Vit Horky of Brand Embassy: “Making People Happy”

One of StartupYard’s earliest success stories, Brand Embassy is an innovative, rapidly growing company, tackling “social customer care,” and customer relationship management.

Using this plug-and-play cloud solution, large and small companies can communicate directly with their customers via popular social media channels, like Facebook and Twitter- channels that are increasingly favored by customers looking for the convenience of chatting via social media, and looking to avoid playing email and phone tag with slow and unresponsive customer care teams.

I recently spoke with Vit Horky, Brand Embassy’s co-founder and CEO, about the history of Brand Embassy, what the company is doing today, and what their future plans look like.

How did you and Damian Brhel, the other co-founder, start working together?

vit-horky-1

It’s a funny story that starts off in Bageterie Boulevard on Vodickova [in the center of Prague] more than 10 years ago. I was looking to hire a developer for Inspiro Solutions, a Prague-based digital marketing agency I founded in 2004, and I didn’t even have an office to hold interviews. Even though Damian was only 14 at the time I didn’t let his age overshadow the interest I had in his CV. We met, we hit it off and decided to work together on a project. One project led to another and eventually led to Damian being appointed as Technical Director of Inspiro Solutions. He was a far superior developer than the rest even though he was outranked professionally and in terms of age.

Founders Vit and Damian. Photo by Libor Fojtik

Founders Vit and Damian. Photo by Libor Fojtik

I guess it’s also worth noting I was only 17 at the time. So a teenager managing an even younger teenager!

What are your professional backgrounds?

I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. When I was 12 years old at summer camp, and a temporary vegetarian, I would take the steak that was part of the canteen lunch and re-sell it to kids who wanted more. I guess that’s where it all began!

By the time I was 17 I founded my first company, Inspiro Solutions, which has since become one of the leading social media agencies in Central Europe. I diversified my company portfolio by launching Inspiro Creative, a software distribution company that became a Gold Partner of AVG Technologies and has served over 10,000 customers since that time.

After several years on the agency side of things, I was fed up working on other people’s projects. I wanted to build something that served a real purpose, that had meaning. It’s that desire to do more than just marketing campaigns that really pushed us to launch Brand Embassy in 2011.

As for Damian, he’s a bit a Mark Zuckerberg :laughs:. He didn’t go to university because he simply didn’t have time – he was already pursuing his dreams. Damian is self taught and has been doing development projects by himself since his early teens.

The agency world was heavily focused on the domestic market, and project driven. Damian wanted something that was more product driven with a global scale that could actually have a positive impact on the way people communicate. Both on the same page, we made a successful exit to focus on the launch of Brand Embassy.  

When Brand Embassy first applied to Startupyard, how did you envision the product and future of the company?

We went to Startupyard with a product that was a combination of software and people. Brand Embassy 1.0 was split between the software and the actual service – rather than focusing on selling the power of the technology, we bundled this with providing actual customer service for brands that didn’t know how to manage social customer service.

9 out of 10 contact center agents are only trained to receive or place phone calls, while 68% of customers prefer to use channels other than phone. With this in mind, Brand Embassy kept a part of their “agency” background, if you will, to help assist brands that simply didn’t know what do with social customer care – from both a technological and staffing perspective.

Then and now, the vision remains “making people happy.” Better customer service as an industry standard means better service for you, me, your mother, your brother, your friends and your colleagues. Delivering happiness through better customer service, via our technology, is still our vision.

How, specifically, did those plans change during and following the accelerator?

During the period Brand Embassy was with Startupyard, the mentors we connected with pushed Brand Embassy to focus on product and scalability. They taught us to look further down the road and think about how we could eliminate the “service” or “human” part of our offering and focus on the technology.

The networking opportunities that we had, from conferences in London to introductions to some of our first clients in our home market, were irreplaceable.

How did Brand Embassy gain its first large investment?

We closed a $1 million seed round investment in February 2014 from two venture capital funds, Rockaway Capital and Spread Capital.

While the investors saw the connection and potential between social media and customer service, I learned that they were more interested in investing in people they believed in rather than the business. They viewed social media marketing software as direct competition to overcome. When in reality, the solutions and reason to invest – from a client’s side – in various technologies is very different. Brand Embassy is first and foremost built for customer service, not marketing – while the opposite can be said for “social media marketing” solutions.

Now, our investors have become convinced by both the capabilities of myself and Damian, as well as the product itself.  

Here’s a look at our growth to prove that point:

Revenue:

  • 300% YOY revenue growth for 3 consecutive years

Global expansion

  • 2013 client portfolio: 80% domestic / 20% foreign
  • 2014 client portfolio: 80% foreign / 20% domestic

Telco Market

  • late 2011: first telco client (Telefonica O2 CZ)
  • By 2012: all mobile operators in the Czech Republic
  • By 2014: global market leader in social customer service software for telco


Company Growth:

  • 2012: 5 employees
  • late 2014: 15 employees
  • mid 2015: 30 (doubled)
  • 2016: still hiring!

Can you share a few case studies and testimonials about Brand Embassy?

Sure! A recent case study showed that O2, one of the Czech Republic’s largest Telco operators,  reduced response time by 70% and increased customer satisfaction by 90% using Brand Embassy. O2 fundamentally improved their “guru” concept with Brand Embassy which put customer service and knowledgeable agents at the forefront for their marketing campaign. They were able to change their brand reputation and position themselves as a responsive company that actually listens to their customers.  

Dusan Simonovic, Social Media Specialist at O2, CZ said: “Brand Embassy connects all our social channels into one space with efficient team collaboration and good workflow for providing fast answers. Flexibility with customization is also a great benefit”

We also received this glowing testimonial from Phil Wilson, Social Media Communication Manager at Vodafone UK: “We’ve seen a major change in the way our customers want to communicate with us. They demand more than just marketing on social media, they want customer service. We believe it’s our job to deliver that exceptional service. That’s why we’ve invested in customer service technology from Brand Embassy, and together we’re well on our way to achieving our goals.”

Brand Embassy was also named a top rated enterprise social media management software by TrustRadius.

Has hiring been a major challenge? How has BE gone about hiring new people?

Yes, it’s been a challenge, but we are progressing.

Screenshot 2015-07-13 11.38.23

We doubled the number of employees in the last 6 months and are still actively hiring. We have a brilliantly diverse workforce across commercial, product and marketing and operations.

Our team of 30, all in Prague, now cover 8 countries including USA, Morocco, Uzbekistan and The Philippines. We’re like a mini United Nations here!   

Historically, we were focusing on hard skills and number of years of professional experience. We found that those people didn’t necessarily have the cultural fit or drive we were looking for. We had to part ways with some very talented people because of this disconnect.

We learned the hard way that it’s more important to find people who are a great company culture fit than those who have x years of experience with x,y,z skills. We want to be happy with them and we want them to be happy with us.

Brand Embassy has a unique brand story. How did that develop?

There are two reasons why we have the “Bee Story.” First, it’s because we don’t want to be another boring software company. The Bee Story helps us add some coolness and fun to our messaging and branding. It also helps us stand out in the crowd, as more than just a software company. We are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise pretty stuffy market.

In addition, the Bee Story helps us explain the benefits of integrated customer care in a very intuitive way. We found that we needed a strong analogy to help describe the importance that efficiency and a clean process have in digital customer service. Bees are fascinating creatures that work in an intelligent hive. That’s just what Brand Embassy aims to be. Our approach, then, is analogous with a natural one that is inherently easy to understand, when you think about it.  

What are the significant challenges of selling your solution to small and medium sized businesses?

A challenge we faced in recent years was the inability to service our smaller clients and offer a solution that fit their needs and budget. They wanted us and we wanted them, but we simply didn’t have the resources to work with them and enterprise clients were prioritized.

Only a few weeks ago, we launched our online sales channel (self-service) and we already have plenty of SME clients starting with Brand Embassy every week.

They are all small business and agencies from around the world.

We see big potential in small e-shops and small business owners who must effectively manage their impatient digital customers too. Especially for e-shops whose customers are 100% accustomed to doing things online. They shop online, they want customer service online.


Along with the introduction of our online sales channel, we are introducing a package for these SME’s that starts at $39 / user / month.

Which competitors do you see as vying for the same core audience as Brand Embassy, and why is BE a better choice for your core customers?

There are many solutions that claim to provide social customer service, however, they usually fall into one of two categories. They’re either legacy solutions that have added social as an add-on, but they are difficult to use because handling a public inquiry on social media is something completely different from receiving a phone call.

Or, they are marketing-first solutions designed for running campaigns and building online communities, but can’t handle high conversation volumes and are generally managed by people who have many other responsibilities outside of customer service.

We fill the gap, offering solutions that are built for social and customer service specifically, handling high volumes and making social customer service smart and enjoyable both for the customers and agents.

