Shareholder, Claimair, StartupYard, Central Europe, Accelerator

How to Write an Outstanding Shareholder Update

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

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

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

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

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

Visit ClaimAir and See How Easy it Is. 

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

 

Dear Lloyd,

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

And you know what?

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

And then, hard times began.

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

I felt desperate.

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

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

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

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

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

Businesses must generate profit

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

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

We started playing a tougher game with airlines.

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

 

Keep costs under control

Claimair, Shareholder, Startupyard

We’ve been increasing revenue while cutting costs significantly.

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

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

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

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

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

Claimair, Shareholder

It’s not easy to enter this market

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

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

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

We’re still raising funds

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

Next reading

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

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

Sincerely,
CEO – ClaimAir
Jakub Havej

What We love About this Shareholder Update:

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

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

Honesty Matters.

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

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

An exit is not a vision

5 Surprising B2C Growth Strategies Founders Rarely Try

I’m not a fan of so-called “growth guruism,” or a believer that so called “Growth Hacking,” is what separates successful startups from failures. Solving problems that matter, taking pains to understand your customers and your market deeply, and doing truly unique and challenging things set the best tech startups apart- not the tricks they use, but how they use them.

Still, a growth strategy doesn’t hurt. Netflix wouldn’t be Netflix if it didn’t have clever marketing back when it launched. But it might not be Netflix the global dominant SVOD platform if it hadn’t sent its early-days DVDs to customers by mail in bright, flashy red envelopes, making customers proud to evangelize a sexy new product.

Even absent a full-blown growth strategy, it often surprises me that more founders don’t do relatively simple things that can help them grow much faster, and fine tune their marketing and sales efforts much more quickly.

So that’s what this is, a list of simple growth ideas that most people don’t bother to try, but which may just work for you. As a bonus, I’ll be adding real world examples that you can study on your own more closely.

1. Tame Your Mavens

There are lots of ways to launch a B2C online product. There is no right way, but there are plenty of wrong ways.

Something pretty much every B2C company I’ve worked with has struggled at some point to gain traction for the launch of a new product. It gets a lot easier once you have a following and a track record with loyal customers, but your first product is like your first date. If it starts off badly, things usually don’t get very far.

Bad Version: The “I Hope This Works” Strategy

To ensure your launch will get the traction they need, many startups will “soft-launch” – an intermediate step between a beta version and a market-ready product. A soft-launch may be just a stealth launch with no marketing attached to it. That relies on friends and your personal networks to begin creating buzz about the launch.

It might work, but then it might not. No way to know.

Better Version: The “Connoisseur” Strategy

growth strategy

You can and should think about putting a bit more punch into a soft-launch pitch. Instead of just meekly offering your product, and seeing what happens, identify and close a group of customers who will be ready to use it from Day 1.

Use your customer personas (I hope you’ve done them), to identify a group of people who are in your key demographic, and are influencers in your market, and among your customers. What does an influencer look like? Somebody with a strong social media presence, plenty of mentions in news articles, or a following for a product of their own.

This group is what marketers call the “Mavens.” They are the ones whose social capital is invested in spotting new trends and talking about them. They’re the self appointed taste-makers, and you need them to like you.

Once you have a list, do whatever you can to get these mavens onboard with your launch. Give them free stuff, promise them visibility, praise their god-like skills of discernment. Whatever you have to do to be their best friends, do that.

Ever wonder how those startups with cool ideas end up in the gadget section of the New York Times, or the front page of Wired? That’s a process that starts long before the launch. In fact the launch depends on that process succeeding. Startups with a great PR strategy pre-launch will time their launch around the PR, not the other way around.

Real World Examples:

Netflix targeted avid film buffs on early-internet chatrooms and indy film reviewers in the 1990s before launching their DVD delivery service.

IndieGogo and other crowdfunding platforms turned this strategy into their core businesses: getting product enthusiasts to pledge purchases and hype products in exchange for special access and perks.

2. Be Controversial, Asshole

Growth Strategies

Startup founders can spend a lot of time (maybe too much time) studying the every move of a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. We all learn that you need to act successful in order to be successful.

That’s fine and good, but don’t be fooled: you are not successful yet. Why do we talk about these people now? Because of how diplomatic and strategically minded they are? I think not. The things those entrepreneurs had to do to grow their reputations and businesses would look much different to us if they did and said the same things now.

I’m not telling you to be an asshole. There are plenty of very successful entrepreneurs who aren’t. But I am saying to speak your mind when you can, because later, you won’t get that chance. Consider Mark Zuckerberg ranting in the Harvard Crimson that he was smarter than the entire IT department of the university in 2003. Consider Steve Jobs frankly insulting his future boss John Scully by calling him a sugar-water salesman.

Or just consider any successful entrepreneur who made people question what they really believed about how things should work. Feelings get hurt in that process, and a small company looking for an edge can’t afford to worry too much about hurting people’s feelings, particularly people a lot more powerful than they are.

Real World Examples:

Bitcoin was launched by the anonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto” in 2009 via a controversial white-paper. Regarded by some as revolutionary and prescient, and seen by others as problematic in its economic theories, the paper continues to enforce the Nakamoto brand even years after its author receded into silence.

Google began its campaign to expand beyond its beginnings as a search engine and launch Gmail. The company adopted the motto “Don’t Be Evil,” which at the time was interpreted as a hard swipe at competitors (like Microsoft and Yahoo) that Google was positioning itself against as a new Big Tech player.

3. Have a Gimmick

There are a few kinds of gimmicks. There are physical gimmicks, like a piece of swag or a clever trinket related to the product, and there are software gimmicks, which are a kind of game or a tool your target customers will like. Let’s take this premise in 2 parts.

  • The Physical Gimmick

A physical gimmick isn’t going to work for every company, because not everything lends itself to a physical hardware product. Then again, a lot of things really do.

growth strategy

Physical products, even very simple or decorative ones, offer an opportunity for your brand to reach customers in a new way. We are much more likely, as social creatures, to demonstrate new products we’ve brought to our friends and family if it has a physical component. This type of thing is sometimes referred to as “swag,” but a proper gimmick rises above the level of swag to become a part of the product experience.

