On Firing A Startup

This week, I had to take the difficult but necessary decision to dismiss a StartupYard startup from our program. I did not take this decision lightly, and if anything, it was overdue. What I want to accomplish in talking about this chapter in our blog, is to educate other startups in our community about what it is we do, how our program works, and what we look for when it comes to startups that we accept and work with.

What We Do

We have never dismissed a team from StartupYard before. Perhaps we’ve been lucky. Of course, as we’ve written about on this blog, and as any accelerated company or accelerator team knows, there are always moments of conflict and stress.

In fact, conflict in the constructive sense is really what we are all about. We challenge and push our startups to achieve in areas in which they are not comfortable. Our mentors and workshop leaders challenge the founders in our program to think more globally, to think critically about their decisions, and to grow personally and professionally.

A difficult requirement that we put on our startups is one that we discuss with them from the very beginning. “We own your schedule.” For 3 months, they work on our clock, and they make themselves available to mentors, workshops, advisors, and the StartupYard team during that time. Company founders and sometimes whole teams move into our workspace at Node5 in order to be available all the time.

In order to make this work, we encourage our startups to do a few things they aren’t always comfortable with at first. To delay some meetings, and to slow down or halt progress on non-critical development in their products, in order to give more time to the big picture, and to see things from a higher perspective.

This is not to say that the startups slow down work. Quite the opposite, they typically spend nights and weekends to continue developing, even during the program’s busiest times. There are periods in which our demands on their time are very light, particularly in the middle of the program, but nevertheless, the time commitment is large.

We feel, and experience has shown, that this period allows founders to switch from “builder mode” to “leader mode,” and prepares them to grow their teams, take a step back from their immediate needs, and see their work in a broader context. We have seen this experience deeply transform startups, and we think it works.

When That Doesn’t Work

In this case, early indications of pushback quickly became apparent. This startup, unlike most startups we accept, had majority shareholders who were not the founders. That had not been made clear in our initial meetings, and it proved to be a sticking point.

In addition, it quickly became clear that the founder who had applied and been accepted to our program did not have, as he had represented, a co-founder or near equal partner with whom he could share responsibility.

We don’t take single founders for a good reason. The demands of this program, and simultaneously running a company, are too much for one person to handle. While our founder teams often have a leading partner, they share the workload, and they are each empowered to represent their companies on their own. This allows them to do much more at StartupYard, and it allows them to maintain a better institutional knowledge and memory. Two founders can balance each other. One can become lost in the wilderness.

This founder was simply not present- whether due to the demands of his job, or his partners, or to lack of interest. He appeared only sporadically, and missed a large part of the program, including mentors, workshops, and other meetings. He sometimes sent representatives from his company to some of our program events, however, the purpose of most mentorship and workshops is to engage directly with a company founder.

So, for example, a marketing workshop, or a workshop on PR or UX, or a mentoring session with one of our 60+ active mentors, is meant for a founder, even if the founder also has team members who work in these specific areas. The team members may also benefit, but the founder benefits equally in understanding what it is that members of their team can do, and what measurement of success can be applied to that work.

It was apparent by the end of the first month, that this founder was simply not prepared or not able to engage with the program to the level that we expect and demand.

Bad Faith

StartupYard is ultimately a business, even if we try hard to make sure it’s a highly altruistic one. We depend upon the good faith of our startups, partners, mentors, and investors that we all have the same priorities.

Our priority is to help startups grow, and to help them do good work that is valuable to others, and profitable to themselves, to us, and our investors. We do well when our startups grow in value. Moreover, we feel that the price we ask for the value we provide, much less the money we invest, is not onerous.

As we have written before on this blog,  we are not about giving startups cash. The money is there so that they have time to work with us, and to grow with our help. If a startup’s first concern is the eventual cash value of our stake in their company, then our priorities are not in sync.

In the end, despite a series of promises and deadlines broken, and unending complications that seemed to arise from nowhere, it became clear that this startup, its investors, and its founder had no intention of acting in good faith with the terms they had agreed to upon being accepted to the program.

In addition, the founder also failed to meet every milestone that was set for him in the program, neglecting every deadline for user projections, business and investment plans, and other reporting. We heard only excuses and explanations, but never saw any results.

When a startup enters our program, we are making a statement that we believe in its potential to be an engine for growth, and its team’s ability to execute on a dynamic, exciting vision. Our seal of approval means something, and has been a boon to the many startups that have gained investment, or been acquired following our program.

At the same time, if a startup team or its investors act in bad faith with our arrangement, we have a duty to share that experience with our investors and partners, which we have done in this case. Our ability to provide the value that we do depends on our reputation being linked with companies that act in good faith, and are aligned with our vision.

Our Mistakes

These things happen. I believe that we can learn from this experience.

First of all, I feel that we were too focused on the profit potential this company showed. We saw that they were attractive to investors, and that they had already gained some investment, and this fact blinded us to concerns that were raised even during the selection process. We didn’t examine closely enough whether this company and its founder should be in our program, or would be able to engage with it fully.

So in a sense, we lost sight of our mission in this case, and the result should have been predictable.

In retrospect, it’s obvious now that this founder was unclear about the nature of our program, and was never willing or able to commit to it in a way that we required. He had too many other responsibilities. His company already had too many moving parts to allow him to step back and change direction. Too much money had already been spent. In short, there was no helping him, because he had already been locked into most of his decisions before the program started.

Because we liked (and still like) the product and business idea, we overlooked these issues, and tried to sweep them under the rug. That put us in a poor position, because we were expecting results and engagement that, again in hindsight, were probably not reasonable to expect.

We have seen this sort of thing happen in the past, and thankfully more than one company has decided not to join because of the expectations we have. Not joining an accelerator can be an enlightened decision, if a founder feels that he can’t effectively implement the feedback he or she gets from the program.

Fail in Order to Succeed

So in sum I don’t view this is a dark chapter or a catastrophe. It is a failure, and we are experts at learning from our failures. But it is a failure that will not cost us much, and will benefit us hugely in the future, as we work towards becoming better at identifying the companies and founders that can benefit most from our support.

Lastly, with no ill-will, we wish this company and founder the absolute best, and we look forward to their future success. Growing pains and mistakes are a part of this business, and a necessary part. Our hope is that we all learned something from this.

StartupYard Month 2: The Emotional Journey

The StartupYard teams have spend 2 months at the accelerator so far, and it’s past time for a look at how they’re all doing. An accelerator round goes by in a big blur. You can hardly believe, when it’s almost over, that you’re talking to the same people who started the journey together just a few months ago. It’s an emotional experience, as well as an intellectual one, and I’m going to talk about that emotional journey.

Frustration

A big and necessary part of the accelerator experience is frustration. Frustration with oneself, with a lack of time, with the difficulty of certain questions, and with the fluidity and uncertainty surrounding so many important decisions. Everything is in a rush, but at the same time, everything depends on someone else’s input, or someone else’s time, be it a team member, a StartupYard team member, a mentor or advisor, or even an investor.

Between daily meetings with up to 5 mentors, meetings with test users, pilot customers, early investors, and the StartupYard team, there isn’t a lot of time to do what the startup teams are used to doing with their days- working on their products and making them better. The life of a startup is highly dependent on influencing other people to make fast decisions, so we all get a little harried from time to time.

I caught myself recently asking the startups to fill in their company information for the Demo Day program (we hope to see you there May 28th!), and writing “get this done ASAP.” One of the startups pluckily responded via the #events Slack Channel. “Everything is ASAP!” He was right, and in truth, I could have waited more than a week to get their feedback. But in the constant push to cut through and grab their attention, I had accustomed myself to demanding that they do everything I ask of them immediately, lest they forget to ever do it at all.

But a certain level of frustration is necessary because at StartupYard, the goal is to interrupt and challenge a startup’s established patterns, and force the teams to face issues they might, left alone, choose to ignore, with possibly fatal results.

We ask big questions, in our mentorship sessions and workshops, and we ask them of teams that don’t always have enough data to answer them. That’s to the good. Because every time a startup founder doesn’t know the answer to a question, they’re reminded, or they can discover, that they have more to learn and more room to improve.

Still, the experience is one of constantly feeling behind: by the time the founders answer our demands for business plans, user projections, financial projections, and marketing plans, we’re on to new and more complex demands.