For Brand Embassy, it’s not only about social media customer service. It’s about unifying the entire customer service experience across all digital channels.

We’ve increasingly seen that non-loyal Zendesk clients from Central Europe are coming over to Brand Embassy. They’ve been using Zendesk out of necessity, but it’s too complicated and it’s not built for social media – social is just an add on to a more traditional help desk solution. It lacks efficiency – everything other than email is a plugin. Brand Embassy has these digital channels built into the core of our platform.

Don’t Be in the “Startup” Industry

This week, Cedric, our Managing Director, asked my opinion on an article that appeared on Medium last month by Arthur Attwell. Attwell shut down Paperight recently, and it’s an emotional post about some of the mistakes he thinks he’s made, but also on the industry he has chosen to inhabit. He’s not done with startups, but he’s done with “the startup thing.” The conferences, the competitions, the startup media, and the accompanying apparatus that is designed to funnel investor money through startups, into the hands of people in the know.

“What do you have to say to that? It reminds me of some of your opinions as well- maybe there’s an article there?” Indeed Cedric, there is an article there.

The Startup Industry

Attwell makes reference to the “startup industry.” That is the endless and sometimes bemusing list of events, conferences, competitions, breakfasts, lunches, brunches, innovation slams, hackathons, and every other possible flavor of sponsored, packaged, pre-digested infotainment that startups are sold as steps on the ladder to success.

My own feelings on this subject are mixed. I’ve been to a lot of conferences. Cedric’s are much stronger- maybe because I still feel I have a lot more to learn about the industry in general. But I often wonder what startups are doing there, particularly when they’ve already been funded, and when their customers are not the event’s audience.

Either a rave or the Slush conference in Helsinki

Either a rave or the Slush conference in Helsinki

Worse still can be pitching competitions, where again, startups are not necessarily pitching to an audience that is as interested in their products or them, as they are in seeing whether that person will fail on stage. Admittedly, I have rooted for startups to fail at pitching competitions, either because I didn’t like the idea, didn’t like the person, or for some other reason. I have never been inspired to help that startup achieve anything.

And while prizes are often involved in competitions, the terms involved in those prizes are rarely that attractive. A $500,000 “prize,” especially for a startup that can actually win that prize (meaning they’re good enough to beat up to a hundred others at the same competition), is not necessarily something that a good startup wants, particularly when there are better investment offers already in the offing.

At Slush 2014, for example, one of the finalists for the half-million euro prize stated flatly, when asked how he would use the prize money, that he wouldn’t take the prize, because the terms weren’t favorable enough, and he had better offers. That’s not that uncommon.

That’s the same sort of strange logic that Hollywood stars or famous musicians sometimes talk about: once you’re rich and successful, everyone wants to give you things for free. If you’re good enough to win a 6 figure pitch competition, you can probably land a far better private investment already. So what’s the game really about?

The TechCrunch Bump and the Trough of Sorrow

Andrew Chen famously wrote about the phenomenon of the TechCrunch Bump and the Trough of Sorrow. Namely, that the publicity associated with the “startup media” and acclaim in the “startup industry,” doesn’t actually translate to real success. It can help you land a few early investors, maybe, but it won’t actually make your product anything that your target users want to actually use, much less pay more. However, as Chen points out, far too many startup CEOs think that the name of the game is to become successful at being a startup, and so follow all the wrong signposts on the route to that goal.

Used for educational purposes: you can find the original at Andrewchen.co

Used for educational purposes: you can find the original at Andrewchen.co

And that route is expensive. There is unquestionably an industry of bells and whistles that is selling things to startups that they should, if they’re competent, confident, and energetic enough, never actually have to pay for.

The whole structure of startup conferences is weird. And the structure reveals the primary motivations. Conferences that charge startup founders to attend, while letting the press in for free, make it clear where their priorities lie, and it isn’t in helping startups.

While investor passes are often more expensive than entry-level tickets for entrepreneurs, the money is in up-selling the startups to tables, booths, and other “opportunities,” that are of questionable value, while the investor passes will in reality find their way into the hands of investors who get deep discounts off the sticker price.

If you are a non-funded startup struggling to survive, you should not have to pay to attend a startup conference. Full stop.

We Can Be a Part of the Problem

And we’re a part of this as well. Recently I was invited to speak at a local event where Startups from this region will pay up to 160 Euros to hear me and a list of interesting people speak. I know that part of what they’re paying for is the opportunity to meet me (and people like me), and pitch me their ideas. Which is a shame, because if any of those people emailed me, I would gladly meet with them for free.

All the truly valuable partners, investors, and friends of our organization that I’ve met and seen at conferences would do the same.

The thing is, I’m creating value for this event by being there, and making it possible for the organizers to profit from my presence without paying me- and the money is coming from startups who can probably ill-afford to waste money on hearing me talk about anything.

Meanwhile, I’m getting a lot of value out of this event for free. I’m speaking, which means I’m helping the StartupYard brand, and I’m getting a look at all the startups in attendance. I am the real customer for this event- everything has been tailored to suit my needs.

There’s the notion that you’ll “network,” at such events, and like Attwell, I’ve had limited success in doing this. If networking is about building relationships with people who have a common interest, then success would be defined by the number of working relationships that have come out of conferences. I have made a few of these, and I value them, so I credit the allure of conferences in allowing that to happen. It’s not a lost cause.

But again, the people who I’ve gone onto having a very productive relationship with from conferences were at the conferences looking for me, just like I was looking for them. So the conference was a *really* expensive way of meeting them, considering our shared interests.

I still see some value in a certain type of tech conference, particularly ones like this Sofia’s Bulgaria Web Summit, which is run by StartupYard Mentor Bogo Shopov. There, the startups paid a nominal fee, there was little window dressing, and the speakers were by and large not investors, but real thought leaders and passionate advocates for new types of ideas.

Likewise, I attended Howtoweb in Bucharest in 2014, and was delighted by the fact that the organizers brought mentors in to do actual mentoring with real startups- all of whom paid very little to attend. Mentors were not there for their own ego-stroking purposes, but to meet and engage with interesting young people. I loved it. So good conferences are certainly possible.

Things have also changed for the good in other ways. The famous flap over Demo, for example. In 2008, disgusted with Demo’s practice of charging startups up to $2500 to pitch their startups on stage at their popular events, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington scheduled TechCrunch 50 at exactly the same time, and offered startups the opportunity to pitch for free. TechCrunch would charge investors to attend the event. One needn’t now ask which side won that argument- TechCrunch now possibly runs the biggest startup pitching events in the world.

The Moth Trap

Cedric describes the “startup industry” as a “moth trap.” You know those lamps that lure moths to them in order to zap the life out of them? That’s a bit harsh, but it can be accurate.

With so many attending startup events hoping to make breakthroughs with their startups in terms of investment, hiring, or partnerships, the expectation levels are often over-hyped. It takes a lot of work to turn even 2 or 3 contacts from a conference into something that might eventually move the needle at your startup. It takes a lot of false starts and false friends to find those people who are really going to make a difference for you.

Worse yet, startups show up at these conferences with unreal expectations about what they’re going to get out of it- to the point that they ignore real opportunities when they’re presented. I’ve talked to more than one interesting startup that has paid for a small space at a large conference, that has not been funded, and invited them just to apply to StartupYard, even if they don’t see themselves moving to Prague.

For an application that takes maybe an hour of a startup’s time, we offer the option of real funding, and a real direction for a young startup. Few apply, and the more they’ve paid to be a part of the conference, the less likely they are to apply. It’s as if when I mention that we offer funding and a program that’s designed to help them make real progress, they have been conditioned not to believe me.

It’s as if they think that because they have a few pieces of swag, t-shirts, and a rollup so that they look like a startup, and have had conversations with investors (and only conversations), that they would be taking a major step down to consider submitting themselves to anything resembling a reassessment of their priorities.

They have been conditioned to believe that their goal in life is to land a big funding round, and that giving up 10% of their company (which is worth exactly nothing until someone invests in it or it makes a profit), in exchange for real, tangible help in moving forward will be a hinderance when it comes to future negotiations, rather than a net gain.

As I’ve mentioned previously, and as has never failed to amaze me, I have heard from startup founders who have never raised money, that our terms are too steep, because “a VC told me that we could get a valuation of X Million Euros.” You could, if that VC invested in your startup. But they haven’t. And the notion that you’re going to get an investor at that valuation at a startup conference might be a little unrealistic.

In fact, I know a few VCs who might look down on the fact that you’ve paid for swag and a conference booth without signing a real live customer. These people are smart, and their job is making money. They will be looking at your traction, not your logo.

