Ondrej Krajicek, Part 2: “Density Doesn’t Equal Cooperation.”

On Wednesday, we started a two-part interview with popular StartupYard mentor and Y Softer Ondrej Krajicek. Here is part two, where Ondrej dives deep into the systemic issues he sees in the Czech approach to entrepreneurialism, education, and government policy surrounding business.

Check out Part 1: “Make Failing Legal in the Czech Republic”

What do you think investors in Central Europe need to do more (or less) to improve the startup ecosystem here?

I understand that I am always talking about this mysterious thing, this “added value” when there are so many bright ideas and it is so difficult to get an investment, isn’t it? It is quite common for VCs in the USA to provide recruitment / head hunting, i.e. to hire key people for the startups, provide financial governance, etc.

So we are not inventing the wheel, we just need to follow its tracks. As there is no VC training out there, I hope that more people who became successful with their own companies will contribute by becoming investors and telling their stories.

We as a community of investors in the Czech Republic need to focus on delivering value; not just money. This is what we are trying to do with Y Soft Ventures and fortunately, there are others.

StartupYard is based on delivering value as an investor. From the feedback I have from some startups, the best thing about StartupYard is that it delivers “a hell of a ride”, shows tens thousand of things to the startup teams in a very short period of time and by doing this, creates awareness.

We, as investors, shall also strive to build a community. To communicate, cooperate and co-invest.

Are there political, social, or educational reforms that you would like to see in the Czech Republic to improve the prospects of entrepreneurship and the tech industry here? What would they be?

Well, we really need to increase the speed limit on D1 and stop putting money in speed traps. Seriously!

Well, the Czech political and business climate has its strengths and weaknesses, that’s no surprise.

Take the cost deductible research and development for one (“double deduction”). It is quite an easy and accessible system, but on the other hand, will become more interesting once you are able to generate profits and start paying taxes. After that, this can substantially help you to reduce your corporate income tax.

Accessible education, including university education is another one. I really like the direction towards inviting students from abroad to study here. And open borders with Slovakia. Many talented people from Slovakia end up here, because they had the opportunity to study. These are two positives I can mention off the top of my head.

There are many things I see that must change. This can be a topic for a blog post or an interview on its own, so let’s mention several of the biggest issues I see:

Failure equals punishment. When you fail and your project goes bankrupt, the state punishes you and the society punishes you. Instead of appreciating that you tried and failed, you are the one who’s bankrupt. Moreover, you cannot even establish new business for some time, not to mention the social stigma.

1. Czechs need to acknowledge that there are foreign languages. Czech content should be in Czech, but unless we stop stubbornly translating foreign content (movies, books, TV programmes) into Czech, we will always be strangers in a multicultural world.

2. Difficulty of establishing a company and becoming an entrepreneur. Czech society is still not used to entrepreneurs and does not appreciate them. Being a founder of successful business, you are still envied or despised rather than celebrated. Even some politicians still live in the past and call small entrepreneurs and small companies parasites.

3. It is still too difficult to establish a company and even more difficult to hire employees. I believe that in many cases, our social systems drives employers (not just startups) against creating new jobs instead of motivating them to do so.

4. Czech Republic lacks an explicit strategy on investments in terms of research, development and education. Let’s face it, we are a small country and we should really think twice about where we put our money and resources in terms of funding research, development and education. We need to be conscious about where our strengths are, decide on where we want to lead and put money in it.

Today, when you increase or rather cut budgets for education, the cut usually impacts all fields of study, all departments proportionally. This has a negative impact on everybody, the students (they cannot take this into account when deciding what to study), the schools (they cannot make long term decisions on where to invest for growth) and the employers (they cannot be sure that they will have enough good employees with potential for growth).

When a company is considering whether to bring their R&D operations to the Czech Republic, they have no guarantee they will have enough educated specialists in the future. Sustainability, or the lack of it is one of the main effects of our current education policies.

How would you like to see the Czech government distribute money more efficiently?

The real problem is that they follow the same pattern in terms of subsidies as everybody else. Make a call for projects, then wait. Companies and schools put together artificial projects, many of them are designed only to get the money. They should consider acting more as investors, or in empowering more investors to guide public money by co-investing.

Like StartupYard has been doing with the FiWare program from the EC.

Exactly. And I’m sure you see your fair share of projects that are only designed to look like they are worthy of funding, even though they don’t represent a real need or a real passion on the part of their owners.

It happens to us from time to time as well that companies approach us with projects that don’t really need our involvement, but need a corporate partner for government funding. I don’t accept these sorts of arrangements as a rule.

We have projects at Y Soft that also seek public funding – I find myself in an awkward situation thinking: how can we differentiate as a real project with these projects designed to get funding? We are a real project, not one designed to meet the specifications of a grant, so we ironically have less of a chance of getting the funding for that. And that isn’t the way it is supposed to work.

Where is the real Bureaucratic problem? On the EU level, or with the Czech government?

Well, here is where I see the issue generally, whether it is the EU level or with the Czech government. We have a lot of skilled people, willing to work. But we have a structure and system in place, and that structure and system is not necessarily designed to allow people to work on what matters most. There are inherent flaws in redistribution – it’s always messy.

I don’t expect that the EU or a local government can suddenly change that system. I would just like to see a bigger amount of money utilized in new ways and with different approaches.

Back to my list:

5. All the time, the government, the state-run institutions focus mainly on bringing big investors to the Czech Republic without caring much about the companies which are already here or which may grow here. This is becoming absurd.

When I discuss this with some of my friends or colleagues who work for some of these big investors, they make sad jokes about how difficult is the position of local companies compared to them. It is important to bring investors, but never stop focusing on whether they bring value or they just seek cheap labor.

I have heard the argument, that investment incentives are equally accessible to everybody. That is true on paper, but in reality, do you think that a small Czech startup can achieve the same level of access to public funding as a big international corporation? I am not refering to anything illegal, the small startup simply has neither the experience nor the manpower to do that.

6. And subsidies. Don’t get me wrong. First I need to say, that Y Soft implemented a few successful projects funded from subsidies and received funding for that. We invested a lot effort into it and the system supported is when we needed that support. Despite that, I think that just giving money to anybody who asks for them is not generally good enough. Those who award them should behave more like investors, looking for companies which can be worth it, which have growth potential and will bring jobs and taxes in the future.

In regards to how the Czech government invests in the Startup ecosystem and in education, what kind of specific investments would you advocate, and why?

Education is something very close to me. I take it as one of my personal missions to change the way IT is being taught here [in the Czech Republic]. I spent 8 years in academia, and for me that’s still a big part of my life at 34. We really should think where we want to go as a country, and choose a direction.

The UK, the United States, even South Korea manage to do that, and for such a small country as the Czech Republic, it makes sense to make these decisions: ‘we will invest in this, and we will not invest in that.”

There are so many projects and new companies in the IT field, not just here, but everywhere. As an industry, I think, (pure) software-only IT is losing the potential to generate value over time, which is why I advocate for combining software and hardware. But even more, we as a country have to support engineering, material sciences, geology, and resource and energy management as new fields of endeavor.

In the last 15-20 years, IT has had a lot of traction – also here. But the people in these other fields have hardly lost focus. Quite the opposite. We should make these other sciences more visible, and the government should focus on encouraging more investment and more study in these fields.

So you want the Czech Republic to look more like California or Israel, then just Silicon Valley.

