ICO

ICOs: 2017’s Biggest, Most Misunderstood Trend in Tech

It seems like the tech investment market hasn’t been this excited about anything since 1999. The ICO, or “Initial Coin Offering,” is on the lips of every investor, and floats to the top of every startup discussion around fundraising and new business models.

Depending on who you ask, it’s a revolutionary shift in the investment paradigm that will help tech companies and investors alike become wildly rich, or it’s a scary bubble-creating, fraud enabling monster the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the dot-com bubble.

So what’s going on? What’s an ICO? What do you need to know about them? Why should I be wary or excited? This post will jump into the circumstances that created the phenomenon of ICOs, and try to dispel or confirm some of the most important common beliefs about them.

First, a bit of history:

First There Was Blockchain

In the distant technological past, around 2009, an idea emerged from a mysterious coder with the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto. In a now-legendary whitepaper, he produced a theoretical model for a new kind of digital currency: what he called Bitcoin.  

Without getting too deep into the technology, the key to Nakamoto’s innovation was the idea of a distributed digital currency that relied on a network of computers to process and authenticate transactions for its users. This network would create many copies of a “blockchain ledger,” and would copy transactions written to the ledger based on consensus with the network.

The ledger would contain many “coins,” or unique pieces of code that could be “traded” from one user to another only with the use of a private key. Over time, the system itself was designed to create more coins as a reward for those who processed transactions- a process called “mining.”

In this system, transactions would be theoretically tamper-proof. The system would keep what amounts to a never-ending record of everything it does, impossible for one person to alter alone.

Though Bitcoin’s exact origins and Nakamoto himself are mysterious, what is true today is that millions of people around the world have traded bitcoins, and used them for a variety of purposes, including making payments, transferring money abroad, and in some cases, illegal activities such as extortion, money laundering, and black market sales. There is such ongoing demand for bitcoins, that they have been valued by some exchanges at up to $5000 dollars recently.

The popularity of Bitcoin has spawned many follow-ups, including and especially Ethereum, which has presented a number of technical advancements to solve limitations in the original Bitcoin technology, particularly Bitcoin’s lack of speed and extensibility.

Today, the Ethereum blockchain functions as a platform upon which applications that need a distributed blockchain can be built. The Ethereum coin called “ether,” can be “spent” as a way of leveraging the network on which it runs to accomplish new tasks in a secure way.

Blockchain and ICOs

While Bitcoin popularized shared ledgers, new platforms like Ethereum promise to put that technology to much broader use, such as in authenticating contracts, securing communications, and enabling new forms of crowdfunding. Proponents see Ethereum and similar technologies as a way to decentralize many functions of the web, and eventually the whole economy.

TechCrunch has a good introductory article on some of those ideas. I suggest you read that as well.

An ICO is one of those new uses of a shared ledger. As simply as possible, it is the process of offering a new set of coins for purchase, either for cash, or more commonly, in exchange for cryptocurrencies that the seller of the coin can then exchange for cash, or something else. The coins being sold by the company raising the IO should be tied to some external financial instrument or physical asset, such as a loan, a share of common stock, a security, or in some cases, “credit” towards the use of the products a company offers.

You may recognize this kind of transaction as essentially similar to the sale of a security or a debt. The main difference is that the sale is accomplished using a blockchain ledger, and the “coin” sits in place of a typical security instrument, such as a bond, or a note.

Thus, an ICO could be used to facilitate many existing business activities. It could be used to enable a group of lenders to pool their money, or it could be used by a startup to sell equity in itself. An ICO can also be used by an existing company to offer a way of buying its services (the same way mobile gaming companies sell tokens, gems or other items to their players to make in-game purchases).

The advantages of employing blockchain technology in these circumstances are the same as ever: increased security, transparency, and auditability. In short, ICOs can potentially offer a better or fairer way of doing things people mostly already do.

So Why is this So Crazy Popular?

Because it’s so easy to setup, and easy to use. The wild popularity of ICOs in the past 6 months or so is largely driven by the general investor hype around cryptocurrencies. As the prevalence of shared ledgers grows, it becomes ever easier to leverage them for novel purposes like an ICO.

And that cutting-edgness can make the ICO market a bit frothy and potentially bubble prone. People who have invested in cryptocurrencies, and more importantly those who missed the huge easy gains that early Bitcoin and Ethereum investors made, now are seeking more opportunities to make returns of a similar scope. At least a part of this is mania and greed, as evidenced by the wacky valuations and amounts raised in some ICOs.

On the other hand, ICOs carry undeniably attractive advantages. They can be bought into from anywhere, by anyone, and are instantaneous- a powerful antidote to the slow and restricted nature of traditional investments and bank transactions for end-consumers. In a sense, an ICO lets individuals do what big investment banks have been able to do for decades: to be the first movers in new and exciting markets.

What an ICO is Not

Of course, that freedom and opportunity comes with its own cost.

Currently ICOs are mostly considered to be unregulated, and have thus been characterized as dangerous, risky for investors, and legally questionable by experts. Certainly those ICOs which mimic the characteristics of a classical IPO have been among the most concerning activity in the ICO market, and were the primary motivator for both the Chinese and US governments to intervene in the market recently.

An ICO can allow a company to bypass institutional investors who might normally help to diversify risk for consumers, or ensure that an investment is legally structured in a way that protects investors. In an ICO however, no central mediator such as a stock exchange or investment bank exists, and thus, in some cases, due diligence on behalf of investors is poor or non-existent.

Whatever the legal or ethical dangers, ICOs have quickly ballooned in value to what is estimated to be billions of U.S. dollars in the past year. Companies have used ICOs to raise eye-popping amounts of money, sometimes with little reliable information about where that money is going, and often with little legal protections in place for buyers.

