StartupYard DemoDay 2016 Highlights

DemoDay 2016: The Big Moments

StartupYard last night introduced its 6th cohort of startups to the world. We are extremely proud, and judging from our community’s reaction, so were you.  Thank you for supporting us and encouraging us to do what we do. Your value to our startups is truly immeasurable.

But which of the companies at DemoDay 2016 were your favorites, and why?

Click on the picture of your favorite startup founder below to tweet about them. 

(Photos courtesy of Milos Potuzak. Check out his other work on his website, or on Facebook.)

Gjirafa Founder and CEO Mergim Cahani talks about the ups and downs of founding a high growth startup.

Gjirafa Founder and CEO Mergim Cahani talks about the ups and downs of founding a high growth startup. Click to Tweet!

Jakub Ladra, of ClaimAir, talks flight compensation.

Jakub Ladra, of ClaimAir, talks flight compensation. Click to Tweet!

Ondrej Sedlacek of Satismeter talks Churn.

Ondrej Sedlacek of Satismeter talks Churn. Click to Tweet!

Pavel Konecny, of NeuronSoundware, talks about machine learning and sound.

Pavel Konecny, of NeuronSoundware, talks about machine learning and sound. Click to Tweet!

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Alex Karadjian of Speedifly talks about social, spontaneous air travel.

Alex Karadjian of Speedifly talks about social, spontaneous air travel. Click to Tweet!

Marek Novy of Stream.Plus talks about the future of online video.

Marek Novy of Stream.Plus talks about the future of online video. Click to Tweet!

Piotr Piekos of TotemInteractive introduces the future of outdoor digital advertising.

Piotr Piekos of TotemInteractive introduces the future of outdoor digital advertising. Click to Tweet!

Karel Javurek of NeuronAd discusses adblockers and online publishing

Karel Javurek of NeuronAd discusses adblockers and online publishing. Click to Tweet!

Johanness Rohrenbach of Boatify talks about amazing boating experiences.

Johanness Rohrenbach of Boatify talks about amazing boating experiences. Click to Tweet!

Martin Cvetler of Salutara introduces the future of medical travel.

Martin Cvetler of Salutara introduces the future of medical travel. Click to Tweet!

Cedric Maloux makes closing remarks.

Cedric Maloux makes closing remarks.

The Royal, a classic venue, for a not-so-classic event.

The Royal, a classic venue, for a not-so-classic event.

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The crowd at The Royal was impressive.

The crowd at The Royal was impressive.

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Don’t forget to check out our exclusive interviews with each Startup from 2016:

StartupYard DemoDay 2016, April 6th at the Royal Theater

It’s with great pleasure and anticipation that we announce that StartupYard DemoDay 2016 will take place on April 6th, at the Royal Theater. The event will feature pitches from our 9 startups, and keynote remarks from Mergim Cahani, StartupYard Alum and Founder/CEO of Gjirafa, the “Albanian Seznam.”

The event will take place on April 6th, at 18:00, at the Royal Theater, in Prague.

 

 

 About the Keynote:

NWJ3017-Edit-1Mergim Cahani is the Founder & CEO of Gjirafa, Inc (gjirafa.com), the Albanian Search Engine. Gjirafa has recently raised $2.5M in angel and venture funding, with investors including Ester Dyson, Ondrej Bartos, Phillip Staehelin, and Rockaway Capital. An alum of StartupYard 2014, Gjirafa is working to bring state of the art e-commerce solutions to emerging markets in Kosovo, Albania, and the surrounding regions.

Previously he founded iziSurvey, a mobile survey solution, and MatchBox, now a defunct dating application. Currently Mergim serves as the President of the Board of Governors at American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo, and has over 15 years of industry experience with startups, technology, management, and investment experience. Previously, in New York, Mergim worked for Broadridge Financial Solutions, an Adjunct Assistant Professor with the department of Computer Science at St. John’s University, and an executive management consulting program at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. His education includes a Summa Cum Laude BSc degree in Computer Science, an MSc degree in Computer Science from New York University, and an MBA degree with honors majoring in Executive Management from The Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University, all in New York.

About the Venue:

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The grand and historical Royal has stood in Prague for nearly 100 years. It recalls the glory days of the city when it was the capital of the First Czechoslovak Republic, from 1918 to 1938. After the 2nd world war, the theater was confiscated by the state, and it was not returned to its owners, the Maceška Family, until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It remains in the family to this day.

In 2014, the family agreed to rent the Royal to Jean-Christophe Gramont, who restored its look and feel to that of a First Republic public venue. Many of the original finishings remain intact, dating back to 1929.

StartupYard DemoDay 2016

Our decision to host StartupYard’s 2016 Demo Day at the Royal is a nod not only to our roots in Central Europe, but also to the Royal’s signature theme: of honoring the past while remaining unafraid to innovate into the future. As the story of those days in Prague just a century ago shows us: progress and innovation must be constantly defended and constantly re-energized by new generations, be they artists, engineers, or entrepreneurs.

The StartupYard 2016 Startups

 

Satismeter: Know Your Customers

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Czech Republic

SatisMeter is perfect for online businesses that lack qualitative feedback from their users.
It’s an in-app feedback platform, that collects NPS data based on specific usage patterns. Unlike a traditional email survey or various in-house solutions, SatisMeter is an easy to integrate, multi-platform solution, perfect for small startups with only a few customers, all the way up to enterprise scale clients.

Satismeter’s current customers include BuzzSumo,  Udacity, Mention, Adroll, Dashlane, and MailJet

 

ClaimAir: Know Your Rights. Get Paid.

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Czech Republic

ClaimAir helps travelers fight the airlines for compensation, because fliers don’t have the time and resources to do it themselves.
It’s is an automated platform that handles the end-to-end process of claiming owed compensation for delays, baggage mishandling, etc. Did you know that the average compensation owed was over 300 Euros?
Unlike travel agencies, ClaimAir is specialized in handling legal compensation claims in large volumes.

