Amit Paunikar: On Product Management, and Owning Failure

I caught up with popular StartupYard mentor Amit Paunikar this week, to talk about the subject of his appearance at WebExpo, where he will talk about one of his passions, Product Management.

Paunikar has been a pioneer and evangelist in the area of product management, working with Google, Yahoo, and MarketShare. He has been a software engineer, a startup founder, and a StartupYard mentor, and is currently a product manager for Skype in Prague. He will speak at WebExpo, in Prague on the weekend of September 19th.

Q: Hi Amit, you’ve had a storied career, working for Google, Yahoo!, MarketShare, and co-founding your own company, MediaStudio. Can you tell us about your career journey?

Paunikar is a native of Mumbai, lived in the US for many years, and relocated to Prague 3 years ago.

An American educated in Mumbai and Los Angeles, Paunikar founded MediaStudio, and has worked for Google, Yahoo! and now Skype. He has lived in Prague for 3 years.

I grew up in Mumbai, where I did my undergraduate education in Computer Science. After a short stint in Citicorp, I moved to Los Angeles for my Masters in computer science. I spent 15 years in California after that, working at big and small companies including stints at Google and Yahoo! before taking the entrepreneurial path and starting my own company.

Early in my career, I switched from Software engineering to Product Management, which defined and shaped my career journey immensely.

Tell us more about your transition from engineering to product management. Why did you do it?

My first job as a product manager was with a company that made a hardware/software product, a networking gateway, that allowed users to access public wifi and wired networks.I was a curious engineer, but a lot of my questions were of the following type: “why are we doing this and not that?”, “why are we approaching this market and not that?”, “who is our target customers, what are their core needs?”  

Since I didn’t know a good way to get these answers, I would be quite vocal during company-wide meetings. After one such meeting,  the CEO of the company called me in, and said: “you have a lot of questions about things that go beyond engineering. Why do you need this information and whose job should it be give you that information?”

I told him that having this information would help engineering design the correct solution, get their “why’s” answered and instill a sense of ownership and accomplishment. I didn’t have a good answer of whose primary job it should be fill this gap, but when he offered me to step in and fill the role. So I filled that hole that existed for me as an engineer- someone who could from the connection between customers, sales, BD and engineering. Soon that role morphed into product management as we know it.

What originally drew you to the Czech Republic, and what makes you stay here?

It a combination of serendipity and need. At Mediastudio, we built a web-based video post-production platform with complex tools that dealt with image processing, waveform analysis and rotoscoping. We found most of these highly skilled engineers in Ukraine and Bulgaria. It made sense for me to move close to my engineering team. Also, my wife, who I met in California, actually grew up in Prague. So it was a 2 for 1 that I could not pass on.

Since moving to Prague, I have immersed myself into the startup ecosystem as well as have had a chance to interact with small and big companies. Prague and CEE has great engineering talent, but generally lack the product management function. This is an interesting challenge to solve and contribute to. In addition, Prague is a wonderful place to live!

As a popular mentor at StartupYard, you’ve long been an advocate for the idea of Product Management. Why is this such an important topic for Czech startups?

 

Product Management is an important discipline. While Product Management is one of the pillars of most companies, big and small, in Silicon Valley, it is sorely missing here in Czech Republic and in CEE in general.

In his seminal article, Marc Andreesson says the most important thing for a startup and companies is product/market fit. Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market. Creating a product that can satisfy a market requires companies to thoroughly know its customers. The primary job of a Product Manager is to be the customer advocate within the company.

Without a customer advocate, even the most brilliant engineers and companies end up creating products that no one wants to use, or worse, end up becoming engineering shops that provide their expertise to others. For a startup ecosystem to excel, just having amazing engineers is not enough. We need a good combination of functions that make a company successful, we need amazing designers, marketers, business dev, sales and good product manager. I feel product management is severely underrepresented in Prague and CEE in general.
What would you say makes a product manager different from a project manager, a UX/UI designer, or any other position?

Product management is an interesting discipline. It is very critical function, yet you cannot learn it in schools, nor are any Product Management degrees are offered in mainstream universities. Most of the product managers I know have learned it on the job. They come from various backgrounds. I have seen designers and project managers transition and become great product managers.

I like to think of product managers as people who take the ultimate responsibility for the failure of the product. This might seem to be a pessimistic view, but there is a lot of depth involved in thinking about it this way. As a PM you take responsibility of everything. You don’t have the liberty of just thinking about what to build, why to build, how to build, how will it look like, etc. you have to think about all the questions above and more.

As a Project manager or a UX designer, you can limit yourself to just a couple of these questions.

If the product fails because there’s no market, or because the technology doesn’t work, or because the product/market fit does not exist, or the design is bad, then that is the product manager’s fault. You’re not in charge of sales and technology, or design, but it is your job to make sure that the people who are doing these have everything they need to get their job done right.

What kind of a person is best for that sort of position?

Good PMs excel in empathy, know how to keep an eye on the larger picture and just into details as needed. As a PM you have to be able to make sure everyone knows what to do, but not necessarily know to do it.

I can’t sit with a designer and tell her how to design something. But I have to be clear to her about what we are designing, who we are designing it for and what functions it should provide.

PMs have to be comfortable with unknowns and uncertainty. They need to have the drive to make sense of seemingly unrelated things and have a good grasp of multiple faculties. PMs should be the “tip of the spear” that heads into chaos and leaves a cone of understanding and calm behind them.

How has the position of product manager evolved since your time with Google?

A lot has changed in the past few years. Startups and smaller companies have a lot more tools available now that were once reserved for the biggest companies. With cheap cloud computing platforms, the cost of building products has come down significantly. A lot more processing power is available and so is the ability to create and analyze lots of data.

All this changes how product managers act. They can now market worldwide, launch fast, collect and analyze vast amounts of data, make data driven decisions and course correct. Product Managers also have lot of tools and resources available at their disposal. A growing list of well respected VCs, product managers, authors and bloggers are writing a great deal about Product Management.

Defining roles and areas of responsibility for a growing team is one of their most challenging early tasks for a startup. What are some of the mistakes you most often see in this process, and how would you correct those mistakes?

It depends on what kind of a startup it is. An enterprise startup will have a different composition as compared to a consumer startup. The key is to have a core set of people who have varied experiences. If you are an experienced founder that you have a leg up compared to someone who has never started a company. In any case, it is important to seek counsel, have strong advisors in the area and learn from existing companies in the area.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen is that companies close themselves in, start developing the product based on a hypothesis and keep at it. They never go out and seek validation from customers and users. No matter how small the startup, it is important to have a line of communication to your customers. Another mistake is to now have engineering and process discipline. Startups have to be designed from the ground up to be scalable. Scalability as an afterthought can be very expensive.

So every startup needs

  1. A customer advocate function – these includes responsibilities like understanding the market and customer needs, establishing a sales channel and continuous business development
  2. A technical advocate function – this includes responsibilities like engineering discipline and technical excellence

Do you think that organizational structures and awareness of new working methods have improved in the worldwide tech ecosystem since you started as a product manager?

Yes definitely. As a I said before, I started before MySpace and Friendster, before Napster and Skype and definitely before AWS (Amazon Web Services). It’s now easier than ever to start a company. If you wanted to start a company back then to do something meaningful, you had to start with thinking of physical storage location for your specialized servers. Now there are cloud service available for not only computing, storage but all kinds of functions like monitoring, email, authentication, etc.

