people inside of the platform to our client merchants.

The YourPlace App in action

The YourPlace App in action

Does your team plan to stay in Europe to develop YourPlace, or will you focus on your home market?

In the immediate future, we plan to go to Central Asia, especially to Kazakhstan, our home market. And it is a big market. As the product becomes tested and validated, we plan to grow to Central and Eastern Europe. We plan on that growth by around 2015.

How has your experience been here at StartupYard? Which of the mentors had the biggest impact on your personal and company development, and which parts of the program came the hardest for you and the team?

It has been amazing. 24/7 working on your project in the environment ever. And I’m not exaggerating! Our network grew incredibly. We learn something new every day and that’s what pushes us to work more; to be more efficient.

All three of us [Founders] had mentors that were our personal favorites. I was inspired by Damian Brhel [a StartupYard alum and Founder of Brand Embassy], even though the other mentors have imparted an incalculable amount of knowledge. Rauan loved mentoring with Zdenek Cendra [founder of cdn77.com], while Alibek liked Michal Illich [Founder of Wikidi and formerly of Seznam], because of his pragmatic vision.

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Lindsay Taylor: “It’s Not a Pitch. It’s Their Story.”

This Tuesday, StartupYard 2014’s founders experienced a grueling workshop from Prague’s own Lindsay Taylor, actress, producer, performance trainer, and Founder of Prague Film and Theater Center (PFTC). She came in to coach the founders on their Demo Day pitches, and to share tips on how to perform under pressure, how to breath and relax, and how to deliver a powerful address. I caught up with Lindsay after the workshop to ask her for a few public speaking pointers.

Lindsay Taylor of Prague Film and Theater Center

Lindsay Taylor of Prague Film and Theater Center

Now that you’ve met with the founders of StartupYard 2014, what do you think is the most important thing for them to work on before the Demo Day?

I think to remember that they really are the BEST people to speak on their company (and their own) behalf.  And on Demo Day the audience will come to see exactly that.   They are all such great, motivated young minds and entrepreneurs, that for me the most important thing they need to work on is believing this fact.

Additionally the founders need to find a way to access this belief within themselves (via any number of relaxation, focus, awareness,clarity, improvisatory exercises) that gets their entire energy in a natural and comfortable place.  It is in this state that we can access our natural breath and posture, but more importantly allow us to see and hear you and essentially see and hear your story.  Because really, its not a pitch presentation.  It’s their story.  And you have to be brave, vulnerable, and present to tell your story.  Yet, this type of communication always makes an impact.

What tips would you give an inexperienced speaker to handle jitters before a big presentation?

Josef of Senti2 gears up for his monologue exercise.

Josef of Senti2 gears up for his monologue exercise.

Focus on the breath. Breathe through the nose and expand the diaphragm as you inhale.  Exhale with a controlled and slow breath exhausting the diaphragm. Try to regulate your breathing while you wait.  Try to think about feeling the energy of the room and the people in it, and less about what you need to say.

Don’t get me wrong, nervous and excited are good feelings as well.   You can use it to your advantage as its already giving you an electrifying energy that can drive you forward – just don’t let it get the best of you.  Breathe and find a way to channel nerves to focused relaxation.

A trick (shake your hands loose from your wrists repeatedly close to your time of speaking- it is a natural and easy way to trick your body into loosing some tension and access natural and relaxed breathing)

Repeat controlled breathing.  Your voice and the audience will thank you for it.  You will have more resonance, volume, and tone and color just by simply focusing on your breathe.  This also physically makes your brain happy with oxygen.  Improving clarity of thought, and ability to improvise.

You focused a lot on warmups and mental focus during our workshop. What are your favorite mental and physical warmups, and why?

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“The Hang”

My all time favorite is the roll over “hang”.   After stretching and elongating your entire body, bend like you are going to touch your toes, but instead just let go and hang.  Neck loose, head facing the floor, knees bent, feet shoulder with apart, arms hanging down to the floor.  The actor/presenter stays in this position, letting go of tension, allowing breath to release their body further towards the ground, allowing gravity to take effect.

“The Roll Up”

When you are ready, roll yourself up.   I’ve seen actors and performers stay in this position for 30 minutes before rolling up to actor neutral.  When you do decide to roll up, think about stacking your vertebrae one on top of the other- balancing your entire body each time you do so .  Your neck and head are the very last thing to come up.

“Balance”

The saying should be “balance up straight” and not “stand up straight” –  When we force our backs into having “good posture” we are automatically inserting tension and painful energy into our physicality.  But if we’ve found center based on a reset of your body (which is essentially what the hang is) this allows us to be in the most natural, easy, and upright position for body.  This is the single best thing I know to do to be present physically, mentally, and emotionally.
You should do this once a day, public peaking or no public speaking.

All of our founders speak English as a second language. What are some really effective techniques for training oneself to speak clearly and understandably?

 

Each founder had to deliver a dramatic monologue.