 

Neuron Software: Making Sense of Sound

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Czech Republic

Neuron Software is a deep tech startup, exploring the use of self-teaching, constantly learning neural networks in a wide range of audio analysis and audio manipulation applications.
Imagine having a car mechanic in your pocket, able to diagnose a problem just by listening to it. Or being able to accurately document the emotions of your customers, every time anyone from your company talks to them.
Neuron Software’s technology will enable a broad range of new capabilities that are just starting to be explored.

Stream.Plus: The Last Video Platform You’ll Ever Need

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Czech Republic

Stream.Plus is the future of branded video distribution. Brands who have quality video content often lack control over the distribution and monetization of that content. Stream.Plus creates mobile and web apps for branded, interactive online TV channels that create a direct connection between consumers and brands.

NeuronAd: Ads for Everyone

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Czech Republic

Online publishers rely heavily on advertising for revenue. But 20% or more of internet users now have adblockers installed. NeuronAd helps online publishers show relevant, unobtrusive ads to adblocked visitors, while maintaining the speed, security, and experience that led those visitors to employ adblockers.

 

Speedifly: When in Doubt, Travel

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Bulgaria

SpeediFly is for spontaneous travelers who want to get away last minute, but don’t know where they can go on a budget.
It’s a mobile travel discovery platform that locates the customer and finds the 15 cheapest flights departing from and returning to the nearest airport in the next 10 days. Unlike clunky old-fashioned search engines, SpeediFly combines social dimensions like group travel planning, with the ability to discover destinations based on activities and interests.

 

TotemInteractive: Make Ads People Love

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Poland

TotemInteractive enables Digital Out of Home Advertising to become more than just a one-way brand-to-customer ad channel.
It’s a cloud based advertising platform that supports interactive content, like games and contests, by allowing people to control ads directly from their smartphones.
Drive real audience engagement with your live ads, by making ads people love, and love to play with.

Salutara: Your Health Matters

Salutara, Startupyard

Czech Republic

Salutara is a full-service online platform for medical travel. Every year, 11 Million people seek medical procedures that are not accessible or affordable in their home countries. With Salutara as a trusted advisor and intermediary, patients can search and compare clinics, arrange procedures, plan, book, and pay for a whole trip in one place. Travel for your health, with Salutara.

boatify: hop onboard (a boat!)

boatify

Switzerland

Boatify is for people who want to go on a boat ride, but don’t have easy and affordable access to a boat. It’s a web and mobile platform, where boat owners can earn money renting their boats directly.
Unlike typical boat rental services, boatify relies on a network of partner “officers,” who take responsibility for the end-to-end customer experience of each boat rental, making it a snap to safely rent and take a trip in a boat near you, anytime.

We look forward to seeing you at the Royal!

StartupYard Invites 9 Startups for 2016 Accelerator

We’re very pleased to announce that after an intensive screening process that whittled the over 300 applications to StartupYard 2016’s open call down to only 19 Startup Day participants, we have now selected and invited 9 startups to join us for the 2016 accelerator program.

19 teams attended Startup Day, a two day event in which the startups pitched, and met with a group of mentors, and the StartupYard team. They also heard from Mergim Cahani, CEO and Co-Founder of one of StartupYard’s major successes, Kosovo’s Albanian language search platform Gjirafa. Mergim spoke about Gjirafa’s recent successes, explosive growth, and the role of StartupYard in his success, both during and after acceleration.

A Diverse Group

As we noted recently, this year gave us the most geographically diverse group of applicants we have ever had. Among the finalists at Startup Day were entrepreneurs from The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, India, the UK, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Russia, and Romania. Among the 9 teams selected for StartupYard 2016, are Czech, Swiss, Polish, Bulgarian, and UK teams.
Startup Day, StartupYard

There are surprises and unexpected outcomes every year in the StartupYard selection process. This year is no exception. No less than 3 travel startups will join us at Node5 for 3 months of acceleration- an outcome we could not have predicted, but a testament to how much technology is now disrupting travel around the world. We will also welcome our first health startup, our first sharing economy startup, and our first “neural networks” focused team. Also for the first time, we have accepted two teams focused on exciting new advertising technology.

How We Select Teams For StartupYard

StartupYard Startup Day

Mergim Cahani, Founder and CEO of Gjirafa, spoke to Startups about the StartupYard experience

19 finalists joined us at Node5 last week, in a marathon session involving pitching, individual meetings, and conversations with the StartupYard team, investors, and a select group of mentors.

As always, each member of the selection committee had their own views on each startup, and each had their favorites, but the final decision to invite each of the 9 companies we have selected was arrived at by consensus. We believe in every one of these companies, and their potential to succeed globally.

As we’ve said frequently, both to our applicants and to the mentors who participate in our selection process, StartupYard is not a contest, and there are no losers at Startup Day. Each of the applicants impressed us and managed to convince us in different ways. Most of the applicants have the potential, and the ambition, to raise successful companies that have a positive impact on many people.

So when we decide not to accelerate a particular company, that isn’t necessarily because we don’t believe they can succeed. We often think that they can and will.

StartupDay StartupYard

But we have to also consider whether a startups wants to be, and can be, the kind of company that will be a smart investment for StartupYard, in terms of time, money, and energy from our team, our mentors, and our investors. We only succeed when our startups grow and expand globally, so no matter how interesting a team and their idea is, it has to have the ambition to be that kind of globally scalable company.

There is nothing wrong with companies that want to be influential and disruptive on the local level. But these companies would benefit less from our help, and would be pushed in a direction that they don’t necessarily want to go. We can’t be the main drivers of ambition for a startup, so that vision of the future has to come built in.

Names to be Released in February

Startup Day

As in previous rounds, StartupYard will release the names, web pages, and descriptions of each of our 2016 Startups sometime in February of 2016. While several of these companies have products on the market, and some are already generating revenue, we don’t discuss startups until they have had a month of intense mentoring in our program, and they are thoroughly ready to talk about their future plans.