There is freedom to try out a bunch of stuff and fail quickly. Startups are making bigger and bigger bets. Backed by technology companies like Uber and AirBnB are disrupting centuries old industries, companies like Cloudera is venturing into and disrupting space reserved for the likes of IBM and Oracle.

This is the cloud era, but 15 years ago most of this would have been unfeasible. Companies just didn’t have the elements necessary for such broad missions. And because of that, people are changing as well. Nothing seems impossible, today a 20 year old out of school can think about disrupting really well established industries and get funded to do it.

9 Ways to Make Pitching Easier On Yourself

For some who join us at StartupYard, pitching before an audience of 300 is as natural as brushing their teeth. Some people do have a knack for public speaking that can’t exactly be explained. Others have to work at it. This post is for those people- the majority of us, to whom pitching and selling our ideas in front of a bunch of people feels about as unnatural as reciting Shakespeare.

Don’t Overestimate the Role of Talent

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Certain people are naturally good speakers. But most great speakers have to work at it. The chances are that if you hear someone who’s great at public speaking, that ability is the result of many years of practice.

On the flip side, many people with genuine talent are unwilling to put the work in, and really use their talents to full effect. I don’t worry about the worst speakers we have at StartupYard- I worry about the talented ones. Those are the ones most likely to slack when it comes to preparing their pitches and really putting in the work. They are used to coasting on their natural abilities, and they often under-prepare for the overwhelming experience of pitching to a big audience.

When the real talents put in the work, we have magical moments. But more often, the best pitches come from the entrepreneurs who thought they couldn’t even do the pitch.

Be the Biggest, Loudest Person in the Room

This also has to do with natural inclination, but also experience. As a result of meeting so many people in the technology field, I’ve come to be able to spot certain things about people that I couldn’t before. For example, Jan Mayer, Founder and CEO of 2015’s TrendLucid, is a lecturer at Masaryk University. When we first met, and when he pitched StartupYard at our final selection rounds last year, I asked him if he was a teacher.

“How did you know that?” he asked, surprised. It was his ability to project his voice, as I like to say, to about 130% of the available space, and to appear larger than the space he occupied. If you watch teachers teaching, they command attention by speaking in a voice which is slightly louder than it needs to be, and addressed to what seems to be a group which is slightly larger than the actual group they are speaking to.

This “4/3s” voice allows the teacher to command the attention of the audience (often unruly teenagers), in a way that a normal speaking voice could not. By giving the appearance of size and energy that is slightly larger than the room, the teacher makes the audience feel as if they are smaller than they truly are.

So be big. Be bigger than the room.

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Don’t Pitch or Present. Explain and Share

There is a positive example that you can take from Steve Jobs, and more recently Jony Ive or Tim Cook. The best “pitches,” are really not a sales pitch, but a narrative of events, trends, and technologies that explains why a product is the way it is, and why that makes sense.

In best pitches I hear, the emphasis is not on the fact that something can be done cheaper, or that money can be saved or earned- nor do they lay heavy emphasis on the size of the market (a classic rookie mistake is claiming you’re in a “Gazillion Dollar Industry,” as if that means something).

Pitches that tell me a company will be hugely profitable are at best eye-rollers. If you’re a startup, then that’s not a claim anybody should put much faith in. And anyway, the most important thing is the reason your new idea or business model is revolutionary, not exactly how much money it’s going to make. Those predictions will be useless in 6 months. So focus on what you can control, which is the execution of your vision.

Instead, the best pitches tell a story, which is something we work on at StartupYard quite intensively. The story is shared, and the processes involved are explained. If you approach your pitch with this perspective in mind, then you can relieve yourself of much of the burden that many entrepreneurs place on themselves of “selling,” with something much more organic- something that they do every day with employees, friends and family.

Investors and partners want to see that you can clearly explain and share your vision, so make your pitch about that- not about your ability to sell. This is in many ways easier, because it demands that you stick to your strengths, rather than

Remember, then Talk. Not the Other Way Around

When we’re engaged in normal conversation, sometimes we start a sentence without really being sure where it’s going to end.

Here’s a fascinating exercise- record yourself talking about something casually, and then write it down exactly as you spoke it aloud. What you’ll find, typically, is that it makes almost no sense at all. It will be full of runon sentences that lead nowhere, and ad-hoc phrases that only make grammatical sense if you cross your eyes.

Nobody talks the way they write. But often, founders doing their first pitch will write it, expecting themselves to be able to say it out loud. Well, your mouth and your brain are not accustomed to actually speaking the language that we recognize in writing. That’s just not the way people talk.

Find Your “Beats”

When working with our startups, I constantly harp on the idea of “beats,” in their pitches. A beat is a moment of particular emphasis. It is a phrase or a word, or a particular idea that is central to your narrative. It needs to be remembered.

Great pitches have a clear sequence of important points, or beats, which are memorable. For an example of this, it’s useful to look at someone like Tim Cook, revealing the Apple Watch (go to exactly 1:00:00 in the video.

Cook organizes his beats in a very simple pattern. When he needs to emphasize a point, he says it as a slide appears with the same words and an image behind him. Simple, and elegant. If you’ll notice, he only uses words on the screen when he is making a specific, memorable point. At no other time are there any words on screen.

A common mistake for founders is to make their “big point,” or “ahah moment,” a part of a slide that is so complex and full of information, that the audience is busy looking at it instead of listening to what is said. Your “beats,” have to be moments where nothing else gets the attention but one simple idea.

So Nice, You Said it Twice

I’ve talked in previous posts about repeating the name of your company during your pitch (by the way, repeat the name of your company in your pitch). But this piece of advice is simpler. If something is really important in your pitch, don’t be afraid to repeat it.

Repetition is a powerful way to emphasize what is being said. A very powerful way.

You see? People frequently repeat things when they’re speaking, but they rarely do so in writing- which can make a pitch feel pretty stilted when you haven’t rehearsed it enough.  

Your Slides Are the Plan, Not the Pitch

Our Managing Director Cedric Maloux repeats this same piece of advice to every startup we accelerate: “Your slides are cues, not content.” When we write our presentations, the tendency is to try and accomplish communication with slides that can’t be done verbally. That’s a mistake, because it leads founders most often to try and pack slides with too much information.

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Here’s a good general principle: if you can’t say it 10 words, it’s too much information for a slide. Your slides should be nothing more than a framework for what you want to say. Nobody wants to go to a pitch and spend their time reading your slides. They want to hear from you.

German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously wrote: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” As I’ve pointed out, one of the downsides of planning a pitch, is that what you end up with is a plan. Whether that’s a plan of exactly what you’ll say, or exactly what you’ll show the audience, that plan is not what is going to happen.

As I often tell my startups, the trick is not to say what you want, but to avoid saying what you don’t want. So be clear, be precise, and don’t over-write your pitch. Organize it into simple chunks.

Use Real Numbers

When I say “real numbers,” I’m going a bit beyond the “big numbers on the screen,” sense of the word “real.” I see plenty of pitches that are full of impressive numbers that, when you actually consider them, don’t say anything about the startup that’s actually pitching.

