What is Good Storytelling? (Part 1)

First: What is Storytelling?

There’s no single compact definition that can cover every modern use of the word “story.” You may think of news articles, or children’s fairy tales. You may think of “user stories,” that product designers use to figure out what to build. You may think of a novel. In fact, most stories have common characteristics: characters, settings, plot, conflict, and an ending.

But in talking about a “brand story,” or a “cultural story,” or a “life story,” we are really discussing a specific kind of story: the “Mono-myth,” also commonly known as a “Hero’s Journey.” At the heart of what we call “storytelling” in the modern world, you find this core structure:

The world’s oldest documented story is The Epic of Gilgamesh, written 4000 years ago on clay tabletsIt’s the story of Gilgamesh, a God King of the Sumerian state of Uruk. He begins as a restless and foolish young man, who leaves his city behind to explore the world, faces many challenges, becomes wise, and returns home a hero, ready to lead his people.

That ought to sound familiar. It’s the basis of every epic story from the Odyssey to Star Wars.

The Hero’s Journey works incredibly well at persuading audiences because it is a simple and flexible vehicle for conveying the human experience. It speaks to us about our experiences in life, by recreating those experiences, only with more flair, more danger, and bigger stakes.

The Hero’s Journey

Pick a big successful brand at random. Recall what you can about their “story.”

Chances are excellent that it is a “Hero’s Journey,” following the same pattern laid out 4 millennia ago in Gilgamesh. McDonalds has its Ray Krok, Apple has its Steve Jobs, and Microsoft its Bill Gates.

Not coincidentally, there are movies about all these characters, and they are all Hero’s Journey movies. The appeal of this story is so great that it is virtually synonymous with storytelling in film.

Within each of these stories is a familiar narrative: a misfit, naive and ambitious, confronts a cruel world, fails, grows, and finally succeeds. That is the simple core of every human story, and thus, every company story as well.

Qualities of a Great Story

Now we know what a story looks like. So which are the specific qualities of a really strong story? What makes this overall structure work best? Here are a few things I think are essential in a good story:

Great Stories Have Human (imperfect) Characters

Great stories appeal to the listener by being, essentially, about human nature. Great heroes are appealing because of their humanity, and not because of their power.

 

The 2010’s Most Popular Hero

Think about why people love Batman, or Iron Man: it’s because they are flawed human beings. It is the human experience to face moral tests and temptation. Thus, a story in which good and evil are too easy to separate is a story without any moral tension.

For Example:

You may have at some point spotted this meme making the rounds on Facebook. It’s got enormous viral potential, which is why it has been shared so widely (by both those who find it hilarious, and those who take it seriously)

It’s also a great example of bad storytelling.

In this story, we are presented with two characters in conflict: one entirely sympathetic and brave, the other entirely unsympathetic and cowardly. Thus, the point of the story, or the moral, is never in doubt. While the story creates suspense by making it unclear exactly what will happen, it creates no suspense over what the story thinks should happen.

No one in the story learns anything. No one changes as a person. One wins, and the other loses, but nothing is different at the end.

Great Stories Are About Change

I attended a panel on startups by the renowned actor Kevin Spacey this past weekend. One phrase above all stuck out to me as an example of how he sees storytelling. When asking a founder a question about his motivations in business, the founder responded: “Well, that’s complex.” To which Spacey responded: “Go ahead. Be complex.”

People are complex. So stories must also deal in moral complexity. They must give the heros and the villains an “arc.” As in Gilgamesh (or any epic story), the hero must fail to become wise. A villain must experience pride before the fall. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

Take, for example, this highly compelling commercial from none other than Budweiser, simultaneously America’s best selling, and worst tasting beer:

This is practically the definition of a Hero’s Journey. A young man with a romantic vision leaves home, only to find that the world is harsher than he expected. Enduring many trials, he finds help in unexpected places (the black man on the river boat). Having grown through his experience, he reaches his new home ready to accomplish great works: in this case, brewing beer.

This ad was seen as shockingly political (released weeks after the 2016 US Presidential Election), but it was also very successful. And that is because it is a real story, not just an ad.

It seeks to reframe the story of Budweiser, “America’s Beer,” into the story of Americans themselves, where they come from, and what they should believe in.

It also presents a coherent moral argument: that adversity makes us stronger, and that perseverance leads to success.

Importantly, neither of the two main characters in the story (America, and Budweiser himself), are either purely good or evil. Budweiser shows hints of arrogance from the beginning, before becoming wiser, and America shows signs of openness, even after initially seeming a cruel place indeed.

The story is about these characters changing together.

Great Stories Are About Conflict

As we’ve now seen, conflict is essential to a powerful story.

Conflicts in stories boil down to need. Human beings and societies have competing needs. How those needs are addressed, and which needs win out over others, are key elements of a story.

Convincing an audience that one need is greater than another is vital. Otherwise, why should a person pay attention to your story? It involves no consequences.

This is a video I often use to talk about bad storytelling. It’s a coca-cola ad from the early 1980s, when Coke was getting its ass kicked by Pepsi’s brilliant marketing.

But what’s not to love? Sunny day, happy people, soccer for some reason, and everyone having a “Coke and a smile.”

This ad was a failure, along with much of Coca-Cola’s marketing at the time. There is zero conflict in this story. And because there is no conflict, there is no identification of any urgent need. Do I need to have a coke on a nice day? It seems these people are having fun, regardless of what they’re drinking.

Brands routinely fail to introduce real conflict into their product and brand stories. Here’s a more recent example:

 

There’s a lot wrong with this ad, but the most important problem is that the conflict it presents is false. We see trials and struggles for the hero, but we are told at the end that there is no solution. And instead we should just buy a car. It’s insulting.

Cowardly marketing and bad storytelling happen when we refuse to acknowledge that our customers are people with their own problems. They aren’t just people out in a park having a perfect day, ready to jump at the chance to buy a coke.

They won’t automatically feel better about themselves just because someone tells them it’s ok to buy a car. Even if that car is the best car ever. They have other needs as well- more important ones.

Coke actually learned that lesson. Here is a typical ad from more recent years:

Here is conflict. Suspense! Competing needs and wants. And the brand in the story is associated with wisdom, with the setting aside of personal enmities in favor of love.

That’s a great story to tell. It appeals to people as they are: always in conflict with themselves, and always unsure of what is right.

Creating and Resolving Conflict

How do you make your story real to other people? You do it by making the conflict real to them. By showing them how the conflict in your story should matter to them.

This is also where a lot of startup stories fall apart. They make the mistake of thinking that making a good argument is the same as actually persuading someone. But it is never enough to just be right. The person has to believe you’re right.

In the next post in this series, I’m going to talk about how to identify parts of your story, as a founder, as a company, or as a person, and bring out the hidden conflicts that will help you relate that story, and make it matter to other people.

The Positioning Statement: Finding a Window Into the Mind

Originally published on our blog way back in 2014, this post has been one of our most enduringly popular. According to Google Analytics, the average reader has spent over 20 minutes studying it. It is also our most popular piece on Medium. Since that time, we’ve shared this post with scores of startups, and used the methodology detailed here over and over again. This post is updated to reflect all that we’ve learned in the past 3+ years.

What is Positioning?

“Positioning” has often been described as “the organized system for finding a window in the mind.” That’s how Al Ries and Jack Trout described it in their book: Positioning, a Battle for Your Mind, a groundbreaking work from 1981.

