StartupYard Mentor Philip Staehelin: “Rapid Change Creates Opportunity.”

Philip Staehelin is one of StartupYard’s most popular mentors, and a very long-time Prague based expat, with experience in a diverse range of businesses. We caught up with him recently to get his take on mentoring with StartupYard, in advance of our Accelerator Open House, taking place on Thursday, Dec. 4.

Philip, you’ve got an amazingly varied background and career. Swiss-American, born in New Zealand, educated in France and the US, and based now in Prague, you’ve been at A.T. Kearney, T-Mobile and UniCredit, and you’ve invested in startups and real estate. What inspires you to stay in The Czech Republic?

I’ve been based in Prague for the past 20 years. My wife likes to think I stayed because of her (she’s Czech), and while I don’t reject that view (openly), the more well-rounded answer is that the Czech Republic is a dynamic place with a very high standard of living. Obviously, things have changed tremendously since 1994 when I arrived, but that’s been part of the fun. Rapid change creates opportunity – and with a strong drive and lots of hard work (and throw in a dash or two of creativity) – I was able to capitalize on the opportunities that came my way. It’s been a fantastic 20 years.
Tell us a bit about your entrepreneurial ventures. What have been your biggest successes and failures in that arena?

A: I founded my first startup while I was studying at INSEAD in 1999. Four fellow MBAs joined my team, as well as the CEO of the investment bank where I used to work. I thought we had a killer team with the perfect concept. We raised some angel financing so we could launch the mixed offline/online, PC-based, ad-serving product… when the internet bubble burst. The business model became rather toxic from one day to the next, making further progress nearly impossible. I shut it down, returned 70% of the money to the investors, and eventually sold the IP a few year later – more for closure than for money. The bubble bursting certainly wasn’t the only reason we failed, but it’s a nice excuse. I learned a lot of valuable lessons in that first venture, even if it didn’t make it too far.

In terms of biggest successes – I would briefly mention two. #1: I bought a house in 2000. After fixing it up and living there for a few years, I ended up tearing it down and built 4 terrace apartments on the lot. The house won the Gran Prix of Architecture award for 2008, and the project ROI was fantastic. #2: A more traditional startup entrepreneurial success is Video Recruit (www.video-recruit.com). I founded the company with a partner nearly 4 years ago after coming up with an idea on how to revolutionize the recruiting space. The real coup was finding the right partner (now the CEO), and together we put together a solid core team, raised the early stage financing and developed a solid rollout and expansion strategy. The company has gradually built a global presence, and in November 2014, the company secured EUR 1.5m in new financing to help scale up globally. It’s a work-in-progress, but it’s an amazing company with huge upside potential. I believe it can become one of the true Czech startup success stories.

What do you get out of mentoring at StartupYard?

A: Mentoring at StartupYard is really fun for me. I love interacting with the teams, hearing the ideas, critiquing the strategies and business cases, and feeling the energy of people with creativity and passion. I also like to see how the teams engage with my ideas and challenges. And finally, in the cases where all the stars align, I invest in a team – the most recent being Gjirafa, the Albanian search engine.

What value do you feel your mentoring provided to the teams you’ve worked with?

I’ve worked in many different industries in many different roles, so I can bring a big picture perspective when necessary or dive deep and challenge the business model, business cases, or commercialization strategies. Some teams need guidance in defining a real sales channel strategy, whereas others need help with building a solid business case that will speak to investors. In some cases, I’ve pushed teams to completely rethink their value proposition – using what they’ve created but coming at it from an entirely new direction. I make what I hope are helpful suggestions, supported by logic, experience and intuition… and of course, teams are welcome to challenge me back or ignore the advice altogether. At the very least, I hope to prepare them for the hard questions potential investors will ask in the future. Overall – I must say I’ve had a warm reception from every team, every time.

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What skills or tools do you feel the teams you’ve mentored have lacked most? What do they need to learn?

