Chatler Raises 330k to Help Brands Chat

Janos Szabó, along with his team at Chatler, are alumni of Startup Batch 7. They joined StartupYard along with 2 other Hungarian founded teams, Ouibring and Beeem.

Chatler Logo, StartupYard Accelerator

When I spoke with Janos about his company way back in early 2017, this is what I had to say:

“The past year has seen a boom in chatbots, which have become a buzzword in the tech industry, most particularly with retailers and big brands. StartupYard this year handled dozens of applications for chatbot startups, but despite the buzz, none of these seemed to us to have really discovered the inherent value of automating customer interaction on social media, and in customer care. Chatbots are not a new idea, after all, and much of the recent hype has come thanks to Facebook opening its platform for 3rd party developers, which has spurred renewed interest in new applications for chat.”

Today these words seem more true than before. Today, brands and marketers are facing the prospect of decreased access to their customers across social media channels, prompting them to rethink their social strategies, and put even more emphasis on chat and messaging.

Though we still get applications for chat-bot related startups (and we even took another in Batch 8: OptioAI, which has gone on to join TechStars), finding an immediate recognizable value for end-users remains a big challenge. So we’ve been very pleased with our choices so far, as both companies have been able to prove that the genre can be leveraged into compelling and useful products that people really value.

Chatler Team, StartupYard

The Chatler team during mentoring at Batch 7.

I sat down to catch up with Janos about his team’s experiences since leaving StartupYard nearly a year ago, and see what Chatler has accomplished in that time.

Here’s an overview of what I learned, and a look at how Chatler sees the near future for chat, and for itself:

Big Brands Love Chat (and Chatler)

Since finishing at StartupYard, Chatler has signed The Coca-Cola Company as a paying customer in 3 markets, Czechia, Hungary, and Serbia.

Chat via Facebook messenger is a growing category for major brands, who see chat volume increasing faster than any other channel. In addition, recent major changes in Facebook’s algorithm have left big brands scrambling to refocus on messenger as a prime channel for customer outreach. As Facebook decreases brand access to customers via the newsfeed, companies like Coca-Cola are looking to messenger as a bigger part of their future strategies.

That puts Chatler in the right place at just the right time to help big brands handle their social media presence, when content may become less important than personalization and two-way communication.

Chatler, Chat Automation, StartupYard

Many big brands currently use contact centers operating enterprise CRM software, so Chatler has responded by developing API integrations for software companies like vcc.live.  The company provides contact center CRM software for major brands and contact centers in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Romania. In turn, these larger software providers can offer their brand clients, and also their retail and finance clients, the option of adding Chatler’s AI layer into their current toolset for customer care communication.

That’s a win-win for Chatler, who can provide the core AI functionalities for large clients that already have enterprise solutions in place. With Chatler, enterprise CRM providers can focus on providing the full stack of services to clients. Chatler will be used in this context to monitor communications, and develop automated suggestions and responses that are shown to get the best responses from customers. Chatler can help contact centers use their collective expertise more effectively, and refine customer support techniques using AI.

Investors See the Potential

Chatler has now raised 330,000 Euros (100m Hungarian Forints), from seed investment program of Hiventures Venture Capital Fund Management Ltd.

The investment has helped Janos and his team to build and prepare the launch of their enterprise-ready API, and it has opened doors to high-profile events and demo days, such as those of KPMG, and MOL, Hungary’s largest energy company.

And of course, Chatler is hiring! They’re looking for everyone from developers to salespeople. If you’re in Budapest, or if you’d like to be, and you love what they’re doing, send them an email.

Corporates are Slow, but SME is Interesting Too

While the Chatler team has had to wait longer than they would have preferred to release their API for enterprise customers (which is one of our Startup Facts), the waiting has also reignited their interest in SMEs and social media influencers, who can get value out of Chatler right now.

The team has already recorded some traction by selling their solution to Startup Safari, a well attended city-wide event for tech people in Budapest and elsewhere. Safari will use Chatler to manage the high volume of messages they receive during the events. In some cases, Chatler will work in parallel with a chatbot to allow fully automatic responses to simple questions on schedule, location, and other details of individual events.

That’s why Chatler has created a browser plugin that allows individuals or companies to begin to create a knowledge base from their correspondence on Facebook. Over time, Chatler’s AI functions will begin to suggest answers to common and eventually even complex questions as well. The plugin is designed to enhance the normal chat experience via Facebook, not to redesign it or to fully automate it. Chatler calls this “Next Level Chat.”

We have tested the plugin, and it’s very simple to use. Give it a try!

Leading the Chat Conversation

Chat is a unique channel for customer communication. It isn’t email, it isn’t the phone; it’s something different.

Chatler Brand Marketing, Messaging

Chatler helps SMEs maximize their content strategy reach.

That’s why Chatler has also been developing content for SMEs and big brands to learn about this form of communication in the business context. They have started an active blog, where companies can learn about engaging with their customers, Chatiquette, and turning your chat channel into a content marketing channel as well.

Want to learn more about Chatler? Message them!

Chatler

A messenger code. Scan it to talk to Chatler.

The best way to interact with Chatler is through their own product. You can start a conversation with Chatler on Facebook Messenger by opening the app on your phone, selecting “People” at the bottom of the screen, and tapping “Scan Code.”

Welcome to the future.

 

Batch 9

StartupYard Batch 9: Visualized

StartupYard Batch 9 kicks off in a little over a month. Final selections are happening next week. Time flies! We can’t wait to see who will be joining us for Batch 9.

Every round, we like to share a visualization of the application process. While we haven’t made the final selection, we can share our initial data about the applicant pool. All data is anonymized, but you can get a nice sense of the trends we encounter with each round.

A full overview of the selected teams will be available at least a month after the start of the program (so no earlier than May).

As we did for Batch 6, and then again for Batch 7 and Batch 8 we find it very useful now to look back on the applications, and see what’s changed this time around. Where are people applying? What are startups working on? What are the hottest buzzwords? Previous experience has shown us that StartupYard applications can be revealing about the key trends to watch for in the next 6-18 months.

Here we’ll give you a visual trip through our applications for this round, with our analysis, and comparisons with previous years.

StartupYard Batch 9 : Who’s Applying?

StartupYard Batch 7 was the first time that StartupYard attempted two rounds of acceleration in one year. Batch 8 and 9 also come in close sequence, with applications closing on Batch 9 only 2 months after the end of Batch 8. The pattern in volume of applications has remained the same: we received almost exactly the same number as with Batch 8: 149 in total.

Below is a word cloud of the areas in which Startups identified their top skills and the markets they are working in. Note: we have eliminated the word “software,” due to its ubiquity in the application pool.

As we can see, Finance takes the top spot, along with Transportation, and Artificial Intelligence coming in second. We can hardly be surprised by this: between Bitcoin and Blockchain hype, Uber’s continued fascination for tech people, and the many emerging use cases for AI or IoT, these areas are naturally attracting fortune-seekers with new ideas.

In Batch 7 and 8, we noted that Marketing took the top spot in terms of which domains the startups were interested in. This was followed in the past by Data, and then Marketplace. 

Going even further back, startups from Batches 5 and 6 were still focused on Platforms, Mobile, and Apps, with UX and UI being important skills to mention. Today, these terms barely appear. It seems platforms with good UX and UI are now seen as default requirements for new products.

Marketing is Dead: Long Live Marketing

Interesting to us is the fall from grace of Marketing, which led the board for years. It may well be a reaction to the broader cultural shift toward suspicion of Big Data and Advertising that have dominated the tech conversion in recent years. Facebook and Google have particularly been the subject of much concern over privacy, the spread of propaganda, and the wellbeing of users.

The rising focus on AI along with Blockchain seems likely to be part of a shift in general consumer sentiment against the mass collection of private data, with its inherent loss of privacy and control over our experience of online services. At the same time though, these terms are increasingly being used as instruments of marketing: companies now talk about using Blockchain and AI to do things for which these technologies may or may not be huge game changers.