Exactly! Everybody talks about how we have to replicate Silicon Valley culture. It’s funny because when we say that, or try to do that, we are completely missing the point. What I see when we try to replicate Silicon Valley culture, is that we take a few companies, we cram them into a small space, and we simply believe that density equals cooperation. Do we work according to the right principles and values? What do we contribute to the system? Are the startups staffed and surrounded by people in a culture of cooperation? Do they understand how cooperation will benefit them as an industry? We don’t know, or sometimes, we don’t care.

The Valley is a mix of a highly result-oriented culture and an almost communist approach to contribution to a common good. Ideas, technologies, and people as well. We don’t have that approach to the way we work or the way we think, and until we do, we are not going to replicate that kind of success.

And people forget that Silicon Valley culture of today is based on the publishing industry that was there before IT.

Yes, and Steve Jobs learned a lot about bringing aesthetics to IT from the publishing industry, precisely. You have to have a long-standing culture of sharing and changing. You can’t manufacture that. And it is difficult to replicate.

I am not saying that we should stop caring about business models and just help each other. This is not the way how the Valley works. I am pointing out that we have the opportunity to build our own culture and we should take inspiration not only from them. Valley culture is to be admired because they are able to sustain business results with pervasive cooperation.

You mentioned also that the Czech economy is dominated by foreign investors who may be looking for cheap labor rather than new ideas. How can local players like us (StartupYard), do better to improve this situation?

Not sure if dominated is the right word. But they are here and we should learn from other industries. How many manufacturing plants have been opened and closed already because the investors moved further to the east for even cheaper labor? And we see it in the area of software development as well.

On the positive side, having a high demand for people in software engineering lowers the risk for people to establish startups.

It happens with StartupYard quite a bit – many of our companies are transitioning from consultancies or outsourcing, to making their own products. They are going from steady sources of income, to bigger risk propositions.

Yes. On one hand, it’s good for you because it decreases the risk in entrepreneurship. They can always go back. But on the other hand, it’s bad for the same reason.

It’s all about the amount of real value we are generating here. How we are (not) learning the real craft. When an investor comes here looking for cheap labor, do you think that their products will be designed, that important decisions will be made, or market investigations made here? No. The project managers will be somewhere else.

They’re looking for coders and laborers, and they are looking for quantity, not quality. They are not looking for creators. This doesn’t help us to grow as a nation, because we aren’t learning product management, or marketing. We aren’t learning about customers. You must have experience with this at StartupYard as well.

Yes, that’s a big part of our work as an accelerator.

It’s not about that we don’t want foreign investors. We do. But when I see the news, every time a Czech politician wants to look sophisticated, he talks about attracting foreign investors. But what about the local companies? Tools are available to the investors which are also available to local companies. We can do the same work that they do, for the same customers. But we think they’re somehow naturally better at these things outside pure development.

We both know companies that are bringing really interesting projects to the Czech Republic. But many of them are just seeking cheap labor. What a local player like StartupYard can do, is not necessarily (just to) get bigger, but really promote how important these small local companies are for the Czech economy, and for our future as a country. We have to own our own ideas in the future. We can’t just work on other people’s.

For politicians and big players, it’s too intangible to understand – too fine-grained to grasp. So we need to explain and be patient and promote how important this process [of developing our own products] is. When they start to listen, then we need to talk about how the government can support it.

Like with new education, immigration, and employment policies.

That’s exactly what I was thinking – particularly about education. Our open borders relationship with Slovakia for example.

There’s a big difference between people who come to study, and those who come to work, generally. I don’t like to categorize people so strictly, but there’s a difference between someone who comes to get their education, and a person who only comes here to make a living.

School influences our thinking and our values. A person who comes here at an early age learns how to work in this culture, and how to improve it as well. Plus, they have a very positive influence in challenging and bringing new ideas into our culture, through our native students, which is very important. It introduces healthy competition, new ideas, diversity, and new talent. It also brings new perspectives and shapes our students, making them more open to new ideas and cultures.  

Of course, If you are used to travelling for your work, it needs to be easy to do in the Czech Republic. We have to be welcoming to people who find this a good place to work, but we need to encourage even more people to come and be educated here as well. When you decide to study here, it’s much more difficult to do, and the most motivated people decided to do that.

So I’m very glad that we provide the same conditions for foreign students to study here as we do for our own citizens. Well, those who don’t understand Czech still have to pay for teaching in English, but even that is changing and will change in the future. Education accessible under the same rules and conditions for all who qualify. That’s the right thing to do.

Ondrej Krajicek: Y Softer and StartupYard Mentor, Part 1: “Make Failing Legal in the Czech Republic”

(This is a two part series. Click here for Part 2: “Density Doesn’t Equal Cooperation”)

Ondrej Krajicek, one of StartupYard’s most popular mentors, serves as Chief Research Officer at Y Soft Corporation and Y Soft Ventures. Y Soft is a global leader in print management systems, and has also branched out into 3D printing. In addition, through Y Soft Ventures, the company has begun to support and invest in startups in its field as well, investing in Czech startups Comprimato, and OrganizeTube, among others.

Ondrej, when he visits StartupYard at Node5, can often be seen animately drawing on a flipchart. He’s the sort of person who can find passion for almost any subject, and when he’s talking with startups, there are few who can match his skills as a mentor.

Ondrej and I talked several times, about mentoring, investing, and the Czech tech ecosystem, in what became an increasingly long interview (our longest ever). Still, we think it’s really worth reading, so we have decided to split this behemoth into two parts. Part 2 will be posted by Friday. For today, please enjoy part one of this interview:

Hi Ondrej, tell us a bit about yourself first. What is your background, and how did you get involved with Y Soft Corporation, and Y Soft Ventures?

Pretty straightforward. I am Czech, I was born here and grew up here. Studied and worked at the Faculty of Informatics and Institute of Computer Science of Masaryk University in Brno. That is also where I had my first teaching experience, tutoring students on Object Oriented Programming and found out that I like to teach.

Later, I joined the team teaching Functional Programming at Haskell and also started two courses, which are being taught at the Faculty of Informatics to this day. Both are related to C# and Microsoft.Net platform. By the way, I have recently returned to teaching, having the opportunity to teach Software Quality at Faculty of Informatics, Masaryk University. It always feels nice to return.

I had some experiences with big companies like Microsoft, HP, but I left the university for Y Soft in 2007, never finishing my PhD (and that’s still on my TO DO list!). My background is applied Computer Science, Software Engineering and Software Architecture.

At Y Soft, I am member of company management and I have always been involved with R&D. Recently, I became Y Soft CTO. At Y Soft, I also became acquainted with Y Soft Ventures and the startup community, roughly 3 years ago.

When I work with startups, I simply sell what I know, what I have learned at Y Soft and whatever insight I might have. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sell the Y Soft way of doing things, trying to shape every challenge to whatever Y Soft went through. Every company is unique and that starts with culture and ends with products, technology and know how. But I try to use my insight and perspective which I have thanks to this experience and I am open about it.

I enjoy building products (focusing on combination of HW and SW) which have value. I enjoy challenging myself with customer needs (fighting with my engineering inner self which knows best what the users need) and bringing developers and customers together (which is anyhow seen as very dangerous thing to do). I love diversity and working in multicultural, global environment with all the lessons it brings. And I like matching business with technology and vice versa.

And I am a YSofter.

YSoft doesn’t seem the sort of company that one would normally expect to invest in startups and entrepreneurs. What drove your decision to give back to startups in Central Europe?