There’s no slowing down to celebrate small victories- and nothing is ever really finished. That’s a recipe for a certain level of frustration, and the only way to overcome it, eventually, is to do more than they’ve ever done before, in less time than they thought they could.

Ego

 I think it takes a certain kind of person to quit their job, spend their savings, and build something no one has ever built before, with the certain knowledge that it’s brilliant and unique enough to a) get someone else to pay for it via an investment and b) eventually get people to buy that thing, and get potentially dozens or even hundreds of people to devote their working lives to building and maintaining it.

We say that startups have their own unique cultures- well it takes a certain kind of ego to think that they’d be happier and better off starting something like that from scratch. So I have immense respect for the people I work with on a daily basis.

These people couldn’t do what they do if they didn’t have powerful egos. At the same time though, the accelerator process is a repeated assault upon ego, pride, and a person’s sense of themselves and the truth of their personal vision.

Fiodor Tonti, of Numa Paris, destroys egos with his UX/UI workshop

 

Every round, we see startup founders follow a similar emotional path. They come in at the top of the pile- the best handful of startups out of an application round of over 200. They know they’re hot shit, and they have accomplishments to be genuinely proud of.

And then mentoring starts, and they’re almost constantly on the defensive for the next month and a half. Every advisor and mentor has a different opinion, but they all reassure the startups that they *definitely* aren’t ready yet.

Nothing satisfies. Nothing is where it needs to be.

Just when these mentoring sessions start to slow down, and the startups now have a really good sense of how to talk about their companies and the direction they want to go, a new assault begins. In month two, we bring in domain experts in UX/UI, publicity, marketing and growth hacking, and financial planning, and we beat them all back down again.

Last week, Fiodor Tonti, a team member at LeCamping, in Numa Paris, came to Prague to do a private workshop on UX design with our startups. One of the startups came out of a session with him and told Cedric, our MD, “that was devastating.”

Later in the day, we sat with another startup doing live user testing, and a dozen people watched as a test user stated that they were ready to quit trying to use the application, because the onboarding process was just too frustrating.

A few weeks ago, I gave a workshop for our startups on homepage/landing page design. Then I stood up in front of all the startups, and we critiqued each of their homepages together, in some detail. They were hard on each other. One of the teams commented afterward. “I can’t believe how bad our homepage is. I didn’t see how big a problem it could be.”

Software engineers, in their comfort zones, are not used to the creative suffering involved in watching their work being misunderstood, or worse, actually disliked and dismissed. Most work on minute, specific problems, the solutions to which may be complicated, but are at least fairly clear. But startup founders work on big, holistic problems, the solutions to which are far from clear, and so their egos suffer miserably when their noble efforts fail, as they invariably do in some way. 

Fear 

Of course, we’re all afraid of failing. And with startups, failure is perhaps not the most expected result, however, it is definitely the most common. And as Frank Herbert famously wrote in Dune, “fear is the mind-killer.” Fear stops you from acting, even when action is necessary. The thinking goes, I suppose, If I don’t make a decision, I can’t fail. Or at least, if I fail because I don’t act, I will at least know why I failed.

Inaction in the face of fear is a way of staying in control. So it goes with many of our founders, especially in their first month or so. In the face of harsh feedback, or suggestions they don’t agree with, or weren’t expecting, they don’t refuse to listen. They simply refuse to act. They say: “yeah, I’ll think about it,” or they’ll make other excuses: “well I’ll work on that stuff when I’ve finished doing X, Y, and Z.” Of course, X, Y, and Z are never-ending jobs, like working on their backends, or their webpages, or refining their mobile apps, or introducing new features.

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Sometimes founders get stuck in a rut that seems incredibly productive, from their perspective. They’ll work on a new feature, and then realize that the backend needs to be reconfigured, only to discover that they need to develop something else from scratch to make that work, and pretty soon they’re rebuilding their whole product.

One team, until well into the second month of the program, couldn’t be convinced to start developing new features and testing new business models. They had gotten so used to focusing on their existing users, most of whom were not paying for the service, that their answer to anything new was to study their existing userbase.

A fear of losing something they’d gained, even if there wasn’t as much value in it as they had thought, was hard to overcome.

Similarly, another startup this year had great difficulty in deciding to rebrand. Despite a large number of downloads of their app, their paid userbase was small, and their traction was relatively poor.

Rebranding in this case was meant to improve user retention, because it appeared that users coming to the app were not really the right market for it. It got downloads, but it didn’t convert. The idea for this founder of giving up app-store positioning and rebranding away from a name that had so many downloads was very difficult. The fear of letting go of what he had in favor of what he might get was real. But in the end, he made the decision to rebrand.

automation

On another team, the founders repeatedly missed other deadlines during the first month of the program, because they were so focused on finishing and distributing a new release of their product. Meanwhile, we had to work to convince them that the feedback they were getting was as relevant to the new product as to the existing one. Their answer, every time someone brought up a problem with their model or their product, was that it would be fixed in the next release.

Engineers and developers build. That’s what engineers and developers are good at, so that’s what they want to do. And when it comes to user-testing, and talking to investors, the new features and the new plans are always on the horizon- something to be talked about, but not revealed. Constant work is a way of putting off criticisms, and putting off the fear of failure.

And one can always point to future plans and future features which will make the criticisms of today obsolete. We see founders duck these problems all the time, telling mentors that they’ll have everything solved when the new update comes out, or the new marketing manager gets hired. As any accelerator can tell you, this can become a bit like school- founders fall into the same patterns they’ve had since childhood, to avoid doing the things they don’t like doing, or are afraid to fail at.

The old saying “the better is the enemy of the good,” is something I find myself saying very often. Along with another stock phrase our startups become very tired of hearing: “If it’s stupid, and it works, it’s not stupid.”

Not accepting current and past failures just perpetuates them. and focusing on the future means you’ll constantly be catching up to yourself- constantly making teh same mistakes. You can’t learn from something you aren’t willing to face up to, and a big part of the learning curve at StartupYard is in gaining the willingness not to make excuses.

One of our founders came to me this week, having made a realization about his priorities in this regard, and said: “I feel like I have to learn to become a different kind of person now.” In a sense, he does. He has to hang onto the tenacious effort and skill that got him this far, but he also has to accept his limitations, and be ready to fail at new things.

Programmers are possessive of their work and of their ideas. Putting them out in the world, testing them, and seeing what people think about them, means giving up ownership, and giving up control. If I let someone see my work, I don’t own it anymore- I can’t control what they think about it. That can be a terrifying feeling.

Wisdom

So far, I suppose I’ve made the StartupYard experience sound pretty negative. Well there are tough moments for all of us. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

The only way to become wise, is to fail. To push past frustration and ego, you have to accept failures and learn from them, rather than dooming yourself to repeat them again and again. Often when I am recruiting applicants for StartupYard, I tell them this: “an accelerator speeds up failure, and gives you a place where failing is acceptable, and profitable.”

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So in that light, as our startups are just beginning to practice their pitches and prepare for their premieres at Demo Day, I like to see the final phase of StartupYard as the most constructive. Having exposed themselves to a great deal of criticism, advice, and probing explorations of their motivations and their abilities to deliver on their claims and their visions, the startup founders are now much wiser than when they started.

Questions and doubts don’t bother them. Criticisms are expected and welcomed. in two short months, they’ve found every way to fail, and are ready to succeed.

Joy

I used to teach high school English. I loved the work, but I mostly hated the job. Schools were underfunded, and overcrowded. Teachers got little respect, and even less pay. Much of the job is demoralizing, and the hours are long, and often boringly repetitive. You experience the same problems over and over, and have little power to effect change.

However, there were moments I had as a teacher which I will remember for the rest of my life. A student, some years after being in one of my classes, ran into me in the street, a fully grown adult, and stopped me to tell me that I had changed his life. That he had decided to study English, and he had gotten involved in local politics, and that my lessons had changed his worldview, and given him hope for his future. I was blown away. That’s something teachers live for, and rarely get.

Well, not exactly.

Well, not exactly.

With startups, it’s much the same. The hours are long, the pay is not good (or non-existent), and founders often have to question whether they’ve been wasting sometimes years of their lives. They’re sometimes seen by their friends and family as dreamers, or unrealistic. They’re constantly being doubted and tested by others. And then something can happen: the first paying customer, the first happy testimonial from a user, the first really killer pitch, and an investment offer. This happens every year with StartupYard, and it’s magic.