By then, we’ll be ready to roll out detailed interviews with each company, and an in-depth look at each of their future plans. Stay Tuned!

6 Tips For Finalists at StartupYard

This week, StartupYard will welcome about 20 finalists for up to 10 positions in our 2016 cohort. They’ll spend a full day meeting with the StartupYard team, and a select group of mentors and investors from the StartupYard community.

This isn’t a competition, and it isn’t a job interview. We aren’t typical investors, and we aren’t employers either. We have a special relationship with all of our startups, and we have to make decisions quickly, but carefully.

So what are we looking for in our final finalists? Ultimately, we are looking for the smartest investments for StartupYard. That means teams that not only impress us with their vision and ambition, but that also offer us an opportunity to make as big as an impact as possible, so that their successes will be our successes too.

Today, we’ll share a few pieces of advice that we’ve come up with over the last few years, on how to navigate this process for the best result:

1. It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know.”

fry

As we wrote about yesterday, being a credible leader doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. If you do have all the answers, there’s a fair chance that some of your answers may not be the best ones possible.

Better that you should be able to say “I don’t know,” when faced with something you haven’t had the time or resources to address yet. Part of being a high growth company is not being able to predict every little thing you’ll have to do along the way. You can show you’re prepared, but you will never be able to convincingly show that you’ve figured out every step. If you had, you wouldn’t be talking to us anyway.

2. Acknowledge Challenges You Face

On a few occasions (thankfully never at StartupYard), I have had the displeasure of witnessing really poor mentoring and feedback on startup pitches.

The worst, and most useless kind of feedback goes like this:

“Well, I worked with a company that tried that, and it didn’t work. So, I don’t know. You’ve got a lot of challenges ahead.”

Duh. This can hardly be called feedback. But sadly, as a startuper, you’re going to hear it a lot.

There are going to be inherent challenges in your near and long term future. That’s a given. But it’s important to recognize, especially when talking to an investor or a mentor, the difference between useless feedback like that, and more serious questions:

“What are you going to do about x competitor?” Or, “Why would people would pay for this?”

A lot of founders get so used to being bludgeoned by stupid feedback, that they start to ignore legitimate concerns instead of acknowledging them. They’ll give bogus answers like “we are smarter than the competition,” rather than talking specifically about how they’re going to challenge a competitor. Or they’ll say: “we are going to work really hard to sell this,” instead of really answering the question, which is not about how hard they’ll work, but about what strategy they will use, and what opportunity they see in the market.

The fact that you have challenges ahead shouldn’t be news to anyone. But how you face those challenges says everything about how you’ll fare against them. You won’t overcome these challenges because of who you are, or how much you want to. You’ll overcome them by thinking about them, so start doing that first.

If you can show you understand what the challenges are, you will have a much easier time convincing us you can solve them.

3. Demonstrate Ambition

Arrogance is certainly a problem for many entrepreneurs, but it can be just as easy to make humility into a vice.

What we’ve found over the years, particularly with startups in Central Europe, is that they can be surprisingly shy about sharing their long-term, “big vision” ideas, because they are afraid that they will appear either stupid, or foolishly ambitious.

It’s not fun to listen to someone who can’t stop talking about their big vision and focus on the details, but it’s important that we do understand what your ambitions really are. What kind of company do you ultimately want to have? What position do you want to be in, in 5 years? It’s really ok for these ambitions to seem somewhat unrealistic. Again, if they were realistic at this moment, you wouldn’t need our help at all.

So don’t think we’ll laugh at you for wanting to be a worldwide leader- if that’s what you really want.

4 Talk Yourself Up

We just got done saying that you shouldn’t be shy about your ambition. You also shouldn’t be shy about your accomplishments.

Last year, as we were working on the Demo Day pitch for one of our startups, the founder was having trouble with what he wanted to say about the team. He couldn’t come up with a convincing argument for why they were the right people to solve a complicated problem on the market.

As it turned out, and as the founder had never shared with us previously, he just happened to have previously worked for companies who needed to calculate orbits and fuel usage for satellites in Earth orbit- he helped those satellites in the sky.

So, in other words, he was a rocket scientist.

And he was someone who was having trouble articulating why it was that he was qualified to take on complicated problems.

I don’t think many reasonable people would think he was being arrogant for mentioning that qualification to investors. But I’ve been consistently surprised by startup founders who do fail to mention important details about themselves and their qualifications.

That’s admirable, that these people choose let their work speak for itself, but if you’ve earned a little bit of respect for what you’ve done in the past, by all means, use it!

5. Ask Questions

This process is not just about us picking favorites. It’s also about you deciding what’s best for your company, and your own future. We don’t know what you don’t know, and since we assume we’re dealing with pretty smart people , we don’t always tell you everything you might want to know.

So ask us. And judge us on our answers. That’s only fair. Our reputation has to be built on our transparency and honesty with startups. If we don’t have that, we don’t have much.

6. Don’t Sell: We Aren’t your Customers

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This advice goes back what we said yesterday about “trying too hard.” You have to acknowledge challenges, and talk yourself up, but if you aren’t careful, doing all those things at once can put you right into “salesman mode.”

Pretty soon you’re “acknowledging challenges,” before they’re even brought up, and talking yourself up when you don’t really need to. Your ability to sell is important, but we aren’t your customers.

The unvarnished truth, or at least something closer to the unvarnished truth, is important to investors in making the right decisions- not just for them, but also for you. As I often tell startups: you can sell anybody something they don’t need or want, but only once. After that, you’ll never be able to sell to them again. But if you find the right “customer,” or the right investor, you can develop a lasting relationship.

So don’t treat us like a customer. We aren’t buying anything.

Patrick Riley, of the GAN, visits StartupYard

Last week, in a private meeting with StartupYard mentors and team members, Patrick “Pat” Riley, CEO of the GAN (Global Accelerator Network), hosted a Q and A, and presented GAN’s vision of the current and future landscape for tech accelerators worldwide.