I look at this as a healthy mixture of pragmatism and patriotism. Patriotism is about wanting to give back something to our country and our region and support others to live up to challenges and establish companies, turn their ideas into products and products into business. I always shared the vision of Vasek (Muchna, Y Soft founder) to give positive examples that you can build successful companies here in CEE… or die trying!

From the business point of view, we want to utilize our experience with building Y Soft, delivering HW / SW products (which the world now calls Internet of Things, IOT) and accompanying services and also leverage our global sales and support network. Y Soft is only now changing from a single to multiple product company and our affiliates cover global business worldwide, and have the capacity to cover more than just SafeQ and potential to further grow their operation if necessary. We are utilizing this internally, such as with be3D printers, a recent Y Soft acquisition. 

What are some of your favorite investments from YSoft Ventures so far, and what makes them special to you?

A: The Y Soft Ventures operation is small so far, so I can say that I enjoy working with all our portfolio companies. However, the closest to me is Comprimato, the provider of GPU accelerated JPEG2000 codecs for professional use. I like the technology and I share some background with the founders. I strongly believe in their product, but most importantly in their technology and the team.

For me, every startup can be viewed and evaluated on three levels: (current or upcoming) products, technology / know how and the team and its culture. For instance, Comprimato is very strong on all three levels and they have very sound technology and team. Besides high performance video codecs, they can deliver value in parallelization on GPUs in many different fields. 

All our portfolio companies have their unique trait. Take OrganizeTube, for example: they managed to develop a second product just by trying to solve one of the problems they had with their web portal. That is another reminder of how flexible the startup can be and that new products and services can really start as “accidents”. 

What do you see as the unique advantages and disadvantages that startups have in the Czech Republic and in Central Europe generally?

The ecosystem, or I should say the lack of it. I recently had very interesting conversation with one of my colleagues about the cost of failures in entrepreneurship here. On one hand, you have the illegal chains of companies relying on surrogates (which we refer to as white horses) and on the other, we have lots of people with bright ideas facing the big risks associated with trying and failing.

We need to support trial and failure cycle on the system level. Not only will this make startups more accessible to everybody, but also this will give a strong message to the society, where we as a nation want to go.

 I understand the protective measures which are built in our legal system, but we need to be aware that this might also hinder the creation of new companies. Startup culture is one of the strong drivers for innovation and creation of products and services with high added value. This (and I am not a macroeconomist) translates to more qualified jobs and the push for more educated people. When we combine this with the strong tradition the Czech Republic has in some fields, this might really change our economic outlook for the next 20 – 30 years.

We just need to “legalize” trying and failing.

And this is not just a legal thing. Establishing a company and going bankrupt still has a lot of negative social connotation. We as a society need to learn to distinguish whether we are looking at somebody who really broke the law or if we are looking at an entrepreneur for whom his current idea failed, but who can succeed with a new one.

As a StartupYard mentor, what were your impressions of some of our most recent Startups? Did you have any favorites? What are some of their biggest challenges, in your view?

 First of all, thanks for this opportunity. I learned a lot! My first impression, when I came for my mentoring day was “How can you do this without a whiteboard or a flipchart?” So you gave me that flipchart :-).

I spend approximately 40 – 60 minutes with each company, which is how StartupYard works and I am still in touch with some of them. Every company is completely different and I enjoy talking to every single one of them. What’s even better is that I am staying in touch with some and as far as I know, this is one of the positives that StartupYard brings. Many contacts persist and lead to long term cooperations with the mentors.

All the products and ideas I saw were interesting. I really appreciated their depth and the technology behind them. But I believe that it’s the team that’s most important and I have met great people at StartupYard this year. A lot of positive things and also much to improve and learn, but that holds for all of us. Let’s discuss some particular topics which I met with.

I believe that there were some common traits to all of the teams I have met. They were mostly in the stage of technical obsession, still trying to think about how to sell how great their technology is. Some of them were undergoing the paradigm shift from thinking inwards to outwards thinking, i.e. instead of focusing on how they solve problems to what problems of their customers they are trying to solve and why. It sounds obvious, but this is one of the most difficult changes you need to undergo in our approach.

Another important aspect is quantification. They yet have to learn how to quantify the qualities and benefits they are delivering and how to communicate this in a straightforward way. One specific example was a datasheet covering a great product with 4 pages of full text. Somewhere within, the text says that customer can integrate the technology in 10 minutes, because it is so easy to use. This is something which needs to shine on the first page, with calculated savings of TCO on a real or model example.

Forget words. Qualities, metrics and measurements, communicated in a simple, straightforward way is what works (as far as I know ;-). Your message needs to be strong and for that, it needs to be short. Even Martin Luther King’s Gettysburg address took mere 16 minutes!

 You were very popular as a mentor with our teams this year. What makes mentoring worthwhile to you? What makes it challenging?

 First of all, being 34 years old it is difficult for me to call myself a mentor or feel like one. My approach is simple, get to know them, get to understand them, be one of them and apply whatever I know or have experienced in the past.

 I always try to make things clear and be open about what I think I can help with and where I can’t. I usually do not act as filter, I rather try to generate ideas and insights and it is up to the startups to filter what they see as useful. It is difficult to explain, sometimes I fit seamlessly with the culture of a particular startup and our discussions and workshops just flow, sometimes it’s like a struggle. Being able to accommodate third party ideas into your startup is a good test of your culture.

So if I may say “mentoring”, what I really enjoy about mentoring are three things: getting to know new people / companies, the opportunity to use what I know and what I am good at to solve different problems in different domains (I have always been a big believer in diversity), and most importantly, the learning opportunity.

I have always learned a lot from any company I have met and as a mentor, I am humbled, because if I am contributing something to them, they always give something back to me – a new thing to learn, an opportunity to practice, a thinking experience a challenge to master.

 And now we are getting to what makes it challenging. Looking at it from the perspective of the startup, they do not have that much time and usually their problems are connected with a high sense of urgency, they are fighting for survival. Some of them have cash for just few more months, not more.

So the challenge is to accept the constraints they have and come up with ideas for improvement or solutions. I believe that they don’t need a mentor telling them what is right but more like a teammate who can share their story with them, even if only for a short time. Simply put, I try to treat the startups as my customers. I always ask myself, whether the time we spent together delivered some value to them and what value it was.

There are some things you need to learn as a mentor, most importantly saying “I don’t think I am the right person to help you with this.”. And if you are a great mentor, you add “and I know this person, who is great at that and I will connect you.” One thing which I admire about the Valley culture its Pay It Forward approach, meaning you help without expecting any return. Eventually, somebody else will help you in return. So I try to practice that. Not that it is easy, finding enough time.

Last but not least, everybody needs to bear in mind that mentoring has its limits. Robert Kaplan very nicely defines the quality of mentoring as being as good, as the story being told to the mentor. I completely second that.

 As a representative of an investment fund, how can entrepreneurs and startups better prepare to pitch you and other investors on their ideas, teams, and businesses? What do you look for, and what most often kills your interest in a particular startup?

 Be honest. Be specific. Tell us who your customers are. Tell us why they should care? Tell us how to monetize on it. Or tell us that you don’t know. And most importantly, be honest and specific.