The joy of having created something, and having gotten that thrill of seeing it succeed in some way; change someone’s life or even just make their day better, is unparalleled. That’s not a feeling you’re likely to get in your typical day job, because there, our accomplishments are never really our own- we are just doing our part.

As a startup founder, you’re insisting that there’s a new way of doing things: a new model that works more. Seeing that validated, for real, is a unique experience, and one I love to witness.

 

 

Introducing the 2015 Startups: Shoptsie: E-Commerce and Marketing For the Rest of Us

Mathé Zsolt-László and Ordog Zoltan, Co-Founders of the online store creator Shoptsie, are two entrepreneurs that the StartupYard team truly admires. Coming from a Hungarian community in Romania, Zsolt and Zoltan rode a bus for 24 hours to make it to their first meetings with StartupYard mentors and stakeholders. Then, to our amazement, they got back on the bus and rode 24 hours home as well.

From our first meeting, we’ve noted their incredible dedication to the Shoptsie mission, and their ability, time and again, to deliver on the promises they make to us, and to themselves. We’ve been impressed, and we’re sure you will be too. I caught up with the duo to talk about Shoptsie, and their time so far at StartupYard.

Shoptsie currently has over 6000 products listed in over 1000 online shops, and that number is growing daily.

Shoptsie-logo

Hi guys! You’re unique among all StartupYard startups. You’re not our first team from Romania, but you are our first team of Hungarians. Tell us a bit about yourselves, and where you come from.

Zsolt: Originally I’m from the smallest city in Romania, in Transylvania, called Baile Tusnad and recently moved to Miercurea Ciuc. I crafted websites for more than 15 years and also I worked 8 years as a database engineer for the government. Now with the launch of Shoptsie this will change. As CEO I will concentrate on running the company, managing the day-to-day operations.

Zoltan: I was born in Miercurea Ciuc and I live there too. After I’ve finished the college I worked in a printing house, then I started to create websites as a webdesigner. After 10 years and numerous websites I joined to Zsolt to work on Shoptsie.

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Co-Founders of Shoptsie: Ordog Zoltan, and Mathé Zsolt-László

Tell us about Shoptsie. Who is it for, how does it work?

Zsolt: Shopstie is an intuitive online store creator for creative people who don’t know how to sell online. It’s very easy and simple. With Shoptsie anyone can create an ecommerce website that can be integrated into Facebook Pages and existing websites or blogs without any coding skills.

After a quick registration you can upload your categories and products, choose a beautifully designed template that can be customized to match with your brand look and feel.

Shoptsie also provides a set of marketing applications with which the store owners can reach more customers. We also created a knowledge base blog where the store owners can learn how to create an email campaign and how to advertise on social media.

shoptsie

Q: How is Shoptsie different from other store creators like Shopify, or marketplaces like Etsy?

Zsolt: Out motto is “We grow with you”.

Unlike any other pay-as-you-go services like Shopify, Shoptsie gives beginners a risk-free entry into online sales.

This means that you can list up to 20 products for free in your Shoptsie store, and sell them at no upfront cost. We don’t make money until you do.

Another differentiator is that we can teach you where and how to advertise to start making sales online. Marketplaces like Etsy are good solutions for selling, we don’t say that people should leave them, but there is a big chance that your product will be listed next to your competitors’ products.

Stores on marketplaces look the same, all you can do is maybe upload a banner. With Shoptsie you can have your own professional e-shop which you can personalize to match your personality, your brand’s look and feel.

Also, when you are advertising your marketplace store, you’re also advertising the marketplace at the same time. Why don’t you spend your money on advertising your own brand?

Q: How can your users advertise their goods, and where can they sell them? Do they need their own websites first?

Zoltan: They can use their social network, without having  their own websites. That’s a key area of growth for small scale businesses selling online. Shoptsie offers an app that helps these sellers find Facebook Groups with similar interests, and another app with which they can create a Contest to collect emails. Another – quite popular – app is the Facebook App that let our users embed their stores directly in their own Facebook page.

This is part of what makes our approach unique: we aim to provide all the tools a seller needs to market and sell their goods online, so Shoptsie is more than just a place where people can find your goods – it’s also a tool that gives you comprehensive and easy access to marketing tools, and shows you how to use them.

Have your users been able to make those tools work for them?

Yes, and I have a great recent example. A few weeks ago we noticed a spike in one store’s statistics. We saw a huge number of visitors from one day to another that we did not expect. It turned out that one of our store owners started a really successful contest on Facebook. He grew the number of visitors by 200% using our tools.

He’d decided to promote one of his products by making it free for a whole week. Then he held a raffle for anyone who shared the link and liked his Facebook store page. This simple trick was enough to drive and increase the traffic to his online store, and his sales increased as well.

Because he was offering a free product (charging only for shipping), he was able to make a lot of sales quickly.

People started to order this product, but some of them added another product (that wasn’t free) to the cart. So the next day there was a big list of orders waiting for delivery.

Now that he has contact information for his clients, he can create email campaigns about new products, promotions and other contests.

So, by giving away one product and sharing this on his Facebook page, in two weeks he managed to increase his sales by more than 80% and collected a big number of email addresses.

That approach is also showing results when it comes to our own growth. Because we focus on helping our sellers market their shops and goods, we’ve seen user-generated sales campaigns that have also increased awareness of Shoptsie. The more quality shops and sellers Shoptsie has, the more we are able to reach first-timers who have never really considered selling online before. When they see how easy it is for others to do it, and that our approach is risk-free, they’re much more likely to try it for themselves.

Screenshot 2015-05-05 16.51.04What types of sellers are you focusing on at first, and why?

Zsolt: We are focusing on handcrafters and fashion designers. At the first we wanted to give a solutions for everybody but we saw that most of our customers came from the crafting and fashion industries, so we are focusing on creating the perfect ecommerce solutions for them.

In the future, as we implement support for digital products, we want to reach creative artists, designers and creative writers as well.

Our near-term goal is to attract as many high-quality, active shop owners as we can. We grow with our user base, so their success is our success. We think this is a model in which everyone wins, from the consumer, to the seller, to crafters who have never tried ecommerce before.

Will you focus on specific geographic markets when you launch?

Zoltan: Yes. Because we speak the languages and we know the region, first we want to focus on the Hungarian and Romanian markets. As the number of our clients from UK and South  Africa is also increasing, we want to focus on those markets also.

Q: How has your vision for Shoptsie changed in the past few months? 

Zoltan: Two months ago we had a picture in our minds about how we wanted to develop Shoptsie further, so we thought. But at StartupYard, that picture was slowly replaced by a more concrete reality. The plans we make now feel much more real- much more solid. 

We are grateful that we can be here. This is a big opportunity for us to learn and to meet mentors who can answer our questions, and shorten the feedback cycle, so that we don’t repeat or fail to notice the mistakes we make. 

We were encouraged by mentors like Liva Judic and Wallace Green to continue what we started and keep our users’ needs in mind. 

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges you face in getting people to adopt your solutions?

Zsolt:  It’s an interesting question. We see fear of the unknown as our biggest challenge. People are afraid to start selling online. They are good at what they do, crafting or designing, and they think that creating an e-shop is rocket science.

Well it’s not. Shoptsie provides them with everything they will need to create, promote, and run their online store, easily and without any coding skills.

Shoptsie is now live. Create your own Store Here. 

Introducing the StartupYard 2015 Startups: Myia: Making Wifi Accessible Everywhere

The Myia team joined StartupYard with not much more than a great idea, and the will to make it happen. Since they’ve been at the accelerator, it’s been a pleasure to see that idea grow into something truly unique and interesting.

Originally designed as a hyper-local messaging app, Myia has evolved into a concept with truly global potential.

It will be a platform that brings Wi-Fi as a common utility to a completely new level. Users around the world, at conferences, hotels, or other public spaces like shopping centers, will be able to access locally relevant services, information and communication channels, seamlessly and instantly with Myia.

Myia will also help Wi-Fi providers offer new services to their customers and visitors. 

This is an idea who’s time has truly come, and Myia wants to be the company that finally delivers on the promise of easily accessible Wi-Fi, anywhere you go.