Worse, I often see pitches that include the numbers of competitors- as if the startup is just going to magically carve out a slice of the pie in their industry just because they showed up at the table. It doesn’t work that way, and investors know that. Even worse than that, I have heard pitches that included the valuation of companies in the same market. Now we’re in La La Land for sure.

Do Vocal Exercises

It’s silly. It’s embarrassing. It really, really works. For the past 2 years, StartupYard has engaged coaches leading up to Demo Day to work on voice training. The impact, over and over, has been startling- and not just for those founders who began as novices in public speaking.

Your voice is like anything else- an instrument of coordination that you use to do certain things. We are all accustomed to talking. But like the difference between walking a kilometer, and doing a pole vault, the body is not accustomed to the feats of energy and strength that we do not practice long and hard.

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For those without extensive practice and training, public speaking is surprisingly exhausting. It takes an unexpected amount of strength to use your voice to address more than a handful of people, and adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and consume more oxygen, meaning you need to breath more deeply and quickly. This all causes a person to expend more energy, to sweat, to be out of breath, and to feel exhausted, even after only a few minutes.

Bonus: Don’t Forget to Smile

This isn’t part of my 9 tips, but it’s important. Smile! And you’ll get smiles back. That’s reassuring, and will make you feel better about what you’re doing.

Vit Horky of Brand Embassy: “Making People Happy”

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

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

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

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

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

Founders Vit and Damian. Photo by Libor Fojtik

Founders Vit and Damian. Photo by Libor Fojtik

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

What are your professional backgrounds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did Brand Embassy gain its first large investment?

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

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

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

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

Revenue:

  • 300% YOY revenue growth for 3 consecutive years

Global expansion

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

Telco Market

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


Company Growth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Entrepreneurs’ Blogs We Keep Coming Back To

We read a lot at StartupYard. In fact, if you were to visit our offices at the co-working space Node5 (and here we are defining offices in the loosest sense possible, as we don’t even have chairs that swivel), you’d likely find Cedric or me reading something or other.

When the accelerator program is running, we’re usually too busy to do more than browse headlines, or steal a moment to tweet something, but when our startups aren’t here, we’re busy reading. Occasionally, one of us might remove his headphones and say: “hey, did you see this thing about…” at which the other will interrupt to say that of course he had.

Given how much is available, it can be difficult to tell what’s really worth reading. With blogs especially, so much of the attraction is not in what content or news is covered, but rather in the personal appeal of the author- the way the person thinks, as much as what they say. Reading a strong personality can be a brilliant way of resetting and challenging your own thinking. Could I be more like this person? What would this person say about my situation? These are helpful thoughts to have as an entrepreneur and a startuper.

We read more than just these blogs, but one of our rules in narrowing this list down was to provide a list of bloggers who are dependable, experienced, post fairly regularly, and are not as interested in news as in deep thinking about technology, business, and the future. In short, these bloggers write out of a passion for their subjects, and not a need for attention.

So here then is our list of 6 entrepreneurs’ blogs that we come back to week after week: 

@AndrewChen

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Andrew Chen is probably most famous as a blogger, but his blog, which features nearly 700 essays, many with original research on the topics of mobile products, user growth, and retention, is one of a kind. It’s probably the best blog I read on a regular basis, and certainly the most quotable. If there’s an issue that one of our startups is encountering when it comes to marketing, there’s probably a relevant post on @AndrewChen.

Chen has a habit of creating and defining very sticky and useful terms, which he self-references within his essays. Over time, as you read his work, you become familiar with the way he thinks, and can follow his logic from one topic to the next, gaining context with each click. This also allows you to get lost in his little universe of ideas- which is not a bad place to spend some of your time.

It’s hard to pin down a few favorites when it comes to Chen’s blog, but I’ll name a few essays I refer to often:

Why Are We So Bad at Predicting Startup Success?

Anyone Can Start A Groupon: And Other Startup Myths

After the Techcrunch bump: Life in the “Trough of Sorrow”

The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs

Minimum Desirable Product

Paul Graham

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You probably know the name. But do you read his essays? Paul Graham is the infamous founder of Y-Combinator, who had his first high-profile success with the sale of his web-store creator ViaWeb to Yahoo! (later to become Yahoo! Store) for 455,000 shares of Yahoo! stock.

Graham is now best known for his work with Y-Combinator, and for his writing, which includes 3 books, and a handful of essays every year, any one of which would make the common blogger jealous for their popularity and influence.

Over the years, Graham has honed his blogging craft over time to reflect his work. These days, his essays usually hover around a central thesis which he elaborates on from personal experience. Unlike Chen, Graham focuses less on data, and more on ways of thinking and behaving which he believes to be ethical, fair, and workable for his readers.

His advice is mostly practical and day-to-day, rather than technical or proscriptive. Rather than lists of “dos and don’ts,” he presents simple maxims like “mean people fail,” and “The Island Test,” which prompt the reader to consider a few basic principles of doing business or leading one’s life, and reflect on whether those principles matter to them.

Again, almost every single one of Graham’s essays have been influential in some way, so it’s hard to pick favorites, however, here is a list of some really good ones:

Why Nerds are Unpopular

How to Start a Startup

What You Can’t Say

Before Startups

Unicorn Free

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Written by Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman, founders of Freckle, a service that allows you to track your billable work, individually or as part of a group, such as a digital agency, and bill clients using the same system, Unicorn Free is a little bit of everything. Mostly, it’s a practical look at the real-life problems associated with running a small startup that has become a moderately successful business.

Unicorn Free calls itself a guide to Bootstrapping- running a startup without outside funding, but in practice it covers a big range of topics, from product development, to marketing, to copywriting. There’s a little something for everyone, and Hoy and Hillman both have an infectious energy and enthusiasm that makes them easy to read. Often, what they write is not as much practical as it is motivational. They constantly exhort their readers to recalibrate their expectations, and question their ways of doing things.

Some of Unicorn Free’s better known posts:

Why you should do a tiny product first

How do you create a product people want to buy?

Don’t Fave This Post: How to REALLY Launch in 2014

Why Blacksmiths are Better at Startups than You

NirandFar

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Nir Eyal, the author and creator of NirandFar, calls his subject “behavioral design.” His essays usually center around aspects of UX/Ui, economics, human behavior, and neuroscience. He wrote a popular book companion called Hooked, which promoted the popular “hook model,” for user behavior, and which has been lauded by Andrew Chen, among many others. Eyal also writes for TechCrunch, Forbes, and Psychology Today, among others.

Many of Eyal’s posts center around user acquisition, retention, and what he called “behavioral economics,” or the study of what people are willing to do with technology, and what they’re not willing to do. But they’re a little more “newsy” than similar pieces by Andrew Chen and others, offering more background reading, and often less of an insider view on the subjects they cover.

NirandFar is frequently just fascination to read. Here are a few examples of great articles that will get you thinking in a new way:

The Limits of Loyalty

People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently

Your Fitness App is Making You Fat

Habits Are The New Viral: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts

ViperChill

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ViperChill is a little different from the other blogs we usually read. Glen, ViperChill’s author and creator, has a biography that reads a bit like a get rich quick scheme. He claims to have started making “thousands per month,” at the age of 17 offering online marketing services. His posts are sometimes rambling, disjointed, or lacking in context for the casual reader.

More importantly, a lot of the activities that ViperChill advocates to its readers are, well, not always tasteful. There is much info on building link networks, building websites to cash in on consumer interest in specific subjects, and generally scheming about ways to make money online without really contributing anything terribly unique or new.