Each founder had to deliver a dramatic monologue.

Native English speakers need to stretch their mouths,  warm-up their vocal range, and exercise the various sounds before speaking in public. So as a non-native speaker this is even more true as you are most likely already struggling to place the sounds correctly in your mouth anyway.
A few top exercises to improve diction and articulation:
• Lip Trills:  Inhale through nose, expand diaphragm, push out all the air from your belly throw your closed lips in a controlled release, repeat. Your lips should vibrate and your nose will itch if you are doing it right.  Add variations in your pitch and explore your range of pitch, volume, and pace while doing this activity

• Big Face/Tiny Face:  Make your as wide and open as possible (mouth, eyes, eyebrows, cheeks.  Then quickly make your face as tiny and tight as possible.  Repeat  If you fully commit to the stretch, your face will feel ready for anything after.

• Repeat sounds from the belly voice such as Ba, Ta, Ga, Ma,Pa,  Ka, La, Fa, Na, Sa, Wa, Da, Ra – make combiations  BATAGATA, KATAPATA (faster and repeated)

• Tongue Twisters- There are plenty. The internet is full of them.   They work.  And you will get better at them.
Diction and articulation are essential to hearing you and understanding you.  Don’t skip this step.

 

About Lindsay Taylor: 

Taylor

Originally trained in theatre, Lindsay earned a degree in Theater Arts from McDaniel College. 

Lindsay splits her time between work with Prague based film studios and theater companies. Co-founder of the Prague Film and Theater Center, a network to connect creative professionals, create projects, and grow a database, she also works in film as a producer, casting director, acting/dialect coach, and AD. 

 

You can Connect with Lindsay and PFTC via:

 

Her Profile On LinkedIn

The PFTC Facebook Page

Facebook Group for PFTC

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Meet the 2014 Founders: Evolso, The Dating App Giving Power Back to the Ladies.

In our continuing series, we are introducing the StartupYard 2014 teams in individual interviews with their founders and key members at the accelerator. Here is Alin Stanescu, of Romania, talking about Evolso, the online dating app that “gives power back to the girls.” 

Could you tell us about Evolso in a few words?

Evolso is a new flirting app that offers unique features to female users. It allows women to initiate contact with male users, and gives matches the opportunity to organize their first in-person interaction in their shared favorite venues. Basically, women get to pick guys they want to meet, based on the places they both like to go.

What distinguishes you from Tinder, or other competitors?

We are different because we understand that male and female users have different problems when it comes to dating. Guys experience a lot of rejection, and for girls it’s the “creep factor,” or unwanted contact from men. We solve these issues, and we also focus on real life interaction of the users. We’re not passive the way Tinder is, and It’s not all just about looks. Milestone

Tell us about yourself. How did you become CEO of Evolso, as a first time entrepreneur?

I became the CEO of Evolso in 2012 at a Startup Weekend event in Romania. I pitched the idea and formed a wonderful team that is still together today. I was very fortunate to have found like-minded people who wanted to build and create as I did.

And what about your team? Are you all first-time entrepreneurs?

Yes, we all are first-time entrepreneurs, with different backgrounds related to the tech industry! But that’s par for the course these days. We’re learning a lot. It’s all about your will to learn, asking the right questions and being in the right place at the right moment with your breakthrough idea.

The Evolso Team:

You’ve mentioned “giving the power back to the girls.” What does that mean to Evolso? How does Evolso empower women?

Alin Stanescu presents Evolso at a tech summit at Techsquare.

Alin Stanescu presents Evolso at a tech summit at Techsquare.

Evolso wants to focus more on girls in offering them unique functionalities inside the app, functionalities that male users will not have. We think that if girls let the guys know exactly who they like, this can be a real game changer.

We started out with the idea of a purely “events-based” app. That idea is still a part of how Evolso works, but the inspiration for the app being girl-centered was something that evolved gradually through the mentorship we experienced here at StartupYard. We were constantly challenged to find an angle; an experience none of the other apps can offer. At the same time, we looked at ways that users “game” the current generation of apps to get the most feedback from other users. We found that a lot of this gaming of the system would be eliminated if we changed the rules; if, for lack of a better phrase, we threw out the idea of “fairness.” Allowing women to take the initiative makes this a different kind of product. Who says dating is fair anyway? That’s an assumption we’d like to test here.

Team from Romania with mentor Ludovic Neveu.

The Evolso team with mentor Ludovic Neveu.

What kind of market do you plan to target with this app and platform? How old are your ideal users, and what are their interests?

Our target market is university aged students. Students who want to meet each other, enjoy their student life and have fun. Our desired market is the UK and the English speaking people of Europe. Our users will need to be willing to socialize, open to new people in their lives, and never forget to have fun.

What’s your overall marketing strategy? How will you get to the critical mass you need for a dating app service?