While data is still the foundation of AI, it may be that startup founders see what they’re now doing as beyond the data mining business, which is already quite crowded. Big Data may have simply become a fact of life. On the other hand, new privacy regulations in Europe, and a cultural backlash against big data collection may be pushing entrepreneurs to avoid the need for massive data collection.

Finance and Distributed De-Uberization

Finally, Finance has made a big break from the crowd, likely because of rapid shifts in the way consumers are treating finance products. PSD2, European open banking regulations that force financial institutions to allow customers to share their financial data across multiple platforms, was meant to drive more innovation around consumer finance products.

We see increased interest not only in personal finance, but in insurance management (both B2B and B2C), payments, and consumer/corporate investing.

In addition, the sudden rise of the ICO, and thousands of emerging technologies based on the Blockchain, have inspired startups to become “finance” oriented companies. Tokenization of services and networks opens the opportunity for financial products to become involved in more areas of the economy than before.

Whereas in years past, we saw many applications interested in the “uberization” of many services, today startup founders are seeking to “blockchain” everything, from in-person payments to insurance contracts, to day-labor.

This cannot be too surprising, given that the sharing economy Uber has represented for many years has really failed to deliver the benefits it has long promised. Indeed, Uber itself has still failed to become a sustainable business, and has suffered a severe backlash from consumers – once the name on the lips of every founder, Uber is no longer in the conversation.

Whereas “uberization” leverages a common platform like a mobile app to create a marketplace, and extracts rent from the different participants, blockchain startups forgo the platform in favor of a protocol that can be remixed with other services, and which is not centrally controlled.

This is doubtless appealing to startup founders, because it distances them from the deeply unpopular practices and cultures of companies like Uber. Uber still takes a large share of every transaction on their platform, but it is increasingly clear that their centralized model does not deliver significant benefits to the market (which has been largely covered up by Uber’s massive subsidies for drivers and riders).

This is not even to mention that Uber itself is not a sustainable business after nearly a decade in operation. It lost nearly $4 billion in 2017, leading Forbes to label its business model “fundamentally broken,” something many critics had been pointing out for years already.

Startup founders are realizing that services like Uber are certainly attractive to consumers, but they are also asking: “why do you need Uber the company to have Uber the marketplace?” Most of what Uber can deliver to customers and drivers can be done more fairly, more reliably, and more cheaply using a distributed service model.

Where are Startups Applying From?

Let’s start with a view on where applications came from for Batch 8, and compare that with Batch 9. Here they are in sequence:

 

Startup Applicants to Batch 8 – the Previous Batch

Applications to Batch 9 – Current Batch : Blue = low volume, Red = High Volume

I’ve changed the color scheme here slightly to emphasize the volume of applications from 2nd tier countries. As you can see, Czechia is still the leader, but it leads with only a third the number of applications as even last year. Batch 8 had about 45 applications from Czech companies, Batch 7 had even more. This year, there were only 16 Czech companies in the pool.

At the same time, 0ur geographic footprint widened considerably. This year, we attracted applicants from 44 countries: more than ever before. Batch 8 saw only around 32 countries. New countries included Sri Lanka, Gibraltar, Taiwan, and Lebanon- with one application each.

Which countries saw an uptick in applications? Surprisingly the biggest jump was from the UK, where 13 companies applied. That’s more than any previous year. Perhaps Brexit nerves or political tensions are pushing UK entrepreneurs to seek growth in Europe before it’s too late.

Detailed breakdown of application numbers for Batch 9

Anecdotally, we noticed that a significant portion of co-founders in UK based teams were in fact southern Europeans or other ethnicities. Are startup founders looking to abandon the UK and return to mainland Europe before the Brexit hammer drops?

Applications from Ukraine and India also rose this year. Ukraine’s jump was expected because Ukrainians have recently been granted the ability to visit Europe without need of a visa in advance of travel. This is good news for startups, as it decreases a huge barrier to Ukrainian companies seeking to do ongoing business in the EU. It may also be a matter of concern for Ukrainian startups, many of whom have personally confirmed to me during visits that more young people are leaving for the west than in the past.

Full Employment Has Huge Impact

We had believed in the past that the number of applications from Vysegrad countries would continue to increase at a faster pace. This has not happened over the past two cycles. Instead  Slovakia, Hungary and Poland contributed fewer applications in total than came from Ukraine alone.

There may be a key to explaining this in the employment statistics across the region. Slovakia’s rate of unemployment dropped like a rock in 2017, from almost 9% to less than 6% today. Anything under 5 is considered “full employment,” meaning that jobs are available and workers in demand across the income spectrum.

In fact, most of the Vysegrad group are suffering from a lack of workers for the first time since the fall of communism. Poland, Hungary, and Czechia are all below 5%, whereas the European average is about 8%. Wage inflation has increased accordingly, rising in Czechia to nearly the 2007 pre-crisis level of 6% per year.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains higher in Eastern Europe, with Ukraine close to 10%.

For the first time in many people’s lives in Vysegrad countries, governments are taking measures to improve workplace participation among young people, encouraging them to join the workforce earlier.

Because unemployment is very low, wage inflation and working conditions are improving quickly, possibly encouraging more young people to seek jobs in existing companies, rather than starting their own businesses. Increased career security may also give employed people less motivation to leave a comfortable salaried lifestyle and found a startup.

As living standards rise, the risks of starting a business are more obvious: loss of opportunity and income can be more acute when incomes are rising, as people tend to fear losing what they already have. In times of high unemployment, some will take more risks, having less to lose.

In Which Domains are Startups Working?

One of the key items every year is the breakdown of “domains,” or areas of tech innovation where the startups are working. This is often somewhat different from the market focus, as startups seek to apply new technologies to old problems, or bring existing technologies into new markets for the first time.

Batch 9 Domains excluding “other.”

The core domains we focus on represent more than half of all applications. Of these domains, Machine Learning remains the strong leader it was last year.

However, IoT and Blockchain have strongly edge out Analytics and Security, which have been dominant in previous rounds.

It’s important to note that the domains startups identify themselves as belonging to may be a function of fashion as much as the reality behind the words. Whereas in previous years, we would get many applicants who called themselves “security companies,” today those same companies might emphasize AI, or IoT as their domains, with security being downplayed.

In the previous round for example, Steel Mountain, which makes a security device that employs machine learning to hacker-proof connected homes and devices on Wifi, called itself a Security Company. Today, it might rather call itself a Machine Learning company, which does security, or an IoT device company that uses Machine Learning.

Often the product can be the same, but the emphasis in the application may change to fit the new trends. The security topic has somewhat cooled for startups, as blockchain has taken over many of the same applications, and as security companies become more common.

Batch 9 Domains Including “other”

 

As always, the largest single group of applicants represents none of our areas of focus. Some of these companies do in fact work in IoT, Blockchain, or AI, but they choose for whatever reason to emphasize their domains differently.

This has a lot to do again with how founders see themselves and their future in the industry they’ve targeted.

We sometimes ask applicants: “Do you want to be a technology company or an ‘X’ company?” X being insurance, music, entertainment, finance, or 101 other possible domains. The distinction at an early stage is not always completely clear, especially because founders are not always from technical backgrounds, and don’t always see themselves as primarily tech companies.

One conversation we had with an applicant working on Machine Learning revealed that he was focused on one particular industry, and would not be interested in shifting focus. Of course that’s a valid choice, but it’s also something you can’t always tell from the way an application is written. Sometimes applicants begin with one idea, and end up working on something entirely different, aside from the core technology involved.

 

What It All Means

This data set is too small to draw a definitive picture of the startup landscape in 2018. However, as we have been consistently monitoring trends in our application pool for the past 3 years, we can outline some clear trends.

The state of employment has had a clear impact on the volume and sources of applications. We also believe that the state of the economy has affected the types of companies applying to StartupYard. The ubiquitous “me-too” startups and the local clones of American products and services of 5 years ago are all but gone today. Perhaps many of these ideas have already been successfully executed in Europe, but the state of the economy has also changed the landscape considerably.