 For example, this year at StartupYard, most if not all startups I have met with had nice products and sound technology and they were struggling with finding ways how to monetize on them- how to approach customers. This is fairly common. I learned the hard way that it is one thing to have sound technology, another to turn it into a sellable product, and yet another to generate ongoing business. So we mostly discussed how to turn the technology into products and how to leverage it.

 Strangely, we had just one really technical discussion. I am a software architect myself, so for me, this is very difficult. But I can share what I have learned so far.

 One last thing, very important. Please be honest and specific. Forget statements like: “My product brings new, unparalleled ways how to optimize your workflow, streamline your working process and make you much more productive.” Ask yourself: what our customer’s  specific problem? How do we want to solve it (what advantages you bring), and what benefits do we generate (specifically – numbers, figures), and why will they pay?

So be honest, short and specific.

This is a two part series. Click here for Part 2: “Density Doesn’t Equal Cooperation”

StartupYard Partner SendGrid Talks Startups, StartupYard, and Central Europe

Last month, StartupYard was treated with an enlightening visit and a full day workshop from Martyn Davies, leader of EMEA Community Development for SendGrid.

For those not yet in the know, SendGrid, based in Colorado with offices worldwide, is a nifty cloud-based email platform that allows startups as well as large companies to handle large volumes of user-interaction emails, as well as automated messages, marketing emails and more.

Anna Bofil Bert with fellow StartupYard partner Softlayer's Michael Donoghue

Anna Bofil Bert from Sendgrid, with fellow StartupYard partner Softlayer’s Michael Donoghue

About SendGrid


SendGrid helps companies of any size to ensure that their emails are timely delivered, and that their customer communications meet industry best practices. According to Martin, SendGrid now handles a hefty percentage of total email traffic, worldwide. Strong odds are that you’ve already used SendGrid extensively, even if you don’t know it.

And SendGrid is known for taking pains to help the developer community and support startups.

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Martyn’s StartupYard workshop focused on customer retention and communication best practices using SendGrid products

I met Martyn and his colleague, Development Community Manager Anna Bofill Bert, at LeWeb, in Paris last year. I was struck immediately by how dedicated their team is to educating and working directly with startups.

Not only has SendGrid offered StartupYard’s current startups and alumni a generous package of free services, but they have also offered personalized, in-depth support and mentoring for all of our members.

Martyn’s full day workshop was a tremendous help, not only to our teams, but to the StartupYard team as well. I caught up with him afterward to get his thoughts on mentoring startups, and about his experiences with Central Europe. 

SendGrid has a unique relationship with accelerators and the startup ecosystem, why do you spend so much time working with startups?

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Martyn: We were once a startup ourselves, and even through we’ve grown beyond that point now we’ve experienced a lot of the challenges that face early stage companies, so there’s a lot of advice to be shared.

We’re in a unique position to be super supportive of these great companies at a time when they need the most help, and we’re there to help them out, not just with SendGrid credit (which is a given!), but access to our network and teams of experts.

Anything we can do to help them get to the next level, we’ll do it and we encompass all that support in a program that we call SendGrid Accelerate.

What do you see as some of the biggest early pitfalls when it comes to global SaaS startups, and their community building and marketing efforts?

 Not allowing people to experience your platform, for free, quickly, and easily will be the make or break. You have to create an experience, particularly for developers that allows them to experiment in a low barrier situation, keeping that time to ‘Hello, World’ as short as possible.

There are a number of ways you can do this and it doesn’t always have to be sending a Developer Evangelist to a hackathon.

Publishing regular technical content on your blog, being very active on Stack Overflow, creating hacks that mash up your service with other great services and then telling that company about it – these are all stay at home ways to increase awareness and get people talking about what you’re doing.

As for community, you don’t have to build one from scratch if you don’t want to. Just get out there and be supportive of interesting community efforts or meetups.

If there isn’t much community in your locale, then start a meetup/group/hacking evening (anything!) and say it’s powered by your company. Watch out though, community isn’t community if you aren’t supportive, so don’t see any meetup you organise as a straight up sales pitching evening.

Several of our startups noted that you had opened their eyes to problems they didn’t know they had. Did any of our startups surprise you in turn?

We were really impressed with the SaaS concepts we were shown and just how far down the line the teams were in terms of product and traction. I’ve signed up for Testomato to use personally and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the other teams around demo day and afterwards.

 SendGrid pays a lot of attention to emerging players and markets, including the CEE. What do you see as the region’s biggest unique opportunities and strengths?

CEE is a gold mine for technical talent in my opinion. You’ve got a large amount of talented developers who came up through the outsourcing companies many larger, well known companies have used over the years. Now they’re out working on their own ideas and the technical aspects are top notch.

Likewise, what are, from your perspective, the biggest challenges that startups from this region face? What kind of help do they need most?

Breaking out of the mindset of being a CEE company is key. If you’re creating a product that works everywhere, then you’re a global company and you need to think that way. Your developer marketing, and some community efforts need to reflect that.

Introductions to people in different cities who can help out, desk space for a team member, anything that gets them out to new places when they feel they need it. That’s something we try to help with at SendGrid, we even have a desk for visiting startups to use when they’re in town at our office in London!

Education Content Platform and StartupYard Alum Educasoft Secures Funding

Educasoft, creator of Hrave.cz and MyPrepApp, content systems for secondary school test preparation, have announced this week that they have secured a 5 figure investment from an unnamed private investor, to focus on the Czech test preparation market. We caught up with StartupYard Alum Vaclav Formanek to talk about Educasoft, MyPrepApp, and the investment process. 

So Vaclav, tell us about Educasoft since you left StartupYard.

Well, as you know, we were one of the few teams who entered StartupYard in the last round with a functioning product, and even some customers. We had been working on Hrave.cz for some time, but we were at the accelerator to build a more “global,” education product, MyPrepApp.

At the end of acceleration, we really just had a prototype, and a good sense of where we were heading next. In the first 6 weeks after StartupYard, we really had to keep working on the product, and prepare our marketing channels, Facebook registration for users (so they could sign up for MyPrepApp through Facebook), and other things that we needed to really launch a paid product. It went from an experiment to a real business in that time.

What I see as the biggest step in development since then was that we opened our CMS to partners. We want to be more than an application, but rather a platform for content creators. We aren’t the primary content creators, so we want to attract content creators by being an easy, effective platform for great educational content, that allows that content to be used by students in an effective, fun, and focused way.

We have developed some potential content partners as well, ranging from regional content developers, to one content creator who is focused on a single university. I really enjoy seeing how the product scales so well to these very different uses.  The content partners we have attracted really know good content, and they are interested in piloting the use of Hrave/MyPrepApp to publish content on their markets. These early partnerships are really important for us in validating this business model.

 

What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered in repositioning Hrave.cz as a more global product?

Vaclav Formanek talking MyPrepApp at StartupYard Demo Day 2014

Vaclav Formanek talking MyPrepApp and Educasoft at StartupYard Demo Day 2014

Well, Hrave is essentially the Czech local version of MyPrepApp, the global product. It has acted as our laboratory, in a market we know best and can easily test in. The goal for the next 6 months for us is really to learn how to do business in the Czech Republic.

We left StartupYard thinking that MyPrepApp would be a more global product, much sooner. But we’ve learned that we need to spend more time on the local market before scaling globally. We don’t see this is a failure, but to be honest, it was difficult to convince investors that we already had a winning strategy for a more global product, and they had good points. We needed a stronger testbed for the product, to allow it to mature over a longer period. So we’re growing more slowly than we thought we could be, but this change of direction was, I think, still the right thing.