ICOs have also been the tools of purely criminal enterprises, with a fraudster reportedly caught attempting to move $350 million of ICO investments offshore from India, after a fake ICO for a company calling itself OneCoin.

Massive speculation in cryptocurrencies has fueled plenty of fraud and abuse from bad actors looking to make easy money. And the distributed nature of a shared ledger makes it correspondingly difficult for investors to organize in response to problems. Collective shareholder action becomes difficult when many shareholders remain anonymous.

As to whether we are in a crypto bubble, as many commentators fear, it is inherently difficult to recognize a bubble when you are in it. But according to the economic historian Michael Lewis (author of The Big Short), a defining feature of the investor mania that leads to bubbles is “ an exponential increase in the volume and complexity of fraud.” And fraud today in crypto-currencies is both voluminous and increasingly complex.

Original Art by Mirek Sultz Copyright 2017, StartupYard 

Are ICOs Legal?

At least right now, they’re not illegal in most places. But the question of their legality is part of an evolving situation. They have recently been banned in China, as the government grew concerned over the disruption they were causing in the country’s traditional financial markets. In addition, the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission of the US), has also issued new guidance suggesting that ICOs that are similar to a classical IPO must register with the SEC, and adhere to existing regulations.

The ESMA (the European SEC), has yet to issue coherent regulatory guidance for European investors and companies. European regulators are typically slower to act than either the US or China.

In addition to this, while an ICO might not be illegal, it may in some cases be technically illegal to participate in it. For example, investors who are American citizens, and the companies they buy coins from, may be at risk of violating US laws including FATCA and FBAR – laws that require many financial transactions to be reported to the US Government when they involve American citizens.

In most countries, ignorance of such laws is not a defense for breaking them.

Are ICO’s Safe?

They can be. An ICO is not inherently safe as an investment. One unique risk in blockchain transactions, as opposed to traditional commerce, is that nothing is reversible. “No backsies,” meaning that you can’t appeal to anyone to recall a transaction once you make it.

And a coin alone does not guarantee shareholder rights or ownership of something. However, if the proper legal framework is used to tie coins to real assets or give their holders certain rights, then an ICO investment or a coin purchase is not fundamentally different from the purchase of any other type of security or medium of exchange.

So while an ICO is not by definition “safe,” it is not necessarily any more dangerous than any other type of transaction. And in some ways, it can be considered more secure against certain threats.

Ok, but Should I Buy Into an ICO?

According to our in-house blockchain expert, Decissio founder Dite Gashi, you should not consider investing in any debt or equity ICO unless it meets some essential criteria (many of it the same as for any traditional investment).

Here are the highlights of Decissio’s checklist:

  1. The ICO’s Focus – The focus should be on the business, and not on providing investor returns, particular fast investor returns. If it looks like a pyramid scheme, assume it is.
  2. Meeting Technical Due Diligence – either you or someone you trust has examined the technical specifications of the offering, and are satisfied that it is sound from a technical point of view.
  3. Complete Company Documentation – Just as with any investment, the company launching an ICO should be on a sound legal footing, and should be represented by qualified board-members, free of legal trouble, compliant with regulations, and have its finances in proper order. If documentation that establishes this is not provided, then the investment may not be as safe as you think.
  4. An Exit Plan – A company raising money through an equity or debt ICO should have a clear idea of how and when investors can be paid back, what triggers a liquidity event, what events or milestones call for a reorganization of the company, and so forth. This should all be provided in writing and vetted by your own legal counsel.
  5. Legal Framework – Purchase of a coin in a debt or equity swap absolutely must have legal documentation tying the coin to a real asset, or to the right to collect payment on a debt. Sufficient collateral for such a transaction should be in place, and all standard legal documentation must be provided. The blockchain technology does not replace any of this, or make any of it less necessary.

To be clear: we are not offering financial advice. But our opinion is that an investor should make a habit of looking for the same kinds of things in any investment they make. The way that an investment is offered doesn’t change the fundamentals of wise investing.

As the renowned VC Fred Wilson says: “Don’t be greedy.”

Should I Raise an ICO as a Startup?

In answer to this, we would pose a different question: what are the specific advantages of doing an ICO?

  1. It’s Faster: ICO might be easier to manage in the long term. Because it’s handled using a shared ledger, there’s no need to deal with many investors all trying to give you money at the same time- no problems with exchange rates, transfer fees, bank delays, and other annoyances.
  2. It’s more Scalable: Unlike a typical early-stage investment, an ICO can in theory be easily extended or replicated in the future without any changes to existing agreements. Traditional equity investing involves complex time-intensive processes to transfer shares, convert notes, gather signatures, and the rest.
  3. It’s Auditable: A nice thing about an ICO is that it can all be audited. Investors can feel more secure because a company cannot easily lie about how much money it has raised, or at what value. It’s all in the ledger.
  4. It’s Flexible: an ICO can be used by a small group of investors, just as it can a large one. This means that you can theoretically offer early investors the advantages of using a shared ledger, without sacrificing the personal touch that is so important with early stage investments. Startups rarely just need money: they usually need investors who can help them. It’s still possible to do that with an ICO.

ICOs are a Threat to Traditional Investors

It should be obvious by now that blockchain technology and ICOs are perceived as a threat by many traditional investors. And with good reason. Traditional startup investors may offer more than just money, but money is certainly a huge part of what they offer. ICOs can be a way to get around large institutional investors and deal with people on a peer-to-peer basis, meaning that traditional investors will have to compete harder for investments, and offer more to companies they invest in.