If you’ve rolled your eyes at the unavoidable noise of SEO driven websites that appear high in search returns, but read like they were written by a sleep deprived university student who was skimming a Wikipedia article, then you’ve probably run into something that ViperChill, or somebody a lot like him, has created or funded. While his more recent work has hedged towards calling an end to the SEO madness of the past, his work often reads as somewhat nihilistic in its view of the internet as a money machine, rather than something slightly more humanistic.  

Still, ViperChill offers some fascinatingly geeky looks at hardcore online marketing techniques and strategies that few marketers have time to think about. In the weird hidden world of SEO aficionados and affiliate marketers, ViperChill is a strong presence.

While most of our readers are not looking, as ViperChill advocates, to become totally immersed in the world of link-building, SEO, and affiliate marketing, ViperChill presents an insider’s perspective on that business- one many of us have to dabble in to draw attention to our real world projects. If you think you’re being clever with your Facebook pages, your adwords, and your homepage SEO, he’s being downright devious.

Some of ViperChill’s more fascinating pieces:

How to Build a Billion Dollar SEO Empire

How 3 Guys Made Over $10,000,000 Last Year Without a Single Backlink

Why Google Pushed Me to Build a (Bigger) Link Network

BothSides of the Table

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Mark Suster has sold two companies to SaleForce.com, and has since become a VC and prolific blogger. Much of the advice he offers on his blog is focused on relationships between investors and startups. Having been on “both sides of the table,” Suster offers a great deal of advice from his own experiences, particularly for startup founders who don’t know much, and are naive, about finance and investment.

Suster’s hallmark is explaining complex and dry topics in really human terms; breaking down the complex nuances of investment rounds, seed funds, A-rounds, and convertible notes into more practical exercises in figuring out what an entrepreneur wants, and whether that is aligned with what investors might want, and if not, how to pick an investor with similar priorities. You can learn more from one of Suster’s posts about any flavor of startup investment, and how it really works in practice, rather than just in theory, than you can from reading a handful of articles elsewhere.

The blog also contains some great advice in sales and marketing, but the real gold is in Suster’s practical experience with investments and the enormous amount of time he’s spent working on both sides of the table. It’s a must read if you’re thinking about raising money.

Some great advice from BothSides:

VC Seagulls

Finding and Investor Who is in Love with You

What I Would Look for in a VC, Knowing What I Know Now

StartupYard’s 3rd Unconference: Remote Year, Work/Home Balance, and Blogging

Wednesday night, at Node5, StartupYard hosted our 3rd “Unconference.”

Unconferencing is an alternative take on a conference in which the participants help shape the talks and sessions offered.

An Unconference differs from a traditional conference or set of workshops, chiefly in that none of its content is planned or scheduled ahead of time. Instead, the content of workshops is decided spontaneously, by whomever is in attendance, and is interested in contributing.

 

The whole process looks a bit like this:

1. Introduce the format to attendees.

2. Attendees write down a workshop topic they would like to host or to attend on sticky notes.

3. Participants vote on the topics to be included in a series of time slots, with multiple workshops running simultaneously. The total number depends on the space and the number of attendees.

4. The moderator proposes a schedule of the events, striking a balance between topics, and not putting the most popular workshops in competition.

5. Attendees suggest changes, and the conference kicks off, with the topic owners either presenting themselves without preparation, or asking for others to present on the topic they’ve proposed- in some cases, workshops become idea-sharing and brainstorming meetings.

Remote Year

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This unconference was presented in cooperation with Remote Year, an interesting organization from the US. Remote Year collects a group of people who work independently or remotely, and offers them a once in a lifetime chance: to work in a different city, every month, for an entire year.

The object is to get to know their fellow travelers (people from around the world, not just the US), and experience life in a huge range of cities around the world, while continuing to work remotely. The organization plans and organizes all travel, accommodations, and workspaces for the workers, as well as occasional events, such as our Unconference.

The group we met, about a third of Remote Year’s 75 current members, were engaged and interesting. I’d love to hear more of their feedback about how Remote Year works for them, but they’re just at the start of their journey. They’ll soon be moving on to Slovenia, then to Croatia, Turkey, and later to Asia and South America, visiting Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

Remote Year doesn’t seem cheap, at $24,000 for the full year (paid twice a month), however, considering that this is probably competitive with rents in many American cities, and it represents travel and accommodation expenses, it might not be as expensive as it seems.

Topics

There were a wide range of topics, including “video games as a business,” and “monetization of mobile apps: subscription vs. one-time payments.” But as I often do, I gravitated to soft skills topics, so these are the sessions I’ll talk about here.

Session 1: Understanding Neuroscience for Sales and Pitching

Cedric Maloux, StartupYard’s Managing Director, has given this presentation a few times, and it is always interesting. He based his talk on two books: Pitch Anything, by Oren Klaff, and Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini.

He talks about the concept of human evolution being related to “three brains:” the “reptilian brain,” the “middle brain” and the “thinking” or intellectual brain. One brain has been built “on top” of the other through the course of human evolution.

The important insight here is that while we think of ourselves as intellectual beings who make rational decisions, we in fact base many of our actions and thoughts on more primal, less rational instincts. The reptilian brain assesses the world according to the most basic terms of survival, more crudely put: “can I eat it, can it eat me, or can I have sex with it?”

Advertisers have long known that fear, aggression, and reproduction are the most powerful drivers of human action. But that insight shouldn’t be limited to advertising. So Cedric talks about how to appeal to the “reptilian” brain in all of us: by evoking these same feelings, either with images in presentations, certain words, or ideas that appeal to our basic survival instincts.

At the same time, Cedric highlights the “power of because.” Also long known to marketers, psychologists, and salespeople, research dating back to the 1970s shows that by supplying reasons for our need to do something, or for our need for others to do something, we can influence them to go along with us at a very high rate.

The classic experimental proof involves a woman asking to cut in line at a copy machine, but there have been variations that included people asking for seats on metro cars, and other situations. Research shows that when you ask to cut in line at a copy machine, even giving a bogus reason like “I have 5 pages,” you only stand a 60% chance or so of getting what you want. However, when you state the reason more clearly, using “because,” you can reach a 94% rate of assent from subjects. If you ask: “can I cut in line because I’m in a rush?” you’re over 50% more likely to be allowed to do so.

Interestingly, the increase in acceptance also applies even if no new information is added. So, for example, if the “I have 5 pages,” is reworded to “because I have 5 pages,” the results are the same as when giving a valid reason.

These experiments also showed that the power of because extended even to unreasonable requests, although its power diminishes as the request becomes more unreasonable. While a person with 5 pages could get up to 94% acceptance, a person with 20 pages might get only 42%, but that would still be almost double the amount that they could get without a “because.”

Work/Home Balance

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

A topic of interest to me as a newly minted dad who annoys his co-workers with pictures of his kid, this was more of a discussion group. The StartupYard team, along with the Node5 team and a few members of Remote Year got together to discuss the issue of balancing life and work, or, for some, the concept of there being a difference between life and work.

This session focused on two things: the problem of balance and priorities, and the issue of extraversion vs. introversion.