 

Was that a disappointing outcome for Educasoft?

I am a bit disappointed by this, but I chalk it up to experience. It wasn’t catastrophic for us, at all. Our future doesn’t depend on being a global product overnight. We still got to take advantage of the exam season in Czech Republic, and we are still growing. We also got to slow down and build our team more slowly, which allowed us to make some smart hiring decisions. We have recruited some great developers and business managers who we might not have found otherwise.

We got very deep into discussions with a few investors. This process really reshaped the business, and talks with investors did give us good ideas. But it took a lot of time and energy, and we weren’t able to arrive at terms. That was hard, but I’m glad we went through it.

 

Why is innovation so important in the Education field? What are you doing that major publishers like Pearson can’t? 

What I see as most important is that education has to somehow follow the trends in students’ lives. Modern students consume and interact with content in very modern ways. If the  educational process wants to be successful, it needs to be tailored to the way that people interact with the world today. That is not really the way education currently works.

Educasoft is about providing the best educational content possible to each individual student. Not all students are lucky enough to have great teachers, and we hope that technology will fill that talent gap- making good teaching available to every single student. Some teachers are fun and interesting, but some aren’t. We want to bring fun and interesting ways of learning to every student. So our goal isn’t just to reform the education system from above, but to reach students on an individual level, and then do that as many times as we can.

I think when it comes to major publishers, the difference is that they don’t see being fun and enjoyable as an important goal. They only see outcomes: students are statistics to them by necessity, but we think about our products on a much more human level. We are motivated to be engaging and fun, and we are closer to the students, making that possible for us in a way that it isn’t possible for major publishers. Agility is a huge advantage when it comes to innovating in education. We’ve done questionnaires, and they get huge response rates- 10% of our users respond. And the thing that comes out of these is that students want customized study plans, which really stears our development in a very flexible way.

The way we will find success and survive is to be accountable to the students first- not to the system that they inhabit. That is fundamentally different from how major content publishers work. It’s not just about persuading a huge district or a school to buy our content, but about appealing to each student with content that speaks to them. We can communicate also with individual teachers, and actualize their feedback in a much shorter time. So I feel that we are living closer to our students’ real needs of today. That’s not something a major publisher can do, or even has a reason to do.

Vaclav Formanek, getting passionate about education.

Vaclav Formanek, getting passionate about education.

 

Let’s talk numbers! What kind of traction does MyPrepApp/Hrave have? 

August was the first month from which we have real data. 1,100 registered users, which is 6% of the target group for Hrave.cz. 20,000 students retake maturita exams in September, and we got 6% of them, with a 2.5% conversion rate. We were hoping for better, but we learned a lot from that first push.

Now the new school season has started, and Hrave has 10-15 new users every day, about a thousand since September. The numbers are still pretty small, but we’re improving our conversion rate between visitors and registered users. We’ve been able to track our website changes and leverage them to significant increases in the conversion rate. We’ve also established a really good track record for technical issues- we haven’t missed any sales due to technical issues at all.

Visit time averages for all users was over 16 minutes since September, and we have a 40% returning user rate, which we are really happy with. What I also see as a good thing is that we’ve started learning how to study user behavior, and increase our conversion rate. We’ve established some gamification elements to sell licenses, and we’ll keep perfecting that.

We’ve also learned a lot about A/B testing for email marketing, and we’re in a much better position now. This is how lean startup methodology works- we meet every week, and we always start with 10 key metrics. Everyone in the team has to see how they “move the needle,” and influence the metrics in a positive way. It’s very motivating.

 

You recently closed an investment. What has been the hardest objection to answer with your investors? How have you solved it?

Our first investor was interested in how we were planning to succeed on the US market. That was a hard thing to tackle for us, and it led to us taking this different approach.

Our current investment is mid-five figures, and the terms were much better than with previous investors that we talked to. He really believes in us, and that has made this process relatively easy. Maybe that also means that our current plan makes a bit more sense, or is a bit more realistic when it comes to a real chance of achieving our goals.

 

Where do you see yourselves in 6 months with Educasoft?

There are 3 big goals for us in the short term. First, we are developing a “multi-player arena.” Imagine Mortal Kombat, but with a study prep angle. We think that will have great viral potential, and it’s something we are exciting to test.

Second, we want to leverage the content we already have for content marketing, to generate more traffic for our paid product. Good interactive content glossaries that are focused on explaining of key terms any student need to know to pass a particular exam are lacking in the Czech market.

Third, the tailored study plan we mentioned early. This is, I think, going to be a really killer feature. We’ll be able to convert many more paid customers if we can create an easy-to-use, intelligent test prep plan, based on actual student needs.

We also want to broaden our content base with new courses and content, including grammar school admission tests for younger kids. We are also working on a pilot program for the Polish market, because of the similarity of the test prep system there. To help us grow, we are testing affiliate marketing and content marketing strategies.

We are looking to get mid-five figure revenues within 6 months, and we have an ambitious goal in that regard. We want to nail down the Czech market fully during that time, and be in a great position to scale to nearby markets.

Ondrej and Vasek taking a break on the TechSquare swing set.

Ondrej and Vasek taking a break on the TechSquare swing set.

 

How did your time at StartupYard have a positive impact on your direction as a company?

We came to StartupYard with just a prototype and dreams. During the program and mentor sessions, we learned a lot about how to shape our dreams into achievable plans, and how to present these plans to other people in a way that makes them both attractive and realistic.

StartupYard had a very inspiring atmosphere. The fact that you’re there every day meeting mentors, who “made it” and you are surrounded by other teams who are just “making it” makes you believe that you will succeed in the same way.

 

Which of the StartupYard Mentors has been most helpful to Educasoft, post acceleration, and why?

We have been in contact with a bunch of StartupYard mentors who have been helping us with fundraising. Director Nikola Rafaj is one person who was extremely helpful and supportive for us during the investment negotiation. In the last weeks we have been consulting about investment terms on almost daily basis and I am sure It would have been much more difficult for us without him. Thank you, Nikola!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you get out of mentoring at StartupYard?

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

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

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

PhilipStaehelin,generálníředitelCCSaTomášZahajský,manažerprovelkézákazníkyrtxt13368

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Months out of StartupYard, Gjirafa.com Thrives

We caught up with Mergim Cahani this week to talk about the beta launch of Gjirafa.com, the Albanian Language Search and News Aggregator that is making a name for itself in Albania And Kosovo. Cahani took part with his core team in our last accelerator round, and raised substantial angel investments for the venture, which launched in October of this year with a public beta. 
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CEO and Founder of Gjirafa.com, Mergim Cahani

Mergim! A lot has happened since Gjirafa left StartupYard 5 months ago. What’s the latest news?

Yes, we’ve been quite busy. After leaving StartupYard, we launched our private beta by user invitation only. This has really helped us to fine-tune the Gjirafa engine, and allowed us to really tackle the UX perspective and the search quality. We’ve indexed over 20 millions of pages in Albanian so far. Our staff has grown to 18, which is fantastic, because we have all the talent we need, and much sooner than I thought we would be able to find it all. That’s really exciting in itself. We get to follow our potential, just as quickly as we can. A strong group is really essential to that effort.

Finally, on October 9th, we launched the public beta. We just had a one month birthday. We are really excited. The product is full-featured, it’s public, and we’re seeing some amazing numbers. I can’t wait to tell you about it!