Early stage investors like StartupYard also face challenges from this technology. As it becomes easier to get capital from anywhere, startups are perhaps less likely to think of an accelerator as a starting point for their business. They may find that raising money in an ICO is easier – maybe even too easy.

Investors down the line may also find that investing through traditional institutions doesn’t give them the access to deal flow that they want, and they could be attracted to ICOs as a way of getting “closer to the action,” and giving money directly to exciting startups.

Tech Business Angels and VCs may also find that startups are not as keen to cooperate with them because of the alternatives available. That may be good for some startups, and very bad for others. Small companies that raise money too quickly often make big, costly mistakes, rather than little, cheap ones. Institutional investors don’t make you immune to that problem either, but they can enforce much needed discipline on founders who are playing with lots of funds for the first time.

What can we do about it?

As the famous line from newspaperman Horace Greeley says: “Go West, young man, go West.” In other words: we must adapt to our times. The reality is that this technology is gaining popularity because it promises something that people want: a new level of transparency and immediacy, for investors and for startups, that the old investment world can’t match.

While we have to continue to advocate for the processes that have made us successful at what we do (which have less to do with money) we also have to recognize that the modes of technology change whether we want them to or not. Our model must adapt, which is one of the reasons that StartupYard has made itself available to smaller investors through private equity placements over the past two years. We see that small investors want more access to early stage investments, so we must provide it in a way that makes sense for us, and for them.

Still, and it bears repeating: startups don’t really need money as much as they need help. Really effective startup investors provide enough money, in order to offer the level of help a startup really needs. A day may soon come when StartupYard will adopt blockchain technology in our own fundraising efforts. But when the winds of change blow, you shouldn’t be blown away by them. At the end of the day: the tech business has to be about more than money.

SY Alum Decissio Uses AI to Accurately Predict StartupYard Investments

You may remember Decissio, a Batch 7 StartupYard alum that has been working on the “Jarvis for Investment Decision Making.” Earlier this year, the company announced its kick-off product, an intelligent dashboard for VC investors and Accelerators to evaluate and monitor companies they invest in.

Decissio aims to go beyond a typical investment dashboard by combining up-to-date company data with complex big-data based probability models and machine learning algorithms, helping investors to continuously evaluate their investment decisions.

As Decissio and founder Dite Gashi continues to gather data and build the company’s flagship SaaS product, they have focused on piloting their approach with small controlled experiments.

One such pilot has been in partnership with StartupYard. Decissio’s Mission: to process all of StartupYard’s applications for Batch 8, our latest batch starting next week, and deliver predictions on their success based on a variety of factors, including written applications, founder profiles, founder/market fit, and the current state of the company.  

Dite Gashi

Dite Gashi: Founder and CEO at Decissio

The numbers are in on this pilot, and they’re very promising. We’re not ready to stop reading applications or doing our own research just yet, but we’re now confident that Decissio can be a big part of making our application process better, fairer, and more efficient.

The following case-study is a co-production of Decissio and StartupYard, written by Dite Gashi, and Lloyd Waldo. A more detailed write up and analysis will appear shortly after publication at Decissio.com. For more info on the technology and related work, please visit Decissio.com.

Warning: This post is long and contains big words. Skip to the bottom for a bulleted Tl;Dr 

Good Small Decisions = Big Positive Outcomes

The StartupYard application process doesn’t happen all at once. It involves a long series of smaller decisions. Does a startup have a unique idea? Does it fit into our mentor group and experience? Do the founders have enough experience? Is there strong competition in the market?

Some decisions are even more granular: did the founder answer questions thoroughly and clearly? Were they responsive in detail?

Small details often reveal big trends. But a human mind isn’t set up to think in that direction. We aren’t programmed to carefully add up small decisions to make big ones. Enter Decissio, whose mission was to apply a machine-learning approach to small decisions we make in the application process, not to override the judgement and experience of our evaluators, but rather to augment it with important insights.

StartupYard Alum Decissio.com uses #AI to accurately predict future StartupYard startup… Click To Tweet

The Framework

An application to an accelerator consists of a relatively small data set. We have a written application, founder profiles (on LinkedIn), sometimes a website, and whatever has been written about the company online.

Rarely do we have hard financial data on the companies, in some cases because there is no company in existence, and so the founding team has no financial data to look at. Nor do we have much access to the IP teams are working on. We have to rely on what founders say, and what they have done in the past.

But a bunch of small data sets together make up a bigger data set. Decissio examined over 1300 previous applications to StartupYard, along with the rankings our evaluation committee has generated, and used that data as a benchmark for incoming applications.

They found a number of statistically significant trends in that data. Startups that were successful as applicants to StartupYard could be ranked point-by-point, according to the following framework:

  • A Completeness Score: how thoroughly the application is filled in, and with how much quality information.
  • Effort Score: The quality of the writing in the application, particularly the responsiveness of answers, and the scope and variety of detail provided.
  • Relatedness Score: how closely a founder’s profile and experience matches the content of the application
  • Founder Linkedin Score: The completeness and quality of a founder’s LinkedIn profile
  • Media Mentions: The number, quality, and sources of mentions of the company or product online, along with sentiment analysis
  • Money/Work/Revenue Generated: The ratio of previous investments and time spent on the project to real revenues (if any).
  • Spell Check

Believe it or not, Spell Check is powerfully predictive of application quality. Note to founders: always use Spell Check.

The Analysis

This is where the historical data from previous StartupYard applications comes in. While it’s not very useful to directly compare older applications to newer ones, because the topics and ideas in them are often so different, it is useful to weight the importance of the different factors in the framework according to their impact on previous decisions.