We first discussed the “four burners theory,” a concept popularized the American writer David Sedaris, which poses the problem as one of priorities. A balanced life has 4 burners, as on a stove. One is for family, one for friends, another for health, and the fourth for work. It being difficult or impossible to cook on four burners simultaneously, a successful person will usually choose to remove one. For example, a person who values their work and family, must then choose to abandon either their health, or their friends.

It stands to reason that a successful career, a solid family, and a healthy lifestyle doesn’t allow someone to keep up friendships, which involve nights out, hobbies, and other time consuming activities. At the same time, a person may choose to have a great career, and time to go to the gym and eat healthy, but must then choose between spending time with their friends, or going out on dates in the hope of finding a mate.

Again, a person may choose to have a family, have friends, and be healthy, but must then spend less time focusing on a career and making money.

Moreover, the theory goes that a person who wishes to be *really* successful, must only use two burners. You can be very healthy and have a great career, you can be an amazing friend and parent, or you can have a great family and an ambitious career, but you can’t perform at the top of your game in three areas at once.

While we all shift our priorities over time, I found some truth in this framework. I have sacrificed mostly friendships as I have transitioned to my interest in my family. My wife has stayed out of the workforce to raise our son, but has been able to maintain friendships and a healthy lifestyle. As some in the discussion pointed out, these changes are cyclical, and they need not be permanent. Roles can switch, and the needs of families change over time, as kids grow up and look after themselves.

We also discussed the concept of the “outgoing extrovert.” While Petra of Node5 described herself as an extrovert because of her ability to talk to groups and be outgoing, she also described her need to be alone with her own thoughts. It was pointed out that she might not be extroverted, but rather outgoing. Cedric too, pointed out that his public speaking ability and his career working with so many people was in fact a defense that he has built up because of his introversion, and not because he is extroverted.

On the other hand, members of the discussion who really are extroverts talked about how difficult it is for them to pass up spending time with their friends, while the extroverts couldn’t easily sympathize with the dilemma that the extroverts face; they would almost always rather be on their own. For the extroverts, not being among their friends was a draining experience, rather than a relaxation.

These are the sort of layered and spontaneous discussions that a really good Unconference can generate: when’s the last time you talked about your emotional needs at a business conference?

Blogging and Writer’s Block, and “Brand Building”

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Time to become famous.

Finally, I participated in a discussion about blogging. Something I’ve come to think a lot about in the past few years.

As many of the attendees were about to spend the next year traveling the world, many were thinking of writing “travel blogs.” The problem, it seems, is that many didn’t have a sense of the value of that kind of blogging. Why do it? Who is it for? How to start?

In writing, we often talk about “writer’s block.” While many people think of this as an issue of not knowing what to write, it’s actually more complicated. “Writer’s block,” is the dreaded feeling that writers have when they are unable, or don’t know how, to start writing, even when they know what they would like to write about.

A blank page spreads out before the writer like a barren desert, and the enormity of having to fill it with good ideas is frightening. This stops many people from writing, blogging, or doing many other creative activities.

I suffer this existential fear all the time, particularly when my writing is not work related. But writers can learn tricks to overcome the problem.

My trick, which works better for me in blogging that it does in longer works, is to always keep the problem in mind when I write. Just as we work with our startups to focus on the problem they are solving for their customers, and the unique value they are providing to overcome customer pain, I approach writing this blog in the same way.

What problem can I solve for our readers, by writing about something? It can be a basic problem, such as our readers not knowing about something they should know about. Or it can be more complex, such as the piece we posted earlier this week about StartupYard’s deeply held values, and how they differ from what people might expect. The problem then would be that people see something a certain way, and the writer doesn’t. So the writer must express his or her view, and persuade or at least inform people of their opinions and views.

If you aren’t writing to address a problem, or a lack of something, then you aren’t writing for anyone. If you aren’t writing for anyone, then why are you writing? Of what value is what you write?

While members of the discussion talked about having a blog in order to “build a personal brand” (an already overhyped concept on its own), the problem remains. A brand is built around values, and you have to have values (and thus opinions), in order for your brand to have any meaning.

We are all aware of this subliminally, if not intellectually.

Think of a few famous brands, and you will be able to define their values fairly clearly. McDonald’s? Family, “Americanization,” entrepreneurialism, convenience, and comfort. You may see other positive or negative connotations in the McDonald’s brand, but you’ll recognize that the brand communicates those concepts consistently. Apple? Cutting edge design, ease of use, and high-end mass consumerism. Whether you hate or love Apple, you can recognize that these are its core values, whether they are successful or not.

In “building a brand,” a blogger, just like a corporation, has to establish what the brand is intended to convey. Otherwise, readers will be less than charitable with their own interpretations. And the best way to convey your values is to talk about them passionately- to argue for them, and to make the discussion about them, rather than about yourself, your needs, or your idea of what your “brand” is all about.

If you can do that consistently, as I hope this nearly 2500 word blog post (written in less than 2 hours) will show, writer’s block may be the least of your problems as a blogger.

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

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

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

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

StartupYard Partner SendGrid Talks Startups, StartupYard, and Central Europe

Last month, StartupYard was treated with an enlightening visit and a full day workshop from Martyn Davies, leader of EMEA Community Development for SendGrid.

For those not yet in the know, SendGrid, based in Colorado with offices worldwide, is a nifty cloud-based email platform that allows startups as well as large companies to handle large volumes of user-interaction emails, as well as automated messages, marketing emails and more.

Anna Bofil Bert with fellow StartupYard partner Softlayer's Michael Donoghue

Anna Bofil Bert from Sendgrid, with fellow StartupYard partner Softlayer’s Michael Donoghue

About SendGrid


SendGrid helps companies of any size to ensure that their emails are timely delivered, and that their customer communications meet industry best practices. According to Martin, SendGrid now handles a hefty percentage of total email traffic, worldwide. Strong odds are that you’ve already used SendGrid extensively, even if you don’t know it.

And SendGrid is known for taking pains to help the developer community and support startups.

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Martyn’s StartupYard workshop focused on customer retention and communication best practices using SendGrid products

I met Martyn and his colleague, Development Community Manager Anna Bofill Bert, at LeWeb, in Paris last year. I was struck immediately by how dedicated their team is to educating and working directly with startups.

Not only has SendGrid offered StartupYard’s current startups and alumni a generous package of free services, but they have also offered personalized, in-depth support and mentoring for all of our members.

Martyn’s full day workshop was a tremendous help, not only to our teams, but to the StartupYard team as well. I caught up with him afterward to get his thoughts on mentoring startups, and about his experiences with Central Europe. 

SendGrid has a unique relationship with accelerators and the startup ecosystem, why do you spend so much time working with startups?

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Martyn: We were once a startup ourselves, and even through we’ve grown beyond that point now we’ve experienced a lot of the challenges that face early stage companies, so there’s a lot of advice to be shared.

We’re in a unique position to be super supportive of these great companies at a time when they need the most help, and we’re there to help them out, not just with SendGrid credit (which is a given!), but access to our network and teams of experts.

Anything we can do to help them get to the next level, we’ll do it and we encompass all that support in a program that we call SendGrid Accelerate.

What do you see as some of the biggest early pitfalls when it comes to global SaaS startups, and their community building and marketing efforts?

 Not allowing people to experience your platform, for free, quickly, and easily will be the make or break. You have to create an experience, particularly for developers that allows them to experiment in a low barrier situation, keeping that time to ‘Hello, World’ as short as possible.

