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.

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.

6 Ways StartupYard Helps its Alumni Post Acceleration

One impression some startup founders have about accelerator programs is that they are a “one-off” activity that lasts for just 3 months, at which point a company moves forward to either grow and scale or falter and die.

Thus the constant objection some founders have to attending an accelerator: “It’s going to take too much of my time.” And yet the purpose of a good accelerator is to be a platform for growth, and a means to save time and deliver faster than you could otherwise.

An accelerator’s value has to live largely outside the time-frame In fact, over 7 years of operation, StartupYard has continued to grow its role in the post-acceleration success of our invested companies.

While we’ve always tried our best to take care of companies that have been through our program, these years of experience have continually shown us that our involvement is often as critical after the program as during it. That has led us to greatly expand our post-acceleration activities with alumni.

Here are some of the things a good program should be able to help alumni with:

Fundraising and Prep

An important part of growing a sustainable business is laying the proper groundwork with co-founders, employees, and investors from the beginning. This is an area where young companies fail needlessly. Flexibility and a “move fast and break things” attitude are great until they become roadblocks to growth. When you’re at the stage that you need capital to execute sales and development faster, you’ll need what any serious company does: a plan.

Yet few early-stage companies have access to the experience and resources they need to set up their ownership structure properly, much less to continue to manage that structure in a way that serves existing shareholders, and prepares the company for future investment. Then there is the need to develop a full set of contingency plans based on different levels of investment, with optimistic and pessimistic assumptions considered and accounted for.

Unlike a typical Seed fund or VC, StartupYard works with founders from the pre-incorporation phase if necessary, and can guide the creation of a growth plan that makes sense, and can make the company investible in the future.

Many of the blockers to necessary investment for growing companies are avoidable. They’re things that can be overcome early, or they can become a drag on your success. Few companies make it from incorporation to venture funding without a few nasty surprises along the way. These can be greatly limited by an early-stage partner whose job it is to make sure you’re laying the right foundation.

The Alumni Network

Often forgotten, but very important in our experience, is the role of our alumni network in helping new StartupYard companies gain a foothold. Like the mentor network, our alumni group is composed of people who have experienced every challenge young companies face. Not only that, the alumni have been in the founders’ shoes in the very recent past.

Because our alumni maintain such a close relationship with our team, they can be continually called upon to share their working knowledge of their industries, and make connections for new startups that even our mentors can’t. After all, who knows better how to approach customers with a brand new idea than someone who has just done it themselves?

StartupYard, DemoDay Batch 8

StartupYard Alumni

To a surprising degree, our alumni have also come to constitute a base of early customers and partners for our newer startups. As our network grows to inhabit more industries, the chances that a fresh startup can begin cooperating with an alumni company grows every year. In our last two batches, multiple new startups have signed alumni companies as their first customers. The process also works in reverse: our newer companies have also become customers of our alumni.

The Negotiating Table

One of the biggest hidden advantages of being a StartupYard alum is the leverage it can bring to negotiations with new partners or investors. Of course, name recognition and the social proof a founder gets from attending our program are important, but they extend beyond just getting that first meeting with an investor.

Because the accelerator is a stakeholder, we are able to weigh in on the side of our startups to ensure that they are treated well and fairly by their later investors. Tech investors know, or quickly learn, that their access to deal flow depends on the reputation they’ve earned with us and other programs. Investors who are founder-friendly and straight-shooting are invited back, while those who don’t play fair will find that startups avoid them.

Here our mentor network also improves the position of our startups in negotiations. Being able to receive feedback from other alumni and mentors from the same industry helps founders to approach business deals better armed with the knowledge and context they need to make the best deals. Often too, our management team and mentors are involved in deals as advisors, bringing increased confidence and experience to the negotiating table.

Hiring

Of all challenges an early to mid-stage tech startup will face, hiring is perhaps the hardest. This is a problem that gets harder as companies grow, rather than easier. Finding and retaining talent is the number one barrier to growth for such companies.

Though StartupYard isn’t a talent agency by any stretch, again, planning is the best defense against this inevitable problem. That’s why we focus from the beginning on helping our startups to make the right early hiring decisions, so that their growth down the line won’t be disrupted unnecessarily by having to make drastic changes to the team in mid-stride.

This planning process includes not only understanding what kind of talent a young startup can afford, but also what types of people founders should hire first. Does a company need a COO or an outside CEO? Does it need a business development specialist, or should it hire a crack product development leader first? These questions are vital to the early success of young companies, and they’re very easy to get wrong.