Well that is top-secret now isn’t it? Just kidding. The way we are planning to do the magic is that we want to have Official Evolso parties in key periods for the students in the cities we are targeting. The critical mass factor (of app usage) can be reached in creating the “word of mouth” effect with the parties. We want to be the first thing students think about when they go inside a club and they are reaching for their phones. We are showing venues also inside the app. All the venues that want to be a part of the concept, in the near future, will advertise our app offline or online. Similar to what Foursquare is doing.

For those of us, like me, who pretty much missed the online dating game completely, what has changed with this technology in 10 years? Why is it more attractive now than in the early days of Match.com and other web-based services?

The dating market is very competitive. Only if you are really good, will you really have a shot at making it. At the beginning, online dating websites such as Match.com where very popular, the problem was that you could not use it all the time. Now you have all the technology you need in your pocket, you can access the information when you need it. It is much more attractive now, with a push of a button and a swipe to the left or the right to see what you are looking for. It’s easy, fast, addictive and fun. Evolso is offering all of that, it is easy to use and is offering quality regarding the content it provides.You have it in your pocket and use it for fun. It offers mystery and intrigues the user with not knowing who they will find as a match. Venues are important too, for the first real interaction between users, that’s why we focused also on offering them a way to break the ice and meet for the first time in their favorite common locations. There are other dating apps out there. Our aim is to do something unique that is especially attractive for young, active women. We think that despite the size of the market, that is a segment that has so far gone underserved.

Tell us about your experience at StartupYard. What have been the ups and the downs, and who have been the most valuable mentors for Evolso?

The Evolso desk at StartupYard

The Evolso desk at StartupYard

The experience at StartupYard was and still is amazing. I highly recommend young entrepreneurs to try and enter an accelerator if they want to develop their business ideas. Things here are going at an insane pace, and the amount of knowledge you get is purely priceless. Ups and downs? Every startup has ups and downs, the idea is to play the game right and win at the end. One downside was the time we were spending inside and working 11 hours per day, and the upside was that we were spending the time inside and working 11 hours per day ! It is our project. We need to make it work no matter what. The most valuable mentor to us for the moment is Cedric Maloux, who has been there for us at any given time offering his support and guidance to choose the proper path when faced with a problem. He is one of the best minds here at StartupYard. Other valuable mentors for us are Ondrej Bartos for helping us with contacts when we were stuck in the process, David Booth for giving us advice regarding the vision, Viktor Fischer with feedback about the path we are taking and many more. StartupYard’s unique quality is that they are offering a list of very valuable mentors that can change the way a startup will evolve.

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Meet the 2014 Founders: Gjirafa, Albania/Kosovo’s answer to Google

In our continuing series, we are introducing the StartupYard 2014 teams in individual interviews with their founders and key members at the accelerator. Here we introduce Gjirafa, in the words of CEO and Founder Mergim Cahani, of Kosovo. 

 

Mergim, how would you describe Gjirafa in a few words?

It’s an awesome animal with a long neck :laughs:.

Gjirafa is a full-text web search engine and a news aggregator specialized in the Albanian language. Gjirafa will bring relevant information that will be easy accessible to over 12 million Albanian speaking people worldwide.

So it’s Google For Albanian Speakers. Isn’t That Job Already Taken (by Google)?

You could say the same thing about Seznam or Yandex (the Russian search giant), but they’ve thrived in competition with Google. That’s a great model for us moving forward.  Competition between Seznam and Google have brought better results for consumers in the Czech Republic. Google doesn’t own the internet, and it shouldn’t.

And no, we aren’t Google. We have something that Google does not have. Gjirafa has access to local data, understands the market, and has been developing technology for full-text search in Albanian language. That’s something no one else has ever done, including Google.

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

Gjirafa is turning quite a few heads with our mentors at StartupYard. Why do you think that is?

Our team is built to impress, with a very strong business and academic background. Three founders have a combined 30+ years of experience, one previous successful startup, four masters degrees and one PhD. The advisory board features prominent figures in web search and management, Prof. Torsten Suel and Prof. Jay Nathan respectively.

We are very happy to be getting so much positive attention, but important to note is that mentors’ inputs and constructive feedback is shaping our product and company further. From day one at StartupYard our value proposition started to get better and better thanks to mentors’ feedback. The reason why most mentors and investors are interested, we think, is that our project has the prerequisites to make it promising: a strong team, an excellent market potential, and the technology – specifically our differentiating product features.

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

What brought you to StartupYard? What have been the benefits for you, so far?

I am certain that StartupYard is de facto the best accelerator that our team and project could have picked. In fact it is the only accelerator that we wanted to be part of (within the context of this project). It has just about all the ingredients of other accelerators, including the ones from Silicon Valley, and then some – that directly gives us better opportunities and increases our chances of success.

Mentors, investors, angels and VC’s, involved with StartupYard can more easily comprehend the potential of our project at our targeted market than other investors from other geographic areas. There are great similar success stories in the Czech Republic, and some of these investors are involved directly in those projects (www.seznam.cz is one example). They understand our product, they recognize its potential, and have a clear idea what it takes to reach our goal. This way, they can provide feedback that is so vital to company success, and some have already shown interest to be part of this journey.