Consider Google Cardboard – it’s a gimmick that advertises Google’s VR technology. Instead of a t-shirt or a coffee mug, customers get something that is contextual to the product itself. Because the product is also probably rare or unknown, it appeals to the human need for discovery and for “being first.”

How do you turn your product into a physical gimmick? There’s no one answer, but think about the ways in which your product is going to be used. What kind of physical tasks are involved? In what context will it be used? In the office? At home? On the toilet? In the car?

Not long ago one of our startups Beeem, the physical web company that helps retailers or venues broadcast webapps to nearby mobile devices, sent us a gift. They were standard sized “Business Cards,” enabled with Beeem’s beacon technology, that would broadcast a website where our LinkedIn profiles and emails would be accessible.

This is not really the business Beeem is in, but it’s a very clever growth idea. Now, whenever I talk about Beeem at a conference, I can whip out my business card and tell everyone how to get to my special, on-the-spot website from their mobile phones. It makes me seem geeky but cool, and it gets lots of people to try the service at once. Win, Win.

Real World Examples:

Revolut, the recently launched “post-banking” fintech company that offers virtual bank accounts and ultrafast and cheap currency conversion, used a very similar technique to the one I described above. They created blank credit cards, which they then distributed at events for free. Users could “claim” their card by opening an account on Revolut and putting some money on them. Which many, many people promptly did.

growth strategy

Amazon, when launching the Amazon Dash service (which allows customers to order specific items with one click), distributed small “Dash Buttons” to consumers to place in areas of their homes where certain products are used, such as laundry soap or food. Today Amazon has hundreds of these devices available to buy.

  • The Software Gimmick

The other avenue for gimmicks is in software, either in a browser or via an app. A great example of a classic gimmick is The Calculator. Such as this Mortgage Calculator from NYT.

A software gimmick is something related to your product in some way, but appeals to your customers on its own, helping you to instill your brand in their minds. There are a number of classic gimmicks:

The Calculator: a tool to help your customers solve a specific problem related to the product (like the price of insurance, or the cost of owning something versus renting it).

The Map: A way for your customer to explore content or learn something with a geographical context. Examples: Airbnb, Kiwi.com

The Puzzle: A game to get your customer thinking about the problems that your product solves for them. Also a way to spread the world about the product. Example: Google Doodles

The Quiz: A questionnaire that gives the customer a feeling of accomplishment (and works well to qualify a customer for follow-up). Examples: commonly used on Facebook

The Secret: This is in the form of an easter-egg or a “lifehack,” that helps your customer accomplish something few other people know about. Examples: In&Out Burger, famous in the US for their “secret menu,” which contains a large list of items that are only available upon request. Google has famously introduced hundreds of easter egg functionalities, which fans share and explore regularly. By the way, if you haven’t already: Do a Barrel Roll.

4. Make it Rain – (Money, That Is)

The quickest route between two points is a straight line. This is as true in finding customers as in anything else.

StartupYard, growth strategy

One of the straightest lines to a customer is the offer of something for nothing. Pay your customers to be your customers.

While it doesn’t work for every startup, it has been proven over and over to work for a great many of them. In a B2C company, even a SaaS company, the classic marketing strategies still work fine. There are a lot of ways of getting people in the door to have a look around.

If you’re old enough, you might remember some of the classic tactics. Sending a potential customer a discount coupon with a specific cash value (only to be used for a purchase with the retailer). Promising every customer a cash rebate for signing up.

The classic rebate deal was essentially a way of giving a customer something for free, while also getting them to commit cash to the endeavor. That’s a classic foot-in-the-door tactic. Many younger entrepreneurs today are less familiar with these old-school techniques because they went out of fashion with the age of online ads. However, they are making a comeback today.

For example, the phenomenon of “pre-purchases,” particularly of products that are not actually constrained by distribution logistics. Yet companies like Apple and Amazon have brought back the practice in a big way, tapping into the same emotional experience that send-away catalogues relied on for a century before they were abolished in favor of websites and apps.

Even supposedly “crowdfunded” products are increasingly really just products in pre-sale. The shift toward a primarily marketing role among leading crowdfunding platforms has been noted for years. With good reason: the tantalizing appeal of something one cannot have is harder and harder to find in today’s online consumer world. Waiting can be a joyful experience, and it can make the product feel special and noteworthy.

Real Life Examples:

Damejidlo, our 2012 alum and now the dominant food delivery platform in Czechia, bought users by offering every new customer about €10 worth of free food. You could get more credits by bringing friends to the platform as well.

Uber and many other ride-hailing apps have also famously paid for customers, offering a free ride to newly registered users. Airbnb has offered similar deals to new customers, as well as hosts.

5. Become a Public Personality

Easier said than done, but it’s still worth a try. Becoming a known public face for your industry, or for the greater problem your company is solving, can open up an ocean of free publicity for what you make.

At StartupYard, for example, we operate on a loose rule that we don’t attend tech conferences unless we are allowed to speak at the event, such as on a panel, or a workshop or keynote. Once at the event, we apply our experience as presenters and coaches to try and be the most memorable and interesting speaker there.

By being controversial, being informative, and being most importantly fresh with our perspective, Cedric Maloux and I are both often identified as standout presenters. People frequently talk to us after speeches, and more importantly, they tell their friends about us. Being out there in public isn’t for everybody, but if you’re doing something that takes advocacy and education for people to understand and value, then you need to be a leader, and speak out.

Growth strategies

Here are some things that can really help you transform yourself into a public personality:

Join Reddit channels in your industry, and follow topics on Quora. Take the time to build your reputation as an expert in the field you engage with. This takes time, but it also keeps you informed about what interests people, what’s being talked about, and what most people are missing in the conversation.