But still, the conference environment is like the California gold rush of 1849. The people who made money then weren’t the prospectors (the startups), by and large, though a few of them got filthy rich. The people who made the steady money in the gold rush were selling the shovels and the whiskey. Or in today’s terms, the metal water bottles and the keychains.

In that environment, we sometimes feel like the guys who walk around offering to lend the prospectors our heavy excavation equipment, and help them dig for gold, and being told that 10% of the loot is too high a price to ask, given what treasures might await. Keep shoveling.

Attwell blames himself for being a moth to that flame- falling for the adulation of the “TechCrunch Bump” rather than focusing on his startup. He’s right to blame himself, but he’s also right to blame the industry for perpetuating the myths it does in order to sell the show, and perpetuate its own legends.

Breakthroughs are not magic, and they don’t happen accidentally. And it was with not a little irony, I thought, that the speaker line-up for last year’s LeWeb conference in Paris was a parade of people who all said more or less the same thing, to the point of it being a sort of idée fixe for the whole conference: “this is not magic.”

There were more presentations about failure at LeWeb last year than there were about success- at least that was my impression at the time. There was an overtone of exasperation with the magical thinking that has been associated with startup culture in recent years, and this manifested as a pragmatic appeal to the people in the audience to be a little more grounded, and to understand their own limitations.

Summing it Up

In a brilliant essay, Paul Graham (of Y-Combinator) wrote last year about the problem of “startups,” with respect to our education system, and our business culture. He points out that education teaches young people to fulfill adult expectations, not to fulfill their own passions. Education and work is a game with rules, and can be won if you know how to game the system. In the same way, we teach young people to “do startups,” according to a paint-by-numbers system, rather than encouraging them to follow their passions in any way that might work: “It’s not surprising that after being trained for their whole lives to play such games, young founders’ first impulse on starting a startup is to try to figure out the tricks for winning at this new game.”

He goes on: “Since fundraising appears to be the measure of success for startups (another classic noob mistake), they always want to know what the tricks are for convincing investors. We tell them the best way to convince investors is to make a startup that’s actually doing well, meaning growing fast, and then simply tell investors so. Then they want to know what the tricks are for growing fast. And we have to tell them the best way to do that is simply to make something people want.”

We can see in this a horrifying regressive cycle. Successful startups all make the same “noob” mistakes that unsuccessful startups also make. Only when they become successful, the lessons of their failures are always forgotten. They had swag, so you have to have swag. They won disrupt, so you have to win disrupt.

Karl Marx once wrote of something said by Hegel: “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.” Marx comments: “He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

The axiom has often be applied to geopolitics or to cults of personality (Marx was applying it to Napoleon and his nephew Napoleon III). But it can as easily be applied to generational differences.

Every generation makes its own unique mistakes; generating its own unique tragedies. But there were reasons to make these mistakes- they were made in the process of trying to accomplish something new and different. The next generation repeats the same mistakes again, but this time only as a matter of form; only because that is what is expected of them, with no sense of the purpose behind them. Tragedy becomes farce.

That’s why we exist- just like Y-Combinator. That’s what keeps us relevant. Because at a good accelerator, and we try to be the best accelerator we possibly can be, with the best and most engaged mentors we can find, mistakes are things you learn from. And they don’t have be your mistakes- they can be someone else’s. They can be ours.

Failures are productive. We are here to make sure that our startups are not slaves to fashion, but are remaining true to themselves as they grow. That they are being realistic, and honest with themselves.

We naturally want to be like the people who we idealize as models for success. But people are very bad at recognizing what matters when it comes to repeating that success. So you get entrepreneurs who dress like Steve Jobs, or think that the habits and peculiarities of successful role models are the “trick” to being as successful as they were- rather than the more common sense reasons like hard work and some good luck.

You make life about becoming something, rather than accomplishing something, and no matter what else you teach people, they’ll focus on the appearance rather than the reality. In our attempts to be the things we think we need to be: “entrepreneur,” “startuper,” “winner,” we end up betraying the things we care about. Or worse- we don’t even pay attention to the things we actually care about, because they don’t have the caché necessary to turn us into something others will recognize and respect.

An unfortunate part of this business, and we’ve seen our share of this at StartupYard, is that many of us are pretenders. That’s not a bad thing. That’s nobody’s fault. A person can be a pretender, and find their true passion later, when they’ve exhausted themselves or gotten wise to the game and stopped playing it. That people pretend is a sign also that they are seeking something they recognize as valuable.

I would in fact posit that the existence of the StartupLand circus and the attendant conferences, seminars, events, and other time-wasters, is an indication that there are enough really passionate people circulating in the tech community to sustain such high numbers of pretenders and play-actors. If there wasn’t anything real, the whole thing would eventually collapse under its own weight. It still might, but at the core, I see more genuine innovation, energy, and passion now than I did when I started working with startups.

And while I see a self-adjustment in StartupLand may be in the air- a common feeling that the game has gotten old- I also see that most of the startups we work with recognize the real work that remains to be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to my list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like with new education, immigration, and employment policies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I am a YSofter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just need to “legalize” trying and failing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So be honest, short and specific.

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

Czech Out the Tech Scene: Our SlideShare on Startups in the Czech Republic

More and more often these days, StartupYard gets similar questions. What’s going on in the Czech Republic? Why should startups move there? What’s unique about Prague, about the Czechs, and about the current ecosystem? What about investors? Can a startup get funded in the Czech Republic?

Well, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to answer those questions, and a few more. So here is our slideshare: “Czech Out the Tech Scene,” a brief guide to the Czech Startup Ecosystem.

This is a work in progress. Think we missed something? Got something terribly wrong? Great! Let us know by tweeting @startupyard, and we’ll make it right.

Meet the 2015 Startups: BudgetBakers, Stress Free Mobile Finance

BudgetBakers came to StartupYard with a unique problem. With a popular and highly rated app on the GooglePlay store, in many ways, they’d already won the “Game of Startups.” But like many startups, the growth hadn’t translated to profitability yet, and the popularity of their app, then called Wallet, hadn’t translated to the number of paying users they’d need to keep growing as a business.

Honza and Martin at StartupYard

BudgetBakers Co-Founders Honza and Martin at StartupYard

Beautifully designed and expertly constructed, the software immediately caught our attention. The team too, co-founders Jan Muller Martin Jiricka, were eager to take the next steps. Here’s Jan “Honza” Muller talking a bit about the BudgetBakers journey, before and during StartupYard:


Q: Hi Honza, tell us about BudgetBakers. Why did you choose to tackle the problem of personal finance and budgeting?

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A: Well, it all started 5 years ago. I just wanted to learn how to develop for Android- at that time it was a really new platform.

Also, I wanted to make an application for my personal use, to track my finances. I called that original application Wallet. Through the years, the application has become more and more popular, and more complex. It’s coming soon to iOS and a web app, and is already on android (the Android app is still called Wallet for now).

As BudgetBakers has grown, I’ve changed as well. Since I founded BudgetBakers,  I’ve started a family myself and become a dad. I’ve come to really understand the need for smart daily money management. When I quit my job late last year to work on BudgetBakers full time, that only reinforced my need for solid money management. That’s quite a motivator to get BudgetBakers right!

BudgetBakers-Fam

Honza with his partner and daughter.

As an entrepreneur working for myself, knowing how much I have to spend, and how much I should spend on everything my family needs is really important- for me and for my partner. We need a smart way to make smart decisions as a family.

People are afraid to think about their budgets and the money they spend every day. But we find that once they get going, that sense of control and security is really addictive. It certainly is for me!

When we’re growing our families and our careers, we can come to let money concerns dominate our thinking. But we don’t think rationally or effectively about our money- we just worry about it uselessly and inefficiently. I’ve come to see what we do as a way of saving people from that trap.

So that’s how BudgetBakers grew into what it is today- more than an expense tracker, it’s your personal finance assistant. It thinks about every little penny, so you don’t have to.

Q: What makes BudgetBakers different from competitors like YouNeedABudget or Spendee? Why should people use BudgetBakers?

A: First of all, BudgetBakers is not just a mobile application.

We are constructing a fully integrated platform where people can learn how to get control of their personal finances, and gain peace of mind for today, and the future.

More than that, we want to go further than just helping people to track their individual expenses and manage their budgets.

Screenshot 2015-05-15 11.46.37

Managing money is an important family priority as well, and one that people have a hard time with, especially when they’re just starting their careers, and thinking about saving for a house, maybe a car, or that vacation over the summer.

You get your paycheck one day, and the next day it seems like everything disappeared. Where did it go? That can cause a lot of stress.

A lot of families aren’t on the same page when it comes to their finances- they don’t know how much they can reasonable expect to spend every month, much less how much to save for the long term.

So we’re not only perfecting personal finance via a fully integrated web-based, and mobile platform, but we’re also building in tools to encourage couples and families to begin cooperating to manage their money more effectively.