There are a number of ways you can do this and it doesn’t always have to be sending a Developer Evangelist to a hackathon.

Publishing regular technical content on your blog, being very active on Stack Overflow, creating hacks that mash up your service with other great services and then telling that company about it – these are all stay at home ways to increase awareness and get people talking about what you’re doing.

As for community, you don’t have to build one from scratch if you don’t want to. Just get out there and be supportive of interesting community efforts or meetups.

If there isn’t much community in your locale, then start a meetup/group/hacking evening (anything!) and say it’s powered by your company. Watch out though, community isn’t community if you aren’t supportive, so don’t see any meetup you organise as a straight up sales pitching evening.

Several of our startups noted that you had opened their eyes to problems they didn’t know they had. Did any of our startups surprise you in turn?

We were really impressed with the SaaS concepts we were shown and just how far down the line the teams were in terms of product and traction. I’ve signed up for Testomato to use personally and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the other teams around demo day and afterwards.

 SendGrid pays a lot of attention to emerging players and markets, including the CEE. What do you see as the region’s biggest unique opportunities and strengths?

CEE is a gold mine for technical talent in my opinion. You’ve got a large amount of talented developers who came up through the outsourcing companies many larger, well known companies have used over the years. Now they’re out working on their own ideas and the technical aspects are top notch.

Likewise, what are, from your perspective, the biggest challenges that startups from this region face? What kind of help do they need most?

Breaking out of the mindset of being a CEE company is key. If you’re creating a product that works everywhere, then you’re a global company and you need to think that way. Your developer marketing, and some community efforts need to reflect that.

Introductions to people in different cities who can help out, desk space for a team member, anything that gets them out to new places when they feel they need it. That’s something we try to help with at SendGrid, we even have a desk for visiting startups to use when they’re in town at our office in London!

From Slush to LeWeb, 6 Things to Remember When You’re Pitching Anyone, Anywhere

I’ve been hearing a lot of pitches lately. Aside from last week’s Open House at StartupYard, where we welcomed 8 pitches from local startups, I’ve heard dozens more in the past few months. last week, I was at LeWeb, the French startup conference, and it seems that pitching is the new black.

Some have been elevator pitches, some casual and conversation, some long and more formal, in conference rooms, at booths, on-stage, and on the bus or in a taxi. Interestingly, an elevator seems like the only place I haven’t heard a pitch this season. But nevermind- all of this pitching has drawn a few little details to my attention, and as a frequent pitchee, but a non-entrepreneur, I’ve noticed a handful of things that I wished pitchers did a bit more often when talking to me, or a group I am a part of.

Some of them seem easy, but aren’t, and others seem complicated, but are actually easy to do.

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What is your Startup called again?

Wow, you would’ve thought this was obvious enough. But it is not. I would say that over 50% of the startups that pitch me mention the name of their company no more than once. And since I deal almost exclusively with non-native English speakers, they do so with an accent that ranges from the highly intelligible, to the marginally understandable. This isn’t as big of a problem when we’re both standing in front of a conference booth plastered with the name of the startup, and the founder I’m talking to is wearing a company t-shirt (which is a better idea than you probably think, btw), but I can’t tell you how many frustrating minutes I’ve spent pouring over a stack of business cards (I easily come home with 50 of them in a week), trying to match the company name on the card with the face of the founder in my memory. This happens because the founder didn’t say the name of his company often enough.

Adding to that, startup names can be fairly arbitrary, and can have weird or unexpected spellings. That’s fine, but if your accent isn’t perfect, or you’re not using any visual aids to pitch your startup, go ahead and repeat the name 2-3 times a minute. In fact, every time you would normally say “we,” or “our,” go ahead and try to say the name of your startup. It often works really well. Words to avoid are “our company,” “our startup,” and “our team.” Always say the name of the company, or “The X Company team.”

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Say My Name

Oh, go ahead and laugh. But as I’ve written before on this blog, a person’s name is the sweetest sound they will ever hear from another human being. If I’m at a conference, I’m wearing a nametag. And if I hand you a business card, my name is written on it. If you pitch me, I will always hand you a business card, and a lot of investors and most accelerator folk will do the same. So use my name when speaking to me.

I think this makes people feel uncomfortable- that is, saying another person’s name in conversation, instead of just saying: “you.” But believe me, even though I know it’s a sales tactic, it still works. Why? If for no other reason, because you took the time to learn my name. That will make me instantly like you, and instantly appreciative of your attention. It works, so do it.

Acknowledge your Challenges and Be Interested in Feedback

I’m a startup mentor, and I’m an angel investor. That doesn’t make me an expert in what you do, but it makes me someone who’s worth listening to- if only because I have the tendency, when I’m really impressed, to give people money. And I think it’s safe to say that I would only give money to someone who seemed interested in hearing what I have to say. You don’t have to agree with my feedback, and you don’t have to pretend that I’m an expert when I’m not, but you do have to be genuinely interested in what I have to say about your ideas. Why? Because I’m in a position to help make your ideas realities. A lot of the people you talk to will have opinions- they may be wrong, but it’s your opportunity to impress them by showing that you’ve thought about the problems already.

I also notice a tendency among very polished pitches, the kind that win pitching competitions, to do away with an acknowledgement of challenges that a company may face. I think this is can be a big mistake. In the case of LeWeb, for example, I was frustrated with the winning pitch, by a company called JukeDeck, because it completely ignored the enormous technical challenges associated with the product, which generates music automatically for videos and websites. When asked about these challenges, the founder avoided the question, and talked about his experience with music theory, and machine learning, as a competitive advantage. But this is a considerable risk. The founder was refusing to acknowledge a huge challenge, and having spoken afterward to a few people who viewed the presentation, I can say that this did not go unnoticed. You need to acknowledge and address doubts that you expect to be raised. Not ignore them.

I don’t know about all investors or accelerators, but we at StartupYard are not going to fall over dead if you politely argue your case with us. We are interested in the process of discovering what you know, what we know, and how we can work together to make your product a success. That, more often than not, involves a little spirited debate. If the person you’re pitching raises an objection, show that you understand the objection, and appreciate the thinking behind it, then attempt to politely rebut it. If you don’t understand the feedback, ask for clarification. Very often, founders dismiss feedback by saying they don’t understand it, or they respond to feedback in a way that shows they don’t understand. Don’t put yourself in this position- ask for clarification, and demonstrate that you understand the objection. You don’t have to have an answer, but you do have to acknowledge the feedback.


Consider that I may have something of value to teach you

I’ll give you an example: just recently at LeWeb, the Paris startup conference, I spoke to Alban Margaine, a co-founder from a startup called Braineet. He gave me quite a good pitch for their startup, which is an “idea engine,” of sorts for connecting retail brands with customers who have interesting creative or marketing ideas. I raised a few objections, and he handled the interaction beautifully: he showed that he understood those questions, and countered by showing me some data which supported his argument. He didn’t tell me I was wrong, he simply showed me a reason why my assumptions might be inaccurate. But then he did something that almost no startup co-founder ever does: he asked me about my own experiences, to see why I had drawn the conclusions that I did.

I think that pitching becomes an adversarial, game-like exercise for many of us. We begin to forget that it carries with it an opportunity to learn and profit in ways that we hadn’t expected, but ought to have been ready for. So remember who you’re talking to, and treat them as a resource. They will appreciate your interest, and your thirst for knowledge.