To generalize, most teams are very small and by definition they lack some skills or tools as they get started. But if we go beyond this obvious statement, I think that teams don’t necessarily lack skills or tools per se, but rather they simply lack business experience.

For instance, I’ve seen a lot of teams that lack a clear sales strategy or lack an understanding of how difficult and expensive the sales process will be – especially in B2B concepts that are too complex for online sales or telesales. The ideas can be great, the management team can be strong, the technology solid… but some concepts will require a door-to-door sales force, with long sales cycles, and sales teams that will need to be properly managed and incentivized. This is often a step that has not been properly developed, but it’s a key step when developing a business case.

I’ve also seen a lot of teams that have a very difficult time putting together an investor pitch. Getting them to boil down their concept and value proposition to a few, easily digestible but stimulating slides is extremely challenging. That’s often hard for seasoned professionals to be honest, so helping a team to think more from an investor’s perspective can be a good starting point. Startups simply need to learn to summarize their amazing ideas properly – not providing too many unimportant details and making sure the key value is clearly visible.

Have you stayed in contact with any of the teams from previous cohorts? If so, what prompted you to go the extra distance?

I usually follow up with a handful of the teams after my official mentoring engagement is over. I’m usually curious how they’re developing, I want to know if I can be of any more help, and I also may want to know if there’s the potential for an investment.

Accelerators are a really recent development. If you were yourself at 25 and had a project, would you apply for an accelerator? Do you wish now that a StartupYard had existed when you founded your first company?

I think the concept of accelerators is fantastic – and I absolutely wish they’d existed when I launched my first company. Of course, there will always be startups that don’t need an accelerator – especially those startups with more experienced teams. But for the majority of startups with young, highly motivated, inexperienced teams, the value that an accelerator can add at the early stage of a company’s existence (or pre-existence) can be critical. The accelerator can provide that extra impetus to a team that will give them the confidence and the tools necessary to have a real chance at creating a successful company.

What is the one piece of advice that you seem to give the most often to young entrepreneurs, and why? 

Although I always tailor my advice to the specific challenges the entrepreneurs face (and I definitely want to avoid sounding like a broken record), I guess the one piece of advice that does surface more often than not regards the definition of the core value proposition. I referred to this earlier, but to put it succinctly, many teams have a hard time developing a conceptual elevator pitch. Spending the time on this exercise at an early stage is always time well-spent in my opinion, not only because you might get the chance to pitch the concept to an investor or strategic partner at a chance meeting, but even more because it helps to crystallize the essence of what the team is developing, so that the team itself will be able to understand where it needs to focus. This can be hard – especially for technology focused teams where there can be a disconnect between having a cool platform and serving a real need (or “scratching a real itch” as I like to put it, which leaves more room for meeting unrealized needs). When the teams find themselves under stress and worry about resource and time constraints, they can refer back to the elevator pitch (in essence, the blueprint of their business) to make sure they’re going in the right direction and not on a tangent. I’m not saying teams shouldn’t pivot – many teams should pivot – but that decision needs to be explicit, and not just an accidental drift into a new strategy. So the bottom line is: “Know where you’re going, and know why you’re going there”. 
Central Europe Accelerator

What Can StartupYard Do For You?

As I wrote earlier this week, I spent last week on the Startup circuit, at conferences like Slush in Helsinki, and HowtoWeb in Bucharest. What I found talking to startups from Finland, Sweden, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria was that, whether they know it or not, and whether they believe it or not, a lot of young companies need an accelerator. But a lot of people don’t even know what an accelerator really does, or why they need one.

Plus, a lot of companies I met with weren’t sure if now was the right time to join, or whether it might be too early or too late. So here we go: What StartupYard can do for you at any of these stages:

 

I have an idea, and a Co-Founder.

There are a lot of steps between hatching a brilliant product idea with a friend, and making that product a reality. StartupYard will first provide you with a concrete road map of the steps you need to take, and will take the most important ones with you. We will handle your incorporation as a company in the Czech Republic, the UK, and/or Delaware, we will prepare your legal agreements and advise you on copyright and trademark issues you may face, and we will provide you with accounting and tax preparation assistance.