In 5 years, networks around high-tech startups have matured, and the communities around Central Europe have gained new heroes in the process (including many of our alumni). The first generation of online entrepreneurs, and successful online businesses, are now engaging very actively with the younger generation of startups, as we have observed within our own mentor community. Banks, Telcos, Insurance companies, Manufacturers, and Tech giants feel the increasing need to engage with early stage companies, and younger tech entrepreneurs now have a menu of options for growing a business with corporate partners, early stage investors, and active Business Angels.

It is a good time for startups.

Feedpresso, StartupYard

Feedpresso: Better News, One Reader at a Time

Tadas Subonis, CEO and founder of FeedPresso joined StartupYard during Batch 7, in early 2017.

At that time, the Feedpresso project was an android app with a small clutch of dedicated users, that helped a person organize and consume the news of the day. It was sort of like Flipboard, but it learned from your reading habits over time to provide a better mix of content you would hopefully find interesting.

Building a content product is a huge challenge, and Feedpresso was no exception. While they rolled out new features, brought feeds online and to iOS, they were bedeviled by the age-old problem of their business model. People who liked the free app didn’t want to pay for it.

So this year, Tadas sat down and wrote an update to shareholders. There would be a significant break in the pattern. Feedpresso would now focus on a very specific kind of customer: the kind that values news enough to pay for the tools to get it. All plans would be paid only.

Feedpresso will reset its strategy, focusing on people in the tech business, who are looking for high performance news aggregation.

I spoke with Tadas last week about the transition, and about his new goals for Feedpresso in 2018. As you’ll see in Tadas’s telling, this transition hasn’t been easy. But today his guiding metrics are not what they were a year ago:

Lloyd: Tell us a bit about your product pivot towards curation and the tech industry.

Tadas: After spending almost a year learning from our failures, we’ve learned (or at least I hope so) that we need to connect with our customers and really dig into their needs, and that’s not possible if we don’t have a very specific person in mind.

We took a look at our audience and ourselves and we realised that a clear audience that we can understand and communicate with is Technology Business professionals. These are people who know the worth of quality content, and are willing to pay to get more out of it.

People that are busy and are in a need of constant updates as the competitive landscape is constantly changing – new best practices, new MAs, and new technologies.

It’s not just about news either.

Another important aspect of the new Feedpresso is that it is a curation tool that helps our customers build their base of knowledge. Organizing and contextualizing timeless content that is important to you is something that’s surprisingly difficult to do with existing solutions.

The way content is presented to us, it has become difficult to give it our full attention, much less to remember it and review it given new information. Whatever is on your feed today is gone tomorrow (or in 5 minutes).

I think that many people feel overwhelmed in today’s culture of newsfeeds and tweets, and unable to really remind themselves of the things they find most important. So we are aiming to help customers contextualize what they read, and build up a record of their knowledge to better understand what they know, and how they know it.

You can see the need for this being met already in other ways, for instance by newsletter curators like Azeem Azhar, who work hard to create a context for modern events that readers can refer to into the future. My feeling is that everyone ought to be able to do that for themselves.

We need to bring back deep reading and reflection.

We’ve even started doing a Technology Business Review newsletter for our customers which turned out to be a success (it has a 70% open rate!). I think this is more evidence that people need more tools to contextualize the content they are consuming and keep track of it.

 

Lloyd: What’s led you to the decision to shift your focus onto power users?

Tadas: I’ve been made to realize, how true the advice by Paul Graham is: “Build something 100 people love, not something 1 million people kind of like.”

It doesn’t matter if you have a thousand customers if they do not care about your product. It is even worse when they all are so different that you can’t even talk to them, because there is nothing you can ask or say that would be relevant to all of them. Even more, the responses you do get are so diverse that the direction to go next is totally unclear. You end up trying to just get more users, any way you can.

Now I see that this is mostly what happens with freemium news products. They just become a machine for catching eyeballs, just like the content they are helping to spread. They don’t end up helping anyone. They just become another layer in a chain of distractors.

I think that serving the need to get more eyeballs on news feeds has really negatively impacted the people at the end of that process. We see more stuff, of lower quality, and it does have a measurable effect.

We are told that people won’t pay for news, which means news isn’t the product anymore, the readers are the product. I think that’s just not good enough.

I am not alone I think.

Last year while we were at StartupYard, Facebook was still denying that this problem existed. Today they are being much more open about it, and admitting that they’ve made some big mistakes. People are really negatively affected by the toxic environment of falsehood and anger on display now.

That is not saying it’s all terrible. Also in 2017, newspaper subscriptions grew faster than any year in modern history. People want to pay for news again. People want quality, and advertising is supporting quality less and less, so paid news is coming back. This can be a moment where people decide it’s worth it to get the right tools to read the news.

So that’s the environment we are in, and we’re targeting a very selective set of customers, who I think understand this problem well, and want it solved.

We’re pretty much back at square one as a business, and we’ve started rebuilding our audience around this new understanding of the problem we solve. Our advantage this time is that we know what the problem is, and we have the tools in place to build on, and try to solve it.

Lloyd: Are you close to a sustainable business model? How much more work do you need?

Tadas: That’s a good question. I have my eyes set on 1000 paying customers this year. That would make this a sustainable business. 1000 could be a lot, or it could be not very much, depending on how well we execute the next phase.

We have just a core handful of users who made the switch with us to a paid product. We’re learning from them every day.

Our customers have a lot of options to choose from, and even if the alternatives are inferior, it becomes really difficult to stand out in the crowd. This is why I believe a shift to focusing on a core set of customers who know the value of the product well is the only way forward.

Lloyd: What are your next steps for the product?

Tadas: The next step in the product is to fix myself  – I still think that there is so much space for improvement in the way we communicate with our customers. Before that is improved, we can’t have a clear direction in the product.

And here I don’t mean clear regarding what new features to add. I think that there is still a gap in the understanding of what fundamental problems our customers have. This news environment is evolving every day, and I don’t think anyone has the answers yet as to how to fix it. But we think we have the right approach, and we have to explore it with our customers.

Lloyd: How can people support the new Feedpresso?

Download us on the App store, or Android, or visit our website at Feedpresso.com to learn more. Get in on the ground floor with a new way of reading the news.

Startup Skills: How to Create a Killer Talk

The Killer Talk: TL;DR: A Long Complicated Post

Creating a killer talk is complicated. Therefore this post is complicated, and because I want to go into detail on some of the points, I’m going to start with a quick TL;DR summary table. If you’re like me, and enjoy a nice wall of text, skip down and start reading!

 A killer talk

  • Preface
    • Practice is everything
    • Gifted speakers give bad talks too
    • Bad speakers can become great presenters 
  • Understanding Story Structure
    • Clear structure makes things memorable and easier to understand
    • Stories are present in all forms of expression, like architecture
    • Proper story structure helps us to manage attention and not be boring 
  • Picking the Story
    • 3 Key factors
      • What the audience expects
      • What the audience wants
      • What the audience needs
  • Complicating the Story
    • Subvert the 3 key factors and introduce conflicting ideas
    • Bring your story to an unexpected solution
    • If it’s not arguable, it’s not interesting 
  • Telling a True Story
    • Make yourself or someone else the hero of your story
    • Create an interest villain too
    • Have your hero’s story be a framing device for your views on the topic
  • Pro Tips: Establishing Authority
    • Always frame your talk in the context of your expertise and experience
    • Embrace your limitations as your advantage (unique perspective)
    • Make your authority clear by your words, not by declaration

 

People ask me sometimes how I prepare for the talks I frequently give at tech conferences and universities around Central Europe.

They say preparation is everything, and I agree. At StartupYard, we’ve been able to turn seemingly hopeless public speakers into real stars. It just takes dedication and time.

The truth is though, certain people are just good at public speaking. I have always been one of them, and that has made me slightly lazy when it comes to preparation. However, as expectations have risen over time, I’ve taken my speech prep more seriously.

This, by the way, is another common problem. Those who *are* naturally gifted public speakers tend to under-prepare. We’ve all had the experience of listening to a great speaker give a mediocre presentation for that reason.

The opportunity to change minds through public speaking is in many ways more powerful than in almost any other medium. It is an art our species has practiced for longer than any other. Standing in front of other people, and challenging and influencing their sense of truth, of justice, and of reason, is as good as it gets in the marketplace of ideas.