Al Ries is often credited with coming up with the term “positioning,” and he describes it as a way of using a customer’s own experience of the world (including with other brands and products) as a way of communicating with that customer. Rather than communicate in a vacuum, companies that use effective positioning target customers who are already familiar with competing products and brands, and use that familiarity to differentiate themselves.

In the book, Ries highlights perhaps the most famous example of brand positioning in the 20th century: that of Avis, which in 1962 premiered the tagline: “At No. 2, We Try Harder.” Avis was at the time the market runner up in rental cars, and the company used that fact to imply that they were more accountable than their competitors, because they had to be.

 

In an early case of position-focused advertising, Avis used their status as 2nd in the market to imply that they were more attentive to their customers, because they had to be.

Positioning is Everywhere

When we stop to think about positioning as a promotional tool, we begin to see that it is everywhere.

Brands use their competitors as foils for their own messaging constantly. Remember those “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” adverts.

 

Apple portrayed PC users as unstylish and bumbling in a popular series of TV spots.

                                                          

Brands for the the past half century have often focused less on defining what their products are, and chosen rather to define what they are not. Another striking example comes from 7-up, which in the 1970’s sought to gain market share by telling customers that their clear soda was “the un-cola,” explicitly defining themselves as essentially “Not Coke.”

Whereas in the past, consumers may have seen their range of choice as: “drink Coke or don’t drink Coke,” 7-up presented a different scenario: “drink 7-up when you don’t want Coke.”

In presenting consumers with a new choice: either drink Coke or drink 7-up, the brand found a window into consumers’ minds. It suggested that there were many people who would prefer an alternative to Coke that was not available.

By framing 7-up as an alternative to a popular drink, the brand convinced retailers and consumers alike to buy 7-up along with Coke, in order to fill the demand implied by the advert. In 7-up’s ideal scenario, customers would not stop buying Coke, but would buy 7-up in addition to Coke.

In the 1970s, 7-Up promoted the idea of a citrus-flavored soda as an “un-cola,” to break down consumer expectations that carbonated sodas are dark in color.

The product itself also emphasized its differences from traditional sodas. It was not caffeinated, it was sour, and it mixed well with the more popular alcoholic drinks of the time, including gin and vodka, which were gaining market share in the 1970s. “7 and 7″ was a popular drink choice by 1970, a mix of Seagram’s 7 Crown Gin, and 7-up.

The brand thus further differentiated itself from Coke, which had traditionally focused its brand on taste and tradition, using the tagline “It’s the Real Thing.” Whereas Coke was a conservative choice, enjoyed by families and older generations, 7-up was a young brand- enjoyed at night in bars and in cocktails, rather than on sunny afternoons at baseball stadiums or at restaurants.

Thanks to these ads, 7-up rose in the 1970s to 3rd place among sodas, only losing its market share with the rise of diet sodas in the 1980s and 90s, and the decline in popularity of mixed drinks in favor of bottled drinks and beer.

What a Product Positioning Statement Looks Like

Here we’ll focus on a sub-discipline of positioning as a whole: Product Positioning. It’s the same general philosophy, but with its own specific methodology.

When a startup team joins StartupYard, one of the first things we ask them to do is to sit down and write our a “positioning statement.” The format is deceptively simple, and it looks like this:

Product Positioning Statement:

(Our Product) is for (target customers):

Who (have the following problem):

Our product is a (describe the product or solution):

That provides (cite the breakthrough capability):

Unlike (reference competition):

Our product/solution (describe the key point of competitive differentiation):

Why A Positioning Statement Is Important

The positioning statement contains the core elements not only of a product, but also of its marketing and sales strategy. And while most of our teams have worked primarily on ways of describing their ideas, a positioning statement does more than this: it also justifies the notion of that idea becoming a business.

It’s important for a startup to have the concepts of saleability and market differentiation baked into the essence of the product. Writing a positioning statement, like writing a SWOT analysis, can reveal basic strengths and weaknesses in a product while it is still in the “idea” phase.

A Starting Point

Even more importantly, a positioning statement can serve as the basis for validation of a product. If you can’t describe what your company does in this compact format, it’s possible that you aren’t sure yet what your company actually does. You may be sure of what you are doing on a technical level, but what that means in business terms might not yet be clear.

The positioning statement is a conversation starter, particularly with early mentors and core team members, to facilitate early discussions about core strategy, and how the team sees itself in the bigger picture, what market it is really addressing, and what its real competition is in that market.

And a positioning statement, well-executed, can be transformed virtually complete into the core marketing message for a product, once it is developed. Take this copy from Nest’s webpage:

“Our mission is to keep people comfortable in their homes while helping them save energy, and with the next-generation Nest Learning Thermostat, we’re able to spread that comfort and savings to even more homes — and to help higher-efficiency systems perform the way they were meant to.”

Here are all the elements of a positioning statement. If the Nest founders filled in our form, it would look something like this:

Our Product is

For: Upper-middle class and wealthy people

Who: Own homes and spend a lot of money on energy costs and heating/cooling systems

Our product is a: Smart Thermostat and related products

That provides: Savings and increased comfort by improving efficiency of existing systems.

Unlike: manufacturer provided systems

Our product/solution: Learns and intelligently adapts to the inhabitants to increase comfort at all times, while saving money

A Positioning Statement Tells the Truth

The above “translation” of the Nest positioning statement doesn’t say exactly what their marketing copy says of course. They don’t mention wealthy clientele for one thing. But at $130 for a smoke detector, and $250 for a thermostat, that is surely the market they are targeting.

Their products are priced high enough to be clearly exclusive, but low enough not to seem extravagant or make a money-wise customer feel foolish for purchasing. And anyway, that messaging is not only found in the price, but in mention of “homeowners,” and of “higher-efficiency systems.” These subtle cues indicate to customers that the product is made for people who value performance, and are willing to pay to get it.

Features ≠ Differentiation

Notice too that none of the positioning statement deals with the exact features of the product. It’s all about the outcomes the product promises.

This is key: their competitive differentiation is not on a feature-by-feature basis, but holistic. They frame their competition as not only out of date, but barely worth mentioning at all. They indicate that their competitors (the providers of the systems), are not even in the same business as they are, and that therefore competing products are not even worth comparing in a more granular way.

These are all elements of Nest’s marketing that are informed by the market segment they have chosen to address, from the quality of the products, to the design, to the sales language and the pricing. And so the marketing message that says: “this product is for you,” when speaking to its target client, is backed up by a product that is built with that person in mind. The mission is clear: this is not a product for anyone, but for someone very specific, so that when the customer comes across the product and thinks about buying it, he or she can immediately see that it is made for them.

Who, Not What

There’s a reason the positioning statement starts with “who.” Over the years, we’ve consistently observed that the first thing most startup founders do is try to talk about the product before talking about the customer.

But here’s why that’s a mistake, and why the positioning statement doesn’t do that: understanding the target market is the first hurdle in actually validating a new product. Features are a distant second consideration to clearly articulating who the customer is, and what their problem is.

A laundry list of features doesn’t really address the problem of “who” the product is for, but only “what” it is for. And that “what” that a feature describes doesn’t necessarily give any indication of what problem is being solved. Startups that are dealing with complex technologies can easily skip over the core user benefits of the technology, in favor of describing the technology itself.

Common is the startup that pitches “a revolutionary new method of transforming leavened wheat products into crispy squares by employing concentrated on-demand heat conduction derived from electrical coil technology,” instead of pitching: “toast whenever you need it,” or even “a less boring version of bread.”

People Buy Outcomes, Not Features

Customers ultimately buy solutions to their problems, not technical specifications. And those problems are not always the same as the ones that the feature list actually addresses.