Where to start with benefits of StartupYard :laughs: We love Prague, StartupYard at TechSquare has an amazing working environment, great people, a lot of events, and, can’t forget,  great Czech beer. As far as accelerating our project growth, we have meet some industry leaders, Chairpersons, CEOs, and investors from world leading corporations, who really helped shape our product and increase our value proposition immensely. Also there are a lot of perks, to mentioned one: we are en route to becoming a BizSpark plus company (that is around $60,000 in azure credit that we were planning to spend). Last but not least, people who run StartupYard know their business- they have a proven track record and experience that was evident from day one.

left: Cedric Maloux, Director Startup Yard. Right: Mergim Cahani, Founder CEO, Gjirafa

left: Cedric Maloux, Director Startup Yard. Right: Mergim Cahani, Founder CEO, Gjirafa

What are your near-term goals for Gjirafa? What products and services will be part of the ecosystem at launch?

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Our near-term goal is to launch within two months. We are planning to include a few “elect” services at the beginning. That means a full text search, news aggregation, a transport scheduler for Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, weather widget, and Albanian web facts. All these services are one of a kind, as they currently do not exist anywhere. The obvious exception is text search, where Google is a player, but we think we can do a better job, as we are focused only on one language and one specific segment of the web. That’s worked for Seznam, and we think they’ve shown us the way to success against the Google Goliath.

How about your long term goals?

Our long term goal is to become the front page of the Albanian speaking web. To be synonymous with “Internet” in the Albanian mind. If you speak Albanian, when you open a browser, it will open on www.gjirafa.com. We will provide highly relevant services and ease of access to information that is geographically localized and based on the Albanian language. Gjirafa will be more than just a useful search engine, it will be everywhere for everything. I will not speak to specific services that we plan, but I can tell you that there is a full list on queue that we are prioritizing; each one of them more valuable than the next.

As a sneak peak, enabling e-commerce in Albania and Kosovo, at this moment, tops the list of our long-term goals. Replicating the platform to other Balkan peninsula countries, is also a viable option.

You’ve mentioned developing a unique search engine for the Albanian language. Can you tell us about the development process?

It was fun! :laughs: That may sound extremely nerdy, but I don’t mind. It was really fun.

Working on this from Kosovo was a different experience than the time I spent in the United States; where in my last job I worked in a typical corporate environment. Previous to that I was in Academia, and being able to work full time on a project that I loved, what can I say? It was thrilling.

I turned one bedroom of the house into an office (this startup was luxurious; no office garage)! I used a bit of my prior experience with developing large-scale full search engines, from my Masters program at NYU Poly School of Engineering, and the very valuable help of my mentor Prof. Torsten Suel, to create all the pieces needed for the Gjirafa engine; multi-threaded crawler, indexer, query processor, and a few things in between. I developed a prototype that was not the best out there, but it was good enough and I was happy with the outcome.

The biggest limitations at the beginning were hardware and bandwidth, plus latency, and occasionally an algorithmic problem that kept me up at night. Later, two friends joined me as co-founders, and now we are working on making the engine even bigger and better. One co-founder Ercan Canhasi, PhD, is working on the search engine, while the other co-founder, Diogjen Elshani, MS, is working on the business development side.

Why do you think competitors like Google haven’t focused on Albanian speakers,

Google hasn’t ignored the market completely. I think they’ll regret their absence.

The scalability of Google allows it to fit almost any market given enough data. But there are two problems here (1) currently there is not enough data for the Albanian language on the web, and (2) the Albanian language is one of the most lexically unique language in the world. Google can’t search something it doesn’t have; it can’t index information that currently does not exists on the web. As far as the language goes, Albanian is one of the a few languages that does not derive from another language; it is a branch on its own. Processing a language (intelligently), means some knowledge is needed for that language. Linguistic research in English, and for a lot of other languages, exists. There is almost no linguistic research for Albanian that applies in this context. We are currently researching and developing Albanian grammar and syntax for NLP.  We have done the groundbreaking work that will tie Albanian speakers together online, through their language.

Kosovo’s political situation has undoubtedly held back business development in the region. Do you see the situation as improved enough for the region to compete on a level with the rest of Europe?

It is true that the political situation in the region has set back development. But things have started to take a turn, and Kosovo and Albania are becoming emerging markets especially in technology development. Based on our web mining data, the Albanian web is still in the early stages of development, but it has doubled in the past year and it is continuing its growth rapidly. That might sound like not much, considering that the whole size of the web increases at the same rate, but the difference is that the Albanian web has been expanding its core economic value at a much greater rate than the average. It is developing, and that means there are enormous positive gains to be made across a huge range. The rest of Europe will not see its web experience improves by 200% in the next 2 years. Albania and Kosovo will see that kind of improvement.  This web infancy is one of the reasons why the market is not penetrated by global companies, which makes it a logical reason why our project represents a great opportunity right now.