Public speaking is the Cadillac of communication.

So then, as a reformed lazy person, how do I prepare for public remarks? How can you learn from my experience?

Understanding Story Structure

“My mother always said: whatever you do in life, don’t be boring.” – Christopher Hitchens

The greatest sin in public speaking is to bore or confuse your audience.

I have covered the storytelling topic in detail in other blog posts. Still, I’ll provide a short primer here:

To be truly interesting is to be memorable. And memorability requires some structure- something the memory can attach itself to. The structure of a talk, just like that of a building or a piece of music, or a book, gives the listener/viewer/reader the shape of the idea, and helps them to remember it.

We call this structure “story.”

Think of it like architecture: the visible elements of a building help us to understand how that building works. Where are the entrances? What is the building for? These clues help you understand what is an office building, rather than a hospital, or what is a grocery store versus a warehouse.

An architect tells a story with the design of a building. In this analogy, we can see that it is possible to fail at speaking the same way you can fail at architecture. There are entire genres of architectural criticism that focus on this problem (and that particular blog is a hilarious example).

Is your talk a maze, or is the layout clear? Do people recognize the entrances and exits? Does it appear to be what it actually is? Does it make sense in the context of its time and space? Is it balanced?

Story structure is about answering these questions.

Note that not all of them have to be answered in the same way! Sometimes you want a maze. Sometimes you want the exits to be hard to find (like in a casino), and sometimes you want a building to stick out, and not fit in. But just like in architecture, we cannot simply ignore structure if we want to be different and memorable in the way we speak in public. We have to master story first.

Picking the Story

My strategy for creating a story for a talk is to understand 3 basic things very clearly. Again, this approach could be applied to any creative medium, even things like music (in fact, studying music theory and composition is where I learned this approach).

The three elements I start with are: what the audience expects to hear, what the audience wants to hear, and what the audience needs to hear.

So let’s take a practical example like Blockchain – the latest hot topic everyone wants to tell everyone else about. If I were to give a talk, I would follow these steps:

  • Think about what the audience expects you to say. Blockchain is the future? It’s a revolution? It’s safe? It’s better than alternatives?
    Pro Tip: Try to find something (which you also believe), that the audience doesn’t expect you to say. Blockchain will solve world hunger? Blockchain will cause a worldwide crisis?
  • Think about what the audience wants to hear. That blockchain is working out the way they hoped? That decisions made in the past were good? That the future is bright? Maybe the audience wants you to be negative about it as well. This is specific to the context of the talk, and who will hear it.
    Pro Tip: Acknowledge what the audience wants to hear, but don’t say it. “I know what you’re probably expecting to hear from me, but I’ll have to disappoint you.”
  • Think about what the audience needs to hear. What are the inconvenient truths about blockchain? What are the things people are ignoring? How are most people wrong about it? What is hard to grasp for this specific group?
    Pro tip: Avoid saying things the audience doesn’t need to hear or already knows. Blockchain is a popular subject? Yes. Only say this if it has a rhetorical purpose: “Of course blockchain is a popular topic but… (insert something the audience needs to know).

Complicating the Story

“Learn the rules as an artisan, so you can break them as an artist.” – Attributed to Pablo Picasso

So we’ve seen in essence, that a great talk is one that doesn’t say what people expect, that contradicts what people want to hear, and which says what people need to hear.

The art of public speaking is the way in which you complicate this process.

Complicating the story means introducing information or ideas that are in conflict with each other. One narrative appears to emerge, but is then challenged by a new narrative. A good public talk examines a story from more than one perspective, and shows how these narratives intersect and diverge.

So then an uncomplicated story begins with the three elements above, but stops there. It tells a narrative in conflict with previous narratives. A really complex and interesting story goes further, and challenges its own ideas in the same way, to arrive at still different conclusions. Often we do this by making the story about our personal journey of discovery: how we started by seeing things one way, and ended up seeing them another way entirely.

You will understand this concept quite instinctively, even if you have never noticed it before. Think of a classic story like The Lord of the Rings, or Casa Blanca. We are at first presented with two opposing ideas: a battle between the good guys, and the bad guys. But inevitably, the interesting part of these stories is what the good guys do that is bad, and what the bad guys do that is good.

You can’t have Frodo without Smigel. Casablanca’s Rick Blaine would never do anything interesting without his antagonist and rival Louis Renaultm to provoke him to action.

Remember: If it’s not arguable, it’s not interesting. Nothing worth your audience’s time is obvious. If everyone agrees with you all the time, then you’re probably not going deep enough. If you agree with yourself all the time, you’re probably not talking about anything that matters.

I know a talk has been a success when people come up to me afterwards to challenge my ideas. “Haven’t you considered this?” “I don’t agree with your conclusion about that.” These are positive outcomes for a public talk: that it inspires more people to think and talk about what you’ve said.

If nobody wants to give you their view, it may be because you haven’t really challenged them.

If it's not arguable, it's not interesting. @lloydwaldo on Creating a Killer Talk Click To Tweet

Telling a True Story

You may recognize the patterns i’ve talked about as similar to that of a classic TED talk, and with good reason. TED is masterful at helping presenters to illuminate a topic from a very specific point of view, and build a story around it.

Ted talks are most often shaped around the “Hero’s Journey,” narrative device. This is a common storytelling practice in which a character (often the speaker themselves), goes through a series of experiences which change their view of the world, and leave them better off than when they started.

A story that can seem flat and uninteresting if told without this device, can come alive for the audience when the hero is included. Take, for example, this classic talk from Will Wright, creator of SimCity, on Spore, birth of a game, from 2007.

On the surface, this could be a very dry discussion of game design in the 21st century. But because Wright makes himself the hero of his own story, we are taken on a journey from his early experiences with game design, through his personal discoveries about science and the theories of the universe, and arrive at the present day, understanding much more about why Wright has created this new game.

This strategy also works when you are not the subject of the story. We routinely see this in political speeches, for example: stories of average working people whose experiences are used to explain a political position or a decision. Investors often use this device to talk about the companies they invest in.

Pro Tips: Establishing Authority

Any time you’re being asked to speak as an authority on a given topic, it’s your job to help your audience understand not only what you think about that topic, but also how you came to have that position in the first place.

A poor way of establishing your authority is simply to state that you are an authority. “I am an expert in this topic,” is the lazy presenter’s mode of persuasion. Better is to list your accomplishments, and even better still, is to actively demonstrate your knowledge and experience in what you say.

A speaker’s authority is as important as what they say. This does not mean that one must be the highest authority on a topic in order to be persuasive, but it does mean that the speaker must frame their arguments in context with their authority to make those arguments.

For example, if I’m being asked to give a talk on Blockchain, I cannot give a persuasive presentation based on my knowledge of the technology. I just don’t know enough about it. There are others who should be listened to on that.

I don’t have to avoid talking about blockchain though. Instead, I would need to pick a point at which my authority intersects with the topic, and examine it from that perspective. Speaking outside my area of authority diminishes my arguments, but sticking to what I do know can bring up important points about the topic that another type of expert might miss.

Everyone is an expert if you look deep enough. @lloydwaldo on Creating a Killer Talk Click To Tweet

Can a marketing expert and an experienced startup investor tell you something meaningful about the blockchain? Absolutely. However, it should be something only a person with those qualifications would know or be able to argue effectively. I could talk about how the technology is marketed, for example, or what the technology’s implications are for marketing in general. I could talk about how the technology interacts with my discipline and my areas of experience.

Inside your area of authority, there will always be perspectives that can be valuable to others. So don’t ask “who am I to address this topic?” but rather “what does my expertise and experience tell me that others need to hear?”

Shareholder, Claimair, StartupYard, Central Europe, Accelerator

How to Write an Outstanding Shareholder Update

Shareholder updates can be hard, particularly if you have bad news. 

There are basically three ways founders tend to approach this: they can pretend everything is fine (a lie by omission), they can rationalize their past decisions and find a way to shift the blame off of themselves (aka: “our timing just wasn’t right”), or finally they can own the situation and focus on the future.