Aside from technical issues, we and our mentors will prepare you for the realities of your market, following the principles of the lean methodology to help you find your product/market fit. We give you a very clear working idea of what a launch entails, and how you will be able to pursue a working growth strategy in the next half year. We will also show you how to satisfy investor questions, and seek investment from the right people; you’ll be talking to investors early, and you’ll learn what they’re looking for in you. In 3 months, you’ll go from an idea, to a working prototype, with a strong sense of where you’re going next, and what it takes to get there.

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I have an idea, and no Co-Founder.

If your idea is good and our technical selection committee thinks it makes sense, we can help you find a technical or business co-founder, or help you figure out how to externalise your development in the initial phase of your project, if you are not development focused yourself.

 

I have a prototype.

We expect that all our teams will have a working prototype as soon as possible in the accelerator. As you begin to prototype, we will work with you hands-on to make sure that you are building something with investor appeal, a great market fit, and potential for real growth. We do this by working you through a process of defining and formalizing your “position statement,” your roadmap to what the product will mean to customers, and by having our technical and business mentors react to your work early and often, giving you feedback that will be extremely valuable later on.

Here our technical mentors can be of enormous help in showing you how to polish and complete your project at the highest level possible. Included among our mentors are proven experts in UI design, copywriting, coding, machine learning, and design. They’ll keep you on track.

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I have a beta version.

With a product ready to be put into the wild for testing, you’ll be able to take advantage of the experience of our mentors, many of whom have been in this exact position before, more than once. Now you’ll have a real need for mentoring on best practices in PR, and product marketing, copywriting, UI design, and so-called “growth hacking” techniques. We have a stable of mentors who have a depth of experience in all those areas, and will be ready to show you how best to handle your product as it finds a test audience, and how best to use this opportunity to gather valuable data, and apply it to iterating your product, and preparing it for a full sail launch.

We work with you as much as we can outside your core competencies, stretching your comfort zone to include areas you will have to manage as a public company. If you’re good at something, we won’t interfere with that, but we will force you to work on areas of your business that you aren’t as comfortable with. Most important among these, we’ve found, is working your comfort level with PR, marketing, and sales. This stage, when you’re just beginning to look for customers, is vital in building your brand image, finding your product market fit, and fine-tuning your communication style. What kind of company are you? This is when you nail it down.

At this stage, you’ll also begin serious talk about raising capital, and we’ll prepare you to talk to investors about your ideas, hone your pitching skills, and connect you with the right investors, for the right type of investment. We don’t guarantee you’ll raise money, beyond what we invest in you. It is up to you and your team to get prepared as a company for an investment. But we’ll shape your expectations for that investment, realigning your hopes with reality, and putting you on the path to realistic, realizable goals.

Many angel investors these days don’t even talk to startups who haven’t been accelerated or incubated already. They don’t want to waste their time on unrealistic expectations. Our angels are used to working with startups like yours, and they’re confident that the accelerator has prepared you to seek investment.

Node5

 

I have users.

You’re already climbing the mountain, and that’s fantastic. StartupYard will help you learn from your ongoing experiences with new customers, and show you how to apply those lessons, and leverage that userbase into organic growth. Our mentors have been there, and they’ve done this before. Their experience will be to your advantage, as you will work with mentors in your specific market, as well as other markets, who have experienced failures and successes at early stage growth, and will help you to understand what type of growth you want, and how to get it.

Experience at this stage cannot be bought. It is earned by experiencing harsh realities. But the experience our mentors can confer may save you a lot of time and agony, and can make the difference between your company finding an audience and a path to growth, and stagnation.

The media exposure you will gain from StartupYard is important. We’re not Y-Combinator, and we won’t get you in Forbes magazine ( not yet anyway), but journalists and tech evangelists know us, and pay attention to the teams that come through the accelerator. Our mentors and contacts extend to global press connections, and a global product from StartupYard would have access to that network. You’ll meet members of the press, and you’ll have the chance to impress them. The networking opportunities we provide are no small benefit. They are key to your early success, and they will play a vital role later on. Use them, and keep using them- the more you do, the better off you’ll be.