Join Competitions (with a goal). Pitching competitions, speaking competitions, even pub quizzes are going to help you build your confidence and assert yourself in front of strangers. Make yourself a goal of first attending a minimum number of competitions every month. When you get better at pitching or speaking, aim to win all the competitions you enter. Approach them as a game, not an opportunity, and try to win. If you win, opportunities will come to you.

Get speaking gigs. This means volunteer yourself to talk in front of groups of people. Be it technical, or business focused, government, corporate, or open source, get yourself on the list of speakers at relevant events and go out and talk about things you know matter. Be controversial. Be informative. And say something people haven’t heard before.

Get a speaking agent: If you’re highly skilled in your area of expertise, it’s quite possible there are people looking for speakers just like you, and even better, are willing to pay you to advertise yourself.

 

Our next post: How to Create a Killer Talk

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9.

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

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

Apply to StartupYard Accelerator, Prague

How to Apply to StartupYard in 1 Hour or Less

It’s amazing how difficult filling out forms and following instructions can be for startup founders. But why not? After all, startups aren’t supposed to follow the rules.

Still, this is one thing we strongly recommend applicants to any accelerator take the time to do properly. It only takes an hour or less to write an application that will place you within our top picks for an interview with the selection committee.

This is our strategy for finishing your application as soon as possible. But our application platform F6S, allows applicants to revise their applications continuously until the due date: January 31st, 2018.

Ready to Apply to StartupYard?

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

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

Apply to StartupYard in < 60 Minutes

 

Phase One: Data Entry (5-10 Minutes)

Pro Tip : Don’t go in Order! Go through the whole application and fill in the data answers first. This should be easy, and it will help you better answer the other questions.

For example: When did you start your company? How much revenue have you made? What is the total amount of cash invested?

Also use this time to fill in your team information. You’re building a picture of the company basics here, you’re not telling the story just yet.

Also provide any links or documentation requested at this stage. Now the annoying part of the application is totally out of the way, and you can focus on the good stuff: the long form answers.

Phase Two: Positioning Work (20-30 Minutes)

Pro tip : Do this in a separate text file!

Go to our post on Positioning for Startups, and read it first. After reading it (not before), use the template provided to fill in your positioning statement:


Product Positioning Statement:

(Our Product) is for (target customers):

Who (have the following problem):

Our product is a (describe the product or solution):

That provides (cite the breakthrough capability):

Unlike (reference competition):

Our product/solution (describe the key point of competitive differentiation):

 

To be extra nice, I’m going to give you a concrete example you can compare your statement with in terms of length, specificity, and scope.

“MyFamilyApp is for parents of young children, who can’t afford to hire a babysitter and take a night off every few weeks. MyFamilyApp is a social platform that allows parents to share responsibilities with other parents, and get some time off for themselves. Unlike a paid babysitter, MyFamilyApp is free to use, and is restricted only to verified parents who pass a strict background check.”

(Note: This is just a fictional example. We would likely not be interested in this kind of product, though a good positioning statement would force us to at least consider it).

Another pro tip: The Positioning Statement is not a marketing document. It is a clear description of what your company does, how, and for whom.

Phase 3 : Answering The “Hard” Questions (10 Minutes)

Now that you’ve done the positioning statement, the remaining questions are relatively easy. What problem do you solve? Who is your target customer? These have become clear thanks to your prep work.

Also take a few minutes to come up with your answers to the Q&A at the bottom of the application. The more you tell us, and the more questions you ask, the better we will know what you’re looking for, and will be able to answer your concerns.

Phase 4 : Self-Review (10 Minutes)

Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself before clicking “Submit.”

  • Would a Non-Expert in my field understand basically what I am doing?
  • Have I answered all the questions completely (not just part of the question)?
  • Are my answers also about the company, and not just an advertisement for the product?
  • Am I being really clear and honest about our current status, and not exaggerating or distorting the truth?
  • Is my spelling and grammar reasonably good? Do I write in complete sentences and  thoughts?
  • Do I sound like someone that would be good to work with?
  • Have I clearly shown why my project is a good fit for the accelerator? Have my answers shown that I am aware of how acceleration works?

And there it is: you’ve just shot to the top of our list with a great looking application. We look forward to seeing you in the next selection round.

Ready to Apply to StartupYard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can check out the video podcast here:

A Problem That Isn’t a Problem

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

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

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

I apply this mental checklist:

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

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

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

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

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

A Case Study: Steel Mountain

Steel Mountain

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

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

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

The “You Need Us” Problem

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

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

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

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?

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

  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?

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

  • Does the customer active search for other solutions?

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

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

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

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

Making the Problem a Real Problem

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

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

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

The problem they identified was this:

 

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

Bingo.

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

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

How does it do with the checklist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applying it Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Video: StartupYard Alumni Founders Tell Their Stories

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

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9.

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

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

 

Accelerator, StartupYard

Choosing an Accelerator: 11 Questions to Ask

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

To Accelerate or Not?

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

Accelerator, Startup, StartupYard,

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

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

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

So here they are:

1. Why Is the Accelerator Interested in My Startup?

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

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

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

2. Are You Convinced by My Pitch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Does the Accelerator Management Team Have A Stake?

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

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

5. Why Are Your Terms What They Are?

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

Accelerator, StartupYard

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

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

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

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

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

Accelerator, StartupYard

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

7. What Do You Expect from Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Does the Accelerator Pay The Mentors?

Accelerator, StartupYard

Hopefully the answer is “No.”

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

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

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

That should be enough.

10. What Entrepreneurial Experience Does the Management Team Have?

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

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

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

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

11. Do You Have Partnerships with Potential Customers?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Build a Killer Customer Persona that Works in 5 Minutes

This week I’m in Kiev, talking to early stage startups in one of eastern Europe’s most interesting emerging tech markets. I’m mentoring at SeedStars, a leading international tech entrepreneurship platform that connects people and ecosystems together.

Ukrainians have a deserved reputation for cleverness and skill as engineers, but as in any very mathematically inclined culture, tech entrepreneurs here often struggle with customer oriented thinking. Because in the last few decades, most of ukraine’s tech industry has been based on outsourcing, product design thinking has not been a priority.

