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.

Announcing StartupYard FastLane Prague: September 2nd at Node5

As we announced recently, StartupYard is hosting a series of Fastlane events, giving startups in 7 European cities the opportunity to pitch directly to StartupYard, and advance to our final rounds of selection for StartupYard 2016, kicking off in January.

StartupYard FastLane Prague: September 2nd

Our event in Prague will take place on Wednesday, September 2nd at 6pm, at our homebase, Node5.

Time: 18:00-20:00

Place: Radlicka 50/180, Prague 5

Anyone interested in learning about the StartupYard accelerator program is welcome to attend. We have guest speakers from startups who have attended in the past, and we look forward to being able to answer questions about StartupYard, our partners, and our program.

How to Pitch StartupYard

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If you’re interested in pitching your startup to StartupYard, all you have to do is fill in the short form below.

We will inform you the week of the event whether you have been selected to pitch on stage.

Preparing Your Pitch

On September 2nd, StartupYard will host open hours at Node5 from 14:00 to 16:00, which any interested startup may attend. We will also host a pitch training session for those startups that are selected to pitch at the evening event.

But we highly recommend that you start working on your pitch right now. We’ve published a number of pieces about pitching in the last year or so, and those are a good place to start.

6 Things to Remember When You’re Pitching Anyone, Anywhere

Three Pitching Disasters and How to Avoid Them

4 Tips for Targeting Your Elevator Pitch

Making Your Pitch “Real” From Day One

StartupYard’s 3rd Unconference: Remote Year, Work/Home Balance, and Blogging

Wednesday night, at Node5, StartupYard hosted our 3rd “Unconference.”

Unconferencing is an alternative take on a conference in which the participants help shape the talks and sessions offered.

An Unconference differs from a traditional conference or set of workshops, chiefly in that none of its content is planned or scheduled ahead of time. Instead, the content of workshops is decided spontaneously, by whomever is in attendance, and is interested in contributing.

 

The whole process looks a bit like this:

1. Introduce the format to attendees.

2. Attendees write down a workshop topic they would like to host or to attend on sticky notes.

3. Participants vote on the topics to be included in a series of time slots, with multiple workshops running simultaneously. The total number depends on the space and the number of attendees.

4. The moderator proposes a schedule of the events, striking a balance between topics, and not putting the most popular workshops in competition.

5. Attendees suggest changes, and the conference kicks off, with the topic owners either presenting themselves without preparation, or asking for others to present on the topic they’ve proposed- in some cases, workshops become idea-sharing and brainstorming meetings.

Remote Year

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This unconference was presented in cooperation with Remote Year, an interesting organization from the US. Remote Year collects a group of people who work independently or remotely, and offers them a once in a lifetime chance: to work in a different city, every month, for an entire year.

The object is to get to know their fellow travelers (people from around the world, not just the US), and experience life in a huge range of cities around the world, while continuing to work remotely. The organization plans and organizes all travel, accommodations, and workspaces for the workers, as well as occasional events, such as our Unconference.

The group we met, about a third of Remote Year’s 75 current members, were engaged and interesting. I’d love to hear more of their feedback about how Remote Year works for them, but they’re just at the start of their journey. They’ll soon be moving on to Slovenia, then to Croatia, Turkey, and later to Asia and South America, visiting Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

Remote Year doesn’t seem cheap, at $24,000 for the full year (paid twice a month), however, considering that this is probably competitive with rents in many American cities, and it represents travel and accommodation expenses, it might not be as expensive as it seems.

Topics

There were a wide range of topics, including “video games as a business,” and “monetization of mobile apps: subscription vs. one-time payments.” But as I often do, I gravitated to soft skills topics, so these are the sessions I’ll talk about here.

Session 1: Understanding Neuroscience for Sales and Pitching

Cedric Maloux, StartupYard’s Managing Director, has given this presentation a few times, and it is always interesting. He based his talk on two books: Pitch Anything, by Oren Klaff, and Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini.

He talks about the concept of human evolution being related to “three brains:” the “reptilian brain,” the “middle brain” and the “thinking” or intellectual brain. One brain has been built “on top” of the other through the course of human evolution.