 

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I have paying customers

Startups sometimes assume that they’ve climbed the mountain already, if someone is willing to pay them for what they make. Not so. And we’ve found that companies that come to us with paying customers benefit just as much from the accelerator as those that don’t.

Now that you’ve got a few paying customers, you’re in a fantastic position for serious talks with investors, and capital injections that will feed this growth smartly and quickly. Our mentors can become your advisors, your valuable contacts, and perhaps even your clients, as you seek investment, think about expanding your team, and look for corporate and other potential partners.

Companies usually leave StartupYard with at least a few official advisors or advisory board members, from among our mentors, and these people are key to opening doors for you in all areas of your business. Aside from everything else we do, this is an opportunity that can’t be understated in importance. You’ll be forging those vital relationships with our help, and those relationships may just be your stepping stones to growth and success.

Pitch StartupYard Investors and Mentors at the Accelerator Open House

Nearly 100 people have already signed up for our Accelerator Open House, Dec. 4, which celebrates our recent move to Node5, and the opening of StartupYard as a more public resource for local and regional startups, and features exiting Chairman of Microsoft Europe, Jan Muehlfeit, who will deliver keynote remarks.

In addition, we’re happy to announce that we will hold a “pitch-off,” inviting entrepreneurs who can attend the event to pitch their ideas in front of StartupYard mentors and investors, programmers and entrepreneurs. Pitches will be 90 seconds, and will not include demos or slides. It’s just you, your charm, and a microphone, in front of a full house.

 

Applications close this Friday, November 28th (Edit: Applications are now closed).

This isn’t a contest, and there’s nothing to win, but rather an opportunity for you to pitch an idea you may be thinking about, or a startup you’ve been working on, and see whether it peaks the interest of investors, mentors, or others at the Open House. Your pitch will hopefully be the start of a conversation that may see you joining the StartupYard accelerator, or having further talks with potential partners, advisors, or investors.


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Jeanne Trojan: Present as Yourself

Over the past few weeks, the StartupYard teams worked hard on perfecting their pitches for Demo Day. There were a fair share of investors, corporate representatives, mentors, and industry members of all stripes in attendance. Needless to say, the pressure was on. But, every one of the teams pitched really well.

A week before the big day, we invited Jeanne Trojan, an Executive Presentation Trainer & Coach and long-time pitch mentor for StartupYard, to TechSquare to help the teams prepare for their Demo Day pitches. Here are a few of the tips that she shared with us.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Counter-intuitively, the best way to appear natural in front of a group of people is to meticulously plan your pitch and practice until it has a natural flow. You know how an athlete can make an amazingly difficult move look easy? That’s your goal when you present. You want the audience to get the impression that you’re just talking with them. That’s takes loads of practice.

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But, that’s not to say that Jeanne advocates memorizing your presentation. That can be dangerous and will not give a natural impression. You shouldn’t be concentrating on the words, but on the stories that make up your pitch. Every slide should represent a ‘story’ for you that you can remember.

However, you should memorize one part of your talk. Your opening. When you get up to speak, you’ll be nervous and you’ll have a bit of a ‘deer in the headlights’ moment. Make sure you know the first few sentences of your talk by heart so you can do it on ‘auto-pilot’.

 

Find Your Allies

Audience engagement in person is achieved in many ways. But Jeanne emphasized simple, easy, and repeatable tricks for connecting. For example, she advised us to look for ‘audience allies’. They are the people nodding, smiling and really engaged in your talk. Find these people in every part of the room so that when you’re feeling nervous, looking at them can help you to calm down and you can still give the impression that you’re looking at everyone. Instead of a sea of faces looking back at you, judging you, look at the few you feel you can trust, and talk to them.

Vaclav Formanek, getting passionate about education.