But that’s changing. One thing I’ve noted in my sessions so far is that local entrepreneurs are globally minded, and key to learn new tricks and mindsets in order to achieve their goals. Give me hunger over raw ambition any day: it’s clear these young tech people are looking to grow and to be part of a better future.

The Killer 5 Minute Customer Profile

The truth is, in Central Europe I have less and less occasion to talk to techies about positioning and problem oriented thinking, because the culture has become used to the ideas StartupYard has been promoting for many years.

But today I’ve pulled out an old favorite I personally love to use: the 5 minute customer persona. It’s quick, it’s dirty, but it’s a great way of challenging your thinking about what your company is really selling.

Why do a customer persona?

Most founders are used to the idea that a startup “solves problems.” The trouble is that often the “problem” as they view it is essentially “our customers don’t have our product.”

Take the case of a recruiting platform I met today. The problem they were solving, according to them, was “recruiters don’t have a single platform where they can gather all their leads.”

Maybe that is a problem, but it functions more as a description of the product. I asked the founders a simple question: would your target customer google the phrase “single platform for gathering recruiting leads?” And if so, what would they actually find there?

The answer is a ton of different products. Agencies, software, content, forums. A problem this generic has no one answer.

Enter the 5 minute Persona

Instead of defining the problem, I ask the founders to do a simple paper exercise. I write down the job title of the customer at the top of a piece of paper, and on the left margin I create three sections: Goals, Frustrstions, Fears. It looks like this:

Head of Recruitment Persona

Goals:

Frustrations:

Fears:

Fill in each section (in order!) with 2-3 key points. If you aren’t sure, bracket the point. This helps show what you know and don’t know about the customer, and to get you thinking in their shoes. It’s important to phrase the points as they would be seen by the *person* behind the persona, not the company, or just the position.

The persona we built took five minutes, consisting only of me asking questions about the customer:

Head of recruitment

Goals:

  • Increase Deal Flow (fees)
  • Train subordinates well
  • Improve Pipeline value

Frustrations:

  • Turnover in the team
  • High customer expectations
  • Lack of deal flow

Fears:

  • Automation (bots, AI)
  • Conflicts of interest with clients
  • Competition (Cheaper? Faster?)

Pretty simple, but here’s the clever bit: I then ask the founder to state the problem by describing the fears of the customer, describe the solution as solving the frustrations mentioned, and then describe the outcome as the goals you’ve identified.

Eg:

Problem: Competition and automation threaten recruiters. They need better deal flow and fewer errors to stay ahead.

Solution: a platform that helps you train your team and manage your deal flow, meeting high customer expectations faster.

Outcome: higher fees, a better team, and more business.

This pitch has been transformed into a winner in just minutes.

By starting at the “outcome” or goals, and working down to fears, you get away from your biased views of what customers need or want. First empathizing with the customer, then identifying the benefits your product offers (frustrations), and only then getting to the motivation to buy (fears), we short-circuit our biases about what’s important about the product.

Do This Often

This tool is so easy, I often feel bad for founders who don’t know it. Often they think me as if I’ve revealed some incredible secret, but this isn’t hard to put into practice at all.

In fact, you ought to do it every time you think about a customer, an investor, or even a new hire. Practicing empathy helps us to gain insight into what we know, and shows us what information and experience we lack. And practicing empathy is not rocket science.

It starts with a 5 minute routine.

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for our next round.

We’re looking for startup founders in Automation, Blockchain, IoT, AI, AR/VR and Security, or anything else hard to do and globally scalable.

Get started applying to StartupYard.

Why Should VR-AR Startups Apply to Accelerators in 2018?

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

Are you a startup, or an entrepreneur with a great Deep Tech idea?
Applications are now open.

 

 

Why Should VR-AR Startups Apply to Accelerators in 2018?

VR/AR (Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality), have been around as concepts for a long time. What we might recognize as VR in its modern form dates back, surprisingly, to the 1950s, when the inventor Morton Heilig developed the “Sensorama,” a machine that combined stereoscopic images, binaural sound, and even smell into 5 short films.

 

Augmented Reality, or AR, has in fact found broader applications in the past few decades. It is common in military applications, and in aviation, where it is used to enhance HUD (Heads Up Displays) with flight data. Today, even some production cars include HUD displays as a safety and ergonomic feature.

 

 

Since the 50s, VR has periodically captured the public imagination — notably in the 1990s, when both Sega and Nintendo developed headsets (though Sega’s never reached the market). Even photorealistic 3d simulations were possible by the late 1990s — I tried one myself at the Kennedy Space center nearly 20 years ago. But despite the hype, VR has never taken the mass market by storm.

This post will dive into some of the reasons why not, and why now is probably different.

For the past few years, familiar signs of a resurgence in VR popularity have been growing. What has changed?

It seemed cool, but it was pretty awful.

Obviously something. StartupYard has received more inquiries from AR/VR and so called “mixed reality” startups during our current open call than in any previous year. In fact, I’ve personally met more VR startup founders in the past 6 months than I had in the past 4 years combined.

 

Why are VR/AR Startups Applying to StartupYard Now?

This year, we got an influx of applications from startups, all working on AR/VR technologies and applications. We shortlisted several, and eventually accelerated two: Mixed Reality Cloud, and Mindbox. In this post, I’m going to outline a few reasons why I think the AR/VR train is suddenly coming into the station in 2017.

As with any technology, there is not always a perfect correlation between being able to do something, and having a good reason to do it. As we will find in this piece, technologies tend to really explode only when both those conditions are fulfilled.

Thus, here are a few reasons AR/VR is a legitimately big deal for early stage startups in going into 2018:

 

1. The Smartphone Has Peaked

As Gizmodo noted over a year ago, the massive adoption of smartphone technology has peaked, and is now slowing down as consumers cycle more slowly through technologies that bring fewer noticeable improvements, at a lower rate over time. The release of the iPhone X, for all its technical achievements, underlined the basic premise: the smartphone concept has been fully articulated, and is now undergoing continual refinement.