So it always makes us feel good when we see an update of the third kind, like the one we got recently from Jakub Havej, Founder and CEO at StartupYard Batch 5 Alum ClaimAir. With his permission, we are sharing the bulk of his end-of-2017 shareholder letter.

As you can tell, ClaimAir had a tough year. Things didn’t go the way Jakub hoped, but on the other hand, his team and the business both matured remarkably in that time, and today they are on a stable footing, looking to grow again.

It takes a lot of courage to admit when things aren’t working, and Jakub showed that courage to his shareholders. The feedback he got was incredibly positive, and his letter is something any young startup can learn from.By the way: You can help ClaimAir by using them to get compensation for flight delays, lost baggage, and other flight issues.

Visit ClaimAir and See How Easy it Is. 

At the bottom, we’ll talk about what makes this letter special. Now, here it is:

 

Dear Lloyd,

Last time I wrote you, ClaimAir was in the middle of fundraising. And it seemed very good, around €100k was hard-committed at that time.

And you know what?

It didn’t end up working out. It turned out that one of the interested investors faced credibility issues. The other one revoked his commitment without stating any reason.

And then, hard times began.

The company was running out of money. I continued with the fundraising, but after a while I realized that it needed time… time we didn’t have. I felt I couldn’t control the fundraising process. I was just sending out emails and was eagerly waiting for any replies that often never came.

I felt desperate.

“ClaimAir seems very interesting. Please keep us posted about the progress, so we may consider the investment in several months.” – the most common response.

Fortunately, it didn’t last long until I changed my mindset.

Instead of only pursuing investment for the sake of faster growth, I primarily started focusing on the profitability of the company. My inner engine has become fueled by motivation to make ClaimAir independent of external financing.

It was a pure instinct of survival, supported by opinions of people like Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp. It shortly happened that I liked that approach.

“If a restaurant served more food than everybody else but lost money on every diner, would it be successful? No. But on the Internet, for some reason, if you have more users than everyone else, you’re successful. No, you’re not.” – Jason Fried

Businesses must generate profit

A growth of acquired cases, our most important metric until that moment, had become irrelevant overnight. I didn’t care about new cases, because they didn’t bring immediate revenue. It wasn’t the case with more than a thousand existing claims, whose total sum of requested compensation exceeded €700k.

As a result, my team refocused on the management of legal cases, those that were handled by our legal partners. We needed the enforcement to be done much faster and we needed our lawyers to understand that.

We started playing a tougher game with airlines.

Just in a matter of few months, our activities have started bearing fruits. In summer, our monthly net revenue was averaging to €6,500. Three months later, we’ve doubled that!

 

Keep costs under control

Claimair, Shareholder, Startupyard

We’ve been increasing revenue while cutting costs significantly.

“When running a startup, costs are the only thing you can effectively control” – Cedric Maloux

Reducing costs was necessary. Even though it was hard for me to dismiss some people, it was inevitable. Being always transparent about the company made this much easier.

This step also forced us to optimize our activities even more, avoiding the reductions of having a devastating impact on our daily operations. This approach needs to be sustainable.

Finally, by the end of November, we made it.

For the first time in our short history, we ended a month with a positive cash flow. We generated €3,300 net profit, which completed our short-term mission.

Claimair, Shareholder

It’s not easy to enter this market

I remember my discussions with investors. Many of them claimed that it’s easy to copy our business and enter the market. Well, it’s not true at all.

Not only do you have to find smart team members, develop an automated platform, put all operational processes in place, but you must be also successful with enforcement of the rights of air passengers. To achieve this, you must establish a network of legal partners all around the world. Last but not least, it’s a matter of fact that lawyers won’t take you seriously and won’t accept favorable conditions until you’re big enough and deliver a tangible volume.

Our industry is so specific and you need to combine a lot of aspects to get the ball rolling. As long as we’re motivated and innovative, I’m not afraid of newcomers.

We’re still raising funds

It’s interesting to realize that “profit first” approach, which is much closer to my personal attitude, almost naturally attracted both our existing and new investors. Thanks to our results, we were able to raise money for a cash-flow cushion at a very fair valuation from new and existing investors in the past few months.

What’s next?

For a few upcoming months, I’m going to insist on generating profit together with securing a slight organic growth. We’re going to take on only as much work as is comfortable for the team.

As it has been planned for quite a long time, we’re going to prioritize the baggage segment. It’s still our unique value and the acquisition is much cheaper due to the missing direct competition.

Last but not least, we’re going to improve the product for travelers. B2whatever… we’ll design the service that works for the person on the other end. I’ll share more details in my next update.

Next reading

In November, we’ve been awarded a “Scaleup of the month” by EBAN (European Business Angel Network) – read more.

I was interviewed by Roklen24. I spoke about startups, aviation trends, and our recent product updates – read more.

Sincerely,
CEO – ClaimAir
Jakub Havej

What We love About this Shareholder Update:

A great shareholder update hits a lot of bases. Here are the ones this letter covers very well:

  • It tells a human story, covering past, present and future.
  • It admits problems, and offers solutions.
  • It acknowledges and answers shareholder concerns.
  • It asks for help.
  • It argues in favor of the business and the team.
  • It provides solid data.

Honesty Matters.

Really, in the world of speculative businesses, we see only one viable way of dealing with the inevitable challenges you face. That is to be frank and honest, first with yourself, and second with the people who put their trust in you. What is most important about this note is that it is part of a consistent pattern of behavior. If you make a habit of telling the truth, your life ends up significantly easier to manage. In the short term, a lie or even an omission might be convenient, but in the end, it will create more pain than it is meant to avoid.

So if you’re a founder who is facing similar challenges (and you probably will at some point), do yourself a favor, and take a page from Jakub’s experiences.

exponential innovation, Startup Mistakes

6 Silly Startup Mistakes You Can Fix in 5 Minutes

Silly startup mistakes are a dime a dozen. We’re not fans of “startup playbooks,” at StartupYard. Checking off a list of stuff you have to do doesn’t make the difference between a fast growing company and one that is dead on arrival.

That being said, there are plenty of stupid startup mistakes that are easy to avoid. So easy, in fact, that will take you just 5 minutes to fix some of them. Here are 6 of those silly startup mistakes, plus why they’re silly, and how to fix them (in no particular order):

 

6 Startup Mistakes (And How to Fix Them) 

1. Update Crunchbase, Angellist, Facebook, LinkedIn

You know what I and every other startup investor will do when we hear the name of an interesting startup? The same thing you would do: Google it. What shows up in a google search is very important for your first impression – the thing most people will see before anything else.

Here’s a typical experience: A colleague from another accelerator asks me if I have heard of Company X. I Google it, and first thing I see is a search suggestion to change the name to something similar that has more results. Bad sign so far. Hopefully your website is at least in the first page of results. I take a brief look at the website, then go back to the search.

Next, I skim down the list of sites looking for one of the above listed profiles, and check to see how old it is, any recent changes, and any important info. This is where many, many startups go wrong. The info is old, it’s outdated, the profile is inactive, or it’s just not there.

This is not a dealbreaker for me or most people, but imagine you’re in a list of 200 companies I’m looking at. I can find decent information on 100 of them. I only need to pick 50 to contact. What am I going to do with the company that has no relevant data available? Probably I’m going to put it aside. Plenty of fish in the sea.

Keeping these data sources up to date takes a few minutes every few months at most. So you might as well do it. Remember: only one contact can change your company’s future. So don’t make it harder for me.

 

2. Fix Your Open Graph Meta Tags

Here is a detailed look at how Open Graph meta tags work. The short version of the story is that 3rd parties, like social media and search platforms, use metadata, supplied by your website or encoded in content you share, to display information about the site or the content on the 3rd party platform.

Think of metadata as an album cover that goes along with whatever you post on social media, or in every link of yours that is shared by someone else. What happens if there are no open graph tags on your site and content? Anything shared about you comes along with a handy blank image and no description. Very professional.

How do you fix it? This isn’t a step-by-step guide, but we have a startup for that! start by checking your site at Testomato.com. It takes 30 seconds, and they’ll tell you if your site is in serious need of help when it comes to metadata (and many other problems).