Vaclav Formanek, of MyPrepApp

Share Your Enthusiasm

This is your project. If you’re excited about it, you need to be able to share that energy with your audience. If you’re not, there’s a bigger problem than your pitch. There is no excuse for acting ‘cool’ or being stiff when you’re sharing your big idea. Your pitch should appear important and urgent. Your audience should be thinking – ‘Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? This is something that needs to happen!’ Constructing your pitch to give this impression is vital to your success.

Stop Dancing

Even some of the best presenters still have nervous habits to break. For example, nervous speakers often seem to have little control over their legs, skipping around the stage, not even aware that they’re doing it. Once speakers have an awareness of what they’re doing with their bodies and how they can control their movements, it makes for a much more relaxed and easy-to-watch presentation. Jeanne shared some tips on how to move with a purpose and to cure that ‘shaky voice’ that always accompanies nervous situations.

Don’t Be Slide-Driven

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“ You and your message are your presentation. NOT your slides. Too often, slides drive a talk and the speaker’s and audience’s focus is on them.’ “

A lot of presenters get stuck reading the headlines of each slide and then following the information as it pops up on the screen. This is a comfortable, but boring way of getting through a presentation, and it puts the material ahead of the presenter themselves. When you give your pitch at a demo day or a conference, you are presenting *yourself* as much as you are presenting your ideas, your team, and your work so far. A sure way of failing to inspire anyone, is to take yourself out of the loop, and show a set of slides that attendees could have read through on their own in 2 minutes.

Make sure that slide creation is one of the last in your preparation steps. And, focus on creating visual, eye catching slides that will attract the audience’s attention and turn to you to learn more.

Jeanne was a vital part of our teams’ pitch success on Demo Day and we’d like to thank her for working with them so passionately. If you’d like to make a successful presentation or pitch, we can definitely recommend Jeanne’s work.

Jeanne Trojan

jmtcz.cz

@jmtcz

Meet the 2014 Founders: SentiSquare. Helping global brands become better listeners.

The last of the 7 from 2014, SentiSquare began as an academic project by Josef Steinberger, assistant Professor at the University of West Bohemia. I caught up with Josef this week to talk about SentiSquare, a “sentiment analytics” engine that will revolutionize the way that global brands engage with their customers online and offline.

Josef

Cofounders Josef Steinberger, and Tomáš Brychcín

Hi Joseph, where does the idea for SentiSquare come from?

Several years ago, I started to research opinion summarization at the University of West Bohemia. There is an enormous and ever growing number of opinions about various entities all over the internet. For example, on Facebook alone, on Ford Motorcars company page, there has been over 37000 comments during the last year. And most of the comments are in English. If we include local Ford pages (ones for different countries), Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube and various discussion forums, we end up with over 1 Million comments. I think that gathering that data and making sense of it through summarization has a great commercial potential. With the initial idea, I entered the Microsoft Innovation Centre (MIC) accelerator and the idea saw some further development. From there, I moved to the StartupYard program. Tomas and Michal, our top two NLP researchers at the university, joined me and together, with valuable advices of StartupYard mentors we further developed the idea and SentiSquare finally crystallized into a workable business idea.

Is your whole team from academia? How did you all get together on this project?

Yes, all three founders are from the University of West Bohemia. I’m an associate professor and Tomas and Michal are finishing their PhD theses. We started working on sentiment analysis together at the beginning of the year. We ran experiments for a Semeval’s shared task [an international NLP research community evaluation campaign] and we were ranked 3rd out of 30 participating teams. We joined  forces for the brand-related opinion summarization project which I’d been already working on in the MIC program. Tomas brings the knowledge of semantic analysis and Michal’s expertise is in machine learning.

What will SentiSquare allow clients to do? What will its limitations be?