Consider this, when thinking about buying a car, what are the first things you’re likely to check?

Probably it isn’t technical specifications. Most people will answer one of two ways: they will check either prices, or reviews.

That indicates that the customer is very aware of what their problem is. They need a car, and they need it at a certain price, or at a certain minimum level of comfort and safety, or both. Car companies rarely list their prices up front on their websites precisely because they know that this is what customers are looking for, and so they are able to ask for customer information in exchange for information on their pricing.

Cars rely heavily on marketing to differentiate themselves, but the marketing is typically not focused on what the cars actually do. And that’s because cars all pretty much do the same things. So the problem being solved for the customer is not “I need a car,” but “I need a car that fits my personality/lifestyle/class/status and/or specific needs.”

Look carefully at a car commercial, and you’ll be assaulted with subtle and unsubtle cues about price, lifestyle, class, education, and culture, but not much about fuel injection, or anti-lock brakes, or all-wheel drive. These things may get a mention, but the whole object is to present the car as being a great value, in consideration of all that it offers for the price being asked.

 

Lincoln’s famously ponderous commercials for town cars are definitely not focused on features.

The goal of a typical car commercial is to convince a customer that they are buying the status and the culture that is associated with the car; that their decision is not motivated by price, even when it usually is.

That is how powerful positioning is. By showing a very clear understanding of who their customers are, car companies can turn a price-motivated decision into a statement about who the customer is, and about their place in society as a whole.

Try this: go and ask someone why they bought the phone they own, or the car they drive, or the computer they use. Whatever it is, ask them why they chose it.

The majority of people you speak to will probably not say: “it’s the best I can afford.” Instead they were answer the question in terms of what the phone or car or computer represents to them; what it says about them and their values.

For example, if the person has a cheap phone, they’ll say something like: “I just use the one that came with the plan. I don’t need anything fancy.”

That’s often code for: “I’m too cheap to buy a nicer one.”

On the flip side, ask a latest model, hi-tech phone owner why they bought their tech toy, and they’ll say it’s because they value the design, the features, or the amazing convenience of using it. They won’t say: “I bought this because I want to signal that I am wealthy and can afford luxuries.”

This dedication to explaining our motivations in personal terms doesn’t extend only from a marketing strategy for high end consumer products – it derives from the way those products are made as well. The design and build of a product must subtly betray its role in social signaling for the owner. Cheap cars are “humble,” while super-expensive cars are “subtle.” It is the cars in between that are most ostentatious.

When you see a fancy paint job on a cheap little economy car, you cringe because it is a confused communication of values by the owner. It’s pig dressed as a lady.

Consumer products can also be designed to signal their utilitarian nature, in order to make customers more comfortable with their purchase. For every €20 bottle of wine, there is a €5 bottle of wine that looks somehow less pretentious, and more sensible.

The Position and the Pitch

The main difference between a positioning statement and a full blown pitch is that the positioning statement says in plain words, what is really true about who your product is for, and what you believe its market fit to be.

This will help you to stay away from visions of (and talk about) your product changing the world, even if it doesn’t really have the capacity or the capability to be a real world changing idea. Not all products have to be for everyone, and many of the best products aren’t.

It will also keep you honest and focused; force you to make clear the needs of the market you are targeting, and force you to live in their shoes instead of your own.

4 Ways to Never Fail a StartupYard Interview

The 17th century French poet Boileau famously said: Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément. Or: “An idea well conceived presents itself clearly, and words to express it come readily.”

Or to put it bluntly: An idea isn’t any good unless it can be explained to someone else. If there were one piece of advice I could drill into the head of every brilliant startup founder I’ve met in my career, it would probably be just that.

But since we have some time, I’m going to go deeper. Here is:

How to Never Fail at A StartupYard Interview 

StartupYard will begin interviews for Batch 8 next week, and in the meantime, we thought we would share with them (and you), 4 key strategies that any startup can use in an interview with us, or any investor, that will help them never to fail.

Now, this advice is not going to win you an investment 100% of the time.

Investments are complicated, and they involve the needs and priorities of multiple parties. A perfect meeting might not produce an investment for a million valid reasons. But I can guarantee that if you follow this advice well, you will not fail to give your best possible impression to an investor.

Follow this advice, and you will not fail for stupid reasons.

1. Answer Questions As They are Asked

Simple and yet incredibly difficult for many people. Answer a question as it is asked, not as you would like it to be asked.

Did someone ask you a question to which you can say Yes or No? Then say Yes, or No. Then explain your answer. If you’ve never interviewed someone, I can let you in on a secret: it is very obvious when someone does not want to answer your question.

It is also very annoying.

And this produces the world’s most frustrating non-answers to simple questions. The below example is not fiction:

    • Are you making any revenue?
    • Well, we only launched about 6 months ago, and we have been focusing on making partnerships with relevant partners who are going to help us scale to our target market, and define the right sales strategy while getting early feedback from customers.
    • But are you making any revenue now?
    • Currently we are in beta and we are talking with a few clients who are ready to become paying customers once the features they need are fully implemented.
    • Are. You. Making. Any. Revenue?
    • No.
    • Thank you.

We don’t ask trick questions. What would be the point? And yet this behavior is widespread among startup founders. It is a learned behavior that must be slowly and painfully unlearned.

We want to know about what we’re asking about. So don’t try to give us the “right” answer. Just give us the real answer. What do you think is worse, us hearing that you aren’t making any revenue, or us leaving the meeting thinking you’re not even capable of answering simple questions?

And the real answer can contain the same information. Just in a slightly different format:

  • Are you making any revenue?
  • No. But we have a few customers who want to pay us as soon as we have the right features implemented. We only launched 6 months ago, and we’ve been focusing on partnerships.
  • Ok, who are these customers, and what features do they want?

Now we’re getting somewhere. And it was so easy! Now we can move to more important questions. This is a real conversation.

If the purpose of an interview is to exchange information and to assess a relationship, we would much rather spend our time doing that, than trying to decode cryptic phrases and hints.

So answer the question.

2. Win the Argument: Lose the Interview

It might be in school where people learn that an impressive, intelligent answer to a question is necessarily the longest and the most complicated one. It might also be in school where we learn that the one who speaks last has won the argument. We probably learn that from watching our teachers. But are these really good lessons?

Among the worst qualities we observe in some founders is the need to triumph, rather than to persuade. But winning an argument is different from convincing someone you may be right, or that you at least know what you’re talking about. Winning is not the goal here.

Trust your interviewers to see you as a human being, and they will like you for it. Treat them as human beings, and they will love you. But make the interview into some sort of contest for control of the subject matter and the upper ground, and they will end up wanting to get rid of you.

So communicate. Don’t argue.

What’s the best answer to a question you don’t know how to answer? Try: “I don’t know.”

You might be surprised how much investors will respect a founder who is not afraid to admit they don’t know everything. In a room full of smart people, there are always going to be things you don’t know that others do.

When answering a question, watch the interviewers, and if they seem ready to speak or unsure what you’re saying, ask them: “is this answering your question?”

So much of what we do at StartupYard involves unlearning and deconstructing the behaviors and impulses that stop founders from being great communicators and effective leaders. Most of that boils down to their motivations in any given situation. What do you want to accomplish here? Do you want to win, or do you want to be understood?

So start with this simple goal in mind: you want the investors to know you. You want to get to know them. If in the course of an interview, you can achieve this basic understanding, on a human level, then you will have succeeded.