Furthermore, the final analysis includes proprietary algorithms by Decissio that can dynamically weight the outcomes for individual teams, based on cross-referencing between different data sets. For example: Decissio’s AI can adjust its expectations for the Effort Score, if the founders are experienced in marketing and sales, or have no such experience. Thus each team is examined according to its own merits, and not an evaluator’s less informed expectations.

As “calibration,” or maintaining consistency and fairness of scoring across a large number of applications is a significant problem with humans, Decissio can re-calibrate an evaluator’s judgement to keep them from penalizing teams for the wrong reasons. As the standardized testing field has long known, human scoring can be so inconsistent that a significant amount of scoring time (even up to half) must be devoted to calibration in some cases.

Since our evaluations involve multiple rounds with a Pass/Fail outcome, each examining more and more detailed information, highly predictive models can be built for an application that will make it through round 1. A less predictive but still strong model can be built for round 2, and a much less accurate, but still useful model can be built for round 3, and so on.

The chart below shows overall predictiveness of the approach over multiple rounds. StartupYard uses a “first past the post” system of ranking, where the ranking cutoff for each round is smaller. This means that in round one, 70-80% of applicants are rejected. In round two, just over 50% of the remaining applicants are rejected, and in round 3 (which are day-long in person interviews), only 20-30% are rejected.

Decissio False Negatives

None of Decissio’s bottom-ranked 63 startups were ultimately selected, meaning that virtually all of the first round of evaluations could be handed over to the AI, leaving a much smaller pool of applicants to evaluate, and allowing the human evaluators to use a much lower cutoff, in a smaller, better initial pool. In this scenario, only 20% of human evaluated startups would need to be rejected in the first round.

We would expect false negatives to rise, as Decissio gets only one pass at the data, and with each round, human evaluators gather more data, which causes their behavior to diverge from the model.

For example, if use of Spell Check is 90% predictive of the Pass/Fail rate for round 1, it may be only slightly predictive of the success rate of round 2, and by round 3, it may lose its predictive power altogether. By the time an application involves a detailed look at a founder’s CV, and personal interviews with that person, other factors can arise that vastly outweigh any minor inattention to detail, like spelling.

Or the predictiveness curve can go in the other direction as well, with certain data only gaining predictive power in later rounds. Media mentions may have a low predictive power in the earlier rounds, and become more powerful later on. This can be because a company with a low early round score for Relatedness or very high Money/Work/Revenue ratios, can have many mentions in the media, but also fatal problems in their business, team, or technology. Thus, hype is not strongly predictive in Round 1, but by Round 3, it becomes a major asset to an applicant. Once all other factors are examined, media exposure becomes an affirmation of market fit, demand, or interest.

How Well Does This Work?

Decissio’s Success rate in the first round of applications (the on-paper evaluations), was 73%, far exceeding random chance. The accuracy dropped as expected in subsequent rounds where evaluations focused on personal interviews, from 50% in the 2nd round, to 20% in the final round. Still, this means that exactly half the time, a startup that passed the first interview with our selection committee was predicted to do so by Decissio, based only on their written application and profile.

There are two ways in which this kind of analysis can be useful. Either it can be used to identify applications that have a high likelihood of success, or it can be used to filter out those with the lowest likelihood of success.

Decissio Picked the Top 2 Ranking Finalists

We don’t have enough data to be able to confidently say that an application will definitely fail. However, on the opposite side of the scale, the results from Decissio’s analysis did correctly identify StartupYard’s two highest human-ranked finalists, and placed both in its own independent top ten prediction.

Decissio Picked the 100 lowest-rated applications with 89% Accuracy.

Still, the most immediate benefit of Decissio’s approach is in the earliest rounds, where pass/fail decisions are by design based on less human-focused information than the pass/fail decisions in later rounds.

This theory holds up with Decissio’s results: their bottom 100 applicants in this pool of applications (out of around 130), was 89% accurate, meaning that only 11% of the time, we determined a startup to be worth advancing, while Decissio did not. Clearly, in terms of identifying a lack of potential, Decissio’s approach is already very effective.  

Further mining of the available data could produce a much more precise prediction. For example, by analysing co-founder and founder/investor fit according to the work histories and digital footprints of both can theoretically yield very reliable predictions of compatibility, which in turn raises the chances of success or failure for a startup.

These factors would require a different kind of data to solve; a kind of data we don’t collect systematically right now. But this kind of approach, which treats people as nodes in a system that has its own features beyond those of individuals, has been deeply developed already, particularly on the level of enterprise management consulting involving things like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator Test.

It may prove true in the future that a set of personality tests of some kind are more predictive of success in a particular accelerator program or industry, than the content of an application, though we don’t know what that test would look like, or how it would be used.

SY Alum Decissio.com predicts first round StartupYard application decisions with 89% accuracy,… Click To Tweet

 

Potential Applications:

Time Saving

Decissio was able to predict with strong accuracy (73%), the likelihood that a startup would make it through the first round. This means that evaluator’s mental resources can be focused more on rounds in which more human-level data is being examined, particularly personal interviews and meetings.

An evaluator can spend relatively less time making early-round decisions, because Decissio can compare cursory evaluator consensus to its own scores, and “call out” the circumstances in which these do not match for further study. There is less of a chance that a good application will be “overlooked” in this way– a constant fear among startup investors dealing with many applications.

Bias Reduction

While a human with experience can “skim” an application and be able to tell it isn’t strong, that subjective evaluation is highly prone to error and internal biases. Very poor spelling could cause a human evaluator to give up on an application, whereas an algorithm might see past this issue and find more value in the startup than a person would look for.