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Riley presents to StartupYard Mentors

Riley, who began his startup career at a startup helping hospitals and medical centers to provide affordable medication to underserved communities, joined TechStars as Director of Business Development in 2011, launching the GAN the same year. Today, the GAN spans 6 continents, and includes over 70 selected accelerators in over 100 cities. The GAN is a selective network of accelerators, including the top 3-4% of accelerators worldwide, that together have accelerated 2500 companies in 4 years, together raising nearly $1 Billion in financing, and creating over 11,000 new jobs.

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Pat visited StartupYard’s homebase at Node5 Thursday, meeting with half a dozen StartupYard startups.

 

Here’s what he had to say about central Europe as a whole, and about the startups he met:


“Central European startups are incredibly unique. They have very strong technical skills, the wherewithal to think about other markets on Day 1, and a laser focus on building products that solve a personal problem. We’re also seeing groups like Microsoft set up their development shops in Central Europe because of how inexpensive salaries are in the area – and startups are taking advantage of that as well.  Because of all of this, we’re seeing the Central European startup scene evolve and develop in very positive ways.

At the same time, there are headwinds facing these startups. First of all, capital is scarce. In the entire Czech Republic there are just a few early stage venture capital firms [ 2 of which, Credo Ventures and Rockaway, are both StartupYard investors]. For a country of 10.5 million people, there is a giant opportunity for greater funding sources.

Secondly, cultural, linguistic, legal and market differences plague many Central European startups. Starting in another neighboring market isn’t anywhere as easy as doing business in another state in the United States. That neighboring market in Europe is a completely different country with different currencies and regulations – making it very difficult to set up shop easily.

Third, while not all Central Europeans are this way, many are missing the “sales” side of their business. I heard over and over again how a customer’s problem was going to be solved technically – when in reality the tech is amazing– it’s the presentation that is lacking.

What many European startups are missing is the ability to sell their product well. During my meetings with startups, I asked many of them what was the vision for their startup, with the answer typically being around how the product has some cool feature. To sell investors, customers and partners, Central European startups need a vision about how they’re going to change the world – and why anyone should care about their startup – because unless you sell me on your vision, no one else is going to.”

 

The Need for More Institutional Investors

During his presentation at Node5, Riley mentioned the increasing role that accelerators have played in recent years as drivers of investment. Considering that startups have an average lifespan, according to Riley, of a little less than 8 months, early stage investment is one of the most common points of failure for startups across the board.

Former SY Executive in Resident Phillip Staehelin

Former SY Executive in Resident Phillip Staehelin

Riley discussed efforts that other accelerators, like Y-Combinator and Techstars, have made to bridge this gap in early financing, either by increasing the availability of convertible notes for companies who attend their programs, or by creating follow-on funds for their own startups.

Shifting Roles of Accelerators

Riley also discussed the shifting roles of accelerators on an east to west axis. Accelerators in Eastern and Central Europe continue to function much as those in California and Western Europe have for over a decade, as nurturing environments for entrepreneurs to grow their networks and experience level, as they test out and perfect their products and go to market plans.

StartupYard mentor Amit Paunikar

StartupYard mentor Amit Paunikar

But as accelerators in the West have matured, and competition has become more fierce not only between startups, but also between accelerators (as well as now between accelerators and other early stage investors), they have also continually provided more funding, been more selective, and offered less and less in terms of the kind of support that accelerators had been known for offering. Workshops, training, and team building have been reduced in favor of more intensive mentoring, and more focus on pitching and business planning.

This confirmed the experiences that Ales Teska of TeskaLabs, one of our startups from 2015, described in making the transition between StartupYard, and TechStars London. Riley pointed out that in countries with fewer institutional investors, and less “startup IQ,” awareness of how to work with and deal with startups is still a major roadblock to success, for which more “hands on” accelerator programs are still needed.

The Role of Mentors

According to data the GAN collects, up to 90% of startups accepted at accelerators are recommended by members of the accelerator community, particularly by active mentors. This again confirms our experience at StartupYard, where many, but certainly not all of the standout applications have come from personal referrals.

StartupYard FastLanes 4 Companies from Bucharest

As part of our 6 city StartupYard FastLane tour, we visited TechHub Bucharest last week, “FastLaning” 4 companies, which is more than in any other city but Prague..” StartupYard has now FastLaned 15 companies in 4 cities, with two more cities, Krakow and Warsaw, coming up.

TechHub is an international ring of startup incubators, whose mission is to help startups “start up faster.” The space they have recently occupied near the center of Bucharest is perfect for startups. It’s compact, but with a comfortable atmosphere, and plenty of space for events, meetings, and work.

Energy And Atmosphere

Just as we had encountered in Kosovo and Bulgaria in the past few weeks, there is a very positive creative energy among Bucharest’s young startup community- a sense that anything is possible, and that growth and dynamism in the tech industry is just getting started.

There was also a healthy variety to the pitches we heard, and the founders we talked with while visiting over several days. We heard pitches in e-health, gaming discovery, fintech, e-commerce, and IoT, among other domains. Each of these ideas was original, and not a local “me too” version of a popular global product. Of the entrepreneurs we talked with, most had a global focus, or at least an eye towards international markets, which showed that Romanian startups are gaining the confidence and the appetite for the world tech stage.

“Cheaper,” is not the Pitch

A pleasant surprise for me on this tour has been that “the cheaper version of X” has not been included in any of the pitches we’ve heard throughout Central and Eastern Europe. A stereotype of only a few years ago, that this region produces cheap knock-offs of popular concepts, banking on the lower costs of development and deployment to compete with international products on the local level, seems to be fading quickly.

The region is of course still cheaper to develop in and represents a strong pool of low-cost talent for western companies, but the startupers we’ve met this year are not as interested in carrying over this mentality into their startups. Instead, they’re focusing on the quality of their products, and their ability to compete head to head in the global market on innovation and creativity. There are probably still many local clones, and they have their place, but significantly, these are no longer the companies coming forward to apply for StartupYard.