3. Look Like You Belong Here: Because You Do

My father wore a suit and tie to work for 30 years. When I got a bit older and started working, I told him I’d never wear a suit and tie to work.

What he said sort of took me by surprise. He said: “we dress according to social customs, not just to show respect for others, but also to show self-respect. We dress to show that we feel we belong.”

I still don’t wear a suit to work, because I work with startups, and nobody does. But still, I notice when a person is poorly or inappropriately dressed for any given situation.

And that can swing both ways: a guy in an immaculate 3-piece suit who wants to talk about his startup is as out of place as the guy in the bathrobe with sleep in his eyes. Neither belong in that situation. Failure to dress like you belong can show that you don’t respect the social customs of your surroundings, but also that you don’t see yourself as belonging to them.

So think just a bit about how you look. Do you look like a startup founder? If you’re not sure, you may need to think more about this. Not too much. But a little.

4. Plan Ahead: Most Questions are Obvious

Here are three things any startup investor should ask you about:

  1. What is the problem you’re solving?
  2. What is the solution?
  3. Who are your customers?

If you can’t answer these three questions clearly, and succinctly, then perhaps you don’t know the answers well enough yet.

And when you sit down to answer these questions, try and imagine an investor hearing this for the first time. What is that person likely to ask you?

  • The problem we are solving is that X can’t Y when Z
  • Why does X want to Y when Z?
  • They just do…

Oops. Do you know why your problem is actually a problem? It might surprise you how frequently founders aren’t all that sure that the problem they’re solving is even a real problem at all.

Because “answering the question,” as in literally stating the problem, is not really answering the question. The object of the question is to get a useful answer: Why is it a problem? When is it a problem? How is it a problem? What is the result of the problem?

So be ready for a follow up. It will come.

Remember, a good investor, especially at an early stage, should be evaluating your ability to think clearly, as much as the idea you are describing to them. They can hate the idea, but be impressed with the clarity of your thinking. That happens to me all the time.

We have invested in companies whose ideas we didn’t fully agree with, because they showed they could think well and be receptive. That’s more valuable than an idea you love, and a founder who can’t answer simple questions about it. In assessing which of those two founders is likely to be a success, the one who can answer questions is the one we pick every time.

Startup Fail, StartupYard Accelerator

Will Your Startup Fail in the Next 6 Months?

Why Do Startups Fail?

For every reason you can think of, and many more you can’t. If you’re starting a startup, the deck is stacked against you. If you’re not too early, you’re too late. If you don’t grow too fast, you’re growing too slowly.

Some of the smartest, hardest working founders fail. Brains and work ethic can’t always save you.

Okay, Now Give me the Bad News

90% of startups fail. That’s a fact of life, but it’s not a law of nature. Startup death is unrelenting, but not random.

The truth is, after 51 startups at StartupYard, and 29 companies accelerated since we took on a global focus, we’ve seen that there is one thing that kills startups dead faster than anything else.

It’s the failure to answer one simple question:

Where am I going to be in Six Months?

That may seem like an easy question. But it isn’t.

Startups that ask themselves this question, in a searching and honest manner, tend to do better –much better- than those that don’t.

Startups that survive don’t always know the answer to the Six-Month Question. But they do ask it. And they ask it all the time.

The Six-Month question is so important because failing to think about the consequences of your short term decisions is the fastest and easiest way to make stupid mistakes. It is the best way to waste your own time and energy.

If I take this decision today, whatever it may be, where will I then be in six months?

Everything You Do is a Choice

Acting is a choice. And failing to act is also a choice. When a door opens, you either go through it, or you close it. So ask yourself what will happen if you do either.

Consider someone who’s thinking about applying to StartupYard. This founder is faced with 3 possible answers to the six-month question.

  • Option One: Apply and Be Rejected

    • Total time invested: 2-3 hours (8 hours for finalists)
    • Potential risk: Minimal.

      1. Damage your ego
      2. Waste a day
    • Potential benefit: Meet and get feedback from the region’s leading investors, and top StartupYard mentors
    • Side benefits:

      1. spend 2-3 hours building a compelling application for any accelerator (not just StartupYard), and getting qualified feedback. Good for use with other investors as well.
      2. Learn how accelerators work. Make contacts with investors and mentors you can use later.
    • Where you’ll be: either on to your next venture, or continuing to use the feedback you gained by applying.
  • Option Two: Apply and Be Accepted

    • Total Time invested: 3 months
    • Potential risk: Minimal.

      1. Maybe launch slightly later than planned (but with a better strategy).
      2. Be forced to focus on the business instead of the product.
      3. Injured ego due to challenging feedback. A few unproductive mentor meetings (unavoidable).
    • Potential Benefits

      1. Make partnerships and sign customers you wouldn’t have access to otherwise (at least not this early).
      2. Get in-depth feedback from top industry mentors on your product before launching.
      3. Launch with the support of influential corporate partners.
      4. Gain investment faster than you could have on your own, with more founder-friendly terms and better positioned investors.
    • Side Benefits: Grow personally and professionally in a challenging environment, and force yourself to apply discipline to your business plan and product/market positioning.
    • Side Benefits

      1. A perk package worth over $1m, seed investment of €30K, and possibility of follow-on funding.
      2. Access to StartupYard’s mentor network for the life of your company.
      3. PR benefits of taking part in one of Europe’s best regarded accelerators
      4. A strong negotiating partner in StartupYard, that can help you get the best possible terms from future investors.
      5. A community of fellow founders who can become your support network for years to come.
    • Where you’ll be: Hopefully launched, funded, and growing. StartupYard startups who have raised funding since 2013 have secured, on average, €400K after the program. Over half of our alumni have been either funded, or acquired.
  • Option 3: Don’t Apply

    • Total Time Invested: 0 Hours
    • Potential Risk:

      1. Pass up all benefits of options 1 & 2.
      2. Increased risk of not closing investments and dying early
      3. Increased risk of launching the wrong product – or focusing on the wrong market.
      4. Increased costs of starting up (both in time and money).
      5. Be forced to deal with investors who are not a good fit for your vision; who don’t offer friendly terms.
    • Potential Benefits:

      1. Launch slightly earlier. Maybe.
      2. Nobody bothers you.
      3. You are in total control.
    • Side Benefits: None
    • Where you’ll be: Unknown. Statistically, likely dead.

And Then What?

Perhaps my breakdown is slightly skewed in our favor. But this comes from a depth of experience.

The six-month question is a vital part of what StartupYard does for our founders. The program focuses founders on achieving results that they can build upon. Constantly, they are challenged to answer: and then what?

You launch the beta: and then what? You close this investment: and then what?

Startups that have joined StartupYard after pondering option 3 have been some of StartupYard’s most successful to date. Companies like Rossum.ai, Neuron Soundware, and TeskaLabs all initially suspected that the program would be a waste of their collective time and energy.

Each has subsequently become a major proponent of StartupYard and of acceleration in general.

Where were they after 6 months?

TeskaLabs joined TechStars and raised a seed round for their IoT security platform within 6 months of attending StartupYard. They now have active customers like O2 and is a Cisco Solution Provider. The company is now based in London.

Neuron Soundware won Vodafone’s “Idea of the Year” within six months of attending StartupYard, and closed partnerships with Siemens and other major industry players. They raised seed investment less than a year later.

Rossum.ai raised investment on the final day of the StartupYard program, and were named (along with Neuron Soundware), among Forbes’ top 10 Czech startups in 2017- less than six months after joining StartupYard.

Do You Know Where You’ll be in Six Months?

If you know what you’re going to accomplish in the next six months, more power to you. I hope you do well.