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

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

 

What features did you launch with?

There is the core product, which is search in the Albanian language and English, news aggregation, and bus schedules. We have over 3500 Albanian language articles per day aggregated, and we have amazing user statistics, but it’s too early to share those. It hasn’t even been a month! The bus scheduler is also a core product, and we’ve added 8,000 lines in the region, covering big cities to tiny villages, making our site the only place where this information is available online. That has really engaged people, which is what we wanted to do: give Kosovars and Albanians the rich web experience that others in Europe just take for granted.

But beyond that, we’ve brought in a couple of features we didn’t expect to have so soon, because user feedback in the private beta was so strong. This includes a weather widget with weather in 320 cities, and a searchable used-car database which is really popular.

 

How are the features being received?

What we’re finding is that there is a huge hidden demand for all these verticals. We just launched this car-search service on Monday, and already we’re seeing enormous traffic. Our CTR for Facebook ads is also tremendous. Have you ever heard of a 10% CTR? That’s what we’re seeing right now for Gjirafa.

The news aggregator has also been doing really well, particularly our algorithm based “Daily Top 3,” which we’ve proven can consistently determine the most important news of the day on the Albanian web.

Pristina: Capital of Kosovo and home of Gjirafa.

Pristina: Capital of Kosovo and home of Gjirafa.

We’re beginning to develop the Gjirafa name. We want to be known as a product made for and by the Albanian community. So we see our whole user community as part of the effort, and we’re going to be listening to them very closely to see what they need and what they want from us. People are really speaking up and letting us know that they support this effort, and they want us to succeed. It’s been amazing.

 

So the reaction in the Albanian language community has been good? What do they like about it? What do they ask for?

The first thing they like about it is that it’s their language, and that it’s an Albanian/Kosovar company. They’re really proud of that fact, and they think it’s past due, frankly. They feel that Gjirafa is theirs and they identify themselves with it – and that’s exactly what we want. We are for Albanians, and the reaction has been really strong.

Gjirafa-beta

The Gjirafa Search Service

I’ll give you a great example: One of our users contacted us the other day, and wrote “I’m checking this bus schedule, and I can see this line from city A to city B, but there must be a mistake here, because you’re missing two stops on the way.” We checked and he was right, so we wrote him back to let him know we’d fixed it. He turned around and posted our email on instagram and proudly declared that he had fixed the problem, and made the information available to the people. He was putting himself, sort of, on our team. Which I think is right- he is part of the effort.

People are even calling me on my mobile and ask me about this and that line, and about how the site works! People create videos on how to use Gjirafa and put them on Youtube. We don’t ask them to do this- they just do it. We receive resumes daily, and people want to volunteer to help us for no pay. Comments on articles about Gjirafa encourage people to use the product patriotically. People are saying: “You have to use this, and help make this work, because it is our thing.” That’s so heartwarming for us. It’s amazing.

Gjirafa-beta2

The Gjirafa News Aggregator

And it isn’t just people. Other companies in the region have also reached out, and let us know that they are on our team as well, and rooting for us. That’s so great.

 

How has your impact in Albania/Kosovo met with your expectations? Is this where you thought you’d be a year ago?

 In some ways yes, in others not at all.  We expected to have good traffic, but for the first month after the public launch, we’re on track to double our goals for total traffic.

And we never thought we would have such interest in vertical searches like cars- that was a big surprise.

Also, I didn’t expect to have such an all around well-rounded team. I thought we’d be missing a few key parts, or not be able to afford to hire the right people. But everything is now covered in terms of staff.

People really engaged more than we expected. Our research showed that 30% of visits would be mobile. But over 50% are now mobile. That changed our focus and direction. Prioritizing of new features was greatly affected by that. It is becoming a much more mobile market, and we have to focus on that. 3G is just coming to this region -I know, it’s so late!- so our services are more relevant than they’ve ever been. 4G is coming soon, so we have to be ready for that.

 

Where is the development of the site so far? What do you need to improve on, and what seems to be working well so far?

The development supports all the launch features. Fully mobile responsive. What we need to improve is our ranking algorithm. We have taken several items into consideration in ranking general search results, and now we are adding around 20 factors to take into account with ranking. Ercan for instance, the co-founder and the CTO, is working on Data Science of the Albanian Web, and this will have a big impact on improving the search results. This new ranked search will be available by the end of this month.

The general search often provides fantastic results- often better than Google in the albanian language, but sometimes it fails to provide useful results, so we’ve experienced a learning curve. We have identified those issues. Google probably uses over 200 factors in ranked search, and Seznam probably uses nearly 100. We “only” use 20 now, but you have to remember that Google has more to worry about in providing a personalized search. They have to worry about user history, location, language, and a much bigger base of data. We only focus on websites, and the content on those sites so far. It’s a smaller web, so we are starting with the brass tacks. That allows us to actually beat Google on speed, at 250 ms response times on average. We’re very happy with that figure, and it improves when many searches are occurring at the same time, so the more our index is used, the better it will be.

 

How did the StartupYard shape your trajectory over the last year?

I see everything that’s happened so far as ingredients in a recipe that got Gjirafa this far (although not there yet). They are: the market (our users), the team and the technology, and the support we received; starting and leading from angels and other supporters.

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Cahani at the Gjirafa Launch, October 2014

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The Gjirafa Team

StartupYard, on the other hand, was the secret ingredient that made the recipe work and pushed everything forward. It is like a hydrogen bond, that keeps the water molecules together. The investors and the customers are the atoms, but the bonds make them chemicals and compounds- they make them *be* something. I sincerely believe it would have been very difficult, maybe impossible, to have brought Gjirafa to where it is today without Startupyard. Without StartupYard’s management team, mentors, and the experience it brought with it. I don’t know how we’d be here.

Just one example of what we got out of it: the bus schedule idea was born in Prague, at StartupYard. It was that kind of insight into: “ok… you have a country full of customers… how do you reach them?” that StartupYard gave us. It made us believe that what we were doing was possible, and showed us the way forward.

And StartupYard was our access to angel investors, Microsoft BizSpark Plus, and the partnership with Seznam.cz, and the list goes on and on. Simply put, without StartupYard we would not be where we are today – we would be somewhere of course, but we would not be one of the fastest growing platforms in the Albanian web, that is for sure.

 

Has Google taken an interest in your activities so far? Any menacing phone calls or mysterious packages?

:Laughes: No… not directly, no. But it’s interesting, because Google does deep crawl us quite a bit, and they use interesting keywords when crawling us. We have over 6000 pages crawled, and they use random words like “barbie,” and then they index the pages, then move on to the next term – we’re not exactly sure what they’re doing. They seem to be figuring out how big we are- seeing how many pages we index. They definitely know we’re here, let’s put it that way.

 

 

You managed to hit your goals for an Angel investment round after leaving StartupYard. Are you still looking for more investment?

The most important thing for us right now, is to hit our targets, and surpass them. We’re doing that now, and the more data we collect on our user base, the better position we’ll be in to understand our own value in this market, and our future potential. That real, hard user data is going to give us a picture of our value, and allow us to show that we have traction.

I’m so grateful to the angel investors who took a shot on us this year. They’ve given us the space and time to do Gjirafa right, and we’re focused on making this a great product, with a great market potential. The more space we have to do that, the better position we’ll be in when it comes time for looking to new investments. But without them, we wouldn’t be here discussing Gjirafa.