I don’t think you need to have a lot of money to be happy, but I do know that you need to have enough. That’s where BudgetBakers comes in- our platform helps people to understand what enough looks like. Are you sure you can afford that trip to the movies on Saturday? With BudgetBakers, you will be sure.

Q: A big hurdle for BudgetBakers so far has been gaining traction with users. What are the unique challenges you face in getting people to commit to your approach and platform?

A: We have 4.4 star rating on GooglePay, and we get about 1000 new users a day. We use the UserVoice platform to keep in touch with our users, and we’ve also recently hired a new team member to help with community management, blogging, and marketing.

That said, we’ve found from the beginning that our users need a lot of convincing to really start using BudgetBakers to the fullest. It seems like a big commitment, and it seems more complicated than it is. Part of the learning curve for us, especially at StartupYard, was to see how many opportunities we truly had to convince users to stick with the program, and we weren’t converting as many as we could have.

With the help of some awesome mentors and workshops, like Bogo Shopov on GrowthHacking, and Fiodor Tonti on UX/UI, we’ve had our eyes really opened to the opportunities we’ve been missing, and we’ve seen that we have a lot more room to grow and understand our users even more. That’s very exciting.

Right now, we are working on expanding our efforts in content marketing, and community building, to find new ways that BudgetBakers can reach out to its community and offer them tips, advice, and above all encouragement to make the right financial and spending decisions. There are a lot of people out there who need a little encouragement, and we want to be the ones to provide that.

Q: What do you think are the major blockers for most people when it comes to getting their finances under control? How can BudgetBakers fix that?

As I said, I think one of the biggest obstacles we have when it comes to getting people to take control of their finances is fear. People are afraid that once they open up their finances and take a look, they’ll be shocked at what they see. Sometimes they really are!
But we find that as people use BudgetBakers, they get comfortable, and they start to really enjoy the control they have over their spending. The stress in little spending decisions can start to go away, because they have a very good sense of what they should be doing with their money.

Maybe there’s a little extra in the restaurant budget this month. Great! Order a pizza, or take your girlfriend/boyfriend to a nice dinner somewhere. That’s a wonderful feeling, to know you aren’t cheating yourself when you do that. Control of your finances can make you feel virtuous and proud, and it makes you want to do better, and set better goals for yourself in the future, to hang on to that good feeling.

People have to “rewire” a little bit to make this transition, and that isn’t easy. They have to stop being so emotional about their money, and be a little more analytical- stop worrying and start thinking. BudgetBakers helps with that switch, but it can still take a big effort.

Q: Ease of use is also a major concern for any budgeting software. How are you planning to make BudgetBakers more intuitive and less work intensive?

A: We have a lot of plans on how to make our users more comfortable, and make the daily habit of budgeting and expense control simpler and more rewarding.

Screenshot 2015-05-15 11.46.12

Today we have a smart watch application which allows users to enter transactions even without taking their phones from their pockets. Also we have automatic bank statement parsing which works with a few Czech banks so far. We are working towards expanding that ability.

In the future, it’s important that we offer our users ways to integrate directly with their banks, making expense tracking practically automatic.

It’s a balance. With BudgetBakers, the value is in the peace of mind that it gives you about your finances- it reminds you to control your spending, and it keeps you honest about what you can afford, and what the best decisions for you really are. You need to engage with your budget on a daily basis, but you don’t want that to be too much work or too much stress.

There are ways that we would like to make things easier, and entering, sorting, and tracking transaction information automatically will play a big part in that.

Q: What’s your near-term strategy for growing BudgetBakers’ user-base, and how do you plan to keep new users as they join the platform?

A: Budgetbakers has already been downloaded over 800,000 times on the GooglePlay store. When we release our iOS version very soon, along with a substantial rebuild of the BudgetBakers platform, we look forward to adding a whole new group of users.

A lot of users is a great thing to brag about.

But as I said before, one of the things we really want to focus on is making budgeting and financial planning a daily routine for as many of our existing users as we can. We can still do a lot better in that area, and as new users discover the platform, they’ll also benefit from this work. If you do anything for 3 months, it can become a habit, and that 3 month metric is something we’ve been focusing on much more. Can we keep people engaged with their budgeting and financial planning for 3 months? If we can do that, the rewards to our users will extend to potentially their whole lives. We can do a lot of good with some very small, simple changes to the way they engage with BudgetBakers.

For example, a big takeaway from the StartupYard workshops, particularly with Fiodor Tonti and Bogo Shopov [ workshops on UX/UI and growthhacking], was that BudgetBakers needs to utilize the data we collect from our users, and make that part of our overall value proposition. People want to feel a part of a community, and be rewarded for meeting their financial and savings goals. Gamifying the platform and rewarding users with insights and advice is a big part of how we will improve our user retention, and help people to be more financially secure and independent.

Q: You’re based in the Czech Republic. What about the region represents a unique opportunity for BudgetBakers? What challenges does location present for the company?

A: BudgetBakers works anywhere- it works with any currency, and in about 25 languages so far. We have users all over the planet. Of course, because we’re based in Central Europe, this is where we are exploring our first corporate partnerships with banks, telecom providers, and others who can help us add more value for our daily users.

We have a large userbase in the Czech Republic, and that’s partly because of good word of mouth. It’s also because this region doesn’t have access to some of the largest competing platforms, like Mint.com, and because the market here is more fragmented, with more localized apps and platforms, tailored to specific markets.

In addition, banking and financial services are also more fragmented, meaning that building larger partnerships is a slower process than in places like the US. However we count that as an opportunity, to be the first to spread in a way that less ambitious projects haven’t managed to do.

There is no market leader in this category yet, particularly in Europe, so there is a lot of room for growth. Banks and telecoms are desperate for ways to add value for their clients, many of whom are choosing lower-cost, more mobile solutions. We are exploring these types of partnerships that add the value that people are looking for from their financial institutions, but are not yet receiving.

A lot of people (including StartupYard mentors) have challenged us on how “new” and “innovative” BudgetBakers is. There are a lot of expense trackers out there, and budgeting software is as old as spreadsheets. But you have to remember, that the mobile and financial technology that really adds value for end-users is still really new. In the context of business and government, legacy methods are fine, but users today want mobility, interconnectivity, and always-on functionalities. They want their software to work with them, not just for them. So it’s not a new idea, but it is a new way of looking at budgeting for many people.

Q: Tell me about your experience so far at StartupYard. How has BudgetBakers grown during your time here? How have your plans changed?

A:  By entering SY we had to slow down development of the new version of BudgetBakers and start focusing more on management, finances and defining the strategy that will bring us to next level.

At the beginning it was very unusual for me, because i was used to spending my whole day programming. I had to turn towards management, and that was a challenge for me. But now I have to say, it helped me to crystallize my vision in term of growth and success.

I’ve come to realize that our priority has to be our customer experience and our market strategy, instead of just building an ever richer feature set. There’s no use in creating the world’s most amazing software, if nobody is ready to use that software to make a positive impact in their lives. So we’ve had to adjust our attitude towards development, and grow up as a company and a team. That’s been an amazing experience for us, and we’re really glad we decided to do it.

Learn More at www.budgetbakers.com

Follow BudgetBakers On Twitter @BudgetBakers 

StartupYard Month 2: The Emotional Journey

The StartupYard teams have spend 2 months at the accelerator so far, and it’s past time for a look at how they’re all doing. An accelerator round goes by in a big blur. You can hardly believe, when it’s almost over, that you’re talking to the same people who started the journey together just a few months ago. It’s an emotional experience, as well as an intellectual one, and I’m going to talk about that emotional journey.

Frustration

A big and necessary part of the accelerator experience is frustration. Frustration with oneself, with a lack of time, with the difficulty of certain questions, and with the fluidity and uncertainty surrounding so many important decisions. Everything is in a rush, but at the same time, everything depends on someone else’s input, or someone else’s time, be it a team member, a StartupYard team member, a mentor or advisor, or even an investor.

Between daily meetings with up to 5 mentors, meetings with test users, pilot customers, early investors, and the StartupYard team, there isn’t a lot of time to do what the startup teams are used to doing with their days- working on their products and making them better. The life of a startup is highly dependent on influencing other people to make fast decisions, so we all get a little harried from time to time.

I caught myself recently asking the startups to fill in their company information for the Demo Day program (we hope to see you there May 28th!), and writing “get this done ASAP.” One of the startups pluckily responded via the #events Slack Channel. “Everything is ASAP!” He was right, and in truth, I could have waited more than a week to get their feedback. But in the constant push to cut through and grab their attention, I had accustomed myself to demanding that they do everything I ask of them immediately, lest they forget to ever do it at all.