But if you’re like most founders, you don’t know. You don’t know what your options are going to be; what opportunities you will have 6 months from now. You probably don’t have a reasonable, reliable way of checking to see if those plans are realistic.

And if you don’t, then ask yourself again: what can I do about that? What decision can I make today that will change that uncertainty?

I have one suggestion: apply to an accelerator. StartupYard closes our applications for Batch 8 on Friday night (June 30th), at Midnight.

Hurry up – it’s not too late.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017

6 Years and 59 Startups Later: Here’s Why StartupYard Works

This week our CEO Cedric Maloux and I sat down for a conversation about the struggles and the excitement of recruiting and working with amazing startups together for the past 4 years as MD, and his 6 years as a mentor.

 

StartupYard last year announced our largest fundraise so far, of about €1 million for up to 20 new startups in 2017-2018. How did we get here? What have we learned? Here are the most interesting exchanges that came out of our discussion:

Hi Cedric, every week during the StartupYard program management meetings, you ask founders one question: “What are you struggling with right now?” I think it’s fair to start with the same question here:

Sleep! [Laughs].

I have two sources of stress when it comes to every StartupYard round, and this is now going to be my 5th time going through it. The biggest stress is Demo Day. Like a parent or a teacher watching their kids take the next big step in life, our whole team works very hard to make sure our founders and startups look great, professional, in control, and ready. But when they go out on that stage, our hands are off the wheel, and they are on their own. That’s a big scary moment for me, and for the founders. I don’t want them to feel that they’ve failed themselves.

The other stress is right now. We are looking for startups, talking to startups, trying to get the right startup founders to apply for our next round at StartupYard. We will invest in up to 20 companies in the next 12 months. I am always slightly panicked at the idea that we’ll miss one, or that one won’t find us, and will miss an opportunity that can really help them to succeed in business, and hopefully in life. I get real joy from making a difference in people’s lives, so I have that fear that I won’t do all I can.

What specifically are you afraid will happen, or not happen?

We can make the wrong choices. We have in the past – though not often, thankfully. StartupYard takes a big risk in trusting people we barely know, to be strong and committed and honest and open enough to go through a really demanding experience. It is very humbling. And I know we aren’t always right about people. We invest in founders, but you don’t really know someone until you spend every day, all day, with that person. Sometimes we’re not sure, and they turn out to be just amazing. Other times we are sure, and it turns out we were off.

So I’m stressed right now about those decisions, and knowing that later is too late.

So what helps you sleep at night, knowing that you’ll never be able to perfectly predict who will apply, and how they’ll perform?

Luckily we surround ourselves with really great advisors and investors. We have a great selection committee, who really get what we’re trying to do. They serve as a check against our biases and assumptions. We have been very lucky, but we also work very hard to remain humble, knowing we will make some mistakes.

In some way, every investment decision we make at StartupYard is a bit crazy from a normal perspective. We invest our time and money into people we have met maybe twice or three times. It takes a lot of faith. Among investors, accelerators like StartupYard are the ones with the least actionable data, KPIs or traction to judge in a startup. We have to believe our hearts and our noses. We have to trust in our experience and instincts more than other investors, who can point to solid numbers to tell the story. We go on much less.

Hearts and noses?

Yes. If you’re investing in a later stage, it’s all about numbers and trends. We can see trends, but we have very little in terms of numbers. So we also have to really understand people to make the right choices. I say our hearts and our noses, because our hearts are for people, but our noses are for opportunity. If we believe in someone, and we believe that there is an opportunity in what they’re doing, then that is enough for us.

Central Europe Accelerator

What makes you particularly fitted for a role like this?

I think a person can’t imagine what it takes to go from an idea to a profitable company unless they’ve done it, and experienced it themselves. I have done that multiple times in my life.

And unless you’ve experienced the opposite, which is failure, you probably think somewhere in the back of your mind that it can’t happen to you. I’ve also failed, publically. The last time one of my ventures was mentioned in Wired, it was in the context of the company going out of business.

So I know what that’s like to be notable enough to be in Wired, but still to fail. I have a deep technical background (I studied AI at University in the 1990s, when it wasn’t cool), and I’ve had a long career in sales. If a founder can’t sell; to employees, to co-founders, to investors, and customers, then he can’t make his ideas a reality.

So sales is not just about closing deals?

No. It’s about everything. Selling is essential. I’ve sold customer-facing services. I’ve sold B2B products to big corporations. I’ve sold my own company. Selling is an art. As we say, “telling isn’t selling.” You have to be able to not just talk about your ideas, but sell them.

Also, I learned a lot from running online businesses during the 2000 Internet bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. These things taught me the hard way about discipline in the fundamentals of business.

What was your hardest lesson through those experiences?

Cost understanding and control is at the heart of your company. You can only control one thing: your costs. Revenue projections, cost control: these are the things that get you through a crisis. It’s all about planning. Not your revenue, or development time, or investors, or customers. Just costs. Knowing when the money will run out. So financial hygiene is a top priority.

You’ve run companies. You’ve sold one company. So from that background, if you were starting a tech startup today, would you apply to an accelerator, even knowing everything you know?

Short answer, yes I would.

Long answer, I do have a few tech businesses on the side that I have started with other people, and with one, I’ve been encouraging the CEO to apply to an accelerator (though not StartupYard because it’s not in our area of focus). That should tell you what I think about accelerators, and not just about StartupYard.

If I was starting a business, I would go to one tomorrow, because no matter how much experience I have, I am limited by my own capacity as a human being. One thing that I’ve learned over the years, is that success doesn’t come from what you know, but from who you know. Your network is a vital ingredient for success.

A great startup has these things:  a hard problem to solve, a great solution, a clear value-proposition, a strong sales/marketing team, perfect timing, and great connections. You cannot be in control of every one of those things at any one time. You can however always work on your network. An accelerator connects you with people who help you seize opportunities and move fast when the time is right. Your connections help you discover weaknesses, and also opportunities. Knowing you need help is a strength, not a weakness.

Speaking of networks, StartupYard has quite a few corporations on its mentor list. Why do you focus so much on corporates during mentorship?

It’s a good question, and one we are asked a lot. Startups even tell us they would like to meet more people who are more like them. Usually when you meet a mentor, like at a competition or in a conference or at an incubator, or many other accelerators, they tend to be investors, or entrepreneurs.

It’s actually relatively easy to get a meeting with an investor or an entreprepreneur, which is why it’s easy to convince them to mentor startups. But, if you’re a B2B startup looking for early traction, you need to go door to door, talking to customers. And most of the time doing that, you’ll meet low level people.

What we decided early on, was to incorporate high-level corporate decision-makers, not just a lot of people, but leaders and C-level executives. The people who aren’t so much in the internal politics of their corporations, but are in a position to make things happen for startups. And we have many concrete examples of that working really well.

If the Chairman of the Board at a bank invites one of our startups to talk to his executives, that’s a meeting where people will be paying attention. It will have results. Not long ago, our mentors at Microsoft brought one of our startups to meet Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft, in Redmond. You won’t be able to name many early-stage companies who can get that meeting.

Yes, I was genuinely surprised when that happened too. The engagement from Microsoft was extraordinary. What do you think the corporate people get out of being startup mentors?

As it happens, those heads of industry share many of the qualities of startup founders. Ambition, drive, vision. So they love to be exposed to young founders and interact with them, not just about ideas, but about ways of working and thinking. The CEO of a global corporation told me a while ago that it’s his job to know what’s going on outside his company, because they are under constant attack from startups. You have to know your adversary.