Sentisquare discovers the most important topics in social media content and automatically produces summaries of the topic-related comments. We can analyse millions of tweets, facebook posts, forum comments, and many other sources. It’s really the next generation of sentiment analysis. Basically, it does more than just produce sentiment polarity figures (e.g., how many times a brand was mentioned positively or negatively) but it answers the crowd sentiment question by tracking “key” opinions, e.i. opinions expressed by a large number of contributors. The trick is in identifying these opinions even when they are expressed in very different ways. These opinions drive brand reputation in a much more concrete way than “likes,” and so forthe. Sentisquare links topics across different brands, languages and periods, it will allow you to produce temporal, competitive and geographical comparisons. This will allow global companies and brands to get a good handle on their most common user complaints, the successes or drawbacks of their marketing campaigns, and their brand perceptions in a broad set of categories, for various demographics. The size of the data set limits the possibilities for the technology. If we don’t find enough relevant and content-rich comments about a brand (~1 thousand comments), the analysis won’t produce conclusive figures. To hone our models, we currently need over 1 Million domain-specific pieces of text, so this will apply to very big brands, probably with a global presence.

So you need a lot of data. what kinds of companies and people do you see as your likely customers?

Skoda [the leading Czech automaker, owned by Volkswagen Group], is a great example of a potential client. If they monitor what people are saying about the current car models, they can get inspiration on what people like, what they’d don’t like, what they want, and to which competing cars they compare Skoda’s models. This information can help in designing and marketing a new model. After the new one is out, the aggregation of the expressed sentiment about it can help in shaping the decisions taken. The power of sentiment analysis is in the fact that it goes beyond just sales figures and statistics. We can imagine this technology making the world a better place for everyone. For example, there are applications in entertainment as well. You know how Hollywood lives only on the box office take of whatever movie they release, no matter the quality of the film? Films all end up copying each other and looking pretty much the same. Plus, there’s a huge amount of risk in budgeting for a $150 Million film just because a similar one was successful. Well, what if our technology could help movie studios to understand what people like about their movies, and so allow them to *avoid* copying the things that don’t need copying. They could get ahead of trends, and really understand what the audience is yearning for before making the next film. Everybody wins.

What do you see as your primary competition in this field?

We feel that competition is a badly negotiated cooperation :laughs:. That means there is a lot of room in this market for new ideas, and new players. Even if current social media monitoring tools are nominally our competition, we’d rather position Sentisquare as a new layer on top of their functionality. We are investigating the possibility of cooperation with SocialBakers, BrandEmbassy, GoodData and eMerite, however, there are many others we would like to work with.

Josef does some deep thinking.

Josef does some deep thinking.

As an academic, what do you find most challenging about thinking in business terms, and talking to business people?

The first difference is that in business we need to think much more about the target group of users and the business benefit our solution brings. Also In research, we push the quality of the technological solutions. For example, if we improve the quality of sentiment polarity prediction by 2 percent, we could write a famous paper about it. In business, it is more about uniqueness of the idea and differentiation from the competition. Business is about practical, workable solutions that deliver, not just theoretical models.

How has your experience at StartupYard been so far? Which of the mentors has had the most powerful influence on your team and your direction as a company?

We’ve learned a lot about the business world. Now we have a good basis for pitching, business planning, marketing, sales, and positioning the company and so on. There were many mentors who gave up a valuable feedback. Jan Šedivý and Jaroslav Gergic helped us to elaborate the API strategy. Marcel Vargaeštok introduced us to what the marketing research agencies do. Adam Zbiejczuk connected us with the local social media monitoring community. Viktor Fischer share with us his knowledge about sales possibilities and company directions. And finally, there were crucial times when every positive feedback was important for us, like the one from Roman Stupka, Philip Staehelin or Jan Muehlfeit.

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

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

Lindsay Taylor of Prague Film and Theater Center

Lindsay Taylor of Prague Film and Theater Center

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

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

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

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

Josef of Senti2 gears up for his monologue exercise.

Josef of Senti2 gears up for his monologue exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Hang”

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

“The Roll Up”

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

“Balance”

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

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

 

Each founder had to deliver a dramatic monologue.

Each founder had to deliver a dramatic monologue.