The important insight here is that while we think of ourselves as intellectual beings who make rational decisions, we in fact base many of our actions and thoughts on more primal, less rational instincts. The reptilian brain assesses the world according to the most basic terms of survival, more crudely put: “can I eat it, can it eat me, or can I have sex with it?”

Advertisers have long known that fear, aggression, and reproduction are the most powerful drivers of human action. But that insight shouldn’t be limited to advertising. So Cedric talks about how to appeal to the “reptilian” brain in all of us: by evoking these same feelings, either with images in presentations, certain words, or ideas that appeal to our basic survival instincts.

At the same time, Cedric highlights the “power of because.” Also long known to marketers, psychologists, and salespeople, research dating back to the 1970s shows that by supplying reasons for our need to do something, or for our need for others to do something, we can influence them to go along with us at a very high rate.

The classic experimental proof involves a woman asking to cut in line at a copy machine, but there have been variations that included people asking for seats on metro cars, and other situations. Research shows that when you ask to cut in line at a copy machine, even giving a bogus reason like “I have 5 pages,” you only stand a 60% chance or so of getting what you want. However, when you state the reason more clearly, using “because,” you can reach a 94% rate of assent from subjects. If you ask: “can I cut in line because I’m in a rush?” you’re over 50% more likely to be allowed to do so.

Interestingly, the increase in acceptance also applies even if no new information is added. So, for example, if the “I have 5 pages,” is reworded to “because I have 5 pages,” the results are the same as when giving a valid reason.

These experiments also showed that the power of because extended even to unreasonable requests, although its power diminishes as the request becomes more unreasonable. While a person with 5 pages could get up to 94% acceptance, a person with 20 pages might get only 42%, but that would still be almost double the amount that they could get without a “because.”

Work/Home Balance

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

A topic of interest to me as a newly minted dad who annoys his co-workers with pictures of his kid, this was more of a discussion group. The StartupYard team, along with the Node5 team and a few members of Remote Year got together to discuss the issue of balancing life and work, or, for some, the concept of there being a difference between life and work.

This session focused on two things: the problem of balance and priorities, and the issue of extraversion vs. introversion.

We first discussed the “four burners theory,” a concept popularized the American writer David Sedaris, which poses the problem as one of priorities. A balanced life has 4 burners, as on a stove. One is for family, one for friends, another for health, and the fourth for work. It being difficult or impossible to cook on four burners simultaneously, a successful person will usually choose to remove one. For example, a person who values their work and family, must then choose to abandon either their health, or their friends.

It stands to reason that a successful career, a solid family, and a healthy lifestyle doesn’t allow someone to keep up friendships, which involve nights out, hobbies, and other time consuming activities. At the same time, a person may choose to have a great career, and time to go to the gym and eat healthy, but must then choose between spending time with their friends, or going out on dates in the hope of finding a mate.

Again, a person may choose to have a family, have friends, and be healthy, but must then spend less time focusing on a career and making money.

Moreover, the theory goes that a person who wishes to be *really* successful, must only use two burners. You can be very healthy and have a great career, you can be an amazing friend and parent, or you can have a great family and an ambitious career, but you can’t perform at the top of your game in three areas at once.

While we all shift our priorities over time, I found some truth in this framework. I have sacrificed mostly friendships as I have transitioned to my interest in my family. My wife has stayed out of the workforce to raise our son, but has been able to maintain friendships and a healthy lifestyle. As some in the discussion pointed out, these changes are cyclical, and they need not be permanent. Roles can switch, and the needs of families change over time, as kids grow up and look after themselves.

We also discussed the concept of the “outgoing extrovert.” While Petra of Node5 described herself as an extrovert because of her ability to talk to groups and be outgoing, she also described her need to be alone with her own thoughts. It was pointed out that she might not be extroverted, but rather outgoing. Cedric too, pointed out that his public speaking ability and his career working with so many people was in fact a defense that he has built up because of his introversion, and not because he is extroverted.