We sometimes call corporations “dumb and slow,” but it would be a mistake to think that the people running them are either dumb or slow. Often the people at the top are thinking very far ahead, and when a startup is looking for the right stakeholder, the top is often the best place to start. Outside of our program, our founders would just never get meetings with such people. Even if they did, it would take years to get them all, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

I feel very proud of our mentor group. One mentor told me recently, that it was an honor to be included. That just made me feel very proud. We have spent years developing StartupYard as a platform, but we can’t rest on our achievements. We have to keep improving and building that network ever round, or it dies.

You said you can’t rest. What is your biggest difficulty when it comes to talking to founders about acceleration?

I would say we see two types. There is the founder who really understands the value accelerators can bring, and is eager to join. The other is the one who is more defensive; defensive of their ideas, of their priorities, of their sense of control and sometimes pride as well.

They may see joining an accelerator as a risk rather than an opportunity: that they risk wasting time. But often I think it’s just that they risk giving up control. Startup founders can be control freaks, as everyone knows, and we ask people to give up some of that control in order to grow, and that is a hard thing to ask of people who have always performed at a high level in their lives. Even the tiny amount of control we want them to give up can seem like a big, big change.

But if you’re so concerned about making the wrong choices, that you don’t act, then you risk never making decisions at all. Our biggest challenge is to show skeptics that the accelerator is called an “accelerator” for a reason, and it is not to slow them down or take up their time. That interrupting their process and refocusing them can actually save them time, and not waste it.

All our alumni will confirm this to you and in fact, they often talk about the empty period after the program. Once a founder told me he wished the program never stopped. And this was a startup which already had some revenue, but had skyrocketed with us.

You have to be a bit smart and a bit arrogant to start a business, but you need to let your intelligence prevail, and admit when you need other people. We all start as fools in life, and the only people who are doomed to remain fools are the ones who refuse to admit this, and don’t let themselves be questioned.

Some founders will tell us that all they need is cash.

That’s true. But when you ask them: “If all you need is cash, then why don’t you already have it?” They start telling you about their real problems – the reasons investors aren’t giving them money. It’s usually because they haven’t earned it yet. They don’t have enough data, they don’t have enough traction, or they don’t know how to sell to the investors.

You are absolutely right, and in an environment where cash is king, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to these people that to deserve cash you need to go through some steps.

What we find is that the act of just applying to StartupYard, and answering very specific questions about their business can help founders to realize what they don’t know. Even just forcing yourself to really answer these questions, you can begin to see that there are a lot of areas where you can grow and learn more.

So you need to bring people down a bit to build them up?

Yes. The acceleration process is challenging not just intellectually, but also emotionally for some people. But if you want to really run a global business, and meet your potential as an entrepreneur, that is the kind of challenge you will have to face, one way or the other.

We aren’t here to judge people and their ideas. The projects we look at are very early stage, and the people running them have a lot of room for mistakes and wrong roads. Our job as an accelerator and the job of our mentors is to support people who are taking these creative risks, exposing them to dangers and opportunities. We prepare them for taking good risks, and being aware of the dangers they will face.

Over the past 5 years, I have repeated certain things over and over again through every program. One of them is: “be careful, about what might happen if…”

To you, what is the biggest misconception about what StartupYard does for founders?

What I think some founders don’t expect is that the mentorship process, and the whole acceleration program, is aimed not just at their business, but at them as people. It would be waste of their time, and ours, if we spent our energy trying to make people into something they don’t want to be. So we pay very careful attention to discovering, with our founders, what it is in their hearts that they really are passionate about and want to do and to become.

So it’s not just about business for you?

There is a saying: “just business, not personal.” But I think this is very misleading. Growing a global business is all about who you are as a person. If you do something that is true to who you are, and who you want to be, that is infinitely better, for everyone involved, than if you’re just trying to make money. You can make money in a lot of ways, if that’s what you want. We want to help people to become their best selves as founders, and that means finding in them that special energy they possess that no one else does, and helping them to tap into it.

The biggest successes in business don’t think “It’s just business.” They know it’s about more than themselves or this one goal. It’s about relationships and it’s about being true to who you are.

Any last words?

Apply to StartupYard! Applications close June 30th, so I hope anyone who recognizes themselves in what we’ve talked about will consider applying now.

I can’t wait to be impressed.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #9.

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: January 31st, 2018
 

Update: StartupYard in Bucharest: June 6th, Partnering with Bucharest.ai

Update: June 1st, 2017:

We’re pleased to announce that StartupYard will partner with Bucharest.ai to reach out to AI specialists and enthusiasts in Romania ahead of and during our visit on the 6th. Bucharest.ai, a part of the CITY.AI project, will speak about the current state of AI in Romania, and give insights and inspiration to potential founders of AI companies in the region. 

A Talk from Alexandra Petrus: 

We are witnessing a nascent playfield where innovators are building amazing products that address unthinkable human problems.  During this talk, we’ll see the Current State of AI: AI beyond the hype, bold predictions and why build an AI product. This talk will take place immediately following a presentation by StartupYard (more info below)
About City.ai
CITY.AI is a community of 23+ cities that share discoveries in applied AI and connect you to international peers. City.AI powers Chapters throughout the globe. The local communities bring unique contributions, perspectives and are bound by the purpose of collaborative knowledge in the field of Applied AI. By increasing transparency and collaboration, we aim to enable more people to better apply artificial intelligence.
About Alexandra: 
Alexandra Petrus is an experienced operations and product leadership professional, with 6+ years of international startup experience who focuses on new technology products and services. Currently contributing to the fintech & ecomm world through products @2checkout; she ran Products @Reincubate – the app data company, helps build the Bucharest City.AI Chapter as an Ambassador and is igniting her hobby and passion that are the emerging technologies & how to contribute to a better life and environment experience through the side projects that she runs (#healthtech).

 

Are Romanian deep tech startups, those working on AI, Machine Learning, advanced Cryptography, Blockchain, and IOT applications, competitive yet on the global stage? That is what the StartupYard team will explore during a day of workshops and networking at TechHub Bucharest, on Tuesday, June 6th, 2017.

Are you a Romanian entrepreneur with a love of technology and a potentially killer idea for a global business using AI/ML/Blockchain/IoT or something else? StartupYard is your stepping stone to the wider world. Find out more, and sign up for one of the workshops or presentations below:

WHERE: TechHub, Bucharest 

Agenda:

14:00-15:30: Making it Real: Storytelling and Positioning for Deep Tech Workshop with Lloyd Waldo
16:00-18:00: Office hours with StartupYard
18:00-19:00: From Genius Idea to a Global Business: Creating AI Startups from ScratchPresentation with Cedric Maloux

About the Events:

Office Hours with StartupYard:

Looking for feedback, advice, or connections in a specific domain, or on your ideas generally? We’re here to lend you a hand. You can sign up to meet the StartupYard team for a private 20-minute session on June 6th. No obligations whatsoever.

 

Making it Real: Storytelling and Positioning for Deep Tech.

In this spellbinding workshop, Lloyd Waldo, creative marketing veteran of dozens of startups, will show entrepreneurs how early stage companies can apply practical storytelling skills to convince their earliest stakeholders (including cofounders, investors, customers, and employees), of the power of a new idea. Learn to instinctively transform ideas from dry descriptions and speculation into compelling narratives, that put you in control of the conversation. Learn how simple positioning and framing devices can help you to achieve greater clarity in your ideas, and persuade others to believe in what you do.
Hosted by StartupYard Community Manager Lloyd Waldo , 14:00-15:30, Tuesday June 6th at TechHub Bucharest.