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

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

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

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

 

About Lindsay Taylor: 

Taylor

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

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

 

You can Connect with Lindsay and PFTC via:

 

Her Profile On LinkedIn

The PFTC Facebook Page

Facebook Group for PFTC

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

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

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

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

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about your long term goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gjirafa is planning to launch its full text search engine in July of this year. 
You can connect with Mergim via Linkedin. 
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Presenting the 7 Teams of StartupYard 2014

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

Demo Day

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

And Now, The Teams, and Why We Chose Them

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

Evolso.com – Romania

Profile picture

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

Cover photo google+

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

FamelyApp.com – Czech Republic

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

Gjirafa.com – Kosovo/Albania

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

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

MyPrepApp.com – Czech Republic

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

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

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SentiSquare.com – Czech Republic

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

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

Warrant.ly – Serbia

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

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

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

 

YourPlaceApp.com  – Kazakhstan

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

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

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What “Mentor Driven” Means To Us

What an Accelerator is For

A journalist visiting TechSquare this week asked me an intriguing question. I say “intriguing,” because as it was coming from an outsider to this business, it demanded a single answer to a question that is not often taken by itself: “what is a tech accelerator really for?” That kind of question demands an answer that applies to all parties: to the investors, to the startups, and to the general public. What do we do that adds value to the world in which we live? The answer I arrived at was this one, and I think it covers all of that: “a startup accelerator helps to manage, facilitate, and encourage intelligent risk taking.”

As Techstars has explained about their own roots, the current mold of accelerators was formed in reaction to risk aversion. Angel investors and VCs were, from about 2002 onward, inflicting far too much pain on startups to prove their worth before securing seed investments, which probably led more than a few worthy startups to stall out for lack of access to funds. The tech crash in the early 2000s had soured many investors on the market, and introduced big barriers to entry. Imagine a world in which Facebook didn’t have the money to get to its millionth user that first summer. This was a real danger at the time. But today,  a service that has added half a million users in a period of several months would be unlikely to have that particular fear. The accelerator movement has been an important part of that shift away from risk aversion, to more intelligent risk taking.

What “Mentor Driven” Means

 

 Over the past month, our teams have met with nearly 40 mentors each. That’s 40 meetings with entrepreneurs, professionals from within their areas, and CEOs of companies that have been in the position that our founders are in now. There have been so many meetings, that many of the teams have had moments of frustration with the process. One of the CEOs told me last week: “They all ask me similar questions, and I haven’t had time to do the things they’re all telling me I should be doing.”

Yes, it can be frustrating, but we also view that feeling as somewhat positive. A founder of a young company who is very aware of the potential problems he is facing is more likely to take a realistic approach to solving those problems, instead of avoiding them. He may be tired of hearing the same concerns, but he will definitely find ways of addressing them- if only so that he doesn’t have to keep hearing about them. He knows where he stands, and where he needs to be when this process is done.

Bad habits and false assumptions, when untested too long, can ossify very quickly, and poison sound decision-making. The accelerator is the antidote to that problem, forcing founders to address their toughest challenges first, rather than wasting time and money working in a market they don’t understand well enough. Constant early contact with mentors breaks up patterns of thinking and working that will lead founders wrong.

It’s About Who the Mentors Are

“Mentor driven,” means that the first steps a startup takes are in consultation with people who want them to succeed. Most of our mentors are not investors, and most will probably not end up working directly with any of our founders later on, but they are people who care about spreading knowledge, knowing their industry well, and making valuable and useful connections with each other, and with new startup founders. While basically all accelerators are concerned with helping their teams raise money at some point, at demo day, or later on, the focus at StartupYard is on giving the company the strongest possible foundation as a means to that end, and to making the company a success in general. Knowing and understanding your own industry, how people talk and behave, and how they think, are really vital elements of that kind of success.