But a certain level of frustration is necessary because at StartupYard, the goal is to interrupt and challenge a startup’s established patterns, and force the teams to face issues they might, left alone, choose to ignore, with possibly fatal results.

We ask big questions, in our mentorship sessions and workshops, and we ask them of teams that don’t always have enough data to answer them. That’s to the good. Because every time a startup founder doesn’t know the answer to a question, they’re reminded, or they can discover, that they have more to learn and more room to improve.

Still, the experience is one of constantly feeling behind: by the time the founders answer our demands for business plans, user projections, financial projections, and marketing plans, we’re on to new and more complex demands.

There’s no slowing down to celebrate small victories- and nothing is ever really finished. That’s a recipe for a certain level of frustration, and the only way to overcome it, eventually, is to do more than they’ve ever done before, in less time than they thought they could.

Ego

 I think it takes a certain kind of person to quit their job, spend their savings, and build something no one has ever built before, with the certain knowledge that it’s brilliant and unique enough to a) get someone else to pay for it via an investment and b) eventually get people to buy that thing, and get potentially dozens or even hundreds of people to devote their working lives to building and maintaining it.

We say that startups have their own unique cultures- well it takes a certain kind of ego to think that they’d be happier and better off starting something like that from scratch. So I have immense respect for the people I work with on a daily basis.

These people couldn’t do what they do if they didn’t have powerful egos. At the same time though, the accelerator process is a repeated assault upon ego, pride, and a person’s sense of themselves and the truth of their personal vision.

Fiodor Tonti, of Numa Paris, destroys egos with his UX/UI workshop

 

Every round, we see startup founders follow a similar emotional path. They come in at the top of the pile- the best handful of startups out of an application round of over 200. They know they’re hot shit, and they have accomplishments to be genuinely proud of.

And then mentoring starts, and they’re almost constantly on the defensive for the next month and a half. Every advisor and mentor has a different opinion, but they all reassure the startups that they *definitely* aren’t ready yet.

Nothing satisfies. Nothing is where it needs to be.

Just when these mentoring sessions start to slow down, and the startups now have a really good sense of how to talk about their companies and the direction they want to go, a new assault begins. In month two, we bring in domain experts in UX/UI, publicity, marketing and growth hacking, and financial planning, and we beat them all back down again.

Last week, Fiodor Tonti, a team member at LeCamping, in Numa Paris, came to Prague to do a private workshop on UX design with our startups. One of the startups came out of a session with him and told Cedric, our MD, “that was devastating.”

Later in the day, we sat with another startup doing live user testing, and a dozen people watched as a test user stated that they were ready to quit trying to use the application, because the onboarding process was just too frustrating.

A few weeks ago, I gave a workshop for our startups on homepage/landing page design. Then I stood up in front of all the startups, and we critiqued each of their homepages together, in some detail. They were hard on each other. One of the teams commented afterward. “I can’t believe how bad our homepage is. I didn’t see how big a problem it could be.”

Software engineers, in their comfort zones, are not used to the creative suffering involved in watching their work being misunderstood, or worse, actually disliked and dismissed. Most work on minute, specific problems, the solutions to which may be complicated, but are at least fairly clear. But startup founders work on big, holistic problems, the solutions to which are far from clear, and so their egos suffer miserably when their noble efforts fail, as they invariably do in some way. 

Fear 

Of course, we’re all afraid of failing. And with startups, failure is perhaps not the most expected result, however, it is definitely the most common. And as Frank Herbert famously wrote in Dune, “fear is the mind-killer.” Fear stops you from acting, even when action is necessary. The thinking goes, I suppose, If I don’t make a decision, I can’t fail. Or at least, if I fail because I don’t act, I will at least know why I failed.

Inaction in the face of fear is a way of staying in control. So it goes with many of our founders, especially in their first month or so. In the face of harsh feedback, or suggestions they don’t agree with, or weren’t expecting, they don’t refuse to listen. They simply refuse to act. They say: “yeah, I’ll think about it,” or they’ll make other excuses: “well I’ll work on that stuff when I’ve finished doing X, Y, and Z.” Of course, X, Y, and Z are never-ending jobs, like working on their backends, or their webpages, or refining their mobile apps, or introducing new features.

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Sometimes founders get stuck in a rut that seems incredibly productive, from their perspective. They’ll work on a new feature, and then realize that the backend needs to be reconfigured, only to discover that they need to develop something else from scratch to make that work, and pretty soon they’re rebuilding their whole product.

One team, until well into the second month of the program, couldn’t be convinced to start developing new features and testing new business models. They had gotten so used to focusing on their existing users, most of whom were not paying for the service, that their answer to anything new was to study their existing userbase.

A fear of losing something they’d gained, even if there wasn’t as much value in it as they had thought, was hard to overcome.

Similarly, another startup this year had great difficulty in deciding to rebrand. Despite a large number of downloads of their app, their paid userbase was small, and their traction was relatively poor.

Rebranding in this case was meant to improve user retention, because it appeared that users coming to the app were not really the right market for it. It got downloads, but it didn’t convert. The idea for this founder of giving up app-store positioning and rebranding away from a name that had so many downloads was very difficult. The fear of letting go of what he had in favor of what he might get was real. But in the end, he made the decision to rebrand.

automation

On another team, the founders repeatedly missed other deadlines during the first month of the program, because they were so focused on finishing and distributing a new release of their product. Meanwhile, we had to work to convince them that the feedback they were getting was as relevant to the new product as to the existing one. Their answer, every time someone brought up a problem with their model or their product, was that it would be fixed in the next release.

Engineers and developers build. That’s what engineers and developers are good at, so that’s what they want to do. And when it comes to user-testing, and talking to investors, the new features and the new plans are always on the horizon- something to be talked about, but not revealed. Constant work is a way of putting off criticisms, and putting off the fear of failure.

And one can always point to future plans and future features which will make the criticisms of today obsolete. We see founders duck these problems all the time, telling mentors that they’ll have everything solved when the new update comes out, or the new marketing manager gets hired. As any accelerator can tell you, this can become a bit like school- founders fall into the same patterns they’ve had since childhood, to avoid doing the things they don’t like doing, or are afraid to fail at.

The old saying “the better is the enemy of the good,” is something I find myself saying very often. Along with another stock phrase our startups become very tired of hearing: “If it’s stupid, and it works, it’s not stupid.”

Not accepting current and past failures just perpetuates them. and focusing on the future means you’ll constantly be catching up to yourself- constantly making teh same mistakes. You can’t learn from something you aren’t willing to face up to, and a big part of the learning curve at StartupYard is in gaining the willingness not to make excuses.

One of our founders came to me this week, having made a realization about his priorities in this regard, and said: “I feel like I have to learn to become a different kind of person now.” In a sense, he does. He has to hang onto the tenacious effort and skill that got him this far, but he also has to accept his limitations, and be ready to fail at new things.

Programmers are possessive of their work and of their ideas. Putting them out in the world, testing them, and seeing what people think about them, means giving up ownership, and giving up control. If I let someone see my work, I don’t own it anymore- I can’t control what they think about it. That can be a terrifying feeling.

Wisdom

So far, I suppose I’ve made the StartupYard experience sound pretty negative. Well there are tough moments for all of us. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

The only way to become wise, is to fail. To push past frustration and ego, you have to accept failures and learn from them, rather than dooming yourself to repeat them again and again. Often when I am recruiting applicants for StartupYard, I tell them this: “an accelerator speeds up failure, and gives you a place where failing is acceptable, and profitable.”

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So in that light, as our startups are just beginning to practice their pitches and prepare for their premieres at Demo Day, I like to see the final phase of StartupYard as the most constructive. Having exposed themselves to a great deal of criticism, advice, and probing explorations of their motivations and their abilities to deliver on their claims and their visions, the startup founders are now much wiser than when they started.

Questions and doubts don’t bother them. Criticisms are expected and welcomed. in two short months, they’ve found every way to fail, and are ready to succeed.

Joy

I used to teach high school English. I loved the work, but I mostly hated the job. Schools were underfunded, and overcrowded. Teachers got little respect, and even less pay. Much of the job is demoralizing, and the hours are long, and often boringly repetitive. You experience the same problems over and over, and have little power to effect change.

However, there were moments I had as a teacher which I will remember for the rest of my life. A student, some years after being in one of my classes, ran into me in the street, a fully grown adult, and stopped me to tell me that I had changed his life. That he had decided to study English, and he had gotten involved in local politics, and that my lessons had changed his worldview, and given him hope for his future. I was blown away. That’s something teachers live for, and rarely get.

Well, not exactly.

Well, not exactly.

With startups, it’s much the same. The hours are long, the pay is not good (or non-existent), and founders often have to question whether they’ve been wasting sometimes years of their lives. They’re sometimes seen by their friends and family as dreamers, or unrealistic. They’re constantly being doubted and tested by others. And then something can happen: the first paying customer, the first happy testimonial from a user, the first really killer pitch, and an investment offer. This happens every year with StartupYard, and it’s magic.

