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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you get out of mentoring at StartupYard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Meet the 2014 Founders: Famely

Over the coming weeks, we will be introducing the StartupYard 2014 teams in individual interviews with their founders and key members at the accelerator. We kick off this week with Famely, the news and social media aggregator that allows you to keep tabs on your favorite personalities, wherever they appear in the media. 
 

Tell me about the Famely team.

Nemec: I’m Pavel and he’s Pavel too. He’s Pavel Volek and I’m Pavel Nemec.

Volek: I’m from Prague and he’s from Brno. We met on the way to France as Erasmus students.  I studied software engineering, at Prague Technical University, and was in France for 18 months on Erasmus. We got to know each other on the trip, and stayed in contact. The idea for Famely came about 2 years after we met.

Nemec: I studied in Brno (computer science at Masarykovo University). We’ve both suspended our studies to be here at StartupYard. I’m doing a PHD, and Pavel is finishing his masters. But we’re happy to be here now.

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Pavel Nemec and Pavel Volek. Co-founders of FamelyApp.com

How did you come up with the idea for Famely? Was it based on an interest you had in celebrity news and gossip?

Nemec: No, neither of us is actually too much into gossip exactly. It was just that as a student, I met so many many interesting people, well known public figures, startupers for example, that I got a chance to meet. When you meet someone really fascinating, you want to read what they have written, but also see if they do something else that’s cool and new. Clever people constantly generate new opinions, and I wanted to keep tabs on them. I searched blogs, youtube, facebook, and collected the information constantly, but you can never keep up.

Volek: When he told me about the idea, we realized we could find broader applications like sports, which I’m interested in. I’m a big fan of Real Madrid, and they have an app. But the players also have their own Twitter accounts, and they appear in places the “official” app doesn’t cover.  And there are sports aggregators, team apps, etc, but if you like multiple teams or different players, you want to control the info that you get. You can’t do that with any existing app.

Last year, Parov Stelar, one of my favorite musicians, had a concert in Prague. I found out two days after he was here. I think that happens to most of us at one time or another. If I had been checking his Twitter feed, I might have known about that. There are a lot of small clubs in Prague that really famous people do shows in, and nobody hears about it. You can’t keep up with all the ways that artists communicate with fans.

Famely_Logo-Bg-2014-01

But this is more than just an events app, isn’t it?

Nemec: Yes. A friend of mine reads gossip magazines and such. I mentioned the potential for a product like this, and they reacted strongly. We realized it could be about more than just events. The definite change came from the mentors [at StartupYard]. We knew before coming here that it was an aggregator for celebrities, but we hadn’t yet decided what market to target. We wanted to be more general. The mentors convinced us to focus on a smaller market. Celebrity gossip is a good place to start. There’s a lot of material out there, and a larger base of users. We can use this initial feature set as a way to hone the app.

How does Famely fit into the landscape of Twitter, Facebook, and other news aggregators?

Nemec: Aggregators are about aggregating your interests, but not the profiles of specific people. That’s what makes us unique.

Volek: You don’t need to learn how to use all these different platforms to find all the info you’re looking for with us. Our app is one way: focused on content.

How are you planning to monetize the app?

Nemec: The core will be about affiliate marketing. Tickets, apparell, this kind of thing. Our target market spends a lot on entertainment and clothing. We are also exploring freemium models, but that needs a lot more testing. It’s hard to say if a user would be willing to pay for more celebrity content, or for a larger library of celebrities, or what exactly. You have to be careful in considering any kind of paywall.

Volek: We are also considering magazine partnerships. We want to integrate affiliate ads, and not break the design of the app in incorporating targeted advertising. Relevant ads are important to us. We think the next generation of users wants ads that are highly relevant to them, and to the content they are looking for. Too many ads are great for advertisers, but they’re not what people really enjoy seeing. But Famely offers a tailored content experience, and that means the opportunity to target ads in very pleasing ways.

What is your strategy for promotion?

Nemec: We’d like to approach individual celebrities, particularly those that need a prepackaged solution for promoting their own content and news. That is, those without their own apps already in the Apple store, or Google Play Store.