Smartphones and tablets have ceased to double and redouble their abilities every year, and have begun to be refined into replacements for the traditional desktop computer for many consumers. Already, tablets and phablets have replaced home computers for many consumers. In business, the same trend will likely follow.

This has had a few consequences. First, the core benefits of a smartphone have more or less been fully realized. A typical smartphone can do almost anything you’d want it to do. There is no longer a huge demand for performance improvements, given that even a low-end phone can do so much. The market has become highly differentiated, and every niche has been filled.

Second, as smartphones have become ubiquitous, the businesses built on leveraging them have also achieved scale and begun to saturate the market. As room runs out for smartphone makers to stand out against competitors and justify their higher prices, new use cases must be found or invented. And VR, particularly recently, has been the beneficiary of that pressure.

And…

2. We’ve Hit Peak Mobile

Related but distinct is the peak of the “mobile revolution.” It may be hard to believe, but it was only in 2016 that mobile web browsing overtook desktop browsing for the first time. Today, a majority of human interaction with the internet is done using mobile devices.

Facebook, at the center of that revolution, has grown to over 2 billion active users, but its unprecedented growth of the late 2000s and early 2010s (which was around the time Facebook transformed itself into a mobile-first company) has slowed to a crawl. Not because people are using it less, but because it isrunning out of new people to add to the platform.

As a sign of how mature the mobile market has become, Facebook indicated in 2016 that it would soon run out of space to show people ads on their newsfeeds, prompting the company to begin delving into new experiences in which customers can see and interact with advertisers (such as messaging, and soon, VR).

The mobile revolution brought the age of apps from the Apple App store, Updates from Facebook, Google Maps and the Play Store, and mobile gaming. Mobile gaming alone became more profitable than traditional gaming in 2016.

Again, as with peak smartphone: peak mobile means that mobile software and content developers, along with advertisers, face higher competition and a more saturated market than ever before. Differentiation on mobile has become harder, and so they are actively seeking new media that can provide fertile ground for new content, and new marketing.

And…

3. We Still Need Immersive Experiences — and We Aren’t Getting Them

Gartner noted in their predictions for consumer digital technology in 2017, two very interesting trends. First, that the key upcoming innovations in mobile mostly have to do with AI, IoT (Internet of Things) and ubiquitous computing. Not with consumer applications, but with intelligence and data layers that enrich our lives without necessarily meaning we need to actively engage with them.

And this is backed up by recent hardware developments. Amazon is promoting home computing systems with no physical inputs at all. Apple has just announced the HomePod, which again, proposes to eliminate some use cases for smartphones and televisions, and free up our eyes for looking at, I suppose, other people. I have been told that is what people used to do.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Amazon Echo and other home audio devices are a new medium for advertising, but I’m sceptical of how important that will be in the future. In a technology landscape where more and more of our contact with computers and information is self-directed, and two-way, the nature of advertising and marketing will have to change as well. Perhaps in 5 years a display ad will be a dying relic, and new “marketing AIs” will instead engage directly with individuals to find products that best suit their needs.

At the same time, Gartner predicts that VR, not television, and not tablets or smartphones, will be the leading area of innovation for digital media. So as home computing trends toward becoming less obtrusive, and less all-consuming, at the same time, VR promises to offer a deeper content experience than any medium ever has before.

If smartphones and home computers are going to be less attention-consuming than ever, then where will content creators and marketers go? A good bet is that many will see AR/VR as fertile ground for development. What better medium than somewhere people choose to go to become totally absorbed?

3. People Aren’t Happy with the Status Quo

As smartphones and mobile-first applications have become the core of our experience of media in general, our experience of online content and storytelling has, in some ways, become less impactful. Everything is noise, and nothing is substantial- a feeling you’ve no doubt detected on your Facebook News Feed more than once. Technology has progressed, but it’s failed to deliver experiences people engage with ever more deeply. We may check our phones hundreds of times a day, but do we watch whole movies, read a whole magazine, or play through entire games? Not so much.

And in fact, consumers are not happy with these changes. The ASCI found in its most recent consumer studies, that consumer satisfaction with computer software, smartphones, and social media platforms declined overall in 2017, or failed to make any gains – breaking a decade long trend of increasing satisfaction in these areas.

So we’re getting sick of the status quo. VR can be seen as literally the antidote to checking a smartphone 150+ times a day: a medium that requires your full attention as no other digital media does. And that’s a super attractive prospect, not only to a content creator, but to an advertiser as well.

As the smartphone has evolved, it has at times tried to fill very contradictory roles. It wants to be, by turns, invisible, and very visible: innocuous, and attention getting. We’ve cycled rapidly between smartphones technologies that virtually disappear into the background (like smartwatches), and those that dominate our field of view, like phablets, and even mobile VR headsets. Very often the same companies, like Apple and Samsung, try to sell us both ideas at the same time.

But I am betting that the age of “in-between” experiences is not going to last forever. Ultimately, people want rich content experiences. People still go to cinemas, even though they can download thousands of titles on demand. People still read paper books, even though it rarely makes economic or practical sense anymore. I would bet that VR will join staples of media like the book and the cinema- a technology people use not for convenience, but for the value and depth of the experience.

And…

 

This is What Big Data Was Always Supposed to Do

StartupYard has been involved with data focused companies from the beginning. But for years, up until just very recently, one of the only ways of turning big data into a business was the same way people had been doing it for generations: selling it to somebody.

Of course, that generated many user-facing applications that enhance people’s lives and make things easier, but at the end of the value chain for most data, there is an advertiser waiting. Facebook, Amazon, and Google have built empires on that assumption, and Apple and Microsoft have made the infrastructure and devices that generate the data, and make it possible to distribute the resulting content, with ads embedded.

Data may still be “the new oil,” as it has become popular to say, but we must remember that as with oil, it took many years, and many fits and starts, to discover its ultimate potential.