I’ll let Ondrej Cervinka, CEO of Myia, tell you more:

Myia-Cervinka

Ondrej Cervinka, Ceo of Myia

 

Hi Ondrej, First off, I’m sure people are curious about your company’s name. What’s the backstory there?

Oh, it’s a long story but I enjoy telling it. Originally, the name was Xin, which is a Chinese word with many different meanings depending on the pronunciation – sign, letter, heart, mind, feeling, soul, intelligence, new, fresh, true, real.

It was perfect name for the messenger functions we had at that time. We built Myia originally as a Wifi based local messaging app. However, we received some negative feedback from American users about the name- it was hard to say, and seemed too foreign for some. So we were looking for another name.

One day we were discussing the name with a great StartupYard mentor, Liva Judic, and we thought: “Wait a minute, Liva is actually a nice name”. Unfortunately, Liva has been registered as a trademark so we couldn’t use it.

But we already liked the idea of having a feminine name, so we ended up with Myia. I like the name very much. Myia was a Greek philosopher and one of the daughters of Pythagoras. I like math, numbers and philosophy. So it is kind of attractive to me. Actually, it is pronounced as “mee ya”.

Unlike most of the other startups in StartupYard 2015, Myia came into the program with something very different from the new core product. What motivated you to join the accelerator?

A: At the beginning of 2015 we had a mobile app in all 3 app stores. It was simply a messenger that allowed users to send messages to anybody connected to the same Wi-Fi.

It was actually an outcome of a Microsoft Windows Phone hackathon organized at the Prague Impact Hub, where our company, WujiGrid, has offices. We had promising user responses and a lot of ideas for other features to add and how to improve the technology.

At that time StartupYard had just opened applications for its 5th batch of startups. We immediately jumped on the opportunity. Our goal was to use the mentors provided by the StartupYard program.

We wanted to consult with them on our business ideas and build a viable business model for Myia. We were also prepared to hear that there was no real business in Myia, and that we should keep it just as a toy app and do something else.

So the reason to join the accelerator was to get help with the areas where we did not feel very strong – business modeling, sales, and marketing. After one month in StartupYard we can say it was definitely a good decision.

How has your vision for Myia evolved over the past few months?

Our first goal was to narrow the possibilities for Myia down to one or just a few. It’s funny, but each day with mentors brought new ideas, new areas where Myia can be useful and new use cases. So at the beginning, the options didn’t get narrower, but wider.

We evolved the vision of Myia into an app that has two faces: First, people who install the app on their smartphones and second, providers of Wi-Fi, the owners of the hotspots. These two groups depend on each other.

The Myia Platform

The Myia Platform

For consumers, Myia is an app that provides a valuable functions and features depending on the type of place – restaurant, bar, café, concert, hotel, shopping mall, conference, airport, etc. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous technology today.

With Myia, you can meet new people, find a pool player in a pub, learn what is hot and cool in this place, get discount coupon or a voucher, rate presenters, vote for the best gig on the stage, contact hotel front desk, you name it. It is useful, it is fun, and it is relevant to the place where you are now.

Myia is also for the businesses who offer free Wi-Fi for their customers and who are looking for ways how to provide more added-value to them. It provides them a unique communication channel to their customers.

They can learn opinions of their guests and collect feedback. They can announce new shops in a mall, happy hours in a bar, send special offers. It is easy to postpone start of the first presentation after lunch on a conference, collect questions and rate the presentation. We can build loyalty programs for different businesses.

What has been the biggest challenge in adjusting your early vision to incorporate so much feedback from the StartupYard mentors?

A: As I said, we got a lot of feedback, ideas, opinions and advice from the mentors. Quite often they were even contradictory, which is great because we got wholly different perspectives.

We see it from many different angles now. So many different ideas are of course difficult to sort out. We cannot do everything together but we do not want to spend next 6 month on something that just to find out it’s a dead end.

Certain use cases work well only after there is certain percentage of people who use Myia. Of course, they will use it only if it brings them some value. So there is a classic chicken-or-egg problem here. After somebody installs the app they want to find many places where they can use it. So you have to start with something where people go often.

At the same time, Myia must bring a compelling value proposition both to the owner as well as to the end user. And we try to make it as viral as possible.

We are still working on this – trying to come out with different value propositions for various areas, test them with businesses, evaluate, and find overlaps with other areas. I see it as an organism. If everything fits together it starts to grow.

Tell us a bit about your background, and that of your team.

A: I am a programmer by profession. I studied artificial intelligence at CTU and then worked on various AI projects in Rockwell research center here in Prague. Then I joined a Swiss software house named IPS in 2000.

I met my Myia cofounders Filip and Michael there. Actually, Michael was one of my computer science students when I did my PhD, and Filip was the first candidate that I interviewed in my life.

Myia Team

The Myia Team

 

At the end I was director of the IPS Prague branch and Filip was software architect in IPS. Then in 2010 we decided to found a startup called WujiGrid. It is a real-time collaboration app. It is kind of a shared desktop but it is in the cloud and it belongs to everyone in the collaboration group. And now we are with Myia.

So we have worked together for 15 years! All three of us are software engineers, so we might be weaker in sales and marketing. But very strong point is mutual trust. It is great if you know we can rely on each other in difficult times.

Q: Who will be your earliest clients? How will Myia make its first dollar on the market?

A: We’re working with businesses to pilot the service in different areas. StartupYard has helped us with their contacts and we are also doing very interesting things with Impact Hub Prague, which is our home turf.

We participate in Hub events and do networking games where Myia helps you to meet people that you are looking for. We really appreciate this cooperation.

Our plan is that the service will be free for the early adopters. This way we can spread the service as fast as possible because the more people use Myia the more useful it is for everyone. It will also help us to define exactly what value our users see in the service.

I think we will make the first dollar on some customization or implementation of specific functionalities for a large business. On top of that, we hope that the module for events will be the first paid service.

Q: Where do you see Myia as a business in 2-3 years? What do you see as some promising use cases and unexplored markets for the technology?

A: Ok, it’s going to be interesting to read this answer in 2-3 years from now, right? Long term, even with WujiGrid, we are interested in interaction between people, communication, collaboration, combining their skills and talents. We see Myia as a communication accelerator.

It puts together people who are at the same place at the same time. They meet with the help of Myia but then they interact in a real, natural way. Today everybody talks about social networks. Myia creates a network that is tightly linked to the real physical world.

Every day we meet a lot of people we do not know by name. Sometimes we meet them regularly, like on a bus when you go to work in the morning.

Imagine you lost your wallet in a foreign city where you are on a business trip. What do you do? Now Myia can tell you “Hey, there is a guy who takes the same bus as you every morning in your hotel, do you want to ping him?” He might help you, right?

Or your flight is delayed by 3 hours, you sit in the airport having nothing to do but wait and Myia beeps: “There is somebody waiting in the next gate who visited the same concert of Groove Planet you just attended last night.” Suddenly, you have a beer with them and enjoy the time.

Or business-wise, an airport shop can suggest there is new Groove Planet CD available. Ok, there will be no CD shops in 2-3 years, but this is the idea. From the technology point of view big data, machine learning, mathematical modelling, etc. this will be our way forward.

Q: This is a crowded market- some players in public Wi-Fi access include T-Mobile and Skype, as well as Google. What makes Myia special in your view?

This is difficult question. Myia relies on existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, so we see T-Mobile as a partner, the same is with Skype Wi-Fi. If a business place provides a Wi-Fi hotspot with any of the existing providers, Myia is able to bring some new monetization opportunities for the business owner.

Google relies on advertising, which is not what we plan to do. But I do not want to rule out your question based on just these examples. There may be some players in the market already, but this does not mean there is no space for more innovative players.

In fact, I think the fact that there remains no single preferred solution for wifi shows that the market is not fully mature yet- and there are a lot of opportunities to find new efficiencies.

The demand for public WiFi continues to grow, and as it does, the opportunities to add value in that market also multiply- we don’t see “competition” in that sense to be a bad thing at all. The more players in the market, the more customers will be aware of new possibilities, and have an opportunity to choose Myia for the value it adds.

 

 

Meet the 2015 Startups: Trendlucid: Mapping E-Commerce and Predicting the Future

The StartupYard team has liked Jaromir Dvoracek and Jan Mayer, co-founders of Trendlucid, since the day we all met. Infectiously energetic and passionate about their ideas, the Trendlucid team have also impressed our mentors with their vision for automating e-commerce business intelligence in the near future.