The app will launch with pre-selected celebrities and feeds to allow us to start with great quality. We’ll start with just a few, so we can really dial in the product, and deliver consistently relevant content to our users. A great experience, exactly what fans are looking for, has to be there from launch day, or people won’t keep coming back.

What do you see as your core user group, and your main competitor?

Nemec: Our core users are “real fans.” We see our initial appeal being with english speaking young girls, who are fans of actors and musicians, but also sports fans. Celebrities try to cover all social networks and core fans at the same time do not want to miss a thing about their favourites. The point is, since there is no longer only one social network on the market, it is harder and harder to keep up. When we spoke to some fans of famous musicians, they really checking all sources they know repeatedly over and over again to not miss a thing. Also when their favourite celebrity gives an interview for an online magazine which they don’t read because they read the different one, they simply miss it. Well, no longer with Famely.

Volek: There’s no direct competitor. The market is very fragmented.

Nemec: Yeah. There is Flipboard, who are the biggest in this market, and then there’s Facebook paper, who are doing something related. But they both focus on topics and news sources, instead of people. You can create a Famely-like experience on Flipboard, but it’s not made for that. Facebook was also not designed to connect fans with diverse news sources- only with fan pages, so we see a big opening.

Volek: We want to offer credibility and quality content channels you can trust, but go outside of the “official” newsfeeds and twitter accounts, to get other perspectives on famous personalities. That’s what people really want, we think.

 

Famely_APP_2014-05

Let’s talk about StartupYard. How has your experience been with the accelerator?

Volek: It has been exciting. We’ve met a lot of interesting people. I’d like to follow some of them on Famely!

Nemec: Having a core focus of Data and Analytics brought together teams that really have a lot in common.

Volek: Yeah. Mergim (Cahani, from Gjirafa) has advised on open source libraries and data analysis tips for us. We haven’t swapped  code, but the general advice is very valuable. Having teams around you who are experiencing the same challenges is much better than going it alone all the time.

Who have been your most interesting/challenging mentors? Who has taught you the most?

Volek: The advisors come from vastly different fields. For technology, Jaroslav Gergic, a VP at GoodData, advised us on cloud technology, and how to deal with massive numbers of users so we don’t break the servers. He was a huge help. We’ve still broken the servers though :laughs:. But that wasn’t his fault.

Nemec: Advisors have been very helpful. Mentorship here has really meant more commitment than we expected. David Booth (CEO of 2nd Degree Leads), for example, gave us incredible advice when he was here, but then followed up after few days to give us more interesting tips. They kept thinking about us after the mentoring sessions.

It’s also great to meet with investors and see how they think about their potential investments. That’s the experience we had with Andrej Kiska from Credo Ventures. They’ve explained precisely how they validate products on the market, using equations for spreading of the “epidemic [of users].” We’ve found these new directions in thinking to be really helpful.

Register for Updates on Famely at FamelyApp.com

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Michal Illich: “Know your Competition.”

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

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

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

Daniel Hastika StartupYard mentor who will be working with our Spring 2014 teams, is a serial entrepreneur and globetrotter. When he’s not tending to one of the first Czech based hosting companies from his home in Melbourne Australia, he’s founding new companies with the help of Seedcamp and Credo Ventures. And he manages it all remotely. Quite a feat, so we caught up with Daniel last week to ask him how he manages it all.

Read more about Futureleytics on their blog, and a bit more about Daniel at hrkavarna.cz (article in Czech). 
 