Consider the evolution of oil in the modern world. First we burned it, and when that trick got old, we figured out ways of distilling it to make it burn even hotter. Then we figured out that you could use it to make things: chemicals, plastics, synthetic rubber, and other materials.

The innovation with oil wasn’t setting it on fire (we have known oil burns for thousands of years). The innovation was in making novel things out of the oil: fuel, but also tires and even whole cars, smartphones, microchips, and everything in between.

 

So if Data is the New Oil, then VR may be the new Plastic

VR promises at least one way in which big data will actually translate into novel products that ordinary people can use. Creating artificial environments, or enhancing existing environments with information and interactive elements takes a lot of data. As sensors and data processing platforms have grown in complexity and scale, we are approaching a point at which we can use that scale to be creatively free to make new things.

I have met recently with more than one startup who are counting on that very assumption: that now, unlike ever before, we have enough data about places, objects, physics, and people, to make artificial environments that will be fulfilling to use, and add detail to real environments that will be really useful.

I believe that a century from now, we will view VR as the child of big data — just as we now view the automobile as the child of big oil.

And…

 

VR Was Inevitable, But Not Always Obvious

There are some technologies that have been so easy to describe, that we’ve known we wanted them since long before they were possible. Powered flight, for example. For centuries, humans understood the benefits of flying, but still, we didn’t have the knowledge or skill to make flight a reality.

And yet other technologies are strangely elusive in that way. The telephone was patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, who, according to legend, was unable to sell the technology to Western Union for $100,000 because they thought it was a toy.

Despite what we know now about the transformative power of the telephone, it’s surprising to learn that despite the fact that transatlantic telegraph cables existed before the telephone was invented, the first transatlantic telephone call took place over 50 years later, in 1927. And that first phone call from England to the United States happened the same year as Lindberg’s first flight from New York to Paris, only 24 years after the first working airplane was built.

Airplanes were never underestimated, but it took a lot of imagination to picture the way the telephone would transform life as we knew it. Western Union had been right at the beginning: without a dense network of connections to make it truly useful, the telephone was only a novelty. You needed dense telephone networks on both sides of the Atlantic to make a transatlantic call economically viable. Yet when it became commercially viable, the benefits were so obvious that in another 25 years, there was a telephone in literally every house in the developed world.

So while international telephony was inevitable due to its technical advantages, it was not obvious, due to its network dependency.

VR is a lot like that. It’s been not much more than a toy for decades, because the network needed to support its most promising functions hasn’t really existed until recently. How do you generate content? How do you distribute it? These solutions have been long coming, but they have only just begun to make VR an obvious area of growth in the future.

And today, startups are seeing opportunities in the same way that businesses first began to realize the potential of the telephone decades after its invention. A network has been needed, and today, with a world full of smartphones, connected by social networks, and filled with content creators and eager marketers, that time has finally arrived for VR.

 

 

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

Are you a startup, or an entrepreneur with a great Deep Tech idea?
Applications are now open.

 

Startups Talk Press

How Should Startups Talk to the Press?

How should startups talk to the press? So you’ve launched your startup. Now the hard work starts. This week, we happily announced 7 new startups at StartupYard, and they all got a chance to meet the press. Over the past 2 days, numerous articles have appeared about them in the Czech press.

Here are the top hits for StartupYard in Google News (they are only a few of the articles published)- note the variety of headlines

How Smart Startups Talk to the Press: Be Prepared

So how did they do it? Despite the way movies make press conferences appear spontaneous and easy, they are actually carefully staged events. The press pitch, or the act of approaching the press with an idea for a story, is also a staged process.

Particularly when it comes to startups, it’s usually the founders who need to generate interest in the story. Journalists aren’t knocking down our doors, and few small companies get press they don’t earn.

Old fashioned preparation works today, just as it did 50 years ago. Take heart though: today, being prepared is easier than ever.

How to Prepare

We use a kind of refrain at StartupYard when it comes to press. It is: “make the press’s job as easy as possible.”

While no good journalist is lazy, all good journalists have too much to do. Making life easier doesn’t mean spoonfeeding them PR, but it does mean doing the boring stuff yourself.

A journalist has a reputation to protect (hopefully a good one). So you need to help them feel at ease. Certainly, if you don’t appear prepared, a journalist isn’t going to take a risk writing about you.

Here’s what you can prepare for a journalist before bugging them to write a story about you or what you are doing:

  • A Press Packet (PDF, Dropbox Folder, etc)
    • Photos of the team
    • Screenshots or shots of the product in use
    • Company one sheet, with Company history
    • Financial and user data if needed
    • Testimonials if you have them
    • Contact details and bio of team members
  • A Press Release with the Story
    • Properly formatted
    • Well written and objective (not a sales pitch)
  • The product: Website URL and credentials if needed to test a product
  • Pick the right target
    • Someone who has written about you or your industry.
    • Someone you have a personal/professional connection to
    • Someone whose writing you like
    • Someone at a publication that matters to your audience

It’s possible a journalist won’t need all this stuff to write about you. They might also write about something slightly different than what you pitched them.

Still, it’s helpful for the sake of your own clarity and confidence to have all these items ready to deploy. You never know when someone will ask for them. And if they do, it might be because they want to write about you.

Know Your Audience

Remember, you’re trying to get a journalist to write about you. So it pays to research exactly what that journalist is interested in, and what info they usually like to cover.

Some famous tech journalists have even published explicit guides on how to pitch them a story.

Mike Butcher is one example of this. While I find his approach a bit extreme, and also very much focused on tech-industry journalism, many of his points are universal. If you can’t answer every question he mentions, you might not be ready to talk to the press.

Solve a Problem for the Journalist

In that same infamous cheat sheet, Butcher writes:

“The most solid pitches come when the startup relates what they do to a CURRENT news story of the day. For instance, say Apple just came out with a new kind of headphone, and your startup has a product relevant to music or headphones. THAT is when you should jump all over the media – while your story is current and you can get into the tail-wind of a hot story. Not 6 months later when we’ve all moved on and forgotten about headphones.”