Pro-Tip: SEO Plugins like Yoast for WordPress help you easily create and validate meta tags for content and pages. Which brings us to our next item:

 

3. Install Free or Premium SEO Software on your Site

We use WordPress at StartupYard, and believe it or not, I strongly recommend that our startups do the same, or at least choose an easy-to-use website builder with plenty of plugins available.

It’s for reasons like this: free software like Yoast SEO, which can dramatically improve your website’s visibility in Google search, and also helps you make sure your content and pages are tagged properly, in the right format, optimized for the right keywords, and well written and formatted as well. Their pro-version does even more, like setup redirects for you.

With the right setup in place, it takes an extra two minutes on a blog post or a new landing page to make sure everything is working properly, and that your customers can actually find in the future. Thanks to Yoast, StartupYard now ranks highly for a number of key search terms that we know startups are using.

 

4. Make Yourself Easy to Reach

My God, is this a bigger problem than you can imagine. As a scout for tech talent and startups, I’ve spent ridiculous amounts of time playing detective to try and figure out how to contact startup founders without landing in their spam folders, being ignored, or reaching the wrong person.

Keep this important information in mind: You are a startup founder. Not a rockstar. Don’t make it difficult for people to figure out how to talk to you. You might even *gasp* share your phone number as well. I like to know I can at least call someone if absolutely necessary.

Here are a handful of things I wish no startup would ever do on their website until it becomes absolutely necessary.

  1. Contact forms instead of email addresses – If there’s a better way of showing people that you aren’t accessible, I don’t know what it is. I hate filling these forms, and in my experience, 9/10 times there isn’t a reply anyway.
  2. Info@ email addresses – Don’t do this. Just don’t do this. Who gets an email sent to info@? As far as I know, it goes right to your spam folder, or to an intern, or a customer service rep. Info@ for a company of under 10 people is just putting out a sign saying: “we don’t want to hear from you.” Put the founders’ email addresses on the site. Let investors (and customers) contact any of them. A pre-revenue company cannot afford to screen emails.
  3. Auto-responders – I hate this. Again, if you’re a company of 3 people, you don’t need an autoresponder. Just reply to emails. Reply to all emails that are specifically addressed to you, even if your answer is just “not interested, thank you.” Just because your mail client has it as a feature doesn’t mean you should use it.

But what about all the spam, you say? What about when I *am* a rockstar, and my email is swamped with customer questions? There’s an app for that: it’s called email forwarding. Create a new email address that is to be shared only for professional reasons, and forward all emails sent to your public address to a special folder in your new inbox. Check it regularly, and create rules for individual senders who are still using your old address, to route them to your inbox. Done.

 

5. Print and Carry Business Cards

Hello, yes it’s 2018 and I’m telling you to get business cards. Yes, people can just send you an email, and you can add them on LinkedIn, and, and, and.

The thing is that some innovations are so good, so intrinsically elegant, that they don’t go away even when there are “better” alternatives available for less. To me, carrying a good business card is like wearing a tasteful watch, or having a firm handshake. It’s proforma, but it’s the good kind of proforma.

Just consider some of the reasons why a business card works centuries after its invention:

  1. It creates credibility. A person who spent money on business cards is taking things seriously. It also makes you seem like a prepared and professional person.
  2. It gives me a way of remembering your name while I’m talking to you. Believe me, that helps a lot of people. Also, it helps me understand your job and business without having to ask.
  3. It helps you stand out. Don’t get *too* gimmicky with your cards, but a bit of creativity shows you care.
  4. It makes it easy for a person to share your contact details with somebody else. That’s what networking is for. A business card makes it easy: “hey I thought of you when I met this person.”
  5. It makes it easy to start a conversation. Shy people sometimes come up to me saying “Can I have your business card?” This happens often after I’ve just spoken in public, or met a bunch of people at once. Those who don’t want to monopolize your time can take your card, and you can then start a conversation with them if you wish.

It takes 5 minutes to order good-looking business cards online. No excuses.

 

6. Fix your Email Footers

Kind of like business cards, this is a proforma thing that is really important, particularly because of modern technology.

Having clearly formatted footers in your email makes it super easy for someone to track down your contact details by searching their inbox. Even better, modern smartphones can use this data to provide contact info on incoming calls, and even help people find your phone number without digging through their emails.

It’s also a bit of much needed context when you’re sending messages or replying to large group messages. The worst thing that happens in those situations is that somebody without their name in the email address itself replies without a name in the footer either. You annoy me, whoever you are.

As a bonus, you can use your footers as guerilla marketing as well. Anytime someone forwards an email or you reply to a group, you can include a link to your product with a tagline. That’s nice, isn’t it?

Do You Have More Startup Mistakes That Take 5 Minutes to Fix?

Tweet it to us at @startupyard, and we might add it to this list!

 

Ready to Apply to StartupYard?

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

StartupYard, growth strategy

10 StartupYard Companies Raised €2.2M in 2017

2017 was a good year at StartupYard. Not just financially , but also because we saw a number of our Alumni and recent graduates accomplish amazing things in the past year. Of course, 10 companies raising over €2 million total makes us very happy.

Still, the money is less important to us than what the money says, which is that these companies are doing good things that investors believe in, and that therefore we’ve done our job well.

10 Companies, €2.2 Million

More StartupYard alumni raised funding in 2017 than in any previous year. 10 Alumni and startups in the program raised funds in rounds worth between €35k and €750k. Many of these investments we’ve announced, but others have not been made public yet.

We’re also happy to report that there are additional deals in the pipeline, and we will hopefully be able to announce those very soon. We hope that 2018 will follow 2017 as another record year for fundraising.

How Does StartupYard Help Startups Fundraise?

The Network:  Aside from the obvious, which is that we begin by investing in Startups that go through our program, every deal that one of our alumni have closed in the past year has been with the help of the StartupYard network.

Through mentoring, and especially Demo Day and the following Investor Week, our startups meet and get a chance to pitch a huge number of likely investors, including business angels, VCs, and even banks and large corporate investors. In every case in the past year, our startups have been able to raise money because of contacts made during the program. In most cases, the startups raised directly from StartupYard mentors or existing investors.

The Reputation: As with any long-running accelerator program with a decent track record, we have a smart group of investors who will pay close attention to any startup we work with. Being around for many years, and having made many right calls in the past, we are trusted by investors to offer clear, honest and helpful feedback about our alumni.

That doesn’t mean investors do whatever we say. But they do listen.

Our investor network know that we do not shop investments that we don’t believe in ourselves. Credibility in the investment community matters very much. You don’t always have to be right, but you have to be informed, open, and honest. I can safely say that every company I’ve worked with in the past 4 years at StartupYard that deserved an investment, got it. We find a way to make it happen.

The Program: Just as important as having the right network to do your initial fundraising, you have to be an investable company to begin with. One of the things we look for in startups we select is that they are usually almost investible, or we see that with some hard work, they will be investable sooner rather than later.

That naturally incurs a big risk for us, but it also helps define our mission- not to find “the best” most shiney startups out there, but to find the ones with the most real potential. One of the metrics we use to determine our success at picking “go over show,” is how well our startups do after our program at raising smart money (that is, from investors who know what they’re doing).

The Backup: Another quiet but important part of StartupYard’s role with alumni companies is to provide “backup” in negotiations with future investors.

Having an existing investor on your side of the table is an important practical and psychological advantage in investment negotiations. For one thing, an existing, experienced investor helps ensure that new investors behave themselves, and make fair offers on fair terms. Knowing an experienced partner is behind the startup encourages fair play and discourages game playing.

For another, StartupYard has the network and platform to expose bad actors, and to make sure our startups don’t deal with them in the first place. We have the power, in extreme circumstances, to block investments in our most recent alumni. This should be seen not as a blocker for investment, but as a negotiating advantage for startups, who can always fall back on us to block or negotiate terms that are unfavorable to the founder, on their behalf.

As we say, we can be “the bad guy,” with future investors when we are needed to be.

Listening to What an Investment Actually Says

Many founders who apply to StartupYard, and many who join us and go on to raise further investment, begin with some wrong conceptions of what raising investment is all about.