With their roots in data consultancy, Jan and Jaromir have branched out to develop their considerable combined experience by turning it into a tool for e-commerce, that they say will be able to predict the best sellers in any product category, up to two weeks before they reach number one.

I’ll let them tell you about all that, and more, below:

trendlucid

Most of our Startup co-founders are close, but you two often seem like twins. How did you start working together, and form Trendlucid? 

 

Trendlucid-Jaro

Jaromir Dvoracek: Co-Founder of TrendLucid

Jaromir:  We worked at the same company for a few years but actually never side by side every day. We’re trying it with the TrendLucid for the first time. And we’re twins definitely, but we’re quite different from each other, too.

TrendLucid lies on the top of our previous work of gathering and selling data for e-commerce price intelligence. It’s a logical next step in solving problems for e-shops. And Jan took this opportunity and crafted it into a side project, which became our main business opportunity.

TrendLucid: Honza

Jan “Honza” Mayer, Co-Founder and CEO at TrendLucid

Jan: I don’t agree! Twins often look and behave more similarly. Our strength is that we are completely different. I keep track of things and focus on value, Jaromir on the other hand adds sparkle to the ideas and creates the buzz.

In a few words, what is Trendlucid, and what does it do?

Jaromir: TrendLucid is a visual representation of the market giving you actionable insights about the product.

Suppose you’re a purchaser for an e-commerce site, and you need to know what to stock; what will be hot in the next few weeks. With Trendlucid, you can see a snapshot of all the products from a particular category (like smartwatches, or tvs, or washing machines), across the whole market at once. This includes pricing from other e-shops, and review information from as many sources as are available.

You’ll be able to quickly see how you can position yourself against competition in terms of price, but more importantly, which of the items on the market are actually reviewing really well, and being talked about most.

If there’s a winner with some room for a good profit margin, you can see that opportunity instantly. So if you’re using Trendlucid, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re offering the best prices, on the best products available.

What experience in data and e-commerce do you have that informs your work on Trendlucid?

Jan and Jaromir at a StartupYard workshop with our director Cedric Maloux

Jan and Jaromir at a StartupYard workshop with our director Cedric Maloux

Jaromir: We started 5 years ago as a consultancy for retailers of consumer electronics, as they need to know the prices of distributors. So we monitored the distributors for their prices and stock counts.

We continued as an e-shop scraping platform – clients sent us the products and we returned the list enriched with prices from competitors.

Today, we’re making that ability to view the market as a single map available as an on-demand tool, with even more market insights included in the graph that we are able to generate.

We’ve made the market something that retailers can explore, rather than something we have to investigate for them individually.

Jan: We had started with mining social media platforms, discussion and forum mentions from the whole Czech internet, and we’d sell that information to partners like Socialbakers.

One day a very “lucid” idea came to us – Why don’t we merge these two data sets to see not only what products people talk about, but what they eventually buy, and how that data correlates?

And the results were pretty interesting. We confirmed that the number of mentions and ratings strongly correlates with total sales of any given product. Moreover, we were able to use our market intelligence tools to determine that a lot of e-shops don’t have enough interesting products in their portfolios. Worse- they don’t know they have a problem!

What can you do that an e-shop or e-commerce company can’t do on its own?

Jan: We actually solve one of the biggest problems for e-shops: having the right products at the right time. If you stock a product that people won’t buy at the price point you anticipate, it’ll cost you a fortune to move the products- you’ll have to cut prices to move the stock, and that eats into your margins. On the other hand, if you can stock products that aren’t popular yet, but will be popular in a few weeks, you’ll be ahead of your competitors. You won’t have to cut your prices to get rid of stock no one wants to buy.

Jaromir: Every successful e-commerce works intensively with data nowadays. TrendLucid enriches and validates internal data from e-shops so purchasing managers and marketers can see if they’re behind the market. Every e-shop has internal data about sales. But they don’t have comprehensive overviews of market data. And that’s what we are fixing. Our vision of TrendLucid is to fully understand what people want to buy and automate purchasing management based on this information.

TrendlucidScreen1

Trendlucid provides a market overview for specific product categories, showing the popularity and prices of products on each market. Users can zoom in to examine specific products and see a market overview for each one.

 

Through the mentoring process, you got a lot of conflicting advice- lots of big ideas. How did you get to your current vision?

Jaromir: Surprisingly we’ve received only two big contradicting pieces of advices so far. And it was “go big very quickly with a huge investment” vs. “your conservative approach to grow the business makes sense”. Our vision has been refined after hundreds of questions from our mentors at StartupYard. But business strategy was a much more oft-discussed topic.

Jan: We started with very simple idea: “Let’s show to e-shops what products they miss”. But they were so excited they wanted to know more. While we could show them very detailed and clear overviews of the current market, what they really wanted to see was the future- what will sell best 2 weeks from now? That’s a harder questions. We knew that the future of a product and the phase of it’s lifecycle can also be revealed in data, but the mentoring process really helped us to see that those insights were where the real value was for us, as a business.

We thought initially that the most important users of our engine would be purchasing managers for eshops. But one of our mentors, Wallace Green, who has a lot of experience with marketing, showed us the necessity of data to e-commerce marketing. He introduced us to the concept of the “smart marketer” who makes his decisions based on data, not on instinct.

This helped us to see that TrendLucid could also have a future as an insight tool for marketers, as well. As marketing becomes more data focused, there is an ever-increasing need for more granular and precise data on what people are talking about, and how that correlates with their buying decisions.

What will be your initial approach to the market? How will you make your first dollar? Where will you launch the service first?

Screen2-Trendlucid

Trendlucid also provides in-depth pricing data on specific products across a whole market.

 

Jaromir: We’ve already made our first dollar! We’ve been selling e-commerce data for 5 years now. So in a sense, TrendLucid is simply evolving into something more visible on the market- less a consultancy, and more a product for marketers and e-shop owners. We’ve taken our internal tools for visualizing the market, and made that available to more potential clients to try for themselves.

Jan: As part of making TrendLucid more of a “product,” than just a data consultancy, we contacted czech e-shops and offered to them trials of TrendLucid’s new market mapping software for a month in exchange for their valuable feedback. It’s working nicely so far. We want to follow Dan Hastík’s strategy, which he used with Futurelytics – integration with big e-commerce platforms (like Shopify).

Variations in price can be quite wide on higher margin items.

Variations in price can be quite wide on higher margin items.

We also found out that TrendLucid has many valuable metrics for manufacturers. They can measure brand awareness in many ways already. But they’ve not yet been able to measure product awareness for all their products on each market. That’s a game changer. With TrendLucid, they finally can.

Electronics, particularly online, are a generally low-margin business. What makes electronics e-commerce interesting for Trendlucid?

Jan: Social media has become important to understanding how consumers behave, and important in selling to them. And personal electronics have enabled and accelerated this trend as well. Electronics have become an element of personal fashion.

People want to buy a new smartphone every few months now – like new socks. We’ll see that even more with the rise of wearables in the near future. So consequently people talk a lot about electronics on social media and elsewhere. And that makes our insights into the market even more granular and valuable.

Whereas 30 years ago, consumer electronics was divided into just a few categories: personal, appliance, entertainment, they now represent a huge diversity of categories, with more choice than ever before. So purchasing decisions for e-shops become increasingly more difficult, even as margins are dropping.

This market segment has low margins and the fights for market share are pretty bloody. But at the same time, many e-shops miss out on big winners all the time. That’s actually why e-shops need TrendLucid to get ahead.

Jaromir: It’s hard to monitor this market manually. You can’t store all the information you need about phones, tablets and notebooks in your head, much less predict what features and individual products will be most popular. You can watch manually what is popular on the market and what you should try to sell. But no one person can have a complete handle on this market anymore.

It might be easy to pick the next big winner, if you’re comparing two or three competing products. But try it with thousands of washing machines, microwaves and televisions which are not so interesting for most purchasing officers. Try it with the ever-expanding list of wearables that are entering the market- all targeting a different market segment.

The problem with electronics is that the products change so fast. You can predict which type of socks will be popular for a sustained period, because our needs don’t change that fast. But electronics don’t follow these old patterns anymore. Now our needs change too fast for any individual to keep up.