There’s a reason this is right out in front.  Remember that the journalist has a job, and it involves generating content their readers want. If they don’t get read, they lose their jobs.

In addition, if they don’t “break” stories, and become a trusted source of news, then their reputation never grows, and they don’t advance professionally.

So you need to approach members of the press as people who have their own needs. As such, how can you help them fulfill those needs?

Here are a few easy ways to do that:

Become a trusted source: Journalists from several publications regularly ping me for my opinion on various topics. Often I am not quoted or mentioned, but when I have a story I want the journalist to tell, then it’s likely he or she will at least listen to me. To be a trusted source, you have to give more than you get.

Give them Real News: Remember, the journalist’s reputation is built on their ability to be first, to be right, and to be read. So help them do that. If you have a tip, and it is ethical to share it, then choose a favorite journalist to talk to about it.

Remember Your Friends: The other day, I was on Twitter when I spotted this:

Steve O’Hear happens to be the journalist who wrote the “big story” about our alum Gjirafa, and its founder Mergim Cahani. Since I worked with Mergim to craft the press pitch that got Steve interested in the story, I immediately thought of him.

The good news is, Gjirafa didn’t forget Steve. But when some big news happens for them, they have to remember who was there from the beginning. Journalists take risks on startups all the time. Make it worth their while, and show some loyalty.

Plus, what’s better than Steve O’Hear getting to boast that he broke the story about Gjirafa 2 years before they “made it big,” and he gets to report that he was right all along? That’s a win win. Your best press is the press that loves you.

Make It About the Story. Not About You.

Remember, you are not entitled to a story just because you are a startup. My mother can start a startup. Anyone can. Tech journalists hear about new startups all day, every day.

If you want a journalist to take you seriously, then you need to have a real story. Real news.

Hint: you being a startup isn’t news. You launching a product is *probably* not news. Because who are you anyway?

So what is news?

Real news has a narrative. It connects with what’s going on in the world and where you are. There are other ways to describe it, but It’s simple to think of it like this:

  • Controversy: What about the story is controversial or unexpected? What is challenging or new, or possibly unexplored or counter-intuitive?
  • Trends: How does the story reinforce a trend that the journalist can describe and the audience can recognize? How does it “fit in” with other things that are in the news?
  • Data: What are the facts? Why are those facts significant?

A press pitch that isn’t developing one of those things isn’t doing its job. Why tell your company history? Because it is part of a trend, or a controversial approach or point of view. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Because data shows that it matters. Everything is connected with advancing a controversial idea, a broader trend, and real data.

Keep in mind: You are not the story. You are *part* of the story. An important part, but not the only one.

Your Press Release

How do you deliver that story? There are many methods, but one of the most straightforward is with a classic press release.

We won’t dive into that here, but I will refer you to my authority on this topic: Colette Ballou from Ballou PR, a friend of StartupYard.

Her presentation on PR for Startups gives detailed instructions on how to craft and format a press release. It’s worth studying closely.

What is News?

Because this point is where many startups fail, I’m going to pay special attention to talking about what *is* and *isn’t* news.

I’ve prepared a handy list:

Not News:

  • We launched a Startup!
  • We pivoted our Startup!
  • Our startup is better than another Startup!
  • We have a (generic) opinion on something!
  • We have a (vanilla) mission statement!

Is News:

  • A famous person endorsed our product! (Proximity)
  • A famous company uses our product! (Credibility)
  • Our product solves a problem everyone is talking about! (Timeliness)
  • We are experts on a hot topic and have an opinion! (Authority)
  • We raised Money! (Relevance)
  • We have a controversial mission statement! (Controversy, Sensationalism)

Get Professional Help

I know. You’re a rockstar. Everyone will want a piece of you.

I’ll let you in on a little secret though: rockstars have PR reps too.

You’re a small company, and your authenticity is vital. Still, using a PR pro can really help you develop your approach to press and connections you’ll need to get your story heard.

People see PR as a dirty word. It’s fake, or insincere. But that’s not necessarily the case. A good PR rep that understands and cares about what you do can be magic.

Think of it like this: you help your customers the way you know how. A PR rep helps the press the way they know how. The best marketing and PR isn’t dishonest, it’s mutually beneficial. It helps good stories get told by the right people. You don’t pay PR reps to lie. You pay them to find someone who cares.

StartupYard uses a PR agency. That’s how we get our startups covered in the press. Not because we can’t tell our story, but because we can’t spend all our time on relationships in the press. If you have a good agency, the press will trust them, and work with them. They can bring you credibility, and hopefully help you tell your story better.

With all that said: go forth and tell your story. Just do the footwork too.

Stortelling

What is Good Stortelling? (Part 2)

In our last post, we talked about the “Hero’s Journey,” the basic premise of most modern storytelling.  We looked at some examples of this story in action, and some examples of it done badly.

Now we’re going to talk about your story as a Startup. 

Starting with Characters and Plot

We start every round at StartupYard with Product Positioning Statements. The structure of a positioning statement has a useful clarity. In essence it’s this:

  • Who it’s for
  • What problem they have
  • What the solution is
  • What the competition is
  • What makes this solution unique

This is the plot of the story, and it introduces key characters.

But it isn’t enough. The key to a great story about what you and your company does is conflict. What are you fighting against? What is wrong with the world?

Building an Appropriate Setting

All stories take place against a backdrop. A time and place, or a certain part of the world or of society, or business. And that setting is a part of the story. The setting changes along with the characters. The characters are affected by the setting.

Your setting is a key part of your story because it helps to define the stakes of the story. Putting a story in the wrong setting can damage its impact. For example, telling the story of your Groupon-clone startup against the backdrop of the mobile revolution might be a bit too grandiose. Likewise, for a company doing something ambitious and far reaching, a setting that is too confining limits the story’s impact.