It’s Still All About Communication

George Dita, of TechHub Bucharest, who has also invited StartupYard back to participate in HowToWeb’s Startup Spotlight in November, made an interesting comment while we chatted about the local startup scene. “You can see this progression from West to East,” he said: “If you start in the US, or UK, the sales and communication skills are the strongest, but as you move East, that goes away. In Eastern Europe, technical talent is incredible, but sales and marketing are missing.”

This observation has matched our experience so far, but that is in itself a great opportunity for StartupYard. We can act as a gateway for the amazing talent and the ambition of Central and Eastern European startups who lack the background, culturally and experientially, they need to compete with other global players. We see ourselves in that role even more these days, given the success of TeskaLabs, a StartupYard company that was recruited in TechStars London while still attending our program.

As we say, you can teach an engineer sales, but it’s much harder to teach a salesman how to think like an engineer. Startups in Central Europe have tech talent coming out of their ears. The only barrier to competing in the west is confidence and competence in communicating, and selling their ideas. We hope to continue replicating successes like TeskaLabs in the future.

We think it’s very important in today’s startupland to have sales and marketing as fundamental part of the team and the company from day one, but we can work with teams that need to foster that part of their business into something that really performs. They only have to get why it matters, in order to learn how to do it. That is a transition we have seen happen with startups from this region.

What we see, time and again, is entrepreneurs who can’t communicate their ideas effectively, but more and more, we see that they are aware of this, and are working hard to get better at it. That tells us that there are many exciting things coming up from Eastern Europe in the future, and we’re excited to be in the middle of the transformation.

StartupYard FastLanes 2 Startups in Sofia, Bulgaria

This week, StartupYard director Cedric Maloux and I spent two days in Sofia, Bulgaria. This was stop number 2 on our 6 city tour of Central Europe for StartupYard FastLane, which kicked off in Prague this month. We visited Kosovo last week, and we have now FastLaned 11 companies so far. This was my second visit to the Bulgarian capital this year, and as before, I was not disappointed by the local startup scene.

From our FastLane event at Vivacom Art Hall, an exhibition and startup space which has been built in the former headquarters of Bulgarian Telekom, the former state telecom company, we selected two teams to join the StartupYard FastLane. These teams will now skip the first 2 steps of the StartupYard selection process, and they’ll have a much better chance of being among the startups that reach the final interviews with StartupYard.

StartupYard has never taken a team from Bulgaria, so we were somewhat unclear on what to expect from startups in Sofia. Chris Georgiev (@chrisGeorgiev), of Imagga and StartupBG, who organized the event and helped attract the startups we chose told us that local startups were “a little spoiled,” due to fairly good access to local programs like incubators and grants for startups.

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Still, we were very impressed with the startups that pitched us, and we noted how friendly and open the attitude of the crowd was. About 60 local startupers and entrepreneurs showed up to hear the pitches.

What Pitching is Really About

During this tour, and throughout the 2 cohorts we’ve done, we’ve noticed a pattern that helps us identify really interesting founders.

First of all, the idea that the founder is pitching really doesn’t matter much, when it comes to which founders stand out. Of course we want to hear pitches that are about tech products, but beyond that, there is no keyword or area that is more likely to make a startup interesting.

Sometimes you hear that a space, like security, is “hot,” and there are a lot of companies being funded, but really, it’s just that there are a lot of problems in that space to solve, and so there are a lot of pitches about products in that space. Some are good, many are not.

So if it’s not the idea that is most interesting, what is it? For us, it’s about the founder’s ability to communicate his or her solution to a real problem. If a founder can do that in a way that makes the solution seem obvious, even inevitable, then that is a very interesting founder indeed.

But we don’t expect founders to be born with those skills. We only expect them to be able to learn them, and grasp their importance.

That’s why during our tour, we are meeting with as many of the teams as possible before the pitching events, to give them individual training on pitching, and to watch how they react to our input. The founders who can implement simple feedback into their pitches, and improve dramatically over the course of a single day, are the types of founders we want to work with.

The results are pretty surprising. In Sofia, for example, one founder, the rare business oriented founder with a lot of experience in marketing and communications, at first approached the pitch training with some obvious confidence. He knew sales, so this was going to be easy. But as we worked through his position statement (the core of the pitch) it became clear that his sales skills weren’t translating to pitching as he expected.

What impressed us about that founder, and the reason we FastLaned his startup, was that he took that experience, and built on it, delivering a far better pitch than he had started with. What is often surprising is that after only a few hours of work, founders who were hopeless at explaining their ideas to others can become so much better at it. We might not end up taking that startup for any number of reasons, but the reason won’t be because we don’t understand his idea.

At every one of these events so far, people who have attended pitch training with us have told us how much it helped them to really understand how to communicate their ideas. Imagine what 3 months of acceleration can do.

After all, as founders, this would be their daily job in a successful company. It’s more than an exercise- it’s what they will have to do in order for the company to grow. Talking to investors, hiring new people, and signing new clients, is all about making them believe in what you’re doing. That’s all about pitching. So we look for founders that can embrace pitching, because it will be central to everything they do going forward.

This also confirms a suspicion we had last year, that we had rejected many applications that might have been very good startups indeed, simply because they weren’t yet able to relate the ideas in a clear and persuasive way. That shows that a tour like this one is probably more important than we even suspected.

This reaffirms how important pitching events can really be. We can’t tell, from a written application, if a founder has the ability to grow in this way. Some really don’t. Others surprise even themselves.

The most interesting founders, in my view, are the ones who can grasp the underlying importance of the exercise- which is to define, in as simple and complete a way as possible, what their company will do to benefit the world. It’s not about the ideas being presented, but the ability of the founders to communicate to people they don’t know; to bring themselves to the level of their audience, rather than to find an audience that is already at their level.

Moreover, developing a killer pitch is an exercise in self-examination. Do you really believe in this solution? Is your approach really as simple and as beneficial as you’re claiming? Or is it difficult to talk about because it’s not as easy as it should be? In the process of developing their pitch, founders have to address those questions over and over. Ultimately, if you can’t find some way of selling your ideas, maybe they aren’t good enough to sell yet.