That’s what our first client in Czech Republic found out: we  automatically identified the next best selling washing machine 14 days before it happened. Most of the e-shops stock best sellers 6 weeks after they’re already popular. That’s 8 weeks of margins they’re missing because they aren’t using TrendLucid.

What do you see the Trendlucid platform being capable of in a few years? Who will be your customers at that point?

Jaromir: We’ll be able to see trends worldwide. What’s popular on the American market today will be popular in central Europe 4 years later. What’s popular in Germany today will be popular in Slovakia 2 years later. What’s popular in South Korea now will be popular in the US a few months later. With TrendLucid you’ll be able to look back in time to see what you can sell successfully next month. You can prepare for changing market trends based on statistics. You’ll never miss the train again. This kind of information would be critical for big e-commerces, brands even for big retail players. We haven’t gotten to the level of understanding and complexity we need to be able to make those types of global, multi-year projections with real accuracy and speed. Nobody is really there yet, even if they claim to be. But that’s where we want to be.

Jan: Yep, that’s our first target. The second target is brands. We can tell LG, or Samsung, or any big brand with lots of products, which of their products people are talking about, in which countries- and what they’re saying. They’re working on “brand awareness” now. We can give them “product awareness”, which is one level more precise.

Right now we’re like Klout for products on the Czech Market. We’d like to apply that capability globally in the future.

Meet the 2015 Startups: Ales Teska, CEO of TeskaLabs, Enterprise Security Masterminds

This interview is part of a series, Introducing the 2015 StartupYard Teams. We’ll be posting detailed interviews with the founders of each of our 7 teams, in advance of StartupYard Demo Day, May 28th, 2015 in Prague. 

Over the past 5 weeks, as the StartupYard team and mentors have gotten to know Ales Teska, founder of TeskaLabs, we’ve liked him more and more.

Careful in his speech, and precise in action, he is creative, with a contained energy. He often displays a rigor and discipline to his thinking that can be unusual among startup founders, few of whom can match his 17 years of industry experience. Perhaps his calm temper is best suited to his chosen profession, which is perfecting plug-and-play enterprise security solutions.

Ales Teska (right) working with a team member

Ales Teska (right) working with a team member

TeskaLabs, named for the founder, who has extensive corporate experience as a project manager, began life as the sum of many years of experience and frustration dealing with corporate security demands. Teska’s industry experience is exemplified by TeskaLabs’ early customers, including British Gas, NetworkRail, and DHL Supply Chain.

 

Now Teska is bringing his experience to the market as a one-stop solution, providing enterprise grade security solutions for industrial and consumer mobile applications.

Teskalabs offers a plug-and-play information security platform for any connected device via software, hardware and/or SaaS products. TeskaLabs’ solutions reduce deployment time forrobust enterprise network and mobile security from months, to only minutes.

gvowapAlI sat down with Ales this week to get more of the TeskaLabs backstory. Here’s what he had to say.

Hi Ales, why don’t you tell us a bit about the TeskaLabs team, and your journey to StartupYard.

TeskaLabs has been my dream from my early 20’s. I launched my first business when I was only 18 years old. It was an Internet cafe in my hometown Jablonec nad Nisou which quickly pivoted to a software business catering to smaller local enterprises.

Since that time, I’ve tried a lot of different jobs. I led a team that created software and hardware for a multimedia delivery system and spent some interesting time in Taipei.  In the last ten years, I’ve worked at the world’s largest logistics corporation, DHL, as a software development manager.  

My teams worked on various enterprise applications including mobile apps. I’m a very creative and productive person. While doing corporate work, I also did a series of side projects and launched several successful products. For example, I created a distributed measurement system for mobile operators, for monitoring the quality of their services. I also did an online project management tool. There is a couple of open-source projects I initiated out there too.

During this journey, I met a few great people who decided to join me and motivated me to come up with more innovative ideas, which, by the way, is incredibly difficult in a corporate environment. TeskaLabs evolved around these people and ideas. This is a materialization of my vision of how truly innovative things can happen through a great team in the modern day.

We were seeking experienced advisors and mentors who could move us to the next level, and we found them at StartupYard.

How has that original vision for the company changed during the first month at StartupYard?

TeskaLabs as a company has quickly become much more mature. The key element of our vision remained unchanged and reinforced during these few weeks. We are now on the verge of a new working era.

Enterprises are starting to shift from desktop computers and notebooks to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets in the same way we moved from typewriters to computers in the past.

Unfortunately common understanding of connected security risks within today management in the enterprise is not appropriate, and black-hat hackers frequently take advantage of that. We save such enterprises from these painful lessons. We’ve learned that this is very real and present situation.

During the initial mentoring sessions, our mentors Wallace Green from Cap Gemini and Lenka Cerna, CEO of Annonce.cz highlighted that we should show what we are protecting the business against.  We also need to provide a visibility to this electronic frontier. This advice was very eye-opening.  We at TeskaLabs live in the world where cyber threats are  present and real. Now we understand that we need to bring this information to enterprise executives to help them assess these risks and effectively mitigate them.

What about TeskaLabs makes you a startup, rather than an ordinary security consultancy?

The core of TeskaLabs is research. I believe that only deep insight and cutting-edge technology can provide solid and active protection. For us, it is extremely important to deliver an excellent experience not only for the end user of the mobile application but also for developers of those apps.

Now, you probably ask yourself how mobile application security can impact user experience.  Usually, these two don’t go hand-in-hand. The user experience is sacrificed due to many long password fields and lock screens. Even worse, security is sacrificed by the act of doing nothing. Our goal is to deliver both: excellent streamlined user experience and uncompromised mobile application security, very  important for industrial applications.

Can you imagine, for example, field engineers or fork-lift drivers who type 10 or more character long passwords, case-sensitive, at least one number, one symbol, etc. every time they want to use their mobile device? These are difficult but important challenges that we solve.

How can you save your customers time, money, and liability with TeskaLabs products? Why do people need your solution?

The costs of information security incidents such as data leakage or disruptions of operations in the enterprise sphere are enormous. Just look at recent Sony Pictures Entertainment incident. A conservative cost estimate of this hack starts at 15 million dollars.

That could be low compared to the chilling effect it can have on the movie industry- fear of hackers will affect productivity in many industries in the future.

True. Imagine needing a two step verification every time you checked your email! This would seriously impact productivity, especially on mobile platforms.

Many companies recognize the importance of mobile devices for business use.  The users can access business resources from various mobile devices at their convenience to improve productivity, and companies can enable access to business resources through native mobile apps to improve user experience.

However, introducing mobile devices in the enterprise presents additional security challenges. These days, large and complex organizations approach small app development agencies.

Due to different understandings of priorities, security aspects of such deliveries tend to fade away. And, generally speaking, enterprise mobile apps are not secured well enough.

We fill this gap with TeskaLabs, so that agencies can build very secure apps, meeting the tough security expectations of enterprises. Even more importantly, we save these enterprises from extensive and painful experience of being hacked.

The TeskaLabs team

The TeskaLabs team

 

Many big companies already have in-house security teams. Why is TeskaLabs a viable alternative, either in terms of cost or quality?

To be responsible for information security within a big enterprise is a tedious and demanding job. You need tools that are flexible, stable and scalable. Something that will frictionlessly integrate with existing corporate infrastructure, adapt easily to all current and future requirements and run without the need of too much supervision, however, raise a clear red flag when anything goes wrong.

During my corporate career, a security team was my  important partner because I deeply believe that application security is a crucial component when you build enterprise applications. And this is especially true for Internet-facing apps such as mobile or web ones.

Therefore,  I can say that I’m very familiar with expectations of people responsible for enterprise application security, and TeskaLabs went the extra mile to bring products that reflect on this experience.

Our products are their tools, and we are keen on giving them the best possible experience they ever get when it comes to mobile application security.

How does Seacat and other TeskaLabs projects fit in with the competition? Do you compete directly with AVG, or Avast?

Our belief is that the best strategy is to build security directly into a mobile application. This is how you get the best possible result in the most efficient way.

Our unique ability is to provide this in a very easy-to-use package to a large crowd of mobile app developers, and through them to even larger crowds of users within enterprises.

Traditional security solutions complement rather than compete, because they address different layers of security e.g. operating system or data.

The most vulnerable point of an enterprise mobile app is not on the mobile device but the backend system. This is where the majority of cyber attacks happen. The design of our solution respects this fact, and so we provide very strong protection here.