 

Success is the intersection of luck and perseverance.

LeWeb speakers Peter Pham and Jeff Bonforte touched on this during their talk this week at the conference. Bonforte relayed a story in which he had been working on selling a company for several months. Deals had fallen through, term sheets had been drawn up and abandoned, and the situation oscillated between hopeful and miserable. Then his electric car ran out of energy while it was near the Google headquarters in Mountain View. Google had not been part of the conversation about this company up to this point, though he had known people there. Events transpired, and Google ended up buying the company he had been trying to sell less than 12 hours later.

Benforte doesn’t attribute this turn of events to luck, nor to his own industry. Instead, he simply states that his perseverance, playing out over months of hard work, finally met with a lucky outcome. He had been plugging away at selling this company for a long time, and he would have continued. At the same time, he had been honing the sales pitch he had used for potential purchasers, and he had raised a lot of awareness of the deal in the offing. By the time it happened, his luck simply caught up with his hard work. Had he not worked hard, it’s unlikely he would have been prepared to make a deal in just 12 hours- but had he not been lucky, he would not have made the deal that day. Still- he probably would have found luck another day.

A lot of founders get burned out on pitching. They can’t be blamed for this- it’s thankless, emotionally exhausting, and harder work than it seems. But you shouldn’t let yourself forget this: every time you pitch, every time you talk to an investor or a partner, that could be the moment you write about in your own autobiography. Every pitch you do could be the one that gets you where you want to be. It isn’t plain luck, and it isn’t all hard work: it’s being prepared when the two meet that counts the most.

 

Know what you want to accomplish and control the conversation

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A panel can be a cruel mistress. Make sure they ask the questions you want them to.

When you pitch, you have to have a goal in mind. And that goal has to fit the venue in which you’re pitching. State that goal, in your pitch, very clearly, before finishing. If the person or group you’re pitching to has to ask you what you want, then you have not used your pitching opportunity to accomplish much. Worse, by not stating your specific goals and challenges, you don’t control the conversation about moving forward, and leave yourself open to being picked apart on one of a million details.

I witnessed a pitch at LeWeb for example, going horribly wrong. The startup was a “suggestion box,” app for large companies. The founder had been vague and unclear about what the unique competitive advantage of the startup was (since the technology was not new in itself), and the panel really wanted to know. Worse, the founder didn’t make it clear what the company was trying to accomplish by pitching. When asked whether they were looking for investment, and if so, what for, the founder didn’t have a good answer.

It struck me that if the founder had simply stated that he wasn’t sure what his advantage was, he would have elicited advice rather than criticism. But instead, he reached a bit too far, and started talk about how his company was “reinventing email.” Red flags rose, and the panel had nothing but more challenging questions about the company’s strategy. That’s where things went downhill. The founder and panel began vehemently arguing about whether the idea was innovative or not. The founder lost control of the message, and began desperately trying to list ways in which his product was unique- none of which sounded unique at all, given that he appeared so defensive. The crowd turned sour as well.

This problem is, I think, the most common cause of a pitching disaster, particularly on stage, when a pitching session includes a panel, which they do at many conferences. The pitch seems to go fine, but it becomes clear when the panel begins to ask questions, that the founder has not made clear what they want to accomplish by pitching. Raise awareness? Money? Recruit partners or employees? If the panel doesn’t know the answer, they don’t know what about the pitch was important, and they will simply target the weakest aspects of your pitch, bringing up things you aren’t necessarily willing or able to talk about. The point of focus will be the value proposition that the company is making, and that proposition may be difficult to support in a 5 minute pitch. In some cases, founders try to backpedal and cover for their weaknesses, in an attempt to head off the objections, making the situation even worse. Instead, acknowledge your challenges, and make them a part of your pitch. This will put you in control of the conversation, and steer it towards positive solutions, rather than highlighting problems you haven’t addressed.

Open-Sourcing StartupYard

Last Thursday during our Open-House event, the first StartupYard event of the new season, I announced my intention to “Open-Source StartupYard”. Today I would like to come back to this and share with you more about the logic behind this new initiative.

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Cedric announces the “Open Sourcing” of StartupYard, to include free, publicly available resources, events, and mentorship for local startups.

 

Schroedinger’s Startup

StartupYard is a great resource for the founders who are selected to join the program. They come in and during these 3 full-time months they will learn a lot. I had the pleasure and pride to see the progress of each team and there is nothing more rewarding for me to see them thrive and impress their customers, partners or potential investors.

Still, StartupYard is like a black box. A proprietary solution accessible only to a lucky few. Unless you are accepted to the program, you don’t really know what’s going on inside (even though we do share a lot of this information on our blog). But most importantly, only accepted teams really benefit, hands on, from what we do.

 

Our Mission Goes Beyond our Own Teams

If our mission is to make our region, and our city a place where risks are worth taking, and innovation is not only possible, but required, then we have a responsibility to more than just our own teams.

I want to change this. I strongly believe that if we can help the community at large, it can only benefit the economy and the lives of more people. If our mission is to make our region, and our city a place where risks are worth taking, and innovation is not only possible, but required, then we have a responsibility to more than just our own teams. Being an entrepreneur is one of the most difficult and stressful jobs out there, and you will need all the help you can in order to succeed. It’s not because you have the ability to automate a workflow or a service that people will rush to it to use it, or investors will throw money at you like it’s 1999. You will have to learn how to present it, how to manage it, how to plan it etc. And if you can do that, your ideas can really change the world. Without that, even the best ideas will never get anywhere.

For this reason, I have decided to make some of the knowledge we share and impart during the program available to a larger audience. I used the analogy of the open-source movement because, first I’m a strong believer in this model, having relied on and contributed myself to the open-source movement, and second because this is something StartupYard will do absolutely free of charge. Free as in Free Beer!

 

How Will This Work?

We are going to select a few specific domains in which we think first-time entrepreneurs could benefit from more knowledge and experience. Pitching, for example. Once you have an idea, the first thing you are most likely to have to do is to convince people it’s a good idea, i.e. you’re going to have to pitch. Pitching is not easy, and StartupYard Community Manager Lloyd Waldo and I have already written extensively on this topic, on this very blog.

Last week, during the Open-House event, the audience sat through 8 ninety-seconds pitches, and it was clear that the majority of the presenters could do with more training on how to grab the attention of a live audience and deliver a compelling story. It’s not that hard, and there are a lot of resources out there, but nothing can beat a one-to-one coaching session. Unfortunately, those are not that easily available locally. This is typically the kind of topic we work hard on during the StartupYard program, putting teams through extensive feedback from mentors and the StartupYard team, and this is the kind of resource we are going to make available.

In no particular order, we will run free workshops for tech entrepreneurs on:

  • How to pitch efficiently
  • How to write a Press Release
  • How to use best practices in copywriting
  • How to make user projections
  • How to plan a launch
  • How to make financial projections

 

The final list is not finalised yet but the goal is clear: the more founders we can train on these topics, the more likely they will be to succeed. For me, this is a strong motivator and goal, and we plan to help as many entrepreneurs as possible outside of our regular acceleration program. These sessions will be one-to-one, personalised and free. That being said, our time remains a limited resource, and you will still have to apply for available spaces, but we will do our best to accommodate as many of those interested as we possibly can.