The joy of having created something, and having gotten that thrill of seeing it succeed in some way; change someone’s life or even just make their day better, is unparalleled. That’s not a feeling you’re likely to get in your typical day job, because there, our accomplishments are never really our own- we are just doing our part.

As a startup founder, you’re insisting that there’s a new way of doing things: a new model that works more. Seeing that validated, for real, is a unique experience, and one I love to witness.

 

 

Introducing the 2015 Startups: Shoptsie: E-Commerce and Marketing For the Rest of Us

Mathé Zsolt-László and Ordog Zoltan, Co-Founders of the online store creator Shoptsie, are two entrepreneurs that the StartupYard team truly admires. Coming from a Hungarian community in Romania, Zsolt and Zoltan rode a bus for 24 hours to make it to their first meetings with StartupYard mentors and stakeholders. Then, to our amazement, they got back on the bus and rode 24 hours home as well.

From our first meeting, we’ve noted their incredible dedication to the Shoptsie mission, and their ability, time and again, to deliver on the promises they make to us, and to themselves. We’ve been impressed, and we’re sure you will be too. I caught up with the duo to talk about Shoptsie, and their time so far at StartupYard.

Shoptsie currently has over 6000 products listed in over 1000 online shops, and that number is growing daily.

Shoptsie-logo

Hi guys! You’re unique among all StartupYard startups. You’re not our first team from Romania, but you are our first team of Hungarians. Tell us a bit about yourselves, and where you come from.

Zsolt: Originally I’m from the smallest city in Romania, in Transylvania, called Baile Tusnad and recently moved to Miercurea Ciuc. I crafted websites for more than 15 years and also I worked 8 years as a database engineer for the government. Now with the launch of Shoptsie this will change. As CEO I will concentrate on running the company, managing the day-to-day operations.

Zoltan: I was born in Miercurea Ciuc and I live there too. After I’ve finished the college I worked in a printing house, then I started to create websites as a webdesigner. After 10 years and numerous websites I joined to Zsolt to work on Shoptsie.

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Co-Founders of Shoptsie: Ordog Zoltan, and Mathé Zsolt-László

Tell us about Shoptsie. Who is it for, how does it work?

Zsolt: Shopstie is an intuitive online store creator for creative people who don’t know how to sell online. It’s very easy and simple. With Shoptsie anyone can create an ecommerce website that can be integrated into Facebook Pages and existing websites or blogs without any coding skills.

After a quick registration you can upload your categories and products, choose a beautifully designed template that can be customized to match with your brand look and feel.

Shoptsie also provides a set of marketing applications with which the store owners can reach more customers. We also created a knowledge base blog where the store owners can learn how to create an email campaign and how to advertise on social media.

shoptsie

Q: How is Shoptsie different from other store creators like Shopify, or marketplaces like Etsy?

Zsolt: Out motto is “We grow with you”.

Unlike any other pay-as-you-go services like Shopify, Shoptsie gives beginners a risk-free entry into online sales.

This means that you can list up to 20 products for free in your Shoptsie store, and sell them at no upfront cost. We don’t make money until you do.

Another differentiator is that we can teach you where and how to advertise to start making sales online. Marketplaces like Etsy are good solutions for selling, we don’t say that people should leave them, but there is a big chance that your product will be listed next to your competitors’ products.

Stores on marketplaces look the same, all you can do is maybe upload a banner. With Shoptsie you can have your own professional e-shop which you can personalize to match your personality, your brand’s look and feel.

Also, when you are advertising your marketplace store, you’re also advertising the marketplace at the same time. Why don’t you spend your money on advertising your own brand?

Q: How can your users advertise their goods, and where can they sell them? Do they need their own websites first?

Zoltan: They can use their social network, without having  their own websites. That’s a key area of growth for small scale businesses selling online. Shoptsie offers an app that helps these sellers find Facebook Groups with similar interests, and another app with which they can create a Contest to collect emails. Another – quite popular – app is the Facebook App that let our users embed their stores directly in their own Facebook page.

This is part of what makes our approach unique: we aim to provide all the tools a seller needs to market and sell their goods online, so Shoptsie is more than just a place where people can find your goods – it’s also a tool that gives you comprehensive and easy access to marketing tools, and shows you how to use them.

Have your users been able to make those tools work for them?

Yes, and I have a great recent example. A few weeks ago we noticed a spike in one store’s statistics. We saw a huge number of visitors from one day to another that we did not expect. It turned out that one of our store owners started a really successful contest on Facebook. He grew the number of visitors by 200% using our tools.

He’d decided to promote one of his products by making it free for a whole week. Then he held a raffle for anyone who shared the link and liked his Facebook store page. This simple trick was enough to drive and increase the traffic to his online store, and his sales increased as well.

Because he was offering a free product (charging only for shipping), he was able to make a lot of sales quickly.

People started to order this product, but some of them added another product (that wasn’t free) to the cart. So the next day there was a big list of orders waiting for delivery.

Now that he has contact information for his clients, he can create email campaigns about new products, promotions and other contests.

So, by giving away one product and sharing this on his Facebook page, in two weeks he managed to increase his sales by more than 80% and collected a big number of email addresses.

That approach is also showing results when it comes to our own growth. Because we focus on helping our sellers market their shops and goods, we’ve seen user-generated sales campaigns that have also increased awareness of Shoptsie. The more quality shops and sellers Shoptsie has, the more we are able to reach first-timers who have never really considered selling online before. When they see how easy it is for others to do it, and that our approach is risk-free, they’re much more likely to try it for themselves.

Screenshot 2015-05-05 16.51.04What types of sellers are you focusing on at first, and why?

Zsolt: We are focusing on handcrafters and fashion designers. At the first we wanted to give a solutions for everybody but we saw that most of our customers came from the crafting and fashion industries, so we are focusing on creating the perfect ecommerce solutions for them.

In the future, as we implement support for digital products, we want to reach creative artists, designers and creative writers as well.

Our near-term goal is to attract as many high-quality, active shop owners as we can. We grow with our user base, so their success is our success. We think this is a model in which everyone wins, from the consumer, to the seller, to crafters who have never tried ecommerce before.

Will you focus on specific geographic markets when you launch?

Zoltan: Yes. Because we speak the languages and we know the region, first we want to focus on the Hungarian and Romanian markets. As the number of our clients from UK and South  Africa is also increasing, we want to focus on those markets also.

Q: How has your vision for Shoptsie changed in the past few months? 

Zoltan: Two months ago we had a picture in our minds about how we wanted to develop Shoptsie further, so we thought. But at StartupYard, that picture was slowly replaced by a more concrete reality. The plans we make now feel much more real- much more solid. 

We are grateful that we can be here. This is a big opportunity for us to learn and to meet mentors who can answer our questions, and shorten the feedback cycle, so that we don’t repeat or fail to notice the mistakes we make. 

We were encouraged by mentors like Liva Judic and Wallace Green to continue what we started and keep our users’ needs in mind. 

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges you face in getting people to adopt your solutions?

Zsolt:  It’s an interesting question. We see fear of the unknown as our biggest challenge. People are afraid to start selling online. They are good at what they do, crafting or designing, and they think that creating an e-shop is rocket science.

Well it’s not. Shoptsie provides them with everything they will need to create, promote, and run their online store, easily and without any coding skills.

Shoptsie is now live. Create your own Store Here. 

Introducing the StartupYard 2015 Startups: Myia: Making Wifi Accessible Everywhere

The Myia team joined StartupYard with not much more than a great idea, and the will to make it happen. Since they’ve been at the accelerator, it’s been a pleasure to see that idea grow into something truly unique and interesting.

Originally designed as a hyper-local messaging app, Myia has evolved into a concept with truly global potential.

It will be a platform that brings Wi-Fi as a common utility to a completely new level. Users around the world, at conferences, hotels, or other public spaces like shopping centers, will be able to access locally relevant services, information and communication channels, seamlessly and instantly with Myia.

Myia will also help Wi-Fi providers offer new services to their customers and visitors. 

This is an idea who’s time has truly come, and Myia wants to be the company that finally delivers on the promise of easily accessible Wi-Fi, anywhere you go.

I’ll let Ondrej Cervinka, CEO of Myia, tell you more:

Myia-Cervinka

Ondrej Cervinka, Ceo of Myia

 

Hi Ondrej, First off, I’m sure people are curious about your company’s name. What’s the backstory there?

Oh, it’s a long story but I enjoy telling it. Originally, the name was Xin, which is a Chinese word with many different meanings depending on the pronunciation – sign, letter, heart, mind, feeling, soul, intelligence, new, fresh, true, real.