On the other hand, members of the discussion who really are extroverts talked about how difficult it is for them to pass up spending time with their friends, while the extroverts couldn’t easily sympathize with the dilemma that the extroverts face; they would almost always rather be on their own. For the extroverts, not being among their friends was a draining experience, rather than a relaxation.

These are the sort of layered and spontaneous discussions that a really good Unconference can generate: when’s the last time you talked about your emotional needs at a business conference?

Blogging and Writer’s Block, and “Brand Building”

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Time to become famous.

Finally, I participated in a discussion about blogging. Something I’ve come to think a lot about in the past few years.

As many of the attendees were about to spend the next year traveling the world, many were thinking of writing “travel blogs.” The problem, it seems, is that many didn’t have a sense of the value of that kind of blogging. Why do it? Who is it for? How to start?

In writing, we often talk about “writer’s block.” While many people think of this as an issue of not knowing what to write, it’s actually more complicated. “Writer’s block,” is the dreaded feeling that writers have when they are unable, or don’t know how, to start writing, even when they know what they would like to write about.

A blank page spreads out before the writer like a barren desert, and the enormity of having to fill it with good ideas is frightening. This stops many people from writing, blogging, or doing many other creative activities.

I suffer this existential fear all the time, particularly when my writing is not work related. But writers can learn tricks to overcome the problem.

My trick, which works better for me in blogging that it does in longer works, is to always keep the problem in mind when I write. Just as we work with our startups to focus on the problem they are solving for their customers, and the unique value they are providing to overcome customer pain, I approach writing this blog in the same way.

What problem can I solve for our readers, by writing about something? It can be a basic problem, such as our readers not knowing about something they should know about. Or it can be more complex, such as the piece we posted earlier this week about StartupYard’s deeply held values, and how they differ from what people might expect. The problem then would be that people see something a certain way, and the writer doesn’t. So the writer must express his or her view, and persuade or at least inform people of their opinions and views.

If you aren’t writing to address a problem, or a lack of something, then you aren’t writing for anyone. If you aren’t writing for anyone, then why are you writing? Of what value is what you write?

While members of the discussion talked about having a blog in order to “build a personal brand” (an already overhyped concept on its own), the problem remains. A brand is built around values, and you have to have values (and thus opinions), in order for your brand to have any meaning.

We are all aware of this subliminally, if not intellectually.

Think of a few famous brands, and you will be able to define their values fairly clearly. McDonald’s? Family, “Americanization,” entrepreneurialism, convenience, and comfort. You may see other positive or negative connotations in the McDonald’s brand, but you’ll recognize that the brand communicates those concepts consistently. Apple? Cutting edge design, ease of use, and high-end mass consumerism. Whether you hate or love Apple, you can recognize that these are its core values, whether they are successful or not.

In “building a brand,” a blogger, just like a corporation, has to establish what the brand is intended to convey. Otherwise, readers will be less than charitable with their own interpretations. And the best way to convey your values is to talk about them passionately- to argue for them, and to make the discussion about them, rather than about yourself, your needs, or your idea of what your “brand” is all about.

If you can do that consistently, as I hope this nearly 2500 word blog post (written in less than 2 hours) will show, writer’s block may be the least of your problems as a blogger.

#PragueHacks, the Pre-event, in Tweets and Pics

What is #Praguehacks?

Earlier this year, we announced #Praguehacks, “Sharing the City,” a weekend hackathon that is taking place this coming weekend at Node5, StartupYard’s own shared workspace. The hackathon will be based on open-city data, provided by the city of Prague, and using technologies provided by our partners, including IBM, and Microsoft.

There are a raft of partners for this event, including the French Embassy in Prague, Credo Ventures, the US Embassy in Prague, the British Embassy in Prague, The Vodafone Foundation, GisMentors, and TakePlace.

The hackathon will run from this Friday evening, up to Sunday night, and will aim to generate applications, visualizations, and useful tools based on data provided by partners, including the City of Prague and the Prague Institute of Planning and Development, (IPR Praha), to make life in the city easier, safer, more ecological, and more interesting. Teams will receive access to hundreds of thousands of Czech crowns worth of services from IBM and Microsoft as part of the hackathon.