The sessions will start in January. We will post the registration form and the program then. Stay tuned, and I look forward to helping as many entrepreneurs as possible to grow their skills, and discover the ones they didn’t know they had.

 

 

Cedric Maloux: 4 Tips for Targeting Your Elevator Pitch

We’ve gone in-depth in the past  about honing your pitch, crafting a position statement, and talking about your ideas in clear, relatable ways. Today we’re going to talk about what I’ll call the “Targeted Elevator Pitch.”

By the way, 20 Teams signed up in just 3 days this past week, to be a part of our Dec. 4th “Pitch-Off,” as part of the StartupYard-Node5 Accelerator Open House. Out of these, we have room for less than half, but each team will pitch for just 90 seconds, with no slides or other visual aids. If these teams can deliver a perfect Elevator Pitch, then 90 seconds should be easy.

 

Cedric Maloux pitching StartupYard

Cedric Maloux pitching StartupYard

We all know the elevator pitch of course. It’s the 30-second version of your pitch that tries to position your company with an investor, and sell them on the idea, if not the whole investment, within the space of time it takes to get from the ground floor to (hopefully) the penthouse.

You’ll deliver this version of your pitch in so many situations, and so often, that you may lose sight of its real purpose, which is not really to grow awareness of your company or your ideas, but instead to generate interest so your audience will be hungry for more and become your allies in your search for investment, partners, and other opportunities.

The problem is that it’s hard to keep in mind that different people will hear your elevator pitch in very different ways. Some people may be impressed by you and your status as an entrepreneur, while others may be having bad day, have heard too many pitches recently, or are not interested in your idea for the same reasons that others may be. Finding and exploiting the interests of your target are key to your success.

The elevator pitch is about aligning your audience to you, grabbing your audience’s attention in one sentence. How can you bring them to your level? You’ve been living/working/researching your subject for months, even years, and they have not. How can you bridge that gap in one sentence, and make sure they go from not knowing who you are, to being eager to hear what you have to say? The last thing you want to do is start blasting who you are, what you do to someone who is not fully ready to listen.

For this reason, the first sentence of your pitch should not be about you but WHY what you are about to say after is interesting/important/relevant/sensational/worth listening to. Your mission is to grab their interest in less than 5 seconds. Once you put them in that place/time where you know they are truly listening, then you can deliver your pitch efficiently. Otherwise you might as well talk to the wall. Psychology studies can help us here a lot as we’ll see.

So here are 4 keys to targeting your elevator pitch, so you’ll be sure your audience is ready to listen to you.

 

The elevator pitch is also suitable for most Prague escalators.

The elevator pitch is also suitable for most Prague escalators.

 

Create Consistency

People have a general desire to appear consistent in their behaviour. A famous set of experiments has shown that when someone is asked a hypothetical question, such as “would you consider volunteering for X cause?” No matter their initial answer, they are over 25% more likely to agree to volunteer after being asked directly, than those who are not asked the question hypothetically first.

This is commonly known as “foot in the door,” psychology, or the consistency effect. That is, if you ask someone a hypothetical question where the obvious answer is positive, then they are much more likely to answer positively when asked more direct questions.

Think about it: If someone called you and said: “Hi, do you think it’s unfair that telecom companies charge so much for data roaming in Europe?” If you’re like me, you’d say “hell yes, it’s totally unfair, and it makes me crazy.”

Now consider what would happen if someone called you and said simply: “Are you interested in getting the best data roaming rates in Europe?” :Click:

But in the first case, since you’ve already answered once with a yes, you will be much more likely to allow the salesperson who posed this question (and showed some affinity for your feelings along the way), to finish their sales pitch. You might still not buy, but you’ll feel much more inclined to listen attentively. This is the power of the consistency effect, and the building of rapport with your target. Getting a person to answer “yes,” to anything; literally to almost any question, is better than launching into a pitch directly. Saying “this traffic’s crazy… isn’t it?” Is better than nothing, and the more you can show that you share the interests of the target of your pitch; the more specific you can be in eliciting a positive response, the better.

 

Ask a Data Backed Question – Reach out to their logical brain

A fact is worth a 1,000 opinions, and when it comes to pitching, your audience is more likely to be interested in facts than in your opinion (who are you anyway?). For this reason, starting your pitch with strong data as an introduction is a great way to appeal to their intelligence, and make them realize that what you are about to say is big/important. A data backed question is a great way to grab their attention.

“Did you know that the worldwide mobile gaming market is going to be worth $10 Billion in two years, and that 52% of casual gamers are women?”

This has two immediate effects. First it shows your target that you do know how big a market you’re talking about, and it also shows that you may have an insight or an angle on that market that is unexploited, or has hidden potential that you can unlock.

There was a great example of this in the pitch from founder Nikola Todorovic of Warrant.ly, one of our 2014 alumni. He asked: “Did you know that X Billion dollars a year are wasted in unclaimed warrantee payouts, and that most of this money is wasted because consumers lose track of their paperwork?” That’s a very powerful question. There are potentially billions of dollars being left on the table, because the warrantee system is so broken. And that’s a prospect that is always attractive to an investor.

business-bar-chart-1392339-m

 

The Power of Because

Dr. Robert Cialdini writes in his 1984 Best-Seller Influence, the Power of Persuasion, about the power of “because.” Below is a synopsis of his position:

It’s a well-known principle of human behavior that when we ask someone to do us a favor (in our case, listening to our pitch) we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply respond better when given reasons to do something.

A famous set of experiments asked grad students to request that riders on the New York subway give up their seats. Students who were tasked with asking for seats for no stated reason, had minimal success, and were even drawn into verbal conflicts with the people they asked. However, when students were allowed to ask for a seat, while giving an innocuous reason for doing so: “I am tired,” “my legs hurt,” riders were overwhelmingly willing to accommodate the them.

The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason is nearly total: Ninety-four percent of people asked in a similar experiment, if someone could skip ahead of them in line for a Xerox machine “because I’m in a rush,” allowed the experimenter to skip the line. Compare this success rate to the results when the request is not justified. Under those circumstances, only 60 percent of those asked complied.

Subsequent experiments further showed that the specific reason was not as important as the specific word “because.” In fact, if the experimenter simply stated that they wished to skip the line “because I need to make copies” (which is not a justifiable reason for skipping the line to a copy machine), 93% of subjects still conceded their place in line.

So give a reason to your audience to listen to you by using the power of because. “Let me tell you about our project because….” Try to use a valid reason but remember that it does not matter as much as you might think. They now have a reason to listen to you.

These are just 3 simple tips. At the end of the day, put yourself in the shoes of the person in front of you. Is what I am saying interesting because I am saying it, or is it because I can justify its interestingness? You surely have been in a conversation where people were talking to you, and you are just day dreaming or nodding along, but not listening. The reason might be that they did not include you in the conversation: they didn’t make it about you. This leads us to our 4th tip.

 

Excluding To Better Include

Another way to include someone in your thinking is to actually exclude the person from something else. “I know you are not the target audience for this, but did you know that….” This intro is very powerful because the recipient mind thinks: “I’m about to learn something new here. I better listen”. We all like to learn new things and grow as smart people, so if you tell a person they don’t know something simply because they have not been looking at it, they are much more likely to listen and decide for themselves. But they have to listen to you in the first place to do that!