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Daniel, you launched Futurelytics in 2012 through Seedcamp. Can you share a bit of your founding story with us?
The co-founders know each other from university times; we have crossed in our professional lives multiple times in various IT companies across Europe. We’ve worked together in a consultancy for retail in Czech and also as advanced analytics consultants for a Nordic company. I’ve also been managing my own company over time as one of the first web hosting businesses in The Czech Republic, and had trouble recognizing patterns in my client base (thousands of clients) and Mirek helped me to find my most promising ones and get a rid of those that just consumed support hours. We thought that might be a good product and Jan, our colleague, has helped us to foster the models and we started to realize that we could really build something out of it. We applied to Seedcamp with this idea and were chosen from among approx. 800 other companies. From that time on our lives changed.
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You’re currently based in Melbourne, but your team is in Ostrava (Czech Republic), how do you manage that kind of responsibility remotely? 
We are building Futurelytics as a global company from day one. I’ve been on the move for the last 18 years and have travelled across the world multiple times. We believe that we have the right passionate people, self-motivated and responsible in what they do. We do not over-control, and everyone is taking their own responsibility in their actions. Freedom of choice is very important for us. Some people want to work on Sundays, some during the mornings .. there’s creativity in what we do and that doesn’t come with control. This way, we can have a distributed team. I’m responsible for business, and Mirek is product centric. We are really complementary in our day-to-day tasks and we move fast. Of course we are making heavy use of various online tools like Gmail, Hangouts, Trello, Harvest …
You’ve attracted some great investors, including our own partner Credo Ventures with Ondrej Bartos. What’s been your strategy for attracting investors, and what advice would newly-minted founders most profit from, when it comes to talking to VCs and Angels for the first time? 
Any startup that wants to impress great VC investors needs to be proven and/or backed by a previous Angel-type investor, an incubator or another trustable entity (apart from a great product and scalable markets). We are proud to be a part of the Seedcamp family in that sense.
The very first investors value the founders’ attitude, the team & their vision. By default we are different. At the very beginning we didn’t even know anything about startup buzz. Investors should see that you possibly have what it takes to be a great entrepreneur. Not being afraid to fall, working on your skills, networking and being open-minded are the prerequisites of an entrepreneur. That way you can execute any idea you could have.
Futurelytics helps companies to work better with their existing customers. What are some of the ways you do that? What are some of the biggest mistakes most companies are making when it comes to working with their customer base and managing their customer data? 
We let them discover new revenue potentials from various customer segments. So called “second-best” customers seem to be the most appealing information for marketers. Driving marketing campaigns by real behavior of customers inevitably brings their increased efficiency. Starting by lowering CPC, monetizing loyal customers and not ending by customer-churn mitigation we improve the customer lifetime value from several perspectives. Putting all these contributions together brings each engaged business a significant improvement.
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What do you think are the biggest areas of near-term growth for “big data” and analytics applications? What areas of the market are really interesting to you right now? 
There are technologies in place like Hadoop or Google BigQuery that handle tremendous data volumes in real-time. The real challenge seems to be to get some new information out of patterns and consequences in the data and put them in line with business specifics. We go beyond that thinking and bring-up specific recommendations for marketing campaigns on customer segments recognized. This is called “prescriptive-analytics”. We are eager to be pioneering in this area and closely cooperate on that e.g. with Gartner or Google.
You’ve had a varied career, from studies in Portugal to work in Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the US, as well as back home in the Czech Republic. You’ve founded 3 companies, and you keep on coming up with new ideas. What specific things have you learned through these experiences that you plan to share with our latest crop of startups at StartupYard?
I wouldn’t call it a career. There’s no certain strict lined path in front of me. I follow my passion “to create” and that comes from the freedom to make mistakes. And I’m not afraid to do so again and again. If you are not afraid to learn something new, not to be constrained by the past, to admit that you “don’t know” and ask for help, then the world is yours. You can train your instincts and quickly spot opportunities where other people see only issues and problems. You stay ahead the crowd and lead the way.
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StartupYard Mentor Bogomil Shopov Talks “Growth Hacking” and Open Source

Bogomil Shopov is a well known open-source developer and renowned growth hacker. He is an active speaker in open-source circles, and a contributor to various projects, including Firefox.
 
Follow him on Twitter @bogomep for valuable updates on the world of Bogo.

WIll you tell us a little bit about your career?