Winning teams will be eligible for fast-track selection to the StartupYard program, or to a non-profit acceleration program run by Vodafone Foundation.

129 Applications

While we had initially hoped for at least 30 teams to apply, we were soon swamped with nearly 130 applications. Clearly, this is an idea whose time has come in Prague. In the end, space limitations meant that we could accept “only” 85 teams, nearly 3 times the number originally planned.

Lead Organizer Michaela Rybickova of Fond Otakara Motejla, on the excitement leading up to the hackathon:

There have been plenty of volunteers:

The Pre-Event

Our managing director Cedric Maloux hosted a “pre-event,” Monday at Node5, to welcome the selected teams and introduce the sponsors, data, and technology to be used during the hackathon.

Speakers included: Jiří Čtyroký, director of the Spatial Information Section for IPR,  Ondřej Profant, representative of the City of Prague and Municipal District of Prague 7, Josef Gattermayer, entrepreneur and  IT consultant at Municipal District of Prague 8, Jan Cibulka, data journalist at Samizdat, and Josef Šlerka, chief of New Media Studies at Charles University, and the head of R&D at Socialbakers.

Here is some of that event in tweets and pics:

The event was highly anticipated:

 

Michal Tošovský, open data advocacy officer for Fond Otakara Motejla, talked about problems cities can solve with open data. He shared tips for city apps based on conversations with municipal representatives. 

FixMyStreet, a service presented by Lepsi Mesto (Better City), an app that allows citizens to flag and report issues in urban infrastructure and maintenance, served as inspiration for many of the attendees on what is possible with enough data.

Some friendly competition between Microsoft and IBM was encouraged by the participants:

SocialBakers’ Josef Slerka revealed a huge source of data that will be welcome at the hackathon:

One of the centerpieces of the hackathon, city data, was presented by the Prague Institute of Planning and Development.

Not all the attendees’ data dreams were fulfilled however:

Derek Eder, lead organizer of Chicago’s “Civic Hacknights” and a co-author of ClearStreets presented his work remotely. ClearStreets tracks Chicago’s snow plows in real time- giving city residents a real sense of city services at work. 

Not everybody could be there:

But a live stream of the whole weekend will be available at the #Praguehacks website:

StartupYard Demo Day: May 28th, 2015, With Keynote Speaker Michael Jackson

The StartupYard team, and our seven 2015 startups are pleased to announce our next Demo Day, which will take place May 28th, 2015, at Nod Roxy, in the center of Prague. There, at 6:30pm local time, the seven startups will pitch to the public for the first time.

StartupYard’s Demo Day is a peerless opportunity to meet innovators, investors, thought leaders, and disruptors from the local tech scene. The event is a mix of presentations and individual networking opportunities.

We expect not only guests from Prague’s vibrant startups scene, but also representatives of large companies and sponsors, such as Mazars, Microsoft, Google, Seznam, Skype, and IBM, among others.

We are also very excited to announce that Michael Jackson of Mangrove Capital Parters, will join us as a keynote speaker. This will be Jackson and Mangrove’s first public appearance in Prague.

In addition, Aymard  De Scorbiac, Director of Mazars Lab, a StartupYard partner, will be coming from Paris to speak briefly at the event.

When: Registration at 18:00, May 28th, 2015 (Keynote begins 18:30)
Where: Nod Roxy, at Dlouhá 33, Prague 1 

A Special Keynote Address: Michael Jackson

1868608-nous-aimons-investir-a-contre-courant-des-tendancesMichael Jackson, a Mangrove Partner, is a celebrated seed investor and former Chief Operating Officer of Skype. In his over 25 year career in telecom, he has worked for, grown or started a dozen businesses.

He leads Mangrove’s investment efforts in the mobile space. “I look for big ideas. But above this, I look for the passion, drive and ambition in a founding team, and a genuine reason why they believe they can dominate their sector,” Jackson says: “I like to work closely with unusual entrepreneurs and need to feel some connection to them.”

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Mangrove Capital Partners is a venture capital firm based in Europe which is focused on investing in early stage information technology companies. It aims at being the first institutional investor and supports its best companies through successive rounds of financing.