This is a completely different approach from AVG, Avast and others. But indeed, it is a great idea to have antivirus installed and activated on your mobile devices.

You’ve been asked by a few mentors why you felt the need to join an accelerator. What do you feel you’re gaining from taking part in StartupYard?

StartupYard is a once-in-the-lifetime kind of experience. When you sit in a corporate job and read about these accelerators and the stories of companies that go through them, it is a very surreal experience.

The pace and the scale of possibilities are simply incomparable. A right accelerator can be a slingshot for your vision and business. It not only shows you what possible but challenges you to reach even further.

We’ve met so many great people in StartupYard e.g. Michal Pechoucek from Cognitive Security, Adam Zbiejczuk from ROI Hunter, Michal Illich, Ondrej Krajicek from YSoft.  It pains me not to list all of them. Thank you all!

This is a reinforcing experience.  You repetitively meet people who share your vision and understand your passion,  gradually transforms your dream into a clearer and more visible path.  StartupYard is making sure we are set to go.

StartupYard Mentor Wallace Green On Mentorship, Karma, and Customer Focus

I caught up with Wallace Green this week to discuss his experiences in Startups, his take on mentorship, and, as it turns out, his feelings about Karma and human relationships. Wallace is a popular mentor at StartupYard, and a longtime (15 year) American Expat with an infectious energy.

When Wallace and I met this week at Node5 for this interview, the first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a bright pink shirt and colorful Botas 66 sneakers – apparently his trademark look.

Clearly he doesn’t fit my stereotype of a strategy consultant. Wallace and I met a few months ago at the StartupYard mentor symposium, but we hadn’t had a chance to talk, so I was eager to meet the mentor so many of our teams had been praising for his insights.

Hi Wallace, tell us a bit about yourself and your career, and how you ended up at Capgemini in Prague.

During the peak of the dot-com bubble I joined 12snap [pronounced: one-two-snap], a Nokia Venture startup. We had a vision to create an amazing tech-culture for our Prague-based development team. I was dispatched to Silicon Valley to investigate best practices for attracting and retaining technical talent and for building a great startup culture.

Although we had good success recruiting technical talent, and building a great startup culture, like many startups of that period, 12snap didn’t survive the crash. But overall it was a great introduction to the world of startups.

Later I joined Oskar Mobile [now Vodafone CZ] where for several years I advised the Management Team on brand positioning, customer experience and other big topics of the day like 3G, MVNO’s and potential acquisitions.  

And for the past seven years my specialty with Capgemini Consulting has been advising European telcos on customer experience transformation and in some cases preparing and executing full commercial turn-around strategies.

One great thing about working with Capgemini is that we do more than just strategy – oftentimes we get to stick around and support execution and go-to-market. It’s tremendously rewarding to launch something in the market, steer it to success and see the realization of business benefits.

So Capgemini has been a great channel to exercise my professional passions for branding, positioning, culture building and customer experience. I guess I’m a challenger at heart so I am particularly fond of working with clients who seek to make big changes or do things differently. I suppose my main contribution to teams at StartupYard would be my consulting experience and challenger spirit.

As a management consultant, what do you seek to gain from mentoring at StartupYard?

[Laughs] Well, that’s a very good question and I would say there are three primary reasons why I approached Cedric [Cedric Maloux, Managing Director at StartupYard Accelerator] at last year’s Demo Day to mentor in the next cycle of the [StartupYard] program.

The first reason may come across as sounding inauthentic – I hope it doesn’t, because I truly feel this way – but mentorship is an opportunity to help someone in need. Call it karma, if you like. 

Why Karma?

Life has been very kind to me and I’m grateful to be where I am, living happily and contentedly here in the beautiful city of Prague. And my professional life has been an amazing journey working in some of the coolest cities in Europe and Asia, advising at an executive level with some of the biggest, most successful companies on the planet.

And at my age – I’m over forty, by the way – it’s a matter of twenty-plus years of experience: you just know things; you’re able to recognize trends and patterns; you’re a good judge of character, and you can spot talent and mobilize diverse groups of people to accomplish big things. Plus, you know how to get things done.

When I meet a budding entrepreneur in a mentoring session it feels good to share some of the learnings and wisdom that I have gained over the years.

After meeting with a startup team for the first time, I usually end by saying something like ‘I hope this was helpful’ and now and then I will get a response like ‘This was more than helpful, you may have even changed my life.’

It’s important to remember that these entrepreneurs put aside the comfort and security of regular employment – by the way, let’s not forget that most people choose the low risk path in life – they may even have families to support, and yet they have the courage to try and make it on their own. Needless to say I have tremendous respect for these individuals.

I guess you could say there is also some degree of self gratification when someone appreciates what you have to offer. It feels good to be needed, to feel appreciated and useful. I believe in karma. Good things happen when we give to others, show kindness and empathy.

And let’s be honest, the game of tech startups and venture capital funding is about risk vs. opportunity, it’s about exits with x-times return on invested capital. So the early startup phase of mentoring is pleasantly intimate, it’s an essential human-to-human activity that requires mutual trust and respect between mentor and mentee. And when the chemistry clicks – it’s magical.

Which brings me to the second reason why I choose to mentor – it’s a huge energy boost [smiling]. After the first day of mentoring I mentioned to Cedric that meeting the startups ‘totally charged my batteries’. It re-filled me with that tingling excitement one feels when starting out on a journey into the unknown. It’s been inspiring to meet the current class of startups, and a mega-dose of inspiration every now and then is a good thing.

And the last reason to do mentoring is to keep close to the investment community in case there’s an opportunity to put a skin in the game as an investor or to take on a more active role.

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What are some pieces of advice you find yourself giving startup entrepreneurs over and over again?

Great question. Three themes come to mind from mentoring sessions with this year’s group at StartupYard: customer, customer and customer. I know it sounds like the old real estate cliché. But let me explain.

First, who is your target customer and what specific pain point or unmet (or unrealized) need does your product or solution address? It’s an essential question which needs to be clearly and explicitly articulated; otherwise you may end up building your business on a shaky foundation.

In reality, sometimes you have to start with a solution and work your way back to a customer and need. I’m reminded of discussions with the team from Trendlucid– they have a terrific data-driven market analysis tool to improve eShop product positioning and pricing, and to also take advantage of social sentiment. We had to do a bit of reverse engineering to clarify the customer need, but I think they are on top of things now.

Secondly, what is the vision or unique point of view that you share with your target customer or segment? With my consulting clients I oftentimes refer to this as ‘the why’. For example, is there a fundamental flaw in the existing business landscape that you feel needs to be changed?

Some refer to it as a positioning statement but I personally believe it goes deeper than just positioning, it’s more emotional. Answering this question helps a company probe deep into the purpose behind their brand. Successful companies have a brand that strongly aligns with the political, social or human values of their target segment.

For example I recall conversations with the team from Shoptsie where we defined the positioning statement ‘Make a living doing what you love.’ We felt this was a powerful way to express the brand belief that everyone who has a hobby should have an opportunity to monetize their offer even if only for modest financial gain.

The third key theme was once again about the customer: what’s the desired customer experience you want to deliver? In my view, this seemed to be the most under-addressed aspect of startups in this year’s class.

Let’s be honest, most companies in the marketplace today didn’t build their business around a desired experience. Starbucks is the classic example – where Howard Schultz first designed the experience, then built a coffee empire around what was then a largely commoditized product.

I recall conversations with the team from Testomato. They have an automated website testing solution where users get alerts when there are  website errors.  For the user it’s a case of  ‘So, I have a problem. What shall I do next?’

[Wallace starts looking around for a whiteboard and markers, needing to draw images to help tell the story]

This was a case where the team needed to think through the entire end-to-end experience so the user not only gets information but is offered simple and easy options to either solve the problem alone or to have it solved by someone else. It’s clear that customers need a lot more help than they are currently getting and this is the opportunity space for a startup to carve to out a value-adding niche and build a successful business.

You can reach out to Wallace Via LinkedIn

Open-Sourcing StartupYard

Last Thursday during our Open-House event, the first StartupYard event of the new season, I announced my intention to “Open-Source StartupYard”. Today I would like to come back to this and share with you more about the logic behind this new initiative.