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What’s your general strategy for marketing Gjirafa? Google has name recognition in search all over Europe. How can you compete with that position?

Our position is with the unique services that we provide for users that Google, and other competition, do not. People need information, and currently can not get it online, and we feel that this market has been left behind – but they will be able to find it on www.gjirafa.com. Also, we will provide a targeted platform for merchants that will enable them to reach their customers. That aspect of the online economy is completely absent in Albania/Kosovo. Can you imagine that? It’s 1999 in online advertising there. Imagine what that means for the future. Our marketing strategy is diverse and a combination of several channels. Without going into specifics, we have a few marketing strategies planned for direct and indirect marketing.

 

Gjirafa is planning to launch its full text search engine in July of this year. 
You can connect with Mergim via Linkedin. 
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Meet the 2014 Founders: Famely

Over the coming weeks, we will be introducing the StartupYard 2014 teams in individual interviews with their founders and key members at the accelerator. We kick off this week with Famely, the news and social media aggregator that allows you to keep tabs on your favorite personalities, wherever they appear in the media. 
 

Tell me about the Famely team.

Nemec: I’m Pavel and he’s Pavel too. He’s Pavel Volek and I’m Pavel Nemec.

Volek: I’m from Prague and he’s from Brno. We met on the way to France as Erasmus students.  I studied software engineering, at Prague Technical University, and was in France for 18 months on Erasmus. We got to know each other on the trip, and stayed in contact. The idea for Famely came about 2 years after we met.

Nemec: I studied in Brno (computer science at Masarykovo University). We’ve both suspended our studies to be here at StartupYard. I’m doing a PHD, and Pavel is finishing his masters. But we’re happy to be here now.

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Pavel Nemec and Pavel Volek. Co-founders of FamelyApp.com

How did you come up with the idea for Famely? Was it based on an interest you had in celebrity news and gossip?

Nemec: No, neither of us is actually too much into gossip exactly. It was just that as a student, I met so many many interesting people, well known public figures, startupers for example, that I got a chance to meet. When you meet someone really fascinating, you want to read what they have written, but also see if they do something else that’s cool and new. Clever people constantly generate new opinions, and I wanted to keep tabs on them. I searched blogs, youtube, facebook, and collected the information constantly, but you can never keep up.

Volek: When he told me about the idea, we realized we could find broader applications like sports, which I’m interested in. I’m a big fan of Real Madrid, and they have an app. But the players also have their own Twitter accounts, and they appear in places the “official” app doesn’t cover.  And there are sports aggregators, team apps, etc, but if you like multiple teams or different players, you want to control the info that you get. You can’t do that with any existing app.

Last year, Parov Stelar, one of my favorite musicians, had a concert in Prague. I found out two days after he was here. I think that happens to most of us at one time or another. If I had been checking his Twitter feed, I might have known about that. There are a lot of small clubs in Prague that really famous people do shows in, and nobody hears about it. You can’t keep up with all the ways that artists communicate with fans.

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But this is more than just an events app, isn’t it?

Nemec: Yes. A friend of mine reads gossip magazines and such. I mentioned the potential for a product like this, and they reacted strongly. We realized it could be about more than just events. The definite change came from the mentors [at StartupYard]. We knew before coming here that it was an aggregator for celebrities, but we hadn’t yet decided what market to target. We wanted to be more general. The mentors convinced us to focus on a smaller market. Celebrity gossip is a good place to start. There’s a lot of material out there, and a larger base of users. We can use this initial feature set as a way to hone the app.

How does Famely fit into the landscape of Twitter, Facebook, and other news aggregators?

Nemec: Aggregators are about aggregating your interests, but not the profiles of specific people. That’s what makes us unique.

Volek: You don’t need to learn how to use all these different platforms to find all the info you’re looking for with us. Our app is one way: focused on content.

How are you planning to monetize the app?

Nemec: The core will be about affiliate marketing. Tickets, apparell, this kind of thing. Our target market spends a lot on entertainment and clothing. We are also exploring freemium models, but that needs a lot more testing. It’s hard to say if a user would be willing to pay for more celebrity content, or for a larger library of celebrities, or what exactly. You have to be careful in considering any kind of paywall.

Volek: We are also considering magazine partnerships. We want to integrate affiliate ads, and not break the design of the app in incorporating targeted advertising. Relevant ads are important to us. We think the next generation of users wants ads that are highly relevant to them, and to the content they are looking for. Too many ads are great for advertisers, but they’re not what people really enjoy seeing. But Famely offers a tailored content experience, and that means the opportunity to target ads in very pleasing ways.

What is your strategy for promotion?

Nemec: We’d like to approach individual celebrities, particularly those that need a prepackaged solution for promoting their own content and news. That is, those without their own apps already in the Apple store, or Google Play Store.