A founder who is humble and self-aware, and also confident enough to address these problems head on, and solve them, is an ideal candidate for StartupYard. The idea can and will change, but the person doesn’t change as much. If they aren’t flexible and self-aware when they start, there isn’t much we can do to make them more flexible and self-aware at the end of the process. We can foster good habits, but it’s much harder to kill bad ones.

More than anything, I see the failures that we have had at StartupYard have been connected with this. The idea was good enough, but the founder wasn’t flexible enough to adapt it, and make it really great. On the flip side, our biggest successes in the last few years have been from founders who could accept change, and were not afraid to question themselves.

We talk about “passion,” quite a lot. Passion is essential. But passion doesn’t mean blind belief. It means commitment, and ultimately, the willingness to do what is necessary to succeed. Often, when we hear: “I will do whatever it takes,” what that really means is: “I will do whatever it takes, except changing my mind.” But that last part- the willingness to adapt, is really the only thing that accounts. It’s the only thing that separates most entrepreneurs from the great ones.

The opportunity to really see what passion means to these founders, on an individual basis, has made this tour worth our while so far.

StartupYard Fastlanes 2 Companies from Kosovo

Call it tiny, but don’t underestimate the young republic of Kosovo, where StartupYard managing director Cedric Maloux and I spent two amazing days and nights last week, meeting startupers and young people who are full of energy and promise for the future. Here are a few of the takeaways:

A Beautiful Place to Visit

Set aside your assumptions about the Balkans. While Pristina, the capital, doesn’t have the hallmarks of an old European city, with ancient gardens and cathedrals, or many quaint old cafes on stony streets (streets that aren’t paved are dirt tracks), it has its own kind of weird beauty. The city is a mix of the not-so-old, and the brand new. A crazy quilt of apartment blocks, avenues, standalone restaurants, and gleaming hotels.

We were told during our visit that remittances from the Albanian diaspora are one of the main sources of capital in the country. That money is proof of Albanian and Kosovan success around the world, and a sign that Kosovars and Albanians, by and large, are committed to returning home. You can see the effect of capital returning to the country: new construction is everywhere, and restaurants and cafes have sprouted on every street. In just a few days, we met dozens of people who had been educated outside the country, run successful businesses and made money- and all had come back.

Kosovo, perhaps surprisingly, considering its history of ethnic conflict, is rated among the freest and most equal nations, particularly majority Muslim nations. Over 95% of Kosovars are counted as Muslims, and yet the country is officially secular, with freedom of religion upheld for all.

Young and Hungry

With an average wage of just 300 Euros a month (Kosovo uses the Euro, although it is not a Eurozone country or even a member of the EU), the country’s standard of living is obviously lower than in the EU. There is also a massive trade imbalance, with the country importing far more than it produces.

But that situation has been improving, with 5% growth in GDP per year between 2003 and 2011. The private sector, virtually non-existent in 1999, has grown steadily. We encountered a strong sense of optimism from the entrepreneurs we met, mostly at ICK (Innovation Center Kosovo), a non-profit business incubator which is funded by the Norwegian Embassy, among other benefactors.

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The country is also young, with the fastest rate of population growth in Europe, at 1.6%. This demographic pressure, plus a high rate of unemployment, means that many young Kosovars are experimenting with new business ideas, and looking to bring foreign capital and foreign business into the country.

A Lot to Learn

Cedric and I had lunch with Driton Hapciu, an ICK Board Member, and Renaissance man in the Kosovan tech industry. An electrical engineer by training, Hapciu was among the first to found an IT firm in Kosovo, long before the country formally existed, back in 1994. He pursued Peace Studies in Norway, and now, he says: “I’m just here to help.” He talked about the need for practical business experience and programming skills among young Kosovan engineers, who are educated heavily in math, but leave university with few real job skills.

Hapciu was also among the very first mentors to advise Mergim Cahani, in the earliest days of Gjirafa before the team joined StartupYard, and became a growing force in the Albanian and Kosovan tech scene. Every entrepreneur we met knew StartupYard because they knew Gjirafa, and most were eager to follow the search company’s example.

Small Fish Attract Big Fish

One gets the sense when talking to Kosovan entrepreneurs, that anything is still possible on the Albanian web. Basic services that Europeans and Americans take for granted have not been implemented yet. Online payment systems, e-commerce, online advertising, and marketing are in their infancy. There is not even a dominant platform for business listings in the country, and until the advent of Gjirafa, there was no online access to the country’s 100,000+ bus routes and other transport information.

I meet with a Kosovan startuper to talk about his project.

I meet with a Kosovan startuper to talk about his project.

Indeed, we were understandably skeptical when we first heard the pitch for Gjirafa, a “Seznam for the Albanian Web,” but meeting with tech entrepreneurs in Kosovo, one can see that these deficiencies also represent enormous opportunities. In what other country in Europe can a startup reasonably hope to become the gateway to the web for the next generation? That position is filled almost everywhere, by the likes of Google, Facebook, or other global players.

Their entrenchment also means that few companies seriously challenge them to keep innovating in smaller markets like Albania and Kosovo- I think this is why Google has ignored the region until now. And competition on the local level is of course good. Just ask the Czechs, who, thanks to Sezam.cz and its serious challenge to Google’s dominance, benefit from the fight to win market share with better products, faster speeds, and more alternatives. Google is rumored to spend more on development per user in the Czech market than in any other market in Europe. That’s no accident.

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Cedric Maloux gives his pitch training workshop.

With plenty of room for local growth, startups in Kosovo hope to prove that their innovations can compete on the global stage. While many of the entrepreneurs I met with during our 2 days there were eager, they were often naive about the demands of the global market. Instead of innovating around a single vertical, trying to solve a single real problem, many presented amorphous business concepts that incorporated many different solutions for a whole host of issues.