Mangrove is best known for making early investments in Skype and Wix.com, which became the largest-ever IPO for an Israeli firm when it floated on Nasdaq in 2013.

The firm’s co-founder and CEO Mark Tluszcz was among the first investors in Europe to feature on the ‘Forbes Midas List of Top Technology Investors.

The Venue: Nod Roxy

Nod Roxy, the “experimental space” at the heart of one of Prague’s most innovative cafes, is a popular venue for many of Prague’s alternative culture offerings, including musical performances, film festivals, and other live events.

Founded in 1987, and including a club, cafe, and concert venue, it’s cool, forward thinking, and the perfect place to host StartupYard’s latest Demo Day.

You can take a live tour of the venue on the Nod Roxy Website.

SOS: StartupYard Open-Source

Last month, we announced that we would be “open-sourcing” The StartupYard Program, and inviting local Prague-based startups to attend workshops with the StartupYard team. We’re happy to announce that this program has now started.

 

SOS: StartupYard Open-Source: The Schedule

There will be 4 sessions a week, initially, and the first term will run from next week, until the end of February. Depending on the interests of both local startups and our StartupYard mentors, we may soon be able to add more sessions, including some run by members of the StartupYard Community.

The Workshops will be individual for each team, and will take place at our homebase at Node5 and will not be public.

The sessions will be free of charge. Teams need only fill out a short application, and they will then be invited to sign up for a slot in one of 4 workshops.

  • Mondays: Write the Perfect Press Release, with Lloyd Waldo

  • Tuesdays: Keys to an Effective Landing Page, with Lloyd Waldo

  • Wednesdays: Writing and Presenting A Killer Pitch, with Cedric Maloux

  • Thursday: Perfecting User and Financial Projections, with Cedric Maloux

 

Sign Up For A Private SOS Workshop

Note: We may select which teams will be invited for the workshop based on various factors. 
 

Thank you for the opportunity to consult our project with Mr. Maloux, it was very inspiring and beneficial. I appreciate his advices very much and of course we will use them.  He does a great job!” – Marie Ratajová

 
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Why Open-Source StartupYard?

 

The aim of SOS is to give a small slice of the StartupYard experience to a local team, and just as importantly, to open StartupYard’s doors to the local tech community, and increase the quality and depth of our connections with local entrepreneurs. As our director Cedric Maloux stated when we announced this program, we hope to see StartupYard grow in its important role as a vital resource for local tech entrepreneurs, as well as the investors and advisors who make entrepreneurship in the local ecosystem possible.

What benefits the local tech community, in terms of the quality of work being done, the quality of the investors interested in the region, and the innovativeness of new projects, ultimately benefits StartupYard and our investors. We have to recognize and promote this virtuous cycle with the local tech community, and that’s what we aim to do.

What you Can Expect from SOS

These sessions by no means comprise a complete list of the skills that StartupYard promotes among its accelerator teams. However, they focus on the key areas of weakness that we consistently observe among local startups and entrepreneurs. The communication workshops (on Press Releases and Landing Pages), which I will run myself, focus on the key concepts of good communication that will help a small company to avoid quite a few common mistakes. They will also lay the groundwork for a company to develop a strong communication style that can be applied to many different areas, by focusing on a few crucial communication formats that all startups have to master.

Cedric’s sessions, dealing with the topics of pitching and making financial and user projections, will focus on another crucial failure point for startups: investment. Not only will his workshops focus on practical skills for pitching, and practical issues of creating and maintaining good projections, including specific best practices, but they will also show how crafting a pitch and a financial plan will define the early success or failure of a company in the eyes of investors, and help make clear the best path forward for a growing company.

 

 

The StartupYard 2014 Open House at Node5 A Success

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

Wayra gave us a little love as well:

 

 

Jan Muehlfeit

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

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

 

 

 The Pitch-Off

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

Factorify

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

hotcar.io

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

shards.io

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

Portadi

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

f8

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

Datlowe

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

SentiSquare

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

 

Educasoft

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

StartupYard Announces Strategic Parternship with Mazars

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

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

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