I started my career a long time ago. My first job was, behold … a sheppard! I was at school and I needed money. Believe it or not I have learned a lot from my first job 🙂

After that I used to sell small goods, and when I finished high school I joined the Bulgarian Army.  I spent 5 years in intelligence doing some secret military stuff. After 5 years I realized I needed a change and in order to escape the army’s stupidity, I decided to pursue my dream – to work in IT. If you go through my resume you will find a lot of things – I used to work as a programmer, web architect, IT manager, Product and Project Manager, Open Source consultant, community manager, marketeer. I’ve spend the last 6 years working on startups.  Now I am a “growth hacker” – the only definition that combines all skills I’ve gathered in my entire career … and I am happy! Also I am a Pirate! My signature is on the establishment act of Pirate Parties International.

Bogomil Shopov: Avowed Pirate.

Bogomil Shopov: Avowed Pirate.

You’re interested in open source, and you work part time on Mozilla’s Firefox. What drew you to that project, and open source work in general?

That’s an easy one. I like freedom and I like sharing. At first I started to share my code with other people and then I started to show others how and why to do it. The open source and free software movements are “guilty” of some of the most successful software projects, including the Internet. I contribute also to the Open Data initiative for  opening all government data to the public. Talking about freedom, I even ran for European parliament with the idea to fight for our digital rights and I am proud that I helped the stopping of Sarkozy’s “three strikes” (the EU version of the law). Also I am mentioned in Wikileaks for that. As I said before I like freedom and sharing.

Why did you campaign for MP fall short?

People in Bulgaria were not ready to think deeper about digital rights and green way of living. Those concepts were new to them and that’s why we got so low results.

Ever think of running again?

No, because I think there is a way to do useful work outside of the parliament and to achieve my goals.

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You describe yourself as a “growth hacker.” What does growth hacking mean to you in today’s terms?

It seems there are a lot definitions of the term. I personally prefer this one: A growth hacker is a rare combination: someone with the right marketing and technical skills who can come up with clever marketing hacks and also track their results.

[This is the main topic of Bogomil’s upcoming StartupYard workshop for members of the accelerator]

You’ve been working for a couple of years in education technology. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities in that field?

The Internet is an open book – you can take whatever you want, but you can also write and contribute. Using the internet for teaching and studying – it’s more than required now. There is huge knowledge collected and if you are a smart teacher you will know how to use it. The challenge is, well, to convince the rest of the teachers that using modern educational technologies is a must.

We worked together as a marketing team for a year, and one of your strengths is email marketing. Is email marketing more or less relevant today than before the rise of social media?

Email marketing never dies. This is the most used channel and it will remain like that for years to come for sure. If you are using it wisely you can get a lot from it. I know a company that used to send millions of e-mails almost every week, without any effect and after changing the strategy with more precise segmentation, A/B/C/D testing and adopting some anti-spam techniques the miracle happened – it works.

Email marketing is not just pushing the “Send” button. I’d love to write a blog post to share more thoughts on that, because is one of my favourite things to talk about.

What about social media? What are some of the common mistakes that people tend to make when trying to leverage social media channels into growth?

I love social media. I love creating experiments on social media as well (do not google me!).

The biggest mistake that most of the companies do is to do everything they can to get more followers. What? Yes! I know a lot of companies, even here in the Czech Republic, whose goal for their social media effort is to have new followers every day and to have more than others.

Well this is not so bad, but this is just step 0 – the work begins after that. You have to talk with your followers, you have to keep them entertained and engaged and you have to give them something they need, not just boring sales messages.

The social media channel is like every other channel – if you use it the smart way – you will get a lot from it.

What can StartupYard teams expect to learn from your input, and what do you hope to gain from mentoring  StartupYard startups?

I will hold a workshop in April about, well, growth hacking. I will show the startups how they can use tools and ideas to find their first clients, how to nurture them, so they can buy again. How to do testing for their ideas and concepts, how to track everything and how to use the data to take business decisions.

Also I will show some growth hacking examples, that they can start using on the next day. Also I will spend some time talking about Behavioral Economics from the Marketing Point of View.

But most of the time there will be discussion, because I don’t believe in workshops where one man does all the talking and the rest of the audience is thinking about something else. We will talk together and grow together.

You can catch Bogo at the Bulgaria Web Summit 2014, and at his upcoming Growth Hacking workshop

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