 

You’ve had some communication from Microsoft as well, is that right? What’s that all about?

 

Yes! This was very interesting for us. We have been in contact with the Azure team from Microsoft, primarily.  We have a lot of servers with Microsoft, and that intrigued them. They wanted to know: “What is going on in Kosovo? What are you doing with our servers?”. They met us, and invited us to be Microsoft Azure Advisors, which provides us access to benefits like directly communicating with the Microsoft Azure team, and the ability to give detailed feedback and input on azure products that we need. If we see that we need something new from Azure, we can shape the development of new products to meet our needs directly with Azure. That’s been great for us.

 

You launched Gjirafa officially at a big press event last month in Kosovo. Tell us about that.

It was a really exciting day. Firstly for the team, because we saw this is a day for us. We’d gotten “the beast” Gjirafa, to the point where it was ready to be seen by the world! In addition to the marketing perspective, we saw it as a moment to be proud of our accomplishments so far. The organization of it was excellent, where the co-founder and the COO, Diogjen Elshani, with the help of the team, was able to make sure everything was going smoothly – from the invitations, the live stream and everything in between.

The event was really unique for Kosovo. For a startup in Kosovo, it was really remarkable. It made just about every TV channel, and I was doing live interviews all day on various TVs. A special was done by one channel, and we had a 7 minute exclusive on a high rated network, and we had the #1 news channel dedicate 20 minutes about Gjirafa, which was replayed for a full week. We were all over TV that week, and from that perspective, it was a huge success in getting the word out about our efforts.

Some important people also came to the press event. Diplomats and politicians were present, and some local celebrities as well. It was a really big deal, and an amazing day for the team. We really followed the launches that occur in Silicon Valley, and modeled it after things like Apple keynotes. We tried to make it exciting and not too corporate. Stay conceptual, you know? Talk about big ideas, but in basic terms. It really caught the public attention here.

 

Where do you hope to be with Gjirafa in one year? What services do you plan for the near future?

We’re gonna have several vertical searches, including cars, real estate, specific products like phones, job opportunities, and we’ll include product comparisons between sites. We’ll double the reach of our index, and we’ll have over 50 million pages available through Gjirafa. We’re also going to launch an app for iOS/Android, and that will better be able to serve the Mobile market, which is becoming dominant here.

Potentially, we are looking at a few other things like an academic search vertical, and a vertical on public government documents- business incorporation, laws, and public records.

 

Thanks Mergim, is that anything else you’d like to add?

I have a story I want to tell you! It’s a good one, I promise.

So we have somebody on the team in the role of “information coordinator.” This basically means that he actually physically has to go to bus stops and make sure that our database is correct, and that the bus schedules haven’t been changed. The Albanian government doesn’t have this information online.

One time a few weeks ago, and I swear this is true, he was doing this in a really small village, with just a couple of people in it. He walked past a couple of middle-aged people, and asked for information regarding bus station and bus schedule. “Where are you going?,” they ask him. “I’m just checking the schedule,” he says. “Oh,” says one of them, “You don’t have to do that anymore you know, there’s this thing called Gjirafa, and it has it all.” It made me laugh when I heard that one. He *is* Gjirafa, but people are already taking this service for granted. And that’s just fantastic. In my opinion, if the people treat this like something they deserve, then they will make sure that we deliver what they need from us. And that expectation is exactly what we thrive on.

 

 

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

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

Josef

Cofounders Josef Steinberger, and Tomáš Brychcín

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josef does some deep thinking.

Josef does some deep thinking.

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

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

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

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

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Meet the 2014 Startups: Warrant.ly: Neutralize Murphy’s Law

Today we catch up with Nikola Todorovic, of Warrant.ly, the cloud based mobile platform for point-of-sale warranties and warranty digitization. The company aims to eliminate the paperwork involved in product claims, and save customers tons of money, while improving relationships between end users, manufacturers, and resellers. 
Nikola Todovoric, Founder and CEO of Warrant.ly

Nikola Todovoric, Founder and CEO of Warrant.ly

Hi Nikola, tell us a little about Warrantly. What does the app do?

Warrantly is a cloud-based warranty management service. It alleviates the pain customers are facing with existing paperwork– the kind that you usually just put somewhere and forget about it. With our app, you can totally forget about it as well, but when you inevitably have a broken appliance, you’ll always know your papers are securely stored on our servers, just a few clicks away whenever you need them. It will also allow retailers and manufacturers to issue warranties at the point of sale and create a lasting bond with their customers.

What do customers currently do with their warranties? 

A surprising number of people actually just throw them away. Our customer survey showed that up to 90% of warranty information ends up in the trash without being used. Otherwise, people just throw it in a drawer somewhere. Very often, in places like the EU where certain items have statutory 2 year warranties, people don’t even realize this fact, and they discard paperwork that could save them a good bit of money.

Even if people do save warranties, the process of redeeming them can be annoying and frustrating. Finding the paperwork, going back to the store, and having to deal with the process is a reason to just forget the whole thing.

How did you strike on this idea? It’s surprising that there isn’t already a good digital solution for this issue. Why do you think it hasn’t been tackled before?

It actually came out of a personal annoyance! Warranty claims were always a frustrating experience for me, having to dig through all the paperwork trying to find that one warranty which always mysteriously disappears for some reason. There’s probably a “Murphy’s law” type of thing for this…

So the prospect of “digitizing” warranties seemed pretty exciting to us, to pioneer the transition which seems totally logical at this point. Up till now, people have been trying to address this individually in an ad-hoc way (like taking warranty snapshots and storing them, for example), but this whole area seems more like a cascade of issues that we’re trying to tackle with an all-round after-purchase solution. It’s not obvious until it’s right there for the customer.

What do you see as your biggest technical and business challenges in the near future?

Getting the product out there will be a challenge. Our team is small at the moment, and while we’re fully committed to develop the most perfect warranty management platform out there, that alone will not be sufficient to convince people to use it. We need marketing and sales professionals that will help us with the campaign, and let people know there’s a new, much more practical way of handling product warranties.

Your team comes from Serbia. Do you plan to grow in the Southern European market, or is the CEE a better test-bed for your platform?

We do plan to make Serbia the initial market for our platform. In some areas it’s pretty underdeveloped compared to the CEE, but we see that as an advantage. We will be the first ones to offer standardised extended warranty plans, and deliver a choice for people who would like to prolong the peace of mind when it comes to their favourite gadgets.

What do you see as your best prospects for revenue generation in this market? Is this ultimately a consumer-facing service, or an added-value for manufacturers and retailers?

In a way, it’s both. Consumers will use the service to access their product warranties, but we intend to keep the way things are at the moment, so the service will be totally free of charge for individuals. We plan on charging manufacturers and retailers a symbolic fee per issued warranty. No hidden expenses, fair and simple. In return, they can completely forget about fitting unnecessary papers in their product packaging and having them signed or stamped at the point of sale. They will also have access to various analytics about their own products, and even be able to communicate directly to a customer to resolve potential problems and build brand loyalty.

Walk us through that process. How do you picture a customer purchasing a warranty, using your app? How will they resolve issues with manufacturers?

Customers can simply download our app, or use the web app in the browser to upload all the warranties and receipts, let our OCR software take care of all the data, which is afterwards presented in a clear and intuitive way.