The app will launch with pre-selected celebrities and feeds to allow us to start with great quality. We’ll start with just a few, so we can really dial in the product, and deliver consistently relevant content to our users. A great experience, exactly what fans are looking for, has to be there from launch day, or people won’t keep coming back.

What do you see as your core user group, and your main competitor?

Nemec: Our core users are “real fans.” We see our initial appeal being with english speaking young girls, who are fans of actors and musicians, but also sports fans. Celebrities try to cover all social networks and core fans at the same time do not want to miss a thing about their favourites. The point is, since there is no longer only one social network on the market, it is harder and harder to keep up. When we spoke to some fans of famous musicians, they really checking all sources they know repeatedly over and over again to not miss a thing. Also when their favourite celebrity gives an interview for an online magazine which they don’t read because they read the different one, they simply miss it. Well, no longer with Famely.

Volek: There’s no direct competitor. The market is very fragmented.

Nemec: Yeah. There is Flipboard, who are the biggest in this market, and then there’s Facebook paper, who are doing something related. But they both focus on topics and news sources, instead of people. You can create a Famely-like experience on Flipboard, but it’s not made for that. Facebook was also not designed to connect fans with diverse news sources- only with fan pages, so we see a big opening.

Volek: We want to offer credibility and quality content channels you can trust, but go outside of the “official” newsfeeds and twitter accounts, to get other perspectives on famous personalities. That’s what people really want, we think.

 

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Let’s talk about StartupYard. How has your experience been with the accelerator?

Volek: It has been exciting. We’ve met a lot of interesting people. I’d like to follow some of them on Famely!

Nemec: Having a core focus of Data and Analytics brought together teams that really have a lot in common.

Volek: Yeah. Mergim (Cahani, from Gjirafa) has advised on open source libraries and data analysis tips for us. We haven’t swapped  code, but the general advice is very valuable. Having teams around you who are experiencing the same challenges is much better than going it alone all the time.

Who have been your most interesting/challenging mentors? Who has taught you the most?

Volek: The advisors come from vastly different fields. For technology, Jaroslav Gergic, a VP at GoodData, advised us on cloud technology, and how to deal with massive numbers of users so we don’t break the servers. He was a huge help. We’ve still broken the servers though :laughs:. But that wasn’t his fault.

Nemec: Advisors have been very helpful. Mentorship here has really meant more commitment than we expected. David Booth (CEO of 2nd Degree Leads), for example, gave us incredible advice when he was here, but then followed up after few days to give us more interesting tips. They kept thinking about us after the mentoring sessions.

It’s also great to meet with investors and see how they think about their potential investments. That’s the experience we had with Andrej Kiska from Credo Ventures. They’ve explained precisely how they validate products on the market, using equations for spreading of the “epidemic [of users].” We’ve found these new directions in thinking to be really helpful.

Register for Updates on Famely at FamelyApp.com

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Irena Zatloukalova: Keep It Simple (For The Media)

StartupYard Mentor Irena Zatloukalova

StartupYard Mentor Irena Zatloukalova

Wednesday, startup teams from StartupYard spent the morning and most of the afternoon in PR training. PR and internal communications manager Irena Zatloukova,  of Seznam, grilled each of the teams for several hours, walking them through the experience of having to pitch their companies, answering uncomfortable or difficult media questions, and crafting and selling a narrative to the media. Here were some of the takeaways from the session:

Journalists are People Too

Irena Zatloukalova should know something about journalists. As head of PR for Seznam, she deals with all of kinds. The most important highlight of all of her experiences was this: journalists are people too. People know when they’re being treated fairly. They generally know when you’re lying, or when you’re not being completely honest. They know when they’re being used, and they resent it the same as anyone would. They also respond to positive inputs in all of the same ways that other people would: praise, trust, caring, and interest inspire journalists just as they inspire others.

Understanding Conflicting Motivations

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Irena and Cedric kicking off the workshop

Zatloukalova pegged the sometimes tense relations with journalists, especially among entrepreneurs, on the conflicting motivations that publications and their editors, and entrepreneurs have. As an entrepreneur or as a company, there’s a tendency to want to carefully craft a journalist’s take on your activities, and push a specific, self-serving narrative. At the same time, reporters have to justify, to their bosses and their readers, writing about a given company, or a given product. Often the interests of a journalist and a business are not perfectly aligned, and tension arises when a PR manager or a CEO is not able to accept those differences amicably- when the representatives of a company can’t respect the position a reporter is in. PR reps can form the destructive habit of “blacklisting” or cutting off disfavored reporters and publications for not toeing the company line, and they may also be tempted to distort the truth, or to lead journalists on with misleading intimations or false facts. This is a symptom of expectations that would be impossible to meet: that reporters be an apparatus of marketing, rather than a medium and means of communication.