It was perfect name for the messenger functions we had at that time. We built Myia originally as a Wifi based local messaging app. However, we received some negative feedback from American users about the name- it was hard to say, and seemed too foreign for some. So we were looking for another name.

One day we were discussing the name with a great StartupYard mentor, Liva Judic, and we thought: “Wait a minute, Liva is actually a nice name”. Unfortunately, Liva has been registered as a trademark so we couldn’t use it.

But we already liked the idea of having a feminine name, so we ended up with Myia. I like the name very much. Myia was a Greek philosopher and one of the daughters of Pythagoras. I like math, numbers and philosophy. So it is kind of attractive to me. Actually, it is pronounced as “mee ya”.

Unlike most of the other startups in StartupYard 2015, Myia came into the program with something very different from the new core product. What motivated you to join the accelerator?

A: At the beginning of 2015 we had a mobile app in all 3 app stores. It was simply a messenger that allowed users to send messages to anybody connected to the same Wi-Fi.

It was actually an outcome of a Microsoft Windows Phone hackathon organized at the Prague Impact Hub, where our company, WujiGrid, has offices. We had promising user responses and a lot of ideas for other features to add and how to improve the technology.

At that time StartupYard had just opened applications for its 5th batch of startups. We immediately jumped on the opportunity. Our goal was to use the mentors provided by the StartupYard program.

We wanted to consult with them on our business ideas and build a viable business model for Myia. We were also prepared to hear that there was no real business in Myia, and that we should keep it just as a toy app and do something else.

So the reason to join the accelerator was to get help with the areas where we did not feel very strong – business modeling, sales, and marketing. After one month in StartupYard we can say it was definitely a good decision.

How has your vision for Myia evolved over the past few months?

Our first goal was to narrow the possibilities for Myia down to one or just a few. It’s funny, but each day with mentors brought new ideas, new areas where Myia can be useful and new use cases. So at the beginning, the options didn’t get narrower, but wider.

We evolved the vision of Myia into an app that has two faces: First, people who install the app on their smartphones and second, providers of Wi-Fi, the owners of the hotspots. These two groups depend on each other.

The Myia Platform

The Myia Platform

For consumers, Myia is an app that provides a valuable functions and features depending on the type of place – restaurant, bar, café, concert, hotel, shopping mall, conference, airport, etc. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous technology today.

With Myia, you can meet new people, find a pool player in a pub, learn what is hot and cool in this place, get discount coupon or a voucher, rate presenters, vote for the best gig on the stage, contact hotel front desk, you name it. It is useful, it is fun, and it is relevant to the place where you are now.

Myia is also for the businesses who offer free Wi-Fi for their customers and who are looking for ways how to provide more added-value to them. It provides them a unique communication channel to their customers.

They can learn opinions of their guests and collect feedback. They can announce new shops in a mall, happy hours in a bar, send special offers. It is easy to postpone start of the first presentation after lunch on a conference, collect questions and rate the presentation. We can build loyalty programs for different businesses.

What has been the biggest challenge in adjusting your early vision to incorporate so much feedback from the StartupYard mentors?

A: As I said, we got a lot of feedback, ideas, opinions and advice from the mentors. Quite often they were even contradictory, which is great because we got wholly different perspectives.

We see it from many different angles now. So many different ideas are of course difficult to sort out. We cannot do everything together but we do not want to spend next 6 month on something that just to find out it’s a dead end.

Certain use cases work well only after there is certain percentage of people who use Myia. Of course, they will use it only if it brings them some value. So there is a classic chicken-or-egg problem here. After somebody installs the app they want to find many places where they can use it. So you have to start with something where people go often.

At the same time, Myia must bring a compelling value proposition both to the owner as well as to the end user. And we try to make it as viral as possible.

We are still working on this – trying to come out with different value propositions for various areas, test them with businesses, evaluate, and find overlaps with other areas. I see it as an organism. If everything fits together it starts to grow.

Tell us a bit about your background, and that of your team.

A: I am a programmer by profession. I studied artificial intelligence at CTU and then worked on various AI projects in Rockwell research center here in Prague. Then I joined a Swiss software house named IPS in 2000.

I met my Myia cofounders Filip and Michael there. Actually, Michael was one of my computer science students when I did my PhD, and Filip was the first candidate that I interviewed in my life.

Myia Team

The Myia Team

 

At the end I was director of the IPS Prague branch and Filip was software architect in IPS. Then in 2010 we decided to found a startup called WujiGrid. It is a real-time collaboration app. It is kind of a shared desktop but it is in the cloud and it belongs to everyone in the collaboration group. And now we are with Myia.

So we have worked together for 15 years! All three of us are software engineers, so we might be weaker in sales and marketing. But very strong point is mutual trust. It is great if you know we can rely on each other in difficult times.

Q: Who will be your earliest clients? How will Myia make its first dollar on the market?

A: We’re working with businesses to pilot the service in different areas. StartupYard has helped us with their contacts and we are also doing very interesting things with Impact Hub Prague, which is our home turf.

We participate in Hub events and do networking games where Myia helps you to meet people that you are looking for. We really appreciate this cooperation.

Our plan is that the service will be free for the early adopters. This way we can spread the service as fast as possible because the more people use Myia the more useful it is for everyone. It will also help us to define exactly what value our users see in the service.

I think we will make the first dollar on some customization or implementation of specific functionalities for a large business. On top of that, we hope that the module for events will be the first paid service.

Q: Where do you see Myia as a business in 2-3 years? What do you see as some promising use cases and unexplored markets for the technology?

A: Ok, it’s going to be interesting to read this answer in 2-3 years from now, right? Long term, even with WujiGrid, we are interested in interaction between people, communication, collaboration, combining their skills and talents. We see Myia as a communication accelerator.

It puts together people who are at the same place at the same time. They meet with the help of Myia but then they interact in a real, natural way. Today everybody talks about social networks. Myia creates a network that is tightly linked to the real physical world.

Every day we meet a lot of people we do not know by name. Sometimes we meet them regularly, like on a bus when you go to work in the morning.

Imagine you lost your wallet in a foreign city where you are on a business trip. What do you do? Now Myia can tell you “Hey, there is a guy who takes the same bus as you every morning in your hotel, do you want to ping him?” He might help you, right?

Or your flight is delayed by 3 hours, you sit in the airport having nothing to do but wait and Myia beeps: “There is somebody waiting in the next gate who visited the same concert of Groove Planet you just attended last night.” Suddenly, you have a beer with them and enjoy the time.

Or business-wise, an airport shop can suggest there is new Groove Planet CD available. Ok, there will be no CD shops in 2-3 years, but this is the idea. From the technology point of view big data, machine learning, mathematical modelling, etc. this will be our way forward.

Q: This is a crowded market- some players in public Wi-Fi access include T-Mobile and Skype, as well as Google. What makes Myia special in your view?

This is difficult question. Myia relies on existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, so we see T-Mobile as a partner, the same is with Skype Wi-Fi. If a business place provides a Wi-Fi hotspot with any of the existing providers, Myia is able to bring some new monetization opportunities for the business owner.

Google relies on advertising, which is not what we plan to do. But I do not want to rule out your question based on just these examples. There may be some players in the market already, but this does not mean there is no space for more innovative players.

In fact, I think the fact that there remains no single preferred solution for wifi shows that the market is not fully mature yet- and there are a lot of opportunities to find new efficiencies.

The demand for public WiFi continues to grow, and as it does, the opportunities to add value in that market also multiply- we don’t see “competition” in that sense to be a bad thing at all. The more players in the market, the more customers will be aware of new possibilities, and have an opportunity to choose Myia for the value it adds.

 

 

Meet the 2015 Startups: Trendlucid: Mapping E-Commerce and Predicting the Future

The StartupYard team has liked Jaromir Dvoracek and Jan Mayer, co-founders of Trendlucid, since the day we all met. Infectiously energetic and passionate about their ideas, the Trendlucid team have also impressed our mentors with their vision for automating e-commerce business intelligence in the near future.

With their roots in data consultancy, Jan and Jaromir have branched out to develop their considerable combined experience by turning it into a tool for e-commerce, that they say will be able to predict the best sellers in any product category, up to two weeks before they reach number one.

I’ll let them tell you about all that, and more, below:

trendlucid

Most of our Startup co-founders are close, but you two often seem like twins. How did you start working together, and form Trendlucid? 

 

Trendlucid-Jaro

Jaromir Dvoracek: Co-Founder of TrendLucid

Jaromir:  We worked at the same company for a few years but actually never side by side every day. We’re trying it with the TrendLucid for the first time. And we’re twins definitely, but we’re quite different from each other, too.