No input on the customer’s side, unless some of the files are simply unreadable for our system. After the partnership with manufacturers and retailers gets underway, the user will only need to give the seller an email address he/she used to sign up with our system (or receive an email invite in case they’re not existing users), and the product with its associated warranty shows up in their account. If, god forbid, they have a problem with any of the products, a simple tap/click of a button reports the issue to the person in charge of warranty claims, and the user is presented with the solution.

Let’s talk about your team. How did you come together? What kinds of people are you planning to add in the near future?

We’ve known each other a long time, some of us even worked together in the past, so everything came rather spontaneously. At one point I mentioned the idea to the other guys, and got the same reaction – “let’s do it!”

It’s one of those problems you can identify with instantly – being so interested in gadgets and tech, we all had phantom paper stacks that occasionally drove us crazy. Considering we’re a bunch of geeks, we’ve got the development covered, so we’re in need of people dealing with the business side, especially in areas of marketing, finance and sales.

Cofounders of Warrant.ly: Nikola Todorović, Marko Simić, Svetislav Marković.

Cofounders of Warrant.ly: Nikola Todorović, Marko Simić, Svetislav Marković.

How has your experience been with StartupYard? Which of the mentors have had the deepest impact on your approach to Warrantly?

We are truly happy and honoured to be a part of StartupYard’s acceleration program. Leaving everything behind and coming to Prague for a few months is probably not something everyone would be ready for, but we always had the feeling it was the right thing to do, and now we’re just totally sure about it. Everyone from the SY team are devoted professionals that really helped us a lot with all the things we’ve been struggling with on our own.

Same goes for the mentors – for the first month we talked to a lot of them, gathered some thought-provoking feedback, went a full circle with different ideas and approaches, so right now we’re pretty confident about the direction we’re going. Viktor Fischer, amongst others, really impressed us with his approach and attitude, he is a really knowledgeable guy. Special thanks goes to Marcel Vargaestok as well for providing us with some valuable contacts with people inside the manufacturing business, and others who challenged our ideas and provided a fresh angle on the topic.

Meet The 2014 Founders: YourPlace, Where The Loyal Customer is King

Mark Okhman, Founder/CEO YourPlace

Mark Okhman, Founder/CEO YourPlace

We continue our round of interviews with the 2014 Founders from StartupYard. Meet YourPlace, a young team from Kazakhstan working on a location-based customer acquisition and loyalty platform for bars, cafes, and restaurants. I sat down with founder and CEO Mark Okhman.

Mark, tell us about YourPlace in a few words.

YourPlace allows restaurants, cafes, or bars, to target customers, and keep them aware of bonuses or loyalty rewards from their favorite places. At the end of the day, it helps them to answer a simple question: “Where to go?”

YourPlace is a web platform and mobile app that uses analytics to build long lasting loyal relationships between venues, and their customers. logo (1)

What makes this app different from familiar platforms like Yelp, or Groupon, or the Czech service Slevomat?  

To visualise our relationship to those players, I would say that we are at the intersection of Yelp and Groupon. YourPlace knows which places you, as a user, like. We’ve taken the following facts as given: when you’re loyal as a customer, you’re treated with love, and loyal customers spend more, and come more often. This is what YourPlace is all about.

We don’t allow reviews, but we learn customer purchasing behavior. For now, about 10 places are testing YourPlace’s features for merchants, which allow them to target different groups of their customers, track and digest results of loyalty campaigns, to grow loyal customers base.

Your team is the youngest at StartupYard. Most of you are still in University. Do you think your age is a barrier to making YourPlace a success?

Sometimes it feels like we are even too late. :laughs: Our university did a lot to give us an environment where we could achieve what we have now. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve met new people, exchanged experiences and through this we’ve grown. I very often hear the phrase: ‘your age is dependent on what you’ve learned, not on how many birth days you’ve celebrated.’ We have big aims: to help build relationships between merchants and their customers.

And your team also happens to be the only one from outside Europe. What advantages and disadvantages come with growing a new online business in Kazakhstan?  

There is a big niche to grow ,and people in Central Asia are open to new things in online and mobile. Penetration of the mobile internet is now high enough to grow whole new businesses. A few years ago, as in Europe, our market experienced a boom in coupon services. It was an interesting time! People were inspired, while places were waiting for the influx of customers, which, actually, didn’t happen. As one of significant consequences – merchants lost their profit margin because of high discounts and customer flow when they stopped this “ coupon madness”.

Our company today helps such businesses as restaurants, bars or cafes, to make discounts and give bonuses without losses in customer flow. I want to emphasize that this market in Kazakhstan is not small – about 4000 food-merchants in two biggest cities (Almaty – 3 mln, Astana – 800 000) Loyalty management systems are the next logical level, after coupon services. In fact, the Kazakhstani market barely uses Passbook in customer-merchants relationships, while we teach people to use this easy and efficient technology in their daily life.

In a few months we will enable our system to work with iBeacons, which will cover off-line customer-merchant relations. There is so much to discover and implement! We feel like we are helping our web environment to be more qualitative. One of our goals is to make life easier and more interesting for people in Central Asia. We can do this!

Let’s talk about the app itself. What have been some of your major challenges in making the platform work? What issues do you still need to resolve?  

You will not believe me if I tell you that YourPlace was first called MOSKIS, and it was nothing more than a search engine for places of any kind around you. Typical copy of Foursquare-like apps. After some time, we transformed it into a discount club, also called MOSKIS (the Russian equivalent of this abbreviature means “mobile discounts”). Now we are doing our best on the merchant side to attract the right people with interesting offers and continue doing this until they will become really loyal customers.We are a channel for building relationships.

On the tech side, we had some problems while preparing the platform for high loads. That was difficult, because we’ve never had to deal with it before. And again we are on the short list – we run YourPlace on high quality Amazon services, which is, in fact, the industry leading cloud service.

How do you plan to market YourPlace? What kind of market strategy do you think will bring you growth in the near term?  

First of all, we want to build a society of customers relevant to merchants. We are doing this through attracting people at the point of sale. Restaurants and bars want to know more about their visitors, so they help us with this. We also plan to attract people through activities around merchants who work with us. For this we will use our blog and creative team, who will put on events and provide interesting reading material. This is how we want to attract people to go to those restaurants or cafes, showing how interesting this experience could be. We use localization as a key for maintaining the relevance of people inside of the platform to our client merchants.

The YourPlace App in action

The YourPlace App in action

Does your team plan to stay in Europe to develop YourPlace, or will you focus on your home market?

In the immediate future, we plan to go to Central Asia, especially to Kazakhstan, our home market. And it is a big market. As the product becomes tested and validated, we plan to grow to Central and Eastern Europe. We plan on that growth by around 2015.

How has your experience been here at StartupYard? Which of the mentors had the biggest impact on your personal and company development, and which parts of the program came the hardest for you and the team?

It has been amazing. 24/7 working on your project in the environment ever. And I’m not exaggerating! Our network grew incredibly. We learn something new every day and that’s what pushes us to work more; to be more efficient.

All three of us [Founders] had mentors that were our personal favorites. I was inspired by Damian Brhel [a StartupYard alum and Founder of Brand Embassy], even though the other mentors have imparted an incalculable amount of knowledge. Rauan loved mentoring with Zdenek Cendra [founder of cdn77.com], while Alibek liked Michal Illich [Founder of Wikidi and formerly of Seznam], because of his pragmatic vision.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

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

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

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

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about your long term goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gjirafa is planning to launch its full text search engine in July of this year. 
You can connect with Mergim via Linkedin. 
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