This process could also serve as a check against more latent biases, such as gender, age, nationality, and sexual orientation. While it’s difficult for a human to differentiate between their instinctive reactions to people based on conditioning, and their objective evaluations of people in a professional context, an algorithm can demonstrate more consistency in that regard. Biases can’t be eliminated even this way, but they can be better controlled.

Thus, Decissio can be a check against the human decision making process, enhancing it without replacing it.

Fighting the “Best Horse” Problem

Decissio’s approach can also serve to fight the “best horse” problem, whereby a candidate with a strong outward appearance can advance well into the selection process without revealing sometimes severe deficiencies.

The best horse problem is one of reinforced selection bias. Imagine you have 10 horses, and you send them all running around a track. Then judging by the outcome of the test, you give special care and attention to the fastest horse, believing that it above the others has greater potential as a champion.

In this way we sometimes pick winners for all the wrong reasons. The horse to finish first can finish first for a number of reasons not having to do with potential as a racehorse. Cheating for example, or luck. Likewise, the last horse around the track can be the one with the most future potential.

In our application process, a very strong written application or interview performance can mask a basic weakness in the founding team’s experience or ability. It’s only much later that these weaknesses reveal themselves in a lack of tangible results from the company.

Startups can and do advance very far in accelerator programs while still lacking the core abilities and disposition needed to thrive. It can take a long time to recognize a fraud or a fish out of water.

Creating More Useful Feedback

Another thing this big data approach can solve is the information problem. What happens frequently with accelerator applications, as we suspect happens in many fields, is that successful written applications contain a near-perfect mix of description and data. Something like the “golden ratio” often described in mathematical analyses of artworks and natural proportionality.

The human mind likes a certain level of balance in the information it receives. When a person writes, they tend to favor either information or analysis, but only experienced writers know how to mix the two into pleasing and easy to read narratives. It’s a problem even good writers frequently struggle with. 

Too much writing about ideas, and the application seems too “light.” Too much data, and it seems too dense or too technical. In formal writing analysis, this formula is often used to describe balance between facts and ideas, where the value a is descriptive and creative writing, while b is supporting data and factual information. Those familiar with the classic “5 paragraph essay” often taught in schools, will recall the same proportionality. About 3 parts of persuasive writing, for every 1 part of factual basis. 

This type of training is not universal even among professionals, which sets up an arbitrary test of writing skill that may not be as relevant to the outcome as we tend to believe. If our job is to train people how to be better entrepreneurs, then we fail at that mission from the beginning if we can’t differentiate between someone who deserves our help, and someone who doesn’t.

By offering feedback on the strength of an application according to the above mentioned metrics (Completeness, Effort, Spelling, etc), Decissio could potentially improve the chances of failing applications where the main problem is poor writing.

An opportunity to improve an application is also an opportunity for us to see value where it is hard to spot. Telling an applicant that their application is failing because of style and substance can help those applicants to better express themselves, and thus deliver us more opportunities to find quality teams.

Conclusions

StartupYard and Decissio pilot project shows that AI assisted investing can improve results… Click To Tweet

The results of this pilot clearly show that there is great potential in enhancing our decision making process with machine learning and data analysis.

We are not at the point where we’re ready to let a machine determine our investment strategies on its own- the way machines already do some forms of investing without human inputs.

Unlike an investor in securities, or a high-frequency bond trader, an accelerator’s main advantages are as a first mover. We invest in companies that don’t exist yet, have limited information on their markets, and have a limited history, or no history. So we invest in people – and people are inherently hard to quantify.

Our anecdotal experience of meeting teams in person *before* evaluating their applications, consistently reveals that the application process cannot identify many important personality traits. For an accelerator, success comes only when we are right about a trend, and a particular person, at just the right time.

So employing an AI powered decision-making approach cannot mean abandoning the unique advantages we have: the ability to see things others don’t see. Expertise (and hard work) is still the core of sound early-stage investing, but AI can help us to focus that expertise on the “creme de la creme” of potential investments.

It can save us from becoming jaded by the junk applications that routinely swamp our inboxes.

A startup is not an individual, it’s a team. And it is not in our interest to arbitrarily eliminate applicants who are not good at writing applications, or have other deficiencies more visible on an application than in real life. However, it is in our interest to conserve and spend our resources (including our time and energy), where the potential for gain is highest. 

This approach can benefit higher-dollar investors too: later stage investors have many of the same problems accelerators have, but on a different scale. A Seed or Series A investor makes decisions involving 10-50x more money than any single investment from an accelerator, and they also receive more requests, on average, than a small accelerator does.

Currently the most obvious and most immediate advantage of using Decissio’s AI is for very early stage investors with many applicants, such as government innovation programs, and big accelerators like TechStars, Y-Combinator, and 500 Startups. 

Tl;dr:

  • StartupYard alum Decissio analyzed our past applications over a 6 year period.
  • Decissio used this data and their own AI to predict which applications to StartupYard would succeed.
  • Two of their top 10 picks were also StartupYard finalists
  • They accurately predicted the bottom ranked half of applicants.
  • This approach can be used by accelerators to:
    • Improve applications overall
    • Save time on the poorest applications
    • Reduce systemic biases
    • Get better information on applicants
  • Decissio’s AI could be applied to other early stage investors, such as Series A and Seed Investors, or to large accelerators, particularly Tech Stars, Y-C, and 500 Startups.
  • At the end of the day, AI will help early-stage investors to get better information, and spend more time focusing on the human-focused side of their work.
Startup Fail, StartupYard Accelerator

Will Your Startup Fail in the Next 6 Months?

Why Do Startups Fail?

For every reason you can think of, and many more you can’t. If you’re starting a startup, the deck is stacked against you. If you’re not too early, you’re too late. If you don’t grow too fast, you’re growing too slowly.