Startups are Not in Business to Raise Money

A lot of startups quickly start thinking that they are in the business of raising money. That’s a cycle that’s easy to fall into. The second an investor wants to talk money, a founder has to completely change how he or she is thinking about the business, and fit that thinking to the way the investor thinks. If founders have conversations with investors too early in their own development, both as business people and stewards of their own companies, they can easily be taken in by the investor’s agenda, which is different, on a basic level, from their own.

A founder should be interested in his or her users, in solving problems for the people that will use their products, and in forming a company that adds value to the world in which they live. A good product or service company needs these goals above and beyond profitability in order to shape its future and give it purpose.

But an investor is only interested in realizing gains on their investments. If 1 dollar today can gain 20 tomorrow, they will invest. And likewise, if making a company stop and completely reconfigure its own priorities in order to win investment can turn 1 million dollars today into 20 million dollars next year, investors will encourage that to happen. So having a company planted on ground solid enough not to be shaken by incoming investment is very important. A founder has to have a vision of his company in 5 years. An investor doesn’t buy that vision, just the part of it that has an upside potential. We need investors to make many startups work, but that doesn’t mean investors should run startups, or tell them what they want too early in their development.

Mentoring can be a cure for that illusion. Talking to people who have taken on investments and regretted it, as well as those who have done it well and made it work, is an experience of great value to someone who has never had a conversation about money that involved more than 3 zeros.

But most importantly, mentors remind founders that their businesses have to work, not just as investment vehicles, but as *real* businesses. As I said: an accelerator is about taking intelligent risks. Putting 3, or 6 or 12 months of your time into a company is in itself a risk. So why not make it an intelligent one?

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Michal Illich: “Know your Competition.”

Michal Illich is a household name in the Czech Republic’s technology industry. Aside from developing the engine that originally powered Seznam, the king of search in the region, Illich has founded a raft of companies in the past 15 years. He’s a founder of StartupYard, as well as of Techsquare, the open tech workspace where StartupYard is based. He’s been mentoring our current startups, and we got him to weigh in on the state of the Czech Republic’s tech industry, and what it’s like to mentor new founders.
 
Michal, first things first: we hear you have a Tesla. Were you the first Tesla owner in Prague? How do you like it?

As far as I know, a few (up to 5) owners received their Tesla in the same week as I did. I might be the first because I opted for the earliest possible date. It’s a great car – beautiful, very powerful (4.2 seconds to 100 km/h) and still practical (5 seats, 2 trunks).

You’re one of the founders of TechSquare (homebase for StartupYard), and a founder and investor in StartupYard itself. What got you interested in bringing new startups to Prague?
Well, as I’m one the first generation of Czech people who made some money from their internet projects, I thought it’ll be nice to give something back.
Czech and Central European investors are known for being conservative. Do you think that’s true, and if so, what unique challenges does that present startups here?
I’m not really sure if we are conservative. Most investors I know are realistic or optimistic about Czech startups. I don’t think that the american way of throwing a lot of money into startups and hoping that 1% will became a billion dollar company would work here. We are slower but longterm results of Czech IT companies are quite solid.
You’ve been mentoring the teams at StartupYard since the beginning. What do you find difficult about mentoring at this stage in these companies’ development? What about it is rewarding for you?
As Niels Bohr said, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. No one – even the best mentors – can predict the success of any particular startup. So we search and discuss it together which is interesting for the startup and for me as well.
Is there an area of preparation that the majority of accelerator teams could do better in?
Probably knowing their competitors and alternatives.
What are some projects you’ve been excited about recently? What are you working on?
Almost all the startups in the current batch are nice. We’re working on http://flowreader.com/ , http://testomato.com/ , http://kinohled.cz/ , some machine learning problems and one as yet unlaunched project.
How has the Tech Startup landscape changed in the past 10 years in the Czech Republic? What do you see coming in the future?
From the czech websites, only Seznam.cz is innovating. The other major players did nothing technologically worth mentioning for several years :(.  The global startups operated by czech people are more interesting and I think we’ll have more billion dollar companies (to accompany Seznam.cz, GoodData, AVG and Avast) in the next few years.
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