 

 

cedric maloux startupyard

StartupYard Managing Director Cedric Maloux

Presentation: From Genius Idea to a Global Business: Creating AI Startups from Scratch

Cedric Maloux has been an internet entrepreneur almost since there has been an internet after graduating in 1992 as an Engineer in Artificial Intelligence. He started his first major online venture in 1996, and sold it in 2000. He’s been starting new ones ever since reaching millions of users around the world. StartupYard, which Maloux runs as Managing Director, helps technically sophisticated developers and makers turn their ideas into real, growing businesses. In recent years, we have helped launch a series of high tech startups including TeskaLabs, Neuron Soundware, Cryptelo, Chatler.ai and Rossum.ai. Find out how these startups went from a brilliant idea, to companies serving clients all over the world with cutting edge technologies. –Hosted by StartupYard MD Cedric Maloux. 18:00-19:00, Tuesday June 6th at TechHub Bucharest.

 

StartupYard Alumni

SY Alumni Talk about the Value of StartupYard for Them

This week, the popular podcaster Florian Kandler, of Startup Milestones, published another video with a pair of StartupYard Alumni from 2015: Jakub Ladra, of Claimair, and Ondrej Sedlacek, of Satismeter. Through the course of the talk, the two founders focus on the core value of acceleration at StartupYard, what their personal experiences were during acceleration, and what advice they would give to other founders thinking about joining.

The pair also jump into a discussion of what to look for in a good accelerator, and other tips for pre-accelerator startups.

StartupYard Alumni Talk Acceleration:

 

Key Takeaways:

  • Ondrej Sedlacek (Satismeter)
    • You need to find an accelerator that has the appropriate focus for you.
    • Mentorship is about recognizing patterns between different conversations, but also about learning how to communicate your ideas more clearly.
    • The biggest single value is simple: great advice. The impact of that advice from mentors, investors and the SY team is increased because of the compressed timescale of acceleration. You are forced to make decisions quickly.
    • Setting clear goals for yourself also helps you to use the advice of mentors and advisors better: focusing them on what you need.
    • Good accelerators attract investors who look at every startup in the program. Your chances for investment rise thanks to your participation.
    • The StartupYard program helped to narrow the focus on the product, and think in terms of execution and milestones.
  • Jakub Ladra (ClaimAir)
    • Mentoring is uniquely intense and important for building your network. Connections made there can last and change your business over time.
    • You talk all day about your value proposition, and this is a big challenge. We had no idea how intensive this repetition and iteration can be.
    • Management team meetings at StartupYard reinforce learnings from mentors, and bring up new unexplored ideas.
    • The act of prioritizing between ideas during “mentoring madness,” was deeply valuable. The ongoing discussions were a big challenge, but worth the time to go through.
    • The accelerator is especially important in helping a startup scale: laying the legal, technical, and strategic groundwork for sustainable growth.

 

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017

SY Podcast: Mergim Cahani, Founder and CEO of the Fastest Growing Tech Company in the Balkans

Tomas Tunys, StartupYard

This Machine Learning Geek Thinks You Need StartupYard

Tomas Tunys: Machine Learning Geek

Tom Tunys is the “silent one,” of the Rossum.ai team. He is a prototypical machine learning geek, which is to say: quiet, thoughtful, and rigorous in his thinking. He joined StartupYard along with co-founders Tomas Gogar and Petr Baudis, two also geeky, but comparatively outspoken AI/ML geeks in their own right.

As StartupYard focuses on AI/Machine Learning startups and founders for our upcoming round of acceleration (applications close June 30th), I reached out to Tomas to talk about his experience at StartupYard. Tomas is, as he would say, not a business minded person. This is the story of how he came to appreciate his experience at StartupYard despite initially doubting its value.

Here is what he had to say:

Hi Tomas, you have always been the quiet member of the Rossum.ai team. Can you tell our readers how you joined Rossum, and your background in Machine Learning and AI?

Tomas Tunys, StartupYard

It’s almost a year since the moment Tomas, Petr, and I were discussing the possibility of creating our own startup, but our history together is much longer than that, so let me briefly tell you my story, and how we met.

In late 2012 I started my PhD studies at the Czech Technical University, under the Cloud Computing Center research group led by Jan Sedivy. It was there where the team behind Rossum first met (albeit not all at the same time). We all together worked on a dozen different machine learning applications, supervised students, and helped to build up what is now known as eClub Prague. To sum it up we have known each other for more than 3 years now.

When I think about it I started my PhD back then out of love for mathematics, optimization and machine learning that had built up in me doing my master’s thesis. I should say that prior to that I had no background in machine learning whatsoever but I could always appreciate the beauty and elegance of mathematics and optimization.

Since I had no clear idea what to work on I laid my hands on many different machine learning topics such as document classification, topic modeling, information retrieval, and learning to rank. The last mentioned has become the main focus of my research and it is about developing algorithms for sorting “things” in a particular order such that the final list has the desired property. One example for all would be a web search where you might try to order the list of documents for a query in a way optimized for user satisfaction.

To me this has always been about the act of accomplishing new things in a very intellectual way. What’s strange about my journey to Rossum and StartupYard is that I am really, really not a business guy. Not at all. I just love math.

You’ve described yourself as someone who finds the business aspect of technology unappealing. You’re very critical of business culture. What motivates you to do the work you do, and what do you hope will come from it?

Quite simple to answer: I do what I do because I love it, and moreover I work with amazing, smart, and genuine people which I see as an endless source of inspiration and motivation.

What am I working on right now? I am part of the research and development team in Rossum which is currently building a machine learning engine capable of reading and understanding the content of textual documents on a human level.

This is of course a far-fetched goal (yes, even now with the current level of technology) and we wanted to make a business case out of it right now, not really building a business on empty-handed promises.

We know that we need to take small steps, like the saying “you need to learn how to walk before you can run” (I can imagine a business person would use fly instead of run without hesitation here), so we decided to focus on understanding a particular instance of documents, which are invoices. I’ll leave what we do in Rossum at that, you can find out more at rossum.ai.

What I hope will come out of our work? My only hope is that in the end we built something amazing that everyone can benefit from.

I am of course looking far into the future, but just imagine what can be done with a technology that can go through gazillions of documents accumulated throughout our history, such as research articles, medical reports, legal documents, books, newspapers, internet -take your pick- and provide access to knowledge, not only information, hidden inside them.

How much can research be sped up? How many lives could be saved? How many hours could be spared at court (sounds stupid unless you know how the Czech judiciary system works)? The list may go on. And I know I chose words that make this sound totally abstract and unspecific and I made it deliberately, because it would be really hard for me to formulate concretely what I mean by “access” (interface specification) and “knowledge” (data store and inference engine).

This is something we will be more than happy to contemplate at Rossum.

We had a discussion recently about the impact that AI/ML is having and will have on humanity and society. Can you talk a bit about your perspective on the role AI will play in our lives going forward?

I think that ML already plays an important and maybe irreplaceable role in the everyday life of a modern person and it is going to be more so in the future.

So far ML (Machine Learning) is mostly prominent (and this is solely how I see it, and might be wrong) in the realm of the internet. Web search, social networks, e-commerce, all these services are intertwined with ML algorithms which are programmed to make a user more satisfied, more engaged, click more, purchase more, etc. But ML is going to have a big voice in “the real world” pretty soon (Do not ask what soon means!), for example, Tesla with its self-driving cars.