Of course, it’s the money they’re usually thinking about. But this is only part of the picture. If you need money, there are lots of places to look for it. Not all of those places are good, and not all of them are ultimately worth your effort or the risk you take in going there.

I used to joke with our founders that if you got into this business just to make money, you should just sell drugs instead. It’s almost true.

If there is good money and not so good money (clean or dirty, smart or dumb) how do you decide whom to take money from, or whom to ask for it?

Try approaching the question from the opposite tack: not “how do I get this money,” but instead: “what will it say if someone gives me this money?”

It should say that the investor believes in the upside potential of what you’re doing. Any investor in an early stage company should be nowhere near defining the real market value of the investment, because that value hasn’t been fully explored or proven yet.

The investment has to say what the investor can reasonably believe. Here are some things an early stage investment should say about what the investor believes:

  • The company will be worth more in the future
  • The founders are honorable and trustworthy
  • The product is good and there is a market for it
  • The founders will work hard, and pivot if necessary
  • The founders will eventually sell or realize a profit
  • Failure is possible, and ultimately acceptable

Maybe one or two of those points surprise you, but I hope not. We should not expect early investors to be total true-believers in what a startup is doing, but we should be able to answer all these questions before accepting an early investment from someone.

We should also not expect investors to be unemotional, or completely calculating in their early-stage investments. A true opportunist is a dangerous friend to have.

Picking the right investor is not just about sleeping well at night, though that’s part of it. It’s also about making sure that you actually have the clarity of vision and the confidence you will need to do what the investor believes you can do. Convincing someone of something is a lot harder than telling it to yourself.

One of the best ways to get someone to believe all the things I’ve mentioned is to really believe them yourself. The best way to believe those things is to make them true.

Make Yourself Investable

As we’ve seen, becoming an investable company is about more than having a great idea, or the energy and determination to make it happen. It’s also about the network you have, and the choices you make early on.

If you think you have a tech idea with great potential, consider working with an accelerator like StartupYard to grow your immediate network, and turn the idea into a business investors and customers can really trust.

Finding investors, just like finding any business partner, is about knowing what exactly you need, and what to reasonably expect. StartupYard helps you figure those things out.

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9.

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Startups: Do You Make Me Money, or Save Me Money?

Something jumped out at me from a recent podcast by Y-Combinator with Des Traynor, Founder of Intercom. Asked about the problem he solves, he described how over time, their approach to sales has changed:

“. When you’re trying to pitch them something, they just say “Hey, here’s my two numbers, which one of these are you changing?” And I think when we show up and we’re like, well if you love your users you’re going to stick around, and they’re like sh-sh. Don’t care about any of that. Are you going to make me money or save me money? And we need to get better at answering that question. And we need to have better evidence to answer that question.”

In Startup culture, there is always a lot of talk about “solving problems.” Every product and service has to solve some problem. That’s true as far as it goes, but “solving a problem” for your users is not, in itself, enough to build a business on. You have to also answer some version of this question: how do you make me money, or save me money?

As we accept applications for StartupYard Batch 9, this question will be forefront on our minds when making initial selections.

Lots of problems exist, but not all of them are promising new businesses. How do you know when you’ve nailed down that problem that people are willing to pay money to solve?

You can check out the video podcast here:

A Problem That Isn’t a Problem

The reason we always begin our acceleration program with the classic Positioning Statement, is that expressing the problem you solve is one of the hardest things an early stage startup has to manage.

Often times the “problem” founders pick to talk about is just another way of saying that their customers want their product. Maybe they do, but why?

Over the course of in-depth positioning discussions with dozens of startups, I’ve developed a sort of framework for determining whether a problem is in fact a real problem, and not a “startup problem.” While not universal, this framework is extremely helpful in determining whether you’ve really nailed down the problem you’re solving.

I apply this mental checklist:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?
  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?
  • Does the customer actively search for other solutions?
  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

One of the most typical early positioning problems is that founders will identify things like “a better interface,” or “more efficiency,” or “saves time,” as the key benefits of their solution to a problem.

But by applying this checklist, we can see that benefits like “saving time,” are not always as urgent as they might appear. Does the time have a clear financial cost? Is the customer aware that they can do something faster? Would they actually seek a faster solution on their own? Is this time that they are wasting a concern for them?

You can sell me a way to shower in half the time every morning, but I wouldn’t buy it. It’s only a problem if the time I spend showering is a frustration to me.

Sometimes I ask founders: “Have you ever sat down and googled: “how to do x faster?” Most of the time, they haven’t, because that’s not typically how people behave. Only when something is taking so long, and is so arduous that it has become a clear problem, do people act to find solutions.

A Case Study: Steel Mountain

Steel Mountain

Getting your positioning, and particularly your problem statement to answer those questions can mean changing deeply how you talk about what you do, and how you see your customers, and who they are.

I’m going to use the case of one of our most recent startups Steel Mountain, the home-network security company that will soon be offering a single device to monitor and protect homes from digital intruders, viruses, and other threats.

Steel Mountain, it must be said, were already in a more than usually advanced stage of development when they joined our program, but I would say this exact roadblock was among their toughest questions early on. They had a compelling product, but they needed to really be able to express the problem that it solves.

The “You Need Us” Problem

After about a month in the program, their positioning looked something like this:

“The privacy and security of homes and small businesses are increasingly at risk from digital threats. Steel Mountain’s Secaura device plugs into your router, providing enterprise grade security across your entire home network. Unlike typical security software, Secaura covers all connected devices instantly, requires no active maintenance, and employs advanced artificial intelligence against known and unknown security threats.”

That is a very straightforward positioning statement, quite typical of a security company. Just one problem: it doesn’t quite pass the checklist I mentioned earlier. Let’s see:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?

Not really. We are told first of all that there is a threat lurking out there somewhere online. But that threat has no exact proportion, and the target customer (the head of a household or small business), is at pains to estimate how much exactly a digital threat means in terms of lost income, lost business, theft, or other mischief.

  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?

Maybe… although given that this is such a simple solution to a complex problem, it’s rather doubtful that anyone who truly understands the problem doesn’t already have a solution in place. Perhaps there is market awareness of the problem, but we aren’t yet clear from this statement that the target market knows they’re in real danger.

  • Does the customer active search for other solutions?

Again, it’s not yet clear whether the target customer actively engages with this problem at all. Some probably do, but the alternatives mentioned, such as security software, serve only a minority of households. Most do not have a sophisticated solution in place. Is the product only for security minded people, or is it for people who can’t deal with complex solutions?

  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

Again, we can speculate that the typical household or small business does not list security among its top concerns. Those that do are probably using more complex solutions. For those who are using no solution, it is seen more as a low-level, constant issue that many people would rather ignore than understand, and most people believe will never have an effect on them either way.

As we can see clearly from this checklist, we haven’t identified an urgent, well-understood need from a well-defined target customer. 

Making the Problem a Real Problem

How did Steel Mountain come down to a positioning statement that did involve a clear problem and urgent need for the solution?

First, they took the painful but necessary step of considering that while their expertise and the value of the product as they see it is in security technology, the typical customer in their target market has no way of evaluating such products.

Instead, they went back to these 4 checklist questions and identified a problem that satisfies all of them at once.

The problem they identified was this:

 

“Parents of families feel great pressure to provide a safe digital environment for their children, and are prone to wasting money and effort on partial security solutions that never completely protect their homes and families.”

Bingo.

For starters, we have narrowed the customer set in this positioning statement to parents. In doing so, we’ve been able to identify a more universal emotional and social problem that the target customer can easily identify with.

So the problem is no longer: “my home is not secure,” but instead: “I am afraid of feeling like a bad parent who can’t protect their family.”

How does it do with the checklist?