Business Development

Business development with our startups is never confined to the brief 3-month window of acceleration. In fact, that’s more like an introductory period. Our startups continually tap our mentor network and corporate partnerships for business development for months and years after leaving the program.

We frequently connect alumni with new members of the network, as well as fielding requests from mentors and partners to connect them with our startups. As our network continues to grow, it becomes a richer resource for alumni and mentors both, often keeping connections going for years after the program. StartupYard’s in-person events and ongoing activities keep an open door between alumni and the broader network, so that early-stage companies that have grown in maturity and abilities can come back to mentors and partners when they’re ready, and mentors can keep up to date on what the companies are doing.

Press

Finally being part of StartupYard also means being part of our press operation. Though we aren’t the darling of the international media that Y-combinator is, our name recognition in Central Europe is high in the tech media, and we can leverage that name and our existing relationships with media outlets to highlight the activities and successes of our alumni.

In media, “relevance” is an important factor in getting any story told. Journalists look for familiar names and common connections to determine whether a startup or a particular story is noteworthy to its audience. Having the name of a well-known investor behind you helps to create that context for journalists and their readers, and makes it much more likely that you will receive coverage.

Michal Kratochvil, StartupYard, BudgetBakers, Startups, Accelerator

VIDEO: Mentor, Investor, Startup CEO: Michal Kratochvil Talks Acceleration

Mentor, Investor, Startup CEO: Michal Kratochvil talks about life at StartupYard

StartupYard investor, mentor, and CEO of StartupYard alum BudgetBakers, Michal Kratochvil joined the world of startups after a career in corporations as Managing Director of Accenture Consulting in Prague. Michal gives us an idea of how working with startups has changed his view of business in the past few years, and how he became a believer in Acceleration.

Posted by StartupYard on Monday, 15 January 2018

 

Michal Kratochvil joined StartupYard in late 2015 as an investor, and our 3rd “Executive in Residence,” and has continued in that role ever since. In 2016, he took over as CEO of BudgetBakers, a StartupYard alumni company and personal finance platform that has grown rapidly to hundreds of thousands of active users under his leadership, and now employs about 30 people.

Michal joined us after a distinguished career at Accenture Consulting, where he served as Managing Director for Central Europe for over a decade. His switch to the startup lifestyle was gradual, as he slowly converted from his customary suit and tie, to t-shirts and jeans, also switching from an IBM notebook to a Macbook. Today Michal is deeply involved with StartupYard’s operations, particularly in selection of startups, and helping companies to grow their networks through his impressive personal rolodex.

Michal also studies martial arts, and is a fan of western style horseback riding, participating in rodeo events and exhibitions.

Great interview about #startup #acceleration with @BudgetBakers CEO Michal Kratochvil @startupyard in Prague! Click To Tweet

 

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.

Video: StartupYard Alumni Founders Tell Their Stories

At the end of StartupYard Batch 8, we asked our founders, along with some alumni to tell us about their experience with us for 3 months. Here is what they had to say.

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.

 

Accelerator, StartupYard

Choosing an Accelerator: 11 Questions to Ask

So you’ve got an idea for a tech startup. You’ve done your positioning statement, you’ve talked to people you trust about the idea. Maybe you’ve even talked to customers. Maybe you’ve already sold your product, or gotten users to sign up for your beta. Fantastic. Now maybe you need a Seed Accelerator. Not every tech startup needs one, and not every accelerator is the right choice. How do you know?

To Accelerate or Not?

At StartupYard, 59 startup investments in 6 years have shown us that the most important factor for founders looking at acceleration programs is fit. If the founders and their company are a good fit for the program, with the other startups, the mentor community and investors behind it, then the stage of the company, the domain, and the market focus are not nearly as important.

Accelerator, Startup, StartupYard,

This is why we’ve invested in companies doing hardcore cutting edge technology like AI and Cybersecurity, but also companies doing technologically simple things, like marketplaces, and sharing economy startups. If the fit is good, then the diverse backgrounds and ideas of the founders enhance each other, and mentors and investors get more engaged, because all of them are able to find something they’re passionate about in every batch.

We emphasize fit over most other considerations. How can we actually help companies succeed?

Nothing can guarantee fit, but there are at least 11 things you *can* ask any accelerator to determine whether it is the program you really need.

So here they are:

1. Why Is the Accelerator Interested in My Startup?

Few founders ask us this, but to me, it’s a potential game changer as a question.

What I see as an ideal answer is: “Because we see potential in your team, because we believe in the market you’re in, and because we think our program can help you.” It helps if the accelerator likes your technology, sees it as a big opportunity, and doesn’t want to miss out. But that’s unlikely to be enough on its own.