Your Story Seems a Bit Off

Thus, bad storytelling happens when there is a mismatch between the setting and the actual scope of the story. Increasing the efficiency of a complicated accounting process by 10% is not “making the world a better place,” just as altering the way that people travel and view hotels (such as with Airbnb), is not “increasing the availability of lodging by 15%.”

The stakes you are playing for are important. Don’t go too big, and don’t go too small. More importantly, particularly for early-stage startups: bigger is not necessarily better. We can’t all change the world right away.

Identifying Conflicts

Conflicts don’t always occur between competitors. Your conflict is what makes you, as a startup, different from everyone else.

Your conflict is what makes you unique. They are your reason for existing.

If I’m, say, a home security company, then what is the central conflict of my story? It might be that another security company rips off their customers, and I don’t. That’s a conflict with a villain. It might be that people need to be more concerned about their security. That’s a conflict with the status quo. Or it might be something else entirely.

Here are some examples of central conflicts companies use to define company stories:

  • Sustainability: Being more environmentally conscious than competitors
  • Affordability: Sticking up for the little guy and providing a better service
  • Accessibility: Being available to more customers, or to customers with more specific needs
  • The Underdog: A small company fighting the evils of a large corporation
  • Patriotism: Emphasizing a patriotic or locally-focused attitude
  • Exclusivity: Offering something with limited availability, for discerning customers
  • Charity: Using your profits, business model, or market position to do good for others
  • Design Focus: Emphasizing a high attention to material or visual design
  • The EveryMan: Portraying a company as representative of the average person, or lacking in pretension (often the opposite of design focus).

Why do we call these conflicts? Because in every case, the central conflict is put into contrast with an opposing force. Your company is sustainable, but others are not. Your company is charitable, while others are greedy. Your company is focused on normal people, while the competitors are for specialists or geeks, etc.

There is always an opposing viewpoint in brand positioning: there is always someone on the other side of the fence.

Putting Your Conflict Into Words

In Part 1, we talked about how all great stories are human stories. And so the conflict at the heart of a startup’s story has to be a human conflict.

Very often, startups get bogged down in talking about how they see themselves. They’re smart. They’re design-focused. They’re “fun.”

But what is smart? What is design-focused? How do we define fun? Why do we want a company to even be fun? We want those things because of how they make us, the customers, feel about ourselves. People don’t buy products from a company because the company is cool, they buy them because the products themselves are cool, and because owning them makes us feel cool too.

Your central conflict has to drive your story: it has to be what customers think of when they think of you.

Try a creative exercise: Pick a list of negative adjectives to describe how your customers feel about the problem you are solving for them. That list might be something like this:

  • Annoyed
  • Angry
  • Tired
  • Frustrated
  • Trapped
  • Unhappy
  • Hopeless

Do that step first. Now go back and supply a list of roughly opposite adjectives:

  • Relieved
  • Joyful
  • Energized
  • Pleased
  • Free
  • Happy
  • Hopeful

These are the words with which you will describe your customer’s feelings. The feelings your products give to customers are the opposite of the bad feelings they have now.

Thus, a story about a company helping its customers might go something like this:

“So many ordinary people are tired, and frustrated by X. They feel trapped and hopeless because there’s no way to stop X from happening. That’s why we worked long and hard to create [our product], it frees you from X, so you can enjoy relief, feel energized, and be hopeful for a happy future.”

That’s an extremely blunt story (and it sounds like an advert for hemorrhoid medication), but it is a story of conflict. There is evil, human suffering, sacrifice, and triumph. It’s everything a story needs to be.

Picking A Conflict You Can Win

It doesn’t matter how big your competition is, or how big the problem is that you’re solving. A startup story is about how you are different: how you see things differently from others.

In 2000, Google’s startup story was based on the words: “Don’t be Evil.” For a company positioning itself against competitors like Microsoft and Yahoo, both of which already had a reputation for being sort of evil, this story worked well. Google wasn’t bigger. It wasn’t more powerful. But it was *not* evil.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that 17 years later, this is no longer Google’s story. Yahoo is gone. Microsoft isn’t a member of the “Big 4” any longer. There’s no one for Google to be less evil than anymore.

Your conflict has to be something you can win at, though. Otherwise it’s just ridiculous. Better logistics than Amazon? Probably not. Better natural language processing than Google? Doubtful. You have to be able to win at something a competitor doesn’t do well. What is that thing?

Identifying Arcs

The way that a character in a story changes is called an “arc.” A character begins as one thing, and ends as another. Foolish to wise. Arrogant to humble.

The arc of a character is best seen as a change in what motivates that character- how what they want changes over time. As in the Hero’s Journey, a character with an arc not only becomes wiser, but also wants different things at the end of the story. He or she learns to see the world differently, and thus change their priorities.

When we talk about character arc, it’s convenient to view it in a binary way. Characters are either “rising” (becoming better), or “falling” (become worse). In this way, almost any character arc in a story can be described:

  • Rags to Riches (rise)
  • Riches to Rags (fall)
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  • Icarus (rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Thus, archetypal characters have arcs that are some combination of rising and falling. But this trope is not contained in just literature. It is all around us. A person’s life story and the story of a startup are a series of these arcs. Telling a story is about showing how a person has changed. Likewise, a startup story is about how the startup, or the founder, or any other character has experienced an arc.

Bill Gates is a Rags to Riches story (not just in the sense of money). He rose from a solitary geek to the king of a software empire. Steve Jobs is a Cinderella story: he rose to the heights of fame, then was drummed out of Apple, but returned to become one of history’s most impactful CEOs.

These arcs are all around us: they play out in every life and in every startup. Which is your arc?

Putting Your Story on Paper

One of the hardest things about my job is getting founders to sit down and commit their stories to words. The anxiety it provokes is very real. Does this story mean anything? Do I sound stupid?

There is a natural tendency for people to avoid exposing themselves for possible shame and ridicule. However, telling your story is a risk: if it doesn’t feel risky, it isn’t a compelling story.

Try to keep in mind the elements we’ve covered here: Your setting, your conflict, your characters, and their arcs. If you’re doing that, you’re probably not doing it wrong.