  • The problem has clear financial implications. Every parent has wasted money on safety equipment that wasn’t really needed. This solution promises to end that guess-and-check approach to digital security.
  • The customer is very aware of the problem. Any parent who gives their child a smartphone or a tablet knows the dangers, and tries to consider them.
  • Nearly every parent in the target market has or will in the future investigate digital security to protect their children. The solutions are in fact much broader than merely software, as in the earlier positioning statement. Education products, specialty devices, operating systems, and many other solutions are available to address the same concerns. This solution can now be compared to those as a cost effective and complete alternative
  • Child safety is a top concern for most families with children. Again, by shifting the problem to one of “parents with children” rather than “owners of homes,” we have also shifted the conversation towards top concerns that parents have, for their children. Now, rather than comparing Secaura to an anti-virus software, we can compare it to other home security essentials: baby monitors, door locks, or fuse-plugs.

This process also helped the founders identify more features of the product that were very attractive for customers. Parental content locks, and “bedtime” settings for individual devices, though the founders had included them as an afterthought, were of prime interest to this new target market.

The reactions the founders got began to change because of this new positioning.

When Steel Mountain’s CEO Will Butler began pitching the company with this strategy, the change in enthusiasm was remarkable. People in his target market started asking: “Can I have one?” And “I’ve always wanted that!” It went from a geek product to something the customer had to have, and should have already owned.

Steel Mountain CEO Will Butler pitches about the stress of living up to your role as a parent.

It’s often said that “people don’t buy security.” What’s really meant by that is that people have a hard time seeing the value of something that protects us against a problem we don’t understand. If the product solves a problem we do understand, and even better, one we already have right now, then the customer is much more likely to consider buying it.

Some security companies only manage to sell to customers who have already been victimized by attacks and theft. But others find a way to sell “peace of mind,” instead.

When solutions really find a clear and understood problem and customer, they begin to feel not just strong, but practically inevitable. Why hasn’t someone done this before?

Applying it Yourself

Of course, not every problem has to do with security, or money, or peace of mind. Your customer might not be concerned with saving or making money. The logic of the framework is about the relevance of the problem to a particular customer. Have you picked a customer and a problem that match?

If not, how can you change your thinking about who the customer really is, or what their problem really might be?

Squaring that circle is never easy. As a founder, you’re naturally absorbed in what you’re building, and driven by your own reasons for building it. Opening up and applying that work to problems you haven’t considered is part of a continuous creative process. It involves talking to your target customer and others about what their real feelings and concerns are.

You have to talk to a lot of people. Not just customers, but the people who sell to those customers, and understand them best.

Getting the problem right is a life or death challenge for an early stage company. That’s one of the reasons an accelerator can be such a great choice for a team like Steel Mountain, or many other companies we’ve worked with. The opportunity to shift your thinking and test it with so many mentors and potential customers in such a short time is a rare opportunity for a startup.

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Cybersecurity, Cryptelo, StartupYard

Why Cybersecurity Startups Should Apply for StartupYard Batch 9

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. One of the key verticals we are focusing on during this round is Cybersecurity.

Prague, and StartupYard itself have a long history of security successes, which we’ll cover here.

In the past 4 years, StartupYard has accelerated a number of high-profile tech startups, which have gone on to have a big impact. These include enterprise mobile security firm TeskaLabs, secure storage and exchange platform Cryptelo, and most recently, the home network security provider Steel Mountain. We are looking forward to adding companies in the cybersecurity, cryptography, and blockchain in Batch 9. Applications close January 31st 2018.

 

 

Why Cybersecurity?

There is no single more pressing issue than cybersecurity in the technology industry today. As big data proliferates, and AI takes over many tasks and systems formerly run by humans, our digital lives and businesses become less physically vulnerable, and more dependent on secure transfer, storage, and access to data and the devices that use it.

As StartupYard’s recent alum, Steel Mountain founder Will Butler put it on this blog: a digital attack on your home now has a greater potential danger than a physical one. These dangers are not only related to money or to privacy, but increasingly to basic safety as well.

Mixed Reality Cloud, Ghost Shell, StartupYard

The number of potential weak points in digital security continues to multiply daily, constantly increasing the rewards to those who would steal information and compromise networks.

For enterprises and governments, the story is much the same. Forbes magazine called 2017 The Year of CyberWarfare, and from attacks on democratic institutions to massive data breaches in enterprise systems, affecting billions of individuals, this has turned out to be true.

State actors and potential terrorists have also gotten into the game, with massive black-hat propaganda campaigns, targeted data thefts, DDOS, doxing, and more. This year saw organized cyberwarfare against Ukraine, and a possible state-sponsored attack on public and private utilities across Europe in the wannacry ransom attack.

 

Why StartupYard?

As the number of threats to our data and our electronic systems has increased, a new wave of cybersecurity companies has risen to meet the challenge.

2017 was a record year for cybersecurity startup fundraising. The sector has grown from under $1bn in 2012 to over $5bn today, with a record 44 M&A deals occurring in the first quarter of 2017 alone.

You might think that in this kind of environment, a team with a cybersecurity product and a few brain cells between them could make it big. And in fact they could, if they were very, very good, and very, very lucky.

The reality is that even in a hot space, and sometimes even *especially* in a hot space, differentiating yourself and building a network that will sustain you and grow your business for years into the future is as hard as it ever was.

Growing a global business is hard, even when you’re selling something everyone needs. Especially when you’re selling security, which everyone needs, and no one wants to buy.

Note our emphasis on sustainability and the future. StartupYard believes strongly in building a sustainable global business for the future. The winners in cybersecurity will be those who started with a stable foundation, a network of mentors who know what they’re doing, and a set of investors ready to support them long term.

So here are the ways StartupYard can help a Cybersecurity Startup in 2018:

Trust and Reputation

You may know the old line about conservative business decision-making: “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM.” This is still very true. Security is all about trust and reputation. Big corporations with complex decision-making processes and complex needs have to work with companies they know.

After all, no one wants to “buy security.” They want to buy peace of mind – insurance against things they don’t want to think about.

Cybersecurity, StartupYard

The only way your technologies will end up being used at Microsoft, or IBM, or by a government or a bank, is if someone who already has that level of trust and comfort with those same customers helps you to enter the inner circle.

That is exactly what StartupYard’s mentor network is set up to do: give startups a ready-made relationship with trusted partners who can make those connections for them, and help them build trust faster than they could on their own.

Location and Community

StartupYard is at the heart of the Central European tech ecosystem, and our home city, Prague, is a hub for cybersecurity technology in Europe. World leading security companies such as Avast, Cognitive Security, and AVG were founded and grew right here, along with Eset in neighboring Slovakia. Their influence, knowledge, and reputations have made the Czech tech ecosystem particularly suitable for security companies looking for partners who understand the value of their work, and how to use it.

Central Europe Accelerator, Cybersecurity, StartupYard

Not only is Prague an excellent place to develop a cybersecurity business, it’s also a great place to build your team, including engineering and sales. Czech security and cryptographic skills are among the highest in the world. The region is known for producing superior talents in security engineering, and knowledge of sales in this field is particularly strong.

StartupYard has a deep web of connections to this industry, that growing companies can leverage right away to grow and position themselves for success.

Experience and Knowledge

All of which would be meaningless, if StartupYard were not the home of more than one high-profile cybersecurity startup.

Our track record includes companies such as TeskaLabs, the first Czech company ever to attend TechStars, and now a profitable and growing company with major enterprise clients such as O2 and Cisco. We also have Cryptelo, which boasts a world-leading standard in cryptology, with secure storage and transmission of data.

And there’s Steel Mountain, our latest investment in the field, focusing on consumer digital security, who have recently signed agreements with a major manufacturer to build their breakthrough home network security solution for families.

Cybersecurity, StartupYard

These companies contribute to our team’s experience in cybersecurity, but they also act as mentors and support mechanisms for future startups in the StartupYard program. They bring a network of mentors, investors, and advisors with a proven track record of getting results for growing companies in the field.

Should my Cybersecurity Startup Apply to StartupYard?

Are you an early stage company, with a unique approach to a serious security issue, that would benefit from a deep network of mentors and advisors with long experience in cybersecurity?

Are you two or more founders, who know the value of an accelerator, and are looking to build a global, sustainable business, serving clients potentially all over the world? Do you believe in what you do? Do you think you can convince others that you’re right?

Does your work have the potential to impact the lives of many people in a positive way?

If so then yes, you should apply.

 

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.