If the accelerator can’t clearly show you why your interests are aligned, you should think twice.

2. Are You Convinced by My Pitch?

Everyone likes validation. But you don’t necessarily want an accelerator that isn’t willing to say “no.”

We are not convinced by every pitch we hear, and that’s ok, if we *are* convinced by the team. Founders should go into a program knowing that they may need to consider big changes to their approach, and their assumptions. We want teams with a passion for their ideas, but not with a toxic sense of pride.

If an accelerator is not willing to voice doubts when you ask, then it might be a sign that they aren’t going to challenge you when needed.

3. What Do Your Investors Want, and/or Where is the Money Coming From?

Another key question almost no one asks. You really should, because the investors largely determine the direction of the accelerator. They ultimately control who runs the program, and thus the decisions being made.

If the money is from a corporate sponsor, what does the corporation want? If the money is private, then why are the investors backing this accelerator? Pay attention to how aligned the accelerator team are with the investors. If the investors and the team have a solid relationship, then you aren’t dealing with office politics or competing ideas about what success looks like.

4. Does the Accelerator Management Team Have A Stake?

This is related to the previous question. Ideally, the decision makers at the accelerator have a financial stake in the decisions they are making. This helps you to determine what their motivations in working with you really are.

Is it a deal breaker if they don’t have a stake? Maybe not, but you need to know who you’re talking to. The decisions a person makes when they have no financial stake in the outcome are bound to be different. Is the person making a decision because of the politics of their job, or because they really believe in it?

5. Why Are Your Terms What They Are?

Terms vary between accelerators. I don’t think there’s an ideal formula for how much an accelerator gives, or how much equity it takes. Zero equity programs are not always a bad thing, and programs that give more or less money for more or less equity have their own reasons for doing so.

Accelerator, StartupYard

The answer tells you how the accelerator views their role in your company. “Founder friendly” terms are very important. On the other hand, a mature investor is also up front about what they would be willing to do in case something went wrong with the relationship.

The terms are one thing, but the answers are another. Any contract is in place primarily to outline a relationship, not to define it in personal terms. Those personal terms often matter more than what’s on paper, so you need to know why the terms are the way they are.

6. Have You Ever Fired a Startup During the Program?

Not every accelerator has ended a relationship with a startup in less than ideal circumstances. It does happen though, and the story is usually instructive.

StartupYard, for example, has been very open about relationships that have gone wrong. In case such a thing happens, we try hard to identify the mistakes that *we* have made that led to the problem. In each case (and there has only really been one out of 59), we recognized our own errors in choosing, working with, and helping those companies. We have only “fired” one company during our program.

Accelerator, StartupYard

We were not vindictive and did not blame them for our own mistakes. If an accelerator puts blame only on the other party, that may indicate that they don’t acknowledge their failures or their part in the relationship. We all make mistakes, but you need investors who learn from theirs, and are not afraid to tell you about them.

7. What Do You Expect from Me?

What we expect from our founders informs how we choose companies to work with, and what we see as success when they go through our program. We have our own tough standards, but they are not universally what all accelerators expect.

We want every one of our companies to be a unicorn. We expect them to try. We expect ambition and drive, and hard work. We expect companies to improve markedly in all areas during our program. We expect them to challenge themselves and to meet challenges that we help them set.

But if you ask us, we will tell you that we also expect things like personal availability, honesty, willingness to talk about your motivations and to discuss your feelings. We expect our founders to take a broad range of input that other accelerators might not insist on. We expect them to adjust their ambitions according to new realities; to make changes swiftly if something doesn’t work, and react to obstacles rather than avoiding them.

Some accelerators will give hard and fast expectations in terms of growth, even on a weekly basis. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but you need to understand the consequences of failing to meet those expectations.

You just need to know what you’re getting into, and what success looks like to accelerator you choose. Be honest with yourself, as to whether these are things you really want, and can handle.

8. What is Special About Your Ecosystem? Why Should I Go There?

Accelerators are deeply affected by their location in a particular ecosystem. What that ecosystem has and doesn’t have, and where it is, are important factors in your decision.

For example, StartupYard is located in a beautiful, accessible, and highly livable city: Prague. Our geography places us between East and West. We see that as a big advantage, and we want startups who also see it that way.

Our ecosystem has its strengths and weaknesses. Its size makes corporates more available, while it also limits which industries are most engaged here. The history of our region affects what we have to offer startups, and we work hard to express those peculiarities and special qualities to our companies.