Some of the smartest, hardest working founders fail. Brains and work ethic can’t always save you.

Okay, Now Give me the Bad News

90% of startups fail. That’s a fact of life, but it’s not a law of nature. Startup death is unrelenting, but not random.

The truth is, after 51 startups at StartupYard, and 29 companies accelerated since we took on a global focus, we’ve seen that there is one thing that kills startups dead faster than anything else.

It’s the failure to answer one simple question:

Where am I going to be in Six Months?

That may seem like an easy question. But it isn’t.

Startups that ask themselves this question, in a searching and honest manner, tend to do better –much better- than those that don’t.

Startups that survive don’t always know the answer to the Six-Month Question. But they do ask it. And they ask it all the time.

The Six-Month question is so important because failing to think about the consequences of your short term decisions is the fastest and easiest way to make stupid mistakes. It is the best way to waste your own time and energy.

If I take this decision today, whatever it may be, where will I then be in six months?

Everything You Do is a Choice

Acting is a choice. And failing to act is also a choice. When a door opens, you either go through it, or you close it. So ask yourself what will happen if you do either.

Consider someone who’s thinking about applying to StartupYard. This founder is faced with 3 possible answers to the six-month question.

  • Option One: Apply and Be Rejected

    • Total time invested: 2-3 hours (8 hours for finalists)
    • Potential risk: Minimal.

      1. Damage your ego
      2. Waste a day
    • Potential benefit: Meet and get feedback from the region’s leading investors, and top StartupYard mentors
    • Side benefits:

      1. spend 2-3 hours building a compelling application for any accelerator (not just StartupYard), and getting qualified feedback. Good for use with other investors as well.
      2. Learn how accelerators work. Make contacts with investors and mentors you can use later.
    • Where you’ll be: either on to your next venture, or continuing to use the feedback you gained by applying.
  • Option Two: Apply and Be Accepted

    • Total Time invested: 3 months
    • Potential risk: Minimal.

      1. Maybe launch slightly later than planned (but with a better strategy).
      2. Be forced to focus on the business instead of the product.
      3. Injured ego due to challenging feedback. A few unproductive mentor meetings (unavoidable).
    • Potential Benefits

      1. Make partnerships and sign customers you wouldn’t have access to otherwise (at least not this early).
      2. Get in-depth feedback from top industry mentors on your product before launching.
      3. Launch with the support of influential corporate partners.
      4. Gain investment faster than you could have on your own, with more founder-friendly terms and better positioned investors.
    • Side Benefits: Grow personally and professionally in a challenging environment, and force yourself to apply discipline to your business plan and product/market positioning.
    • Side Benefits

      1. A perk package worth over $1m, seed investment of €30K, and possibility of follow-on funding.
      2. Access to StartupYard’s mentor network for the life of your company.
      3. PR benefits of taking part in one of Europe’s best regarded accelerators
      4. A strong negotiating partner in StartupYard, that can help you get the best possible terms from future investors.
      5. A community of fellow founders who can become your support network for years to come.
    • Where you’ll be: Hopefully launched, funded, and growing. StartupYard startups who have raised funding since 2013 have secured, on average, €400K after the program. Over half of our alumni have been either funded, or acquired.
  • Option 3: Don’t Apply

    • Total Time Invested: 0 Hours
    • Potential Risk:

      1. Pass up all benefits of options 1 & 2.
      2. Increased risk of not closing investments and dying early
      3. Increased risk of launching the wrong product – or focusing on the wrong market.
      4. Increased costs of starting up (both in time and money).
      5. Be forced to deal with investors who are not a good fit for your vision; who don’t offer friendly terms.
    • Potential Benefits:

      1. Launch slightly earlier. Maybe.
      2. Nobody bothers you.
      3. You are in total control.
    • Side Benefits: None
    • Where you’ll be: Unknown. Statistically, likely dead.

And Then What?

Perhaps my breakdown is slightly skewed in our favor. But this comes from a depth of experience.

The six-month question is a vital part of what StartupYard does for our founders. The program focuses founders on achieving results that they can build upon. Constantly, they are challenged to answer: and then what?

You launch the beta: and then what? You close this investment: and then what?

Startups that have joined StartupYard after pondering option 3 have been some of StartupYard’s most successful to date. Companies like Rossum.ai, Neuron Soundware, and TeskaLabs all initially suspected that the program would be a waste of their collective time and energy.

Each has subsequently become a major proponent of StartupYard and of acceleration in general.

Where were they after 6 months?

TeskaLabs joined TechStars and raised a seed round for their IoT security platform within 6 months of attending StartupYard. They now have active customers like O2 and is a Cisco Solution Provider. The company is now based in London.

Neuron Soundware won Vodafone’s “Idea of the Year” within six months of attending StartupYard, and closed partnerships with Siemens and other major industry players. They raised seed investment less than a year later.

Rossum.ai raised investment on the final day of the StartupYard program, and were named (along with Neuron Soundware), among Forbes’ top 10 Czech startups in 2017- less than six months after joining StartupYard.

Do You Know Where You’ll be in Six Months?

If you know what you’re going to accomplish in the next six months, more power to you. I hope you do well.

But if you’re like most founders, you don’t know. You don’t know what your options are going to be; what opportunities you will have 6 months from now. You probably don’t have a reasonable, reliable way of checking to see if those plans are realistic.

And if you don’t, then ask yourself again: what can I do about that? What decision can I make today that will change that uncertainty?

I have one suggestion: apply to an accelerator. StartupYard closes our applications for Batch 8 on Friday night (June 30th), at Midnight.