This big shift is going to make Machine Learning something that more people can directly benefit from. ML works best wherever there is the most data to leverage. That has meant the internet, and advertising, and so forth, but soon it will mean anywhere there is a sensor and a stream of data coming in. It is hard to imagine the range of applications that will propagate from the Internet of Things.

Let’s play for a bit on a more futuristic and philosophical note, because such a question always deserves it.

In my opinion, it is just a matter of time before AI reaches and supersedes the human level of performance in every aspect. There is nothing that would suggest otherwise, on the contrary, and that makes me think what would be there left for humans?

Everyone kind of says, there will always be something left, without having any clue what that something might be, which does not give me a lot of comfort. I fear that in the end AI will rob us of our curiosity, which I reckon is the main driving force of human progress (definitely of mine). Just think about it, there is no way anyone would wait for you to find answers which are already there (definitely not in a business)  – the only person that would need to resist going for the shortcut and get the answer from your pal HAL, is you.

Sadly, I do not see people nowadays willing to ponder over even the simplest of problems, stackoverflow-copy-paste simply wins (if you are a programmer you know what I am talking about). Now imagine there is an omniscient stackoverflow — disaster is in our way! Is there a solution or is it even a problem that needs solving? I do not know what it is for you, but I’d rather stay curious.

We also talked about the nature of intelligence, our assumptions about our own intelligence, and the capabilities and benefits/drawbacks of AI. What do you think most people are getting wrong in our understanding of these topics?

Let me share with you some of my thoughts on how some of us may see their own intelligence and relate it to the idea of (general) AI.

I think that people tend to think about themselves and their intelligence as something superior, and (so far) unmatched, yet I do not think there is an agreed upon concept of AI. There is definitely more than one, hence, for me there is not a firm ground to base a comparison on. How do we define general AI if we don’t understand what makes us intelligent to begin with?

But this sort of an egoistic self-regard, a proclaimed superiority in terms of intelligence that should definitely not become part of the AI we are trying to build. Because if you stop for a second to think about how we treat the runner ups in this ridiculous game you would not want to become a runner up.

Machines can replace humans, like machines have replaced humans throughout history. But there is an important distinction: the machines do not replace humans by doing exactly what humans used to do. Hand-sewing was replaced by the loom. Hand crafting of parts has been replaced by machine tools and moldings, and now 3D printing. The machines that replace humans don’t function the way we do, or produce exactly the same results we would.

So when we consider machines replacing humans, a mistake we can make is to imagine that the process or the product carries on as it did before. But that doesn’t happen. The process and the product are changed, and we as a society and different industries adapt to those changes out of necessity or convenience. If something used to be handmade out of wood, but is now made of plastic, we accept this change because of the cost savings, or because of the superior qualities of the plastic.

We don’t think much about the kaleidoscopic effects of those changes. Industrialization helped create products that couldn’t be imagined before. A car or a plane are just a machine, but now they shape the way that all of society functions.

That same process happens also in services. We had bank-tellers, but people accepted a less personal approach in order for the convenience of cash machines. Bank-tellers became fewer and more specialized. Call centers and phone operators are another case of this. Soon it will apply to more professions. The outcomes will be different, but it will be about what people are willing to accept- not about exactly reproducing the same results using AI.

Today we do not understand what those results will actually be. We cannot know, just like we couldn’t know what the results of the industrial revolution were going to look like. Some huge positives, for sure, but also some big, big negatives.

A big mistake I have heard from people, some of whom invested a lot of money into the research of general AI, is that they can make sure to build AI that obeys certain rules of conduct.

Nothing can be further from the truth and we, humans, are the best example. When you are a parent, you may try your best to control for all the factors that can influence your child’s growth (external factors could make this a false analogy, but I do not think so), but there is no way of saying for a 100% certainty that a child will become a nobel prize winner or a serial killer. The problem when it comes to AI is the latter.

You cannot predict how something will evolve when it is inherently as complex or more complex than you are. No simulation or set of rules can account for all variables when you don’t know what all the variables will be.

By this I am not implying we should drop the idea of developing general AI. I am saying that we should become really careful parents for the AI we want to raise. In the end we need to hope for the best (or just roll the dice) when we decide to let it go into the world.

I guess most people also see AI as something that is bound to become evil. But this also begs the question: what is meant by evil? This is a favourite theme recurring in literature and movies and I am talking about it mainly to mention a particular one — R.U.R. by Karel Capek — where Rossum gets its name from, which also kind of gives away what we plan for the future (just kidding?).

You’ve said that you initially were very skeptical about StartupYard, but that now you would recommend the program to others like yourself. What changed?

I experienced StartupYard! That’s what changed. I guess my skepticism about StartupYard stemmed from my ignorance and lack of a “business” gene.

When we joined StartupYard, I suspected that it would be a distraction and a waste of time. I want to work on AI/Machine Learning, and not talk about working on AI/Machine Learning. So for me that’s a struggle, and one I still experience.

The Rossum Team: Petr Baudis (left), and Tomas Gogar (middle), with Tomas Tunys (right)

But on the other hand, for the other members of our team, Petr Baudis and particularly Tomas Gogar, I saw incredible changes in their thinking, and really noticeable growth in their abilities outside of the technology we are working on. The other Tom definitely has the business gene, and StartupYard brought it out in him and made him much more confident, and much more wise about the business, and all the challenges we face.

Honestly, I would be lying to say that this was an experience that transformed me as a person, but as a team we were quite transformed. We began to work with much more focus, and so much more effect, on problems that are going to help us grow and keep climbing new mountains.

I can see the difference between our mentality at the beginning, and our mentality today, and it is remarkable.

What would you say to someone like yourself, who is deeply invested in advancing new technologies, but doesn’t believe that an accelerator StartupYard is what they really need?

Well, I don’t want to make a case out of myself, but I would say this:

If you are on your own and you want to do business for whatever reason, then you definitely need something like StartupYard.

I am not a sell out. I will not claim StartupYard is the best thing that can happen to you, but I will say that from my experience the whole team behind it does its best to shape your idea (or if you have none, it helps you to formulate an idea) into a real and viable business.

It does so by providing access to a vast network of mentors, which you certainly do not have and who are non-technical for the most part. In the end many of these mentors can become your potential customers, while others can come up directly/indirectly with an opinion or an idea that can really move you forward in your own thoughts. Moreover, StartupYard teaches you how to think about your business and prepares you on how to talk and present your ideas appropriately. That’s the most crucial part: getting others to understand clearly what are you bringing to the table.

I guess I read this on the StartupYard blog, but I grew fond of it: you and your ideas need to be the fire and StartupYard is the gasoline that makes it go big. I know it sounds like a cliche, but the people behind StartupYard really live up to that message.

And if you are a part you a bigger team, where the others are eager to take over the business part and you have the luxury to concentrate on what you love, then it would really depend on the others, but after seeing the personal growth of Petr and Tomas after going through StartupYard, I can only recommend taking that chance and joining.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #9.

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: January 31st, 2018

Friday Funnies: Thought Leaders

 

Our Thoughts

Thoughts are very important. Leadership is very important. Thought leadership may be the most important development in thinking, or leadership, since before thought leadership.

In all seriousness, this video is a valuable teaching tool for StartupYard, and we use it to show startup founders that the elements of a convincing presentation are from a separate skill-set than a deep knowledge of what you’re actually doing.

Knowledge is never enough, but nailing the format is also never enough. Always, founders must compromise between what they know, and the things they need to do to gain the trust of others. We call it “being clear,” rather than “being accurate.”

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017