Building a Story

 

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Team Evolso gives a mini press-conference

And to avoid these traps of poorly managed expectations and conflict, Zatloukalova talked about “building a story.” Story building is a way of approaching communication with media, that keeps in mind that media will always form its own conclusions based on the information provided, and the impressions of the journalists themselves. Thus, 3 elements are key to getting media to do what you need it to do, and Zatloukalova suggested that startupers ask themselves these three questions:

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Team Girafa in particular wants some of Seznam’s secret sauce

Is it News?

Is the story actually of interest? Is it something unique? Does it have import for the readers? Just because you want the media to talk about you, doesn’t mean they will. Many young companies can be tempted to see any information they give to the media as an enticing gift, when in fact they offer little of real substance or interest. It has to be news.

What are the Details?

This part is about curiosity. Facts make the story real, and they are the juiciest part of the story. Providing the media with facts makes the story real for them, and gives them something to present to their readers. Without statistics, exact figures, dates or percentages, your story’s context can be unclear. How important is this news to you? To your market? To the reader? To competitors? What do the numbers actually mean? The details lend credibility, and offer the media something they can use to justify their story as important, and meaningful. Without facts, there is no story.

Is This a Trend?

Finally, what does this piece of news say about something bigger than your company? Reporters love to find and tell stories that demonstrate a pattern or an emerging condition in the market, or in society in general, that has not been fully described before. If your product is beating a competitor that was thought unbeatable, this could be part of a new trend. If your users are interested in your product for a novel reason, that too could form the basis of a new and noteworthy change in the way things work. Trends can be small, restricted just to your market, or even to your own company, or they can be big; saying things about society, about your country, about the future, and about technology, art, and the economy.

Not Making Journalists Think

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Zatloukalova also stressed the “Art of the Soundbite,” or the unique framing of a particular narrative your company is pushing, which expresses itself well in just a few words. The object when addressing the media is to speak in terms that are *evocative* without being too specific or conditional. The more a journalist evaluates what you say based on its internal logic, rather than on his or her own biases and experiences, the better of you are. So make these arguments and viewpoints interesting and memorable.

She gave examples like Apple’s “The World’s Thinnest Notebook,” soundbite for the introduction of the Macbook Air, and Cedric Maloux, our director at StartupYard, added his favorite, also from Apple: “1000 Songs in Your Pocket.”

Don’t Describe, Evoke

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All the teams had an opportunity to grill and be grilled. No one was spared in this workshop.

Evocative soundbites are those that make a strong statement, which forms a clear image in the mind of the journalist, which he or she can pass on to a reader. This process is one of positioning, as well as promotion; Zatloukalova gave the example of Seznam itself: pointing out that Seznam doesn’t speak in terms of itself alone, but evokes the images that reporters are familiar with, to contextualize the company: “Seznam: the only company in Europe competing on a level with Google,” or simply “Seznam is the Google of the Czech Republic.” These sorts of statements are strong, can be backed up with facts, and are easily understood and repeated. The simpler a statement is, the greater a chance it has of finding itself repeated and used again. As an editor, Zatloukalova will often take the writing of a marketing copywriter or a fellow PR rep, and remove, to their great frustration, all of the adjectives from the piece. The point in this should be clear enough: what is important is not your opinion by itself, nor how you wish people to see things, but rather statements of fact that can be argued convincingly. You can tell someone that your app is wonderful and innovative, but why should they listen? People listen to surprising and unexpected statements- even statements they don’t necessarily agree with.

One of the CEOs at the workshop voiced a doubt about this strategy. “The Macbook Air wasn’t the thinnest notebook in the world. What happens when your claim is only arguable?” But Zatloukalova pointed out that arguments of that kind aren’t particularly bad, for an established company or for a new one. If the media is arguing over or critiquing your claims, you’re in control of the conversation at a basic level: they are already talking in terms of how you see yourself.

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Presenting the 7 Teams of StartupYard 2014

Following a month of intense mentoring, all 7 of StartupYard’s Spring 2014 teams are ready to meet the world. While each of them come from a unique place, and a unique period of development, some with a massive code-base and near-complete products, and others without even a name, all of the teams have made impressive progress in the past month.

Demo Day

On June 18th, all of these teams will present their products, and several will officially launch, during StartupYard’s Demo Day, taking place in Prague. Those interested can already book their ticket at this address

And Now, The Teams, and Why We Chose Them

Below is a review of the teams, with links to their websites, and a short ‘position statement’ description of each. Then we’ll go deeper, and talk about why we chose these teams, and how each has met the challenge that we made when we invited them to join us in Prague last month. The teams are presented in alphabetical order.

Evolso.com – Romania

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Evolso is a next-generation dating app that gives the power back to girls through features not accessible to male users. Using the knowledge of their favorite venues, it lets users select people nearby based on common interests. Evolso presents a new way to break the ice and meet people in your favorite common places.

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Evolso impressed us from the get-go. We know what you’re thinking too. Really, another dating app?” We’ll remind you that some of the greatest product innovations of the last 2 decades have been in this market. Facebook wasn’t always for wishing Grandma a happy birthday. It started with dating as a powerful motivator. This idea does something that Tinder and traditional dating sites don’t: it gives people a great reason to get together, and it lets women meet the kind of men they want to be meeting. It also lets men be themselves. What could be better? The Evolso team is young, and they have a lot of room to grow into this market. We’re betting on them.