Pick an ecosystem that works for you. Just because a place is big, doesn’t mean it’s best. Just because there’s money, doesn’t mean it’s the *right money*. The accelerator’s answers to this question will tell you a lot about how they see their value to you.

9. Does the Accelerator Pay The Mentors?

Accelerator, StartupYard

Hopefully the answer is “No.”

Of course, accelerators do pay for input from professionals in areas like design, marketing, speech coaching, in-person sales, and other soft skills. These workshop runners are professionals, and you get what you pay for. Mentors are different, however.

A mentor community should be all-volunteer because the connections that founders make with their mentors must be genuine. These are people who you will be relying on to follow-up, to open their contacts to you, make introductions, and be available for further advice and support down the line. That has to come from a place of passion, not greed.

Our mentors do it for various reasons. It improves their personal or company brand, it makes them look good, it gives them insight into emerging trends, etc. Primarily our mentors tell us that they do it because of the personal fulfillment and stimulation they get out of being mentors. These are high achieving individuals, who relish the chance to talk to people at the beginning of their own journey, and share their wisdom and knowledge.

That should be enough.

10. What Entrepreneurial Experience Does the Management Team Have?

An accelerator is for true entrepreneurs. No one is better suited to recognize your entrepreneurial strengths and weaknesses than a fellow traveler. That’s why most of StartupYard’s management team are founders of one kind or another themselves.

The management team don’t have to all be former tech startup founders. I was not a startup founder when I joined StartupYard. Neither was our Associate Helena, or our Portfolio Manager Jaromir. But we had all been entrepreneurs of one kind or another.

Cedric Maloux, our Managing Director, was a tech founder before it was cool, in the mid 90s. Helena owns a Yoga Studio, I run several side projects, and our Head of Partnerships, Gustavo, ran his own healthtech company for several years- we met because he applied to StartupYard with that project. It failed, but no one has better insight as to why it failed, than he does.

A military leader with no combat experience is a danger to the people he leads. It’s the same in Startupland. An advisor who hasn’t seen plans and dreams fall apart, is a liability to the founders he or she advises.

11. Do You Have Partnerships with Potential Customers?

Accelerators are not just about learning. They’re about doing. A key part of growing your company is going to be working with larger partners inside and outside the tech industry. A B2B startup needs real customers to talk to, and a B2C startup needs to talk to companies who serve the customers they are after. So ask about the accelerator’s real relationships with companies that may be important to your success.

In Startupland, there are “Partnerships,” and there are Partnerships. Promotional partners are cheap, and the relationships totally impersonal. Sponsorships and co-operational partnerships are better. An ongoing partnership is better than a short-term one.

You want an accelerator with a real working relationship with key players inside multiple industries and corporations. You may not always know which contacts you need, so the depth of the partnerships are important. Just because a company’s logo is on the accelerator website, doesn’t mean you’ll get past the secretaries if you need to.

So when you ask about these partnerships, pay attention to which contacts the accelerator actually has: they should be C-level, or other empowered representatives like board members, founders, and investors.

No accelerator will have powerful contacts in every corporation or government institution you may need, but an accelerator should have strong relationships in a range of key industries. This is why StartupYard has a dedicated team member for Partnerships, and it is why we have investors with deep ties to tech-related industries, who can leverage their networks for founders.

 

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.

Blockchain, StartupYard Accelerator

Why Blockchain Startups Should Apply to StartupYard Batch 9

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. One of the key verticals we are focusing on during this round is Crypto-tokens and Blockchain.

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

 

2017 : The Year of Bitcoin?

From the original appearance of Bitcoin on the web forum The Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives in February 2009, to today’s craze around ICOs and explosive cryptocoin market capitalizations, the world of crypto has drastically changed.

Bitcoin’s unsavory early associations have meant that many have tried to separate the discussion of Bitcoin and Blockchain technology. But that is an incomplete approach. Blockchain in a technical sense is just one of a number of elements that make up crypto-tokens, like Bitcoin, and will continue to form the basis for future innovations.

StartupYard, Blockchain, Bitcoin

The central idea behind crypto-tokens is to create trust via collaboration, communication and computation through cryptography. This approach relies on a number of technologies: the blockchain (a distributed database), a decentralised consensus algorithm (proof of work) that allows security and open systems of access (no accounts are necessary). For more information on bitcoin, we encourage you to follow one of its most outspoken evangelists: Andreas Antonopoulos.

Today, a lot of startups are working with crypto-tokens and distributed ledgers to create new decentralised services to reinvent entire industries.

Why is StartupYard Investing in Crypto Startups?