Hurry up – it’s not too late.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017

4 Years and 29 Startups Later: Here’s Why StartupYard Works

This week our CEO Cedric Maloux and I sat down for a conversation about the struggles and the excitement of recruiting and working with amazing startups together for the past 4 years.

StartupYard this week announced our largest fundraise so far, of about €1 million for up to 20 new startups in 2017-2018. How did we get here? What have we learned? Here are the most interesting exchanges that came out of our discussion:

Hi Cedric, every week during the StartupYard program management meetings, you ask founders one question: “What are you struggling with right now?” I think it’s fair to start with the same question here:

Sleep! [Laughs].

I have two sources of stress when it comes to every StartupYard round, and this is now going to be my 5th time going through it. The biggest stress is Demo Day. Like a parent or a teacher watching their kids take the next big step in life, our whole team works very hard to make sure our founders and startups look great, professional, in control, and ready. But when they go out on that stage, our hands are off the wheel, and they are on their own. That’s a big scary moment for me, and for the founders. I don’t want them to feel that they’ve failed themselves.

The other stress is right now. We are looking for startups, talking to startups, trying to get the right startup founders to apply for our next round at StartupYard. We will invest in up to 20 companies in the next 12 months. I am always slightly panicked at the idea that we’ll miss one, or that one won’t find us, and will miss an opportunity that can really help them to succeed in business, and hopefully in life. I get real joy from making a difference in people’s lives, so I have that fear that I won’t do all I can.

What specifically are you afraid will happen, or not happen?

We can make the wrong choices. We have in the past – though not often, thankfully. StartupYard takes a big risk in trusting people we barely know, to be strong and committed and honest and open enough to go through a really demanding experience. It is very humbling. And I know we aren’t always right about people. We invest in founders, but you don’t really know someone until you spend every day, all day, with that person. Sometimes we’re not sure, and they turn out to be just amazing. Other times we are sure, and it turns out we were off.

So I’m stressed right now about those decisions, and knowing that later is too late.

So what helps you sleep at night, knowing that you’ll never be able to perfectly predict who will apply, and how they’ll perform?

Luckily we surround ourselves with really great advisors and investors. We have a great selection committee, who really get what we’re trying to do. They serve as a check against our biases and assumptions. We have been very lucky, but we also work very hard to remain humble, knowing we will make some mistakes.

In some way, every investment decision we make at StartupYard is a bit crazy from a normal perspective. We invest our time and money into people we have met maybe twice or three times. It takes a lot of faith. Among investors, accelerators like StartupYard are the ones with the least actionable data, KPIs or traction to judge in a startup. We have to believe our hearts and our noses. We have to trust in our experience and instincts more than other investors, who can point to solid numbers to tell the story. We go on much less.

Hearts and noses?

Yes. If you’re investing in a later stage, it’s all about numbers and trends. We can see trends, but we have very little in terms of numbers. So we also have to really understand people to make the right choices. I say our hearts and our noses, because our hearts are for people, but our noses are for opportunity. If we believe in someone, and we believe that there is an opportunity in what they’re doing, then that is enough for us.

Central Europe Accelerator

What makes you particularly fitted for a role like this?

I think a person can’t imagine what it takes to go from an idea to a profitable company unless they’ve done it, and experienced it themselves. I have done that multiple times in my life.

And unless you’ve experienced the opposite, which is failure, you probably think somewhere in the back of your mind that it can’t happen to you. I’ve also failed, publically. The last time one of my ventures was mentioned in Wired, it was in the context of the company going out of business.

So I know what that’s like to be notable enough to be in Wired, but still to fail. I have a deep technical background (I studied AI at University in the 1990s, when it wasn’t cool), and I’ve had a long career in sales. If a founder can’t sell; to employees, to co-founders, to investors, and customers, then he can’t make his ideas a reality.

So sales is not just about closing deals?

No. It’s about everything. Selling is essential. I’ve sold customer-facing services. I’ve sold B2B products to big corporations. I’ve sold my own company. Selling is an art. As we say, “telling isn’t selling.” You have to be able to not just talk about your ideas, but sell them.

Also, I learned a lot from running online businesses during the 2000 Internet bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. These things taught me the hard way about discipline in the fundamentals of business.

What was your hardest lesson through those experiences?

Cost understanding and control is at the heart of your company. You can only control one thing: your costs. Revenue projections, cost control: these are the things that get you through a crisis. It’s all about planning. Not your revenue, or development time, or investors, or customers. Just costs. Knowing when the money will run out. So financial hygiene is a top priority.

You’ve run companies. You’ve sold one company. So from that background, if you were starting a tech startup today, would you apply to an accelerator, even knowing everything you know?

Short answer, yes I would.

Long answer, I do have a few tech businesses on the side that I have started with other people, and with one, I’ve been encouraging the CEO to apply to an accelerator (though not StartupYard because it’s not in our area of focus). That should tell you what I think about accelerators, and not just about StartupYard.

If I was starting a business, I would go to one tomorrow, because no matter how much experience I have, I am limited by my own capacity as a human being. One thing that I’ve learned over the years, is that success doesn’t come from what you know, but from who you know. Your network is a vital ingredient for success.

A great startup has these things:  a hard problem to solve, a great solution, a clear value-proposition, a strong sales/marketing team, perfect timing, and great connections. You cannot be in control of every one of those things at any one time. You can however always work on your network. An accelerator connects you with people who help you seize opportunities and move fast when the time is right. Your connections help you discover weaknesses, and also opportunities. Knowing you need help is a strength, not a weakness.

Speaking of networks, StartupYard has quite a few corporations on its mentor list. Why do you focus so much on corporates during mentorship?