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Cedric announces the “Open Sourcing” of StartupYard, to include free, publicly available resources, events, and mentorship for local startups.

 

Schroedinger’s Startup

StartupYard is a great resource for the founders who are selected to join the program. They come in and during these 3 full-time months they will learn a lot. I had the pleasure and pride to see the progress of each team and there is nothing more rewarding for me to see them thrive and impress their customers, partners or potential investors.

Still, StartupYard is like a black box. A proprietary solution accessible only to a lucky few. Unless you are accepted to the program, you don’t really know what’s going on inside (even though we do share a lot of this information on our blog). But most importantly, only accepted teams really benefit, hands on, from what we do.

 

Our Mission Goes Beyond our Own Teams

If our mission is to make our region, and our city a place where risks are worth taking, and innovation is not only possible, but required, then we have a responsibility to more than just our own teams.

I want to change this. I strongly believe that if we can help the community at large, it can only benefit the economy and the lives of more people. If our mission is to make our region, and our city a place where risks are worth taking, and innovation is not only possible, but required, then we have a responsibility to more than just our own teams. Being an entrepreneur is one of the most difficult and stressful jobs out there, and you will need all the help you can in order to succeed. It’s not because you have the ability to automate a workflow or a service that people will rush to it to use it, or investors will throw money at you like it’s 1999. You will have to learn how to present it, how to manage it, how to plan it etc. And if you can do that, your ideas can really change the world. Without that, even the best ideas will never get anywhere.

For this reason, I have decided to make some of the knowledge we share and impart during the program available to a larger audience. I used the analogy of the open-source movement because, first I’m a strong believer in this model, having relied on and contributed myself to the open-source movement, and second because this is something StartupYard will do absolutely free of charge. Free as in Free Beer!

 

How Will This Work?

We are going to select a few specific domains in which we think first-time entrepreneurs could benefit from more knowledge and experience. Pitching, for example. Once you have an idea, the first thing you are most likely to have to do is to convince people it’s a good idea, i.e. you’re going to have to pitch. Pitching is not easy, and StartupYard Community Manager Lloyd Waldo and I have already written extensively on this topic, on this very blog.

Last week, during the Open-House event, the audience sat through 8 ninety-seconds pitches, and it was clear that the majority of the presenters could do with more training on how to grab the attention of a live audience and deliver a compelling story. It’s not that hard, and there are a lot of resources out there, but nothing can beat a one-to-one coaching session. Unfortunately, those are not that easily available locally. This is typically the kind of topic we work hard on during the StartupYard program, putting teams through extensive feedback from mentors and the StartupYard team, and this is the kind of resource we are going to make available.

In no particular order, we will run free workshops for tech entrepreneurs on:

  • How to pitch efficiently
  • How to write a Press Release
  • How to use best practices in copywriting
  • How to make user projections
  • How to plan a launch
  • How to make financial projections

 

The final list is not finalised yet but the goal is clear: the more founders we can train on these topics, the more likely they will be to succeed. For me, this is a strong motivator and goal, and we plan to help as many entrepreneurs as possible outside of our regular acceleration program. These sessions will be one-to-one, personalised and free. That being said, our time remains a limited resource, and you will still have to apply for available spaces, but we will do our best to accommodate as many of those interested as we possibly can.

The sessions will start in January. We will post the registration form and the program then. Stay tuned, and I look forward to helping as many entrepreneurs as possible to grow their skills, and discover the ones they didn’t know they had.

 

 

The StartupYard 2014 Open House at Node5 A Success

The StartupYard 2014 Open House was a big success. In front of a packed house of over 100 guests, startups, mentors, and investors, Chairmain of Microsoft Europe Jan Muehlfeit and StartupYard Managing Director Cedric Maloux held forth, while our panel of StartupYard mentors reviewed 8 pitches from local startups.

Wayra gave us a little love as well:

 

 

Jan Muehlfeit

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Muehlfeit, who is stepping down from his role as European Chairman at Microsoft to take a more active public role in “unlocking human potential,” spoke for about 40 minutes. Topics ranged from education, to issues of labor and creativity in the digital economy. He shared a few anecdotes about his friend and colleague Bill Gates, and about his career with Microsoft, which is ending this year.  Muehlfeit plans to work as a “mentor, coach, and trainer,” as he puts it, for entrepreneurs and technologists around the world, to unlock human potential. He will start as a senior strategic advisor for  the private equity fund Atlantic Bridge, and will lend some of his time in the coming year to advising StartupYard’s incoming teams.

Muehlfeit covered a broad range of topics during his address. We live tweeted his talk, and here are a few of our takeaways:

 

 

 The Pitch-Off

We were pleasantly surprised at the number of applications we received for the pitch-off, in which 8 entrepreneurs pitched theirs startup ideas to Muehlfeit, and our other mentors in attendance: Ondrej Bartos, of Credo Ventures, and Petr Ocasek, a StartupYard co-founder and CEO of AngelCam. Over the coming week, we will write a bit more about how the pitching went, and about the process we used to select the pitches that appeared at the pitch-off. Here is a quick overview of the pitches, along with their self-descriptions:

Factorify

Factorify is an SaaS for manufactures and small and medium-sized factories which want to be more effective and be able to plan, calculate and track everything. We want to bring inovation and flexibility to production.
 

hotcar.io

The HotCar.io application reveals the history of used car advertisements, puts the data insight into used car market and shows often car defects so the customers can negotiate the best price and minimize risks for the used car they are eager to buy.
We also provide market benchmarks, analytics and demand/offer program for used car sellers.
Moreover, we would like to do a Full Customer Service – we search, inspect and ask for a discount on a car/car type specified by a customer.
 

shards.io

Shards.io is aiming to provide a real-time BI over large amount of structured and semi-structured data. Our stack of technologies includes a distributed storage able to run on commodity hardware or cloud infrastructure and web-based UI for data analysts.
 

Portadi

Portadi helps workplace teams manage access to cloud apps with minimal effort. Portadi increases compliance and visibility into access rights to cloud apps and minimizes the security risks of distributing sensitive passwords to users.Each team member gets a custom dashboard with their team or company cloud apps or websites. Users don’t see app passwords, they simply sign in with a single click and land right in the web application.Portadi gives team managers and business owners the definitive answer to who can access which cloud app or website and provides a centralized audit trail. Portadi exposes how each apps is utilized allowing team managers to optimize paid subscriptions and better assess ROI of app purchases.
 

f8

F8 provides a two-way sync between the world of documents (meeting minutes, brainstormings, project documents, business analysis documents, theses, etc.) with the world of personal task management.It significantly reduces the time overhead keeping those two worlds in sync (e.g. distribution and tracking of meeting minutes actions, agenda preparations, etc.).Its target audience are project managers, analysts, writers, students and possibly more.
 

Datlowe

We are trying to provide a top class text processing tool which enables users to get information out of texts, search the texts better, and classify them. DATLOWE digs really deep into the language providing us with the structure of sentences. It means we understand the text well. We know what words are subjects, predicates, objects, etc. and how they depend on each another. Combining these information with smart dictionaries allows us to extract more information with higher precision than most of the competing methods.
 

SentiSquare

A StartupYard alum, SentiSquare discovers the most important topics in social media content and automatically produces summaries of the topic-related comments. It’s a “sentiment analytics” engine that will revolutionize the way global brands engage with their customers online and offline.

 

Educasoft

Education and content platform, Educasoft, maker of MyPrepApp and Hrave.cz another StartupYard Alum, took this pitching opportunity to announce that they have closed a funding round, and are focusing on the Czech market, soon to be followed by other Central European markets. 
 

StartupYard Announces Strategic Parternship with Mazars

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Finally, StartupYard is pleased to announce a strategic partnership with Mazars, the global accounting and consulting group with offices in over 50 countries. Founded and headquartered in France, Mazars is the 11th largest single accounting firm in the world. Their consultants will meet individually with StartupYard startups to ensure that they are taking all the appropriate legal and accounting steps as new companies.

Maloux noted of the new partnership: “even though they don’t cover the preferred topics of novice founders, tax, accounting, and legal advice are extremely important and need to be done well. I’m very happy that the experts from Mazars will help our teams to establish solid foundations, and make the best possible financial decisions early on, setting them up for success after leaving the accelerator.”

The partnership will extend for a minimum of two years, with Mazars consultants in close communication with all StartupYard teams.