FamelyApp.com – Czech Republic

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Famely is a mobile magazine for fans who want access to all the latest news about and by their favorite people, in one place, at the swipe of a finger. We aggregate content from social networks and the internet to create a magazine filled only with information about and by people you like.
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There’s been a lot of joking with the Famely guys around the office. We called this one the “Justin Bieber App” for the first few weeks. But Famely impressed us with their design skills, and their vision for something that really doesn’t exist in the market: an app that aggregates content about people you geek out about. It’s simple, and that’s the best part. Famely is a member of a growing tribe of aggregation services, but they’re early in the game when it comes to this level of segmentation in the market. The app, by the way, is beautiful, and the possibilities are easy to grasp. Why should celebrities be the fodder of gossip rags? Let’s make fame a little more social.

Gjirafa.com – Kosovo/Albania

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Gjirafa is the first search engine and news aggregator for Albanian, a lexically unique language spoken by over 12 million people worldwide. Using advanced Natural Language Processing algorithms, Gjirafa provides access to data that currently cannot be searched online.

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Where to start with these guys? The team is distinguished and full of fantastically talented people, with academic and business experience few of the teams can boast. When they came to us, we didn’t even know this market existed. But it does: Google doesn’t fully index pages in the Albanian language. No search engine does. But with the Albanian web growing exponentially, and Kosovo becoming a tech beacon in the region, it’s an incredible discovery for SY and for investors in Europe. It’s also great news for Albanian speakers, who are going to be heirs to the next Seznam. What’s not to like?

MyPrepApp.com – Czech Republic

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MyPrepApp is a mobile and online service to help students who lack motivation to pass their important exams. MyPrepApp creates customized preparation plans for students, and uses gamification and friend support to motivate them to fulfill their study plans and achieve better exam results. In the Czech Republic, MyPrepApp.com was launched as Hrave.cz on April 29th, 2014 generating its first revenue on that day.
 

It’s no secret that now, more than ever, the exam is king in education, in Europe and in the United States and elsewhere. Unlike most e-learning product/services, MyPrepApp, based on the already running Hrave.cz, focuses on results. The approach sets them apart from a lot of players in this market, and it allows them to engage with independent content providers, instead of bigger publishers, giving them a competitive and creative edge.

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SentiSquare.com – Czech Republic

SentiSquare is an online service for digital marketing managers who deal with high traffic and noise in social media and can’t comprehensively monitor what their consumers are saying about their brands around the globe. SentiSquare uses deep semantics to discover and summarize opinions hidden in multilingual content, giving a clear understanding of the main issues customers are facing.
 

Not all great products come from entrepreneurial beginnings. SentiSquare started as a graduate project at the University of Plzen, and the team is very academically oriented. But what they don’t have in marketing and business experience, they more than compensate for with technical prowess. Their innovations are going to be of incredible value to clients with truly global customer engagement. If you’ve ever said a bad word about one of their customers, or a good one, they’ll know about it.

Warrant.ly – Serbia

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Warrantly is a Software-as-a-Service for consumers who want to store their warranties in one place so they will never be lost. Users can track purchased items through their warranty period, report problems and more. Retailers and manufacturers can use this data to improve their products and gain new customers.
 

You know that feeling, when you’re at the check-out line at Euronics, or Best Buy, or Tesco, and you know that there’s some extended warrantee they’re going to offer. But also you know something about how these kinds of products are supposed to be covered for a year by law. Or was it two? Or only 90 days? You throw the receipt in a drawer, and when the thing breaks 364 days later (which is guaranteed), you won’t know which receipt is which, and you won’t have the heart to fight back. No more.

Warrant.ly is the best kind of idea: a simple one, with a huge benefit. It will keep you up to date with your warrantees, and save you money. It will also keep manufacturers and retailers accountable to their customers, and give them the opportunity to upsell and cross-sell customers who have and use their products.

 

YourPlaceApp.com  – Kazakhstan

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YourPlace is a mobile and web app for places who want to foster strong loyal relationships with their customers. We use advanced statistics and targeting, a creative offer system, to create unlimited opportunities for venues to organize bonus and loyalty programs. Mobile users receive constantly improving targeted offers from their favorite places.
 

Who doesn’t like to feel special and be recognized? Dial-a-deal apps may seem to a crowded market, but YourPlace has an approach we haven’t seen before. The key is in prompting restaurants and venues to engage with their customers by offering them deals, which the app helps them to generate. An owner may not know much about what kinds of deals their customers are attracted to, but YourPlace gives them a way of easily finding out, and capitalizing on the experience of other nearby locations, and of potential users. There’s no risk to trying YourPlace, but there’s plenty of potential benefit, for owners and customers alike. 

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