It’s a good question, and one we are asked a lot. Startups even tell us they would like to meet more people who are more like them. Usually when you meet a mentor, like at a competition or in a conference or at an incubator, or many other accelerators, they tend to be investors, or entrepreneurs.

It’s actually relatively easy to get a meeting with an investor or an entreprepreneur, which is why it’s easy to convince them to mentor startups. But, if you’re a B2B startup looking for early traction, you need to go door to door, talking to customers. And most of the time doing that, you’ll meet low level people.

What we decided early on, was to incorporate high-level corporate decision-makers, not just a lot of people, but leaders and C-level executives. The people who aren’t so much in the internal politics of their corporations, but are in a position to make things happen for startups. And we have many concrete examples of that working really well.

If the Chairman of the Board at a bank invites one of our startups to talk to his executives, that’s a meeting where people will be paying attention. It will have results. Not long ago, our mentors at Microsoft brought one of our startups to meet Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft, in Redmond. You won’t be able to name many early-stage companies who can get that meeting.

Yes, I was genuinely surprised when that happened too. The engagement from Microsoft was extraordinary. What do you think the corporate people get out of being startup mentors?

As it happens, those heads of industry share many of the qualities of startup founders. Ambition, drive, vision. So they love to be exposed to young founders and interact with them, not just about ideas, but about ways of working and thinking. The CEO of a global corporation told me a while ago that it’s his job to know what’s going on outside his company, because they are under constant attack from startups. You have to know your adversary.

We sometimes call corporations “dumb and slow,” but it would be a mistake to think that the people running them are either dumb or slow. Often the people at the top are thinking very far ahead, and when a startup is looking for the right stakeholder, the top is often the best place to start. Outside of our program, our founders would just never get meetings with such people. Even if they did, it would take years to get them all, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

I feel very proud of our mentor group. One mentor told me recently, that it was an honor to be included. That just made me feel very proud. We have spent years developing StartupYard as a platform, but we can’t rest on our achievements. We have to keep improving and building that network ever round, or it dies.

You said you can’t rest. What is your biggest difficulty when it comes to talking to founders about acceleration?

I would say we see two types. There is the founder who really understands the value accelerators can bring, and is eager to join. The other is the one who is more defensive; defensive of their ideas, of their priorities, of their sense of control and sometimes pride as well.

They may see joining an accelerator as a risk rather than an opportunity: that they risk wasting time. But often I think it’s just that they risk giving up control. Startup founders can be control freaks, as everyone knows, and we ask people to give up some of that control in order to grow, and that is a hard thing to ask of people who have always performed at a high level in their lives. Even the tiny amount of control we want them to give up can seem like a big, big change.

But if you’re so concerned about making the wrong choices, that you don’t act, then you risk never making decisions at all. Our biggest challenge is to show skeptics that the accelerator is called an “accelerator” for a reason, and it is not to slow them down or take up their time. That interrupting their process and refocusing them can actually save them time, and not waste it.

All our alumni will confirm this to you and in fact, they often talk about the empty period after the program. Once a founder told me he wished the program never stopped. And this was a startup which already had some revenue, but had skyrocketed with us.

You have to be a bit smart and a bit arrogant to start a business, but you need to let your intelligence prevail, and admit when you need other people. We all start as fools in life, and the only people who are doomed to remain fools are the ones who refuse to admit this, and don’t let themselves be questioned.

Some founders will tell us that all they need is cash.

That’s true. But when you ask them: “If all you need is cash, then why don’t you already have it?” They start telling you about their real problems – the reasons investors aren’t giving them money. It’s usually because they haven’t earned it yet. They don’t have enough data, they don’t have enough traction, or they don’t know how to sell to the investors.

You are absolutely right, and in an environment where cash is king, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to these people that to deserve cash you need to go through some steps.

What we find is that the act of just applying to StartupYard, and answering very specific questions about their business can help founders to realize what they don’t know. Even just forcing yourself to really answer these questions, you can begin to see that there are a lot of areas where you can grow and learn more.

So you need to bring people down a bit to build them up?

Yes. The acceleration process is challenging not just intellectually, but also emotionally for some people. But if you want to really run a global business, and meet your potential as an entrepreneur, that is the kind of challenge you will have to face, one way or the other.

We aren’t here to judge people and their ideas. The projects we look at are very early stage, and the people running them have a lot of room for mistakes and wrong roads. Our job as an accelerator and the job of our mentors is to support people who are taking these creative risks, exposing them to dangers and opportunities. We prepare them for taking good risks, and being aware of the dangers they will face.

Over the past 5 years, I have repeated certain things over and over again through every program. One of them is: “be careful, about what might happen if…”

To you, what is the biggest misconception about what StartupYard does for founders?

What I think some founders don’t expect is that the mentorship process, and the whole acceleration program, is aimed not just at their business, but at them as people. It would be waste of their time, and ours, if we spent our energy trying to make people into something they don’t want to be. So we pay very careful attention to discovering, with our founders, what it is in their hearts that they really are passionate about and want to do and to become.

So it’s not just about business for you?

There is a saying: “just business, not personal.” But I think this is very misleading. Growing a global business is all about who you are as a person. If you do something that is true to who you are, and who you want to be, that is infinitely better, for everyone involved, than if you’re just trying to make money. You can make money in a lot of ways, if that’s what you want. We want to help people to become their best selves as founders, and that means finding in them that special energy they possess that no one else does, and helping them to tap into it.

The biggest successes in business don’t think “It’s just business.” They know it’s about more than themselves or this one goal. It’s about relationships and it’s about being true to who you are.

Any last words?

Apply to StartupYard! Applications close June 30th, so I hope anyone who recognizes themselves in what we’ve talked about will consider applying now.

I can’t wait to be impressed.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017