This week we also wrote about why cybersecurity startups should apply to StartupYard. Much of the reasoning is the same, however unlike Cybersecurity, where the list of customers is long, and the need is very well understood, crypto-token technology is in its early years.

Bitcoin is making headlines, but the deepest benefits to society of secured distributed ledgers, transparent transactions, and the decentralization of data sharing and communication are still to come. Most of the true benefits have not yet been realized, but are appearing on the horizon. Startups need a deep network of business, tech, and investment mentors who can help them turn novel technologies into tangible, real world change.

Our interest is in finding those founders who have the ambition to solve societal, business, and governmental problems using this technology for the good of mankind. The ways in which crypto-tokens can benefit us all can’t be tallied, but just a few examples are:

Transactions: Crypto technology opens up the potential for a true peer-to-peer transactional ecosystem, in which both people and machines can trade anything from processing time, to energy, bandwidth, or currency, in a secure, trustless and cost-effective way.

Net Neutrality: As open access to the internet comes under attack in the US and elsewhere, crypto can provide a check against the censorship of information, and the suppression or preferential treatment of some sources of data and services over others. Distributed ledgers may also help fight state and non-state propaganda operations by providing tools to check facts and records.

E-Government: Transparent, open, decentralised networks without a single point of failure allow for decentralised trust to provide potential open-source solutions to election fraud, voter suppression, online voting, and voter identification- all problems that are linked with corruption and inefficiency in state and local governments.

Security: Crypto and blockchain technologies provide a potential defense against cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare, and malicious destruction of data, or the dissemination of false data and malicious code across networks. It also provides the potential for more secure collaborative networks that are not based on a central entity such as a corporation or government, eliminating the need for 3rd party support of data storage and sharing.

Why StartupYard?

StartupYard, DemoDay Batch 8, Blockchain, Crypto

Opportunities for crypto and blockchain startups appear to be numerous at the moment. Blockchain is having its first day in the sun, and ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) are now proliferating. However, this unregulated and largely disorganized market is poorly understood by institutional investors, and especially corporations and governments.

This is a shame, because it will be these players who will give breakthrough technologies access to global markets and the customer base they will need to really have an impact. This is what StartupYard offers: not the quick cash of an ICO, but the stable foundation of a sustainable, global business.

For that you need:

Credibility and Access

StartupYard is a trusted partner for corporations, utilities, and investors who are seeking to engage with early-stage cutting edge technology startups. Translating and aligning your goals with those of large organizations with a global footprint is a long and painful process in the best circumstances.

Without a key partner providing access and credibility, this becomes even harder. StartupYard allows a crypto company to get their foot in the door of banks, telcos, and large investors with our deep network of mentors and advisors. Convincing those in power to trust and rely on you is a key step toward achieving your global ambitions. It should not be ignored or minimized in its importance.

Business Fundamentals

Blockchain and crypto technologies are exciting, but the fundamentals of business have not altered because of these technologies. Companies that operate outside traditional business structures and legal frameworks put themselves at risk, and just as importantly, risk the future of their technological breakthroughs.

Building a sustainable and rational business is as valuable today as it was when StartupYard was founded in 2011. You need experienced partners who have built fast growing tech companies before, to share their mistakes and their successes, and give you your best shot at success.

Experience

StartupYard’s hands on experience in blockchain technology is still recent, but we have already made two investments into companies leveraging the blockchain – one in Cryptelo, which has turned to providing secure key storage and transmission for blockchain products (and is raising an ICO), and Bloknify, a winning project in our most recent hackathon in partnership with KB Bank. Blocknify is developing a solution for secure contract verification using blockchain.

Beyond that, StartupYard has a deep well of experience in turning novel technologies with unclear or undeveloped applications into real businesses. We helped turn an NLP product for the Albanian language into Gjirafa.com, the fastest growing tech company in the Balkans. We helped turn a team of music and neural network geeks into Neuron Soundware, now making enterprise grade IoT devices with on-board AI that diagnose faults in heavy machinery (like Airbus jets).

We helped boost a once hobby project (BudgetBakers), into a global company serving hundreds of thousands of active users, and we have helped Rossum, an AI company doing document analysis, evolve into a venture invested company with a growing team.

Not all of our bets will pay off, and crypto-token technology will be no different. But as any one of our alumni will attest, startups at StartupYard do not fail due to lack of preparation.

Should my Blockchain Startup Apply to StartupYard?

Are you an early stage company, with a unique approach using crypto and blockchain to one of the problems we’ve talked about (or a new problem we haven’t), that would benefit from a deep network of mentors and advisors with the reach and scale the technology needs to succeed?

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.