This is not surprising, given that they’re dealing with a market in which there are no dominant solutions for many common problems. How can a startup based on retail operate in a country where e-commerce has almost no penetration? And what good is an online media business if it doesn’t have an ad-platform that can support it? The temptation is to try and re-invent e-commerce and advertising in order to have a market to serve. My hope is that players like Gjirafa will be able to provide a sort of guiding light for other local startups, encouraging them to work in narrower verticals, and providing a broad basis for the growth of online business in the region.

So keep your eyes on Kosovo.

Photos thanks to Innovation Center Kosovo (ICK)

Update! StartupYard FastLane: Pitch Us in one of 6 Cities in September

The time has come! Today, we kick off our 6 city tour of Central European capitals, visiting incubators and workspaces in the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Poland.

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Startups in these countries will have the unique opportunity to pitch StartupYard’s team in person, and jump ahead to the final rounds of selection for StartupYard 2016, kicking off in January.

After applications close November 1st, StartupYard will select up to 10 teams to join us at StartupYard 2016, where they will receive 30,000+ Euros in investment, and over 500,000 Euros in perks, as part of an intensive, 3 month mentorship based program with dozens of workshops, and meetings with scores of mentors. Our program has accelerated 35 startups since 2011.

StartupYard, Fastlane 2016

StartupYard is expecting hundreds of individual startup applications from about a dozen countries for our 2016 cohort. We work hard to make the application process as fair as possible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect process.

Through a written application, much less one of hundreds like it, it’s very difficult to judge the passion, excitement, intelligence, and flexibility of an unknown startuper.

StartupYard is forced every year to relegate the vast majority of applications we receive to the dustbin, usually without ever meeting or really getting to know the applicants. We have to make very difficult decisions about hundreds of startups, based on very little information.

We probably miss out on amazing startups every year, because we don’t have time to get to know them all.

And that’s a shame. We don’t believe that a startup’s success in our program and in growing globally is necessarily connected with their ability to make themselves sound good on paper.

The decision to accept a startup into our program can have a massive impact on their future, but paper applications can’t communicate passion, people skills, poise, and responsiveness to feedback. These are things we only learn about the relatively tiny number of startups we interview in our final selection rounds.

We owe the startup communities in the countries where we recruit a fair shot at getting our attention. So we’re coming to you.

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Pitch StartupYard in Person: In any of 6 Cities

There will be 7 events, all in the month of September.

  • Prague, Czech Republic, September 2nd at Node5
  • Pristina, Kosovo, September 17th, at Innovation Center Kosovo
  • Sofia, Bulgaria, September 22nd  at VivaCom
  • Bucharest, Romania, September 24th with HowToWeb
  • Krakow, Poland September 29th at HubRaum
  • Warsaw, Poland, October 14th at Reaktor

How to Sign Up

Startups interested in pitching us at any of these events should sign up using the form below. Once we have verified that you meet the basic requirements to pitch us (that you are in our field, and other details), we will share your info with our local partners, and choose which teams to invite to pitch.

Even if you are not invited to pitch on-stage, this does not mean that you can’t meet us and pitch us in person. Some startups just don’t sound good on paper. That’s ok! We want to meet you, and we still want you to pitch us.

We’ll be in each city for at least a full day, providing time for you to do just that. The StartupYard team will host open hours in each of the venues we visit to give startups a chance to meet with us in person.

How it Works

StartupYard will visit 6 cities and 6 tech hubs such as incubators and workspaces (plus hold one event in our own city of Prague), where we will make ourselves available for a full day of mentoring, pitch training, and finally listening to the pitches of any local startups who are interested in joining our program and getting funded in 2016.

Local startups can choose to meet with us for mentoring and introductions, or come to pitch their startups in person, and talk to us afterwards. We will be providing constructive, experienced based feedback, in cooperation with our local partners in each city. These are not competitions, and there is no grand prize. However, they serve as an opportunity to grab our attention, as well as the attention of local influencers and investors who will also attend these events,

Those teams that impress us during this series of events will be invited to move directly from an initial application to StartupYard, directly to our final selection rounds, bypassing hundreds of other applicants in the process.

This is your chance to show us who you are.

9 Ways to Make Pitching Easier On Yourself

For some who join us at StartupYard, pitching before an audience of 300 is as natural as brushing their teeth. Some people do have a knack for public speaking that can’t exactly be explained. Others have to work at it. This post is for those people- the majority of us, to whom pitching and selling our ideas in front of a bunch of people feels about as unnatural as reciting Shakespeare.

Don’t Overestimate the Role of Talent

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Certain people are naturally good speakers. But most great speakers have to work at it. The chances are that if you hear someone who’s great at public speaking, that ability is the result of many years of practice.

On the flip side, many people with genuine talent are unwilling to put the work in, and really use their talents to full effect. I don’t worry about the worst speakers we have at StartupYard- I worry about the talented ones. Those are the ones most likely to slack when it comes to preparing their pitches and really putting in the work. They are used to coasting on their natural abilities, and they often under-prepare for the overwhelming experience of pitching to a big audience.

When the real talents put in the work, we have magical moments. But more often, the best pitches come from the entrepreneurs who thought they couldn’t even do the pitch.

Be the Biggest, Loudest Person in the Room

This also has to do with natural inclination, but also experience. As a result of meeting so many people in the technology field, I’ve come to be able to spot certain things about people that I couldn’t before. For example, Jan Mayer, Founder and CEO of 2015’s TrendLucid, is a lecturer at Masaryk University. When we first met, and when he pitched StartupYard at our final selection rounds last year, I asked him if he was a teacher.

“How did you know that?” he asked, surprised. It was his ability to project his voice, as I like to say, to about 130% of the available space, and to appear larger than the space he occupied. If you watch teachers teaching, they command attention by speaking in a voice which is slightly louder than it needs to be, and addressed to what seems to be a group which is slightly larger than the actual group they are speaking to.

This “4/3s” voice allows the teacher to command the attention of the audience (often unruly teenagers), in a way that a normal speaking voice could not. By giving the appearance of size and energy that is slightly larger than the room, the teacher makes the audience feel as if they are smaller than they truly are.