TrendLucid lies on the top of our previous work of gathering and selling data for e-commerce price intelligence. It’s a logical next step in solving problems for e-shops. And Jan took this opportunity and crafted it into a side project, which became our main business opportunity.

TrendLucid: Honza

Jan “Honza” Mayer, Co-Founder and CEO at TrendLucid

Jan: I don’t agree! Twins often look and behave more similarly. Our strength is that we are completely different. I keep track of things and focus on value, Jaromir on the other hand adds sparkle to the ideas and creates the buzz.

In a few words, what is Trendlucid, and what does it do?

Jaromir: TrendLucid is a visual representation of the market giving you actionable insights about the product.

Suppose you’re a purchaser for an e-commerce site, and you need to know what to stock; what will be hot in the next few weeks. With Trendlucid, you can see a snapshot of all the products from a particular category (like smartwatches, or tvs, or washing machines), across the whole market at once. This includes pricing from other e-shops, and review information from as many sources as are available.

You’ll be able to quickly see how you can position yourself against competition in terms of price, but more importantly, which of the items on the market are actually reviewing really well, and being talked about most.

If there’s a winner with some room for a good profit margin, you can see that opportunity instantly. So if you’re using Trendlucid, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re offering the best prices, on the best products available.

What experience in data and e-commerce do you have that informs your work on Trendlucid?

Jan and Jaromir at a StartupYard workshop with our director Cedric Maloux

Jan and Jaromir at a StartupYard workshop with our director Cedric Maloux

Jaromir: We started 5 years ago as a consultancy for retailers of consumer electronics, as they need to know the prices of distributors. So we monitored the distributors for their prices and stock counts.

We continued as an e-shop scraping platform – clients sent us the products and we returned the list enriched with prices from competitors.

Today, we’re making that ability to view the market as a single map available as an on-demand tool, with even more market insights included in the graph that we are able to generate.

We’ve made the market something that retailers can explore, rather than something we have to investigate for them individually.

Jan: We had started with mining social media platforms, discussion and forum mentions from the whole Czech internet, and we’d sell that information to partners like Socialbakers.

One day a very “lucid” idea came to us – Why don’t we merge these two data sets to see not only what products people talk about, but what they eventually buy, and how that data correlates?

And the results were pretty interesting. We confirmed that the number of mentions and ratings strongly correlates with total sales of any given product. Moreover, we were able to use our market intelligence tools to determine that a lot of e-shops don’t have enough interesting products in their portfolios. Worse- they don’t know they have a problem!

What can you do that an e-shop or e-commerce company can’t do on its own?

Jan: We actually solve one of the biggest problems for e-shops: having the right products at the right time. If you stock a product that people won’t buy at the price point you anticipate, it’ll cost you a fortune to move the products- you’ll have to cut prices to move the stock, and that eats into your margins. On the other hand, if you can stock products that aren’t popular yet, but will be popular in a few weeks, you’ll be ahead of your competitors. You won’t have to cut your prices to get rid of stock no one wants to buy.

Jaromir: Every successful e-commerce works intensively with data nowadays. TrendLucid enriches and validates internal data from e-shops so purchasing managers and marketers can see if they’re behind the market. Every e-shop has internal data about sales. But they don’t have comprehensive overviews of market data. And that’s what we are fixing. Our vision of TrendLucid is to fully understand what people want to buy and automate purchasing management based on this information.

TrendlucidScreen1

Trendlucid provides a market overview for specific product categories, showing the popularity and prices of products on each market. Users can zoom in to examine specific products and see a market overview for each one.

 

Through the mentoring process, you got a lot of conflicting advice- lots of big ideas. How did you get to your current vision?

Jaromir: Surprisingly we’ve received only two big contradicting pieces of advices so far. And it was “go big very quickly with a huge investment” vs. “your conservative approach to grow the business makes sense”. Our vision has been refined after hundreds of questions from our mentors at StartupYard. But business strategy was a much more oft-discussed topic.

Jan: We started with very simple idea: “Let’s show to e-shops what products they miss”. But they were so excited they wanted to know more. While we could show them very detailed and clear overviews of the current market, what they really wanted to see was the future- what will sell best 2 weeks from now? That’s a harder questions. We knew that the future of a product and the phase of it’s lifecycle can also be revealed in data, but the mentoring process really helped us to see that those insights were where the real value was for us, as a business.

We thought initially that the most important users of our engine would be purchasing managers for eshops. But one of our mentors, Wallace Green, who has a lot of experience with marketing, showed us the necessity of data to e-commerce marketing. He introduced us to the concept of the “smart marketer” who makes his decisions based on data, not on instinct.

This helped us to see that TrendLucid could also have a future as an insight tool for marketers, as well. As marketing becomes more data focused, there is an ever-increasing need for more granular and precise data on what people are talking about, and how that correlates with their buying decisions.

What will be your initial approach to the market? How will you make your first dollar? Where will you launch the service first?

Screen2-Trendlucid

Trendlucid also provides in-depth pricing data on specific products across a whole market.

 

Jaromir: We’ve already made our first dollar! We’ve been selling e-commerce data for 5 years now. So in a sense, TrendLucid is simply evolving into something more visible on the market- less a consultancy, and more a product for marketers and e-shop owners. We’ve taken our internal tools for visualizing the market, and made that available to more potential clients to try for themselves.

Jan: As part of making TrendLucid more of a “product,” than just a data consultancy, we contacted czech e-shops and offered to them trials of TrendLucid’s new market mapping software for a month in exchange for their valuable feedback. It’s working nicely so far. We want to follow Dan Hastík’s strategy, which he used with Futurelytics – integration with big e-commerce platforms (like Shopify).

Variations in price can be quite wide on higher margin items.

Variations in price can be quite wide on higher margin items.

We also found out that TrendLucid has many valuable metrics for manufacturers. They can measure brand awareness in many ways already. But they’ve not yet been able to measure product awareness for all their products on each market. That’s a game changer. With TrendLucid, they finally can.

Electronics, particularly online, are a generally low-margin business. What makes electronics e-commerce interesting for Trendlucid?

Jan: Social media has become important to understanding how consumers behave, and important in selling to them. And personal electronics have enabled and accelerated this trend as well. Electronics have become an element of personal fashion.

People want to buy a new smartphone every few months now – like new socks. We’ll see that even more with the rise of wearables in the near future. So consequently people talk a lot about electronics on social media and elsewhere. And that makes our insights into the market even more granular and valuable.

Whereas 30 years ago, consumer electronics was divided into just a few categories: personal, appliance, entertainment, they now represent a huge diversity of categories, with more choice than ever before. So purchasing decisions for e-shops become increasingly more difficult, even as margins are dropping.

This market segment has low margins and the fights for market share are pretty bloody. But at the same time, many e-shops miss out on big winners all the time. That’s actually why e-shops need TrendLucid to get ahead.

Jaromir: It’s hard to monitor this market manually. You can’t store all the information you need about phones, tablets and notebooks in your head, much less predict what features and individual products will be most popular. You can watch manually what is popular on the market and what you should try to sell. But no one person can have a complete handle on this market anymore.

It might be easy to pick the next big winner, if you’re comparing two or three competing products. But try it with thousands of washing machines, microwaves and televisions which are not so interesting for most purchasing officers. Try it with the ever-expanding list of wearables that are entering the market- all targeting a different market segment.

The problem with electronics is that the products change so fast. You can predict which type of socks will be popular for a sustained period, because our needs don’t change that fast. But electronics don’t follow these old patterns anymore. Now our needs change too fast for any individual to keep up.

That’s what our first client in Czech Republic found out: we  automatically identified the next best selling washing machine 14 days before it happened. Most of the e-shops stock best sellers 6 weeks after they’re already popular. That’s 8 weeks of margins they’re missing because they aren’t using TrendLucid.

What do you see the Trendlucid platform being capable of in a few years? Who will be your customers at that point?

Jaromir: We’ll be able to see trends worldwide. What’s popular on the American market today will be popular in central Europe 4 years later. What’s popular in Germany today will be popular in Slovakia 2 years later. What’s popular in South Korea now will be popular in the US a few months later. With TrendLucid you’ll be able to look back in time to see what you can sell successfully next month. You can prepare for changing market trends based on statistics. You’ll never miss the train again. This kind of information would be critical for big e-commerces, brands even for big retail players. We haven’t gotten to the level of understanding and complexity we need to be able to make those types of global, multi-year projections with real accuracy and speed. Nobody is really there yet, even if they claim to be. But that’s where we want to be.

Jan: Yep, that’s our first target. The second target is brands. We can tell LG, or Samsung, or any big brand with lots of products, which of their products people are talking about, in which countries- and what they’re saying. They’re working on “brand awareness” now. We can give them “product awareness”, which is one level more precise.

Right now we’re like Klout for products on the Czech Market. We’d like to apply that capability globally in the future.