So be big. Be bigger than the room.

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Don’t Pitch or Present. Explain and Share

There is a positive example that you can take from Steve Jobs, and more recently Jony Ive or Tim Cook. The best “pitches,” are really not a sales pitch, but a narrative of events, trends, and technologies that explains why a product is the way it is, and why that makes sense.

In best pitches I hear, the emphasis is not on the fact that something can be done cheaper, or that money can be saved or earned- nor do they lay heavy emphasis on the size of the market (a classic rookie mistake is claiming you’re in a “Gazillion Dollar Industry,” as if that means something).

Pitches that tell me a company will be hugely profitable are at best eye-rollers. If you’re a startup, then that’s not a claim anybody should put much faith in. And anyway, the most important thing is the reason your new idea or business model is revolutionary, not exactly how much money it’s going to make. Those predictions will be useless in 6 months. So focus on what you can control, which is the execution of your vision.

Instead, the best pitches tell a story, which is something we work on at StartupYard quite intensively. The story is shared, and the processes involved are explained. If you approach your pitch with this perspective in mind, then you can relieve yourself of much of the burden that many entrepreneurs place on themselves of “selling,” with something much more organic- something that they do every day with employees, friends and family.

Investors and partners want to see that you can clearly explain and share your vision, so make your pitch about that- not about your ability to sell. This is in many ways easier, because it demands that you stick to your strengths, rather than

Remember, then Talk. Not the Other Way Around

When we’re engaged in normal conversation, sometimes we start a sentence without really being sure where it’s going to end.

Here’s a fascinating exercise- record yourself talking about something casually, and then write it down exactly as you spoke it aloud. What you’ll find, typically, is that it makes almost no sense at all. It will be full of runon sentences that lead nowhere, and ad-hoc phrases that only make grammatical sense if you cross your eyes.

Nobody talks the way they write. But often, founders doing their first pitch will write it, expecting themselves to be able to say it out loud. Well, your mouth and your brain are not accustomed to actually speaking the language that we recognize in writing. That’s just not the way people talk.

Find Your “Beats”

When working with our startups, I constantly harp on the idea of “beats,” in their pitches. A beat is a moment of particular emphasis. It is a phrase or a word, or a particular idea that is central to your narrative. It needs to be remembered.

Great pitches have a clear sequence of important points, or beats, which are memorable. For an example of this, it’s useful to look at someone like Tim Cook, revealing the Apple Watch (go to exactly 1:00:00 in the video.

Cook organizes his beats in a very simple pattern. When he needs to emphasize a point, he says it as a slide appears with the same words and an image behind him. Simple, and elegant. If you’ll notice, he only uses words on the screen when he is making a specific, memorable point. At no other time are there any words on screen.

A common mistake for founders is to make their “big point,” or “ahah moment,” a part of a slide that is so complex and full of information, that the audience is busy looking at it instead of listening to what is said. Your “beats,” have to be moments where nothing else gets the attention but one simple idea.

So Nice, You Said it Twice

I’ve talked in previous posts about repeating the name of your company during your pitch (by the way, repeat the name of your company in your pitch). But this piece of advice is simpler. If something is really important in your pitch, don’t be afraid to repeat it.

Repetition is a powerful way to emphasize what is being said. A very powerful way.

You see? People frequently repeat things when they’re speaking, but they rarely do so in writing- which can make a pitch feel pretty stilted when you haven’t rehearsed it enough.  

Your Slides Are the Plan, Not the Pitch

Our Managing Director Cedric Maloux repeats this same piece of advice to every startup we accelerate: “Your slides are cues, not content.” When we write our presentations, the tendency is to try and accomplish communication with slides that can’t be done verbally. That’s a mistake, because it leads founders most often to try and pack slides with too much information.

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Here’s a good general principle: if you can’t say it 10 words, it’s too much information for a slide. Your slides should be nothing more than a framework for what you want to say. Nobody wants to go to a pitch and spend their time reading your slides. They want to hear from you.

German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously wrote: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” As I’ve pointed out, one of the downsides of planning a pitch, is that what you end up with is a plan. Whether that’s a plan of exactly what you’ll say, or exactly what you’ll show the audience, that plan is not what is going to happen.

As I often tell my startups, the trick is not to say what you want, but to avoid saying what you don’t want. So be clear, be precise, and don’t over-write your pitch. Organize it into simple chunks.

Use Real Numbers

When I say “real numbers,” I’m going a bit beyond the “big numbers on the screen,” sense of the word “real.” I see plenty of pitches that are full of impressive numbers that, when you actually consider them, don’t say anything about the startup that’s actually pitching.

Worse, I often see pitches that include the numbers of competitors- as if the startup is just going to magically carve out a slice of the pie in their industry just because they showed up at the table. It doesn’t work that way, and investors know that. Even worse than that, I have heard pitches that included the valuation of companies in the same market. Now we’re in La La Land for sure.

Do Vocal Exercises

It’s silly. It’s embarrassing. It really, really works. For the past 2 years, StartupYard has engaged coaches leading up to Demo Day to work on voice training. The impact, over and over, has been startling- and not just for those founders who began as novices in public speaking.

Your voice is like anything else- an instrument of coordination that you use to do certain things. We are all accustomed to talking. But like the difference between walking a kilometer, and doing a pole vault, the body is not accustomed to the feats of energy and strength that we do not practice long and hard.

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For those without extensive practice and training, public speaking is surprisingly exhausting. It takes an unexpected amount of strength to use your voice to address more than a handful of people, and adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and consume more oxygen, meaning you need to breath more deeply and quickly. This all causes a person to expend more energy, to sweat, to be out of breath, and to feel exhausted, even after only a few minutes.

Bonus: Don’t Forget to Smile

This isn’t part of my 9 tips, but it’s important. Smile! And you’ll get smiles back. That’s reassuring, and will make you feel better about what you’re doing.