Meet Decissio: Your Jarvis for Investment Decisions

Decissio is StartupYard’s second portfolio company from Kosovo,  following on the success of Gjirafa, from 2014. Dite Gashi is an expert in blockchain and AI technology, who set out with a simple vision: making decisions make sense. Through the course of the SY program, Dite focused more and more on the decision making process for investors, accelerators, and portfolio managers for monetary funds, eventually identifying Decissio’s kick-off product.

I sat down with Dite this week to talk about how he got here, and why he thinks he can change the way investors and startups communicate, and make decisions together.

Hi Dite, tell us a bit about where the idea for Decissio came from? Why decisions?

I have a strong technical background in computer science and I’ve recently graduated with an MBA. I think of myself as a good bridge between technology principles and business-economics. As I was working with blockchain solutions for several years, I could not help but see emerging patterns between these fields.

My feeling is that if you take the state of any existing entity today, whether it is a business, organization, country or even an individual, their current state is defined by decisions made previously. If you look at it from this perspective, the decision making process and history can be represented as a ledger.

Decissio, StartupYard

Dite Gashi, left, participating in StartupYard’s voice training workshop

A topic that fascinated me since I can remember is the distinction between success and failure. How come some companies manage to grow so quickly and maintain their success? What about others, who seem to have everything in order – just to see t all crash down like a sand castle? How can we quantify these?

The history of mankind is man trying to master nature. As humans we always have been obsessed with avoiding dangers and seizing opportunities by making the right decisions. At its core that is what defines our survival and growth.

We have done that in several ways and the compounded knowledge that we have has served us very well. With big data and smart algorithms being introduced, our progress will achieve exponential growth. We want to be a part of the revolution in a narrow scale starting with investment decisions.

You joined StartupYard as a “napkin startup,” meaning you had no code written, and no finalized product idea. Now you’ve identified a market, and you’re building a product. How did you get from there to here?

As Peter Thiel says in his book, now the startup classic “From Zero to One” getting started from just an idea to actual customers is the hardest part. I am glad StartupYard was there to help us make the leap.

The evolution of Decissio has been very much a child of real-life experience. I have personally spoken to more than 20 people involved in venture capital, and Decissio as a concept was born out of these deep discussions.

Decissio_Homepage

When I joined StartupYard, I knew I wanted to use blockchain technology and machine learning, to help decision making processes. What I didn’t know yet was just how profound the problems with investment decision making really are. And one of the profoundest problems in investment decision making is that of information: what is relevant information and what isn’t? How do we understand our own inherent biases about information?

Human beings are good at judging other human beings, for example. We have feelings about people, and we are great at certain kinds of pattern recognition. We are good at recognizing things that are missing; things that are just sort of off. We know when we don’t like something or someone, even if we don’t know why. So many early-stage investors rightly say that the bulk of their decision making process is about people.

But that’s just a part of the story. The truth is that information bias can change the way we feel as well. Someone who we wouldn’t normally trust can trick us or mislead us by giving us indications that they are doing better than they are. We can call this “fake traction,” or “fast talking,” and it’s something investors are very familiar with. Investor, particularly in very risky and speculative industries, have to be constantly aware that they can be led down the garden path if they aren’t very aware of what has actually been proven, and what is just talk.

And that understanding slowly evolved into Decissio, which became a platform where real and verifiable information can be gathered, and more importantly, contextualized so that an investor can easily and clearly see the real situation of a startup or a company they want to invest in, or which they have in their portfolio, and use that intelligence to augment their own decision making.

What are some of the key pain points for VC investors, or accelerators, or others, and how do you solve them?

As noted above, a key point is data. There is usually not a lack of data, but a problem of scope, timeliness, accuracy, and precision. Many startup investors that I spoke with shared experiences of being unable to make decisions about investments because the data they were seeing was not clear enough, not presented in the right way, or was too broad or too specific to base decisions on.

And that problem doesn’t stop when a company gets an investment. Plenty of startup investors also complained of how difficult it really is to know the status of a startup in their portfolio, relying on the founders themselves to come forward with that info. The founders first of all pick the data they want to share themselves, and sometimes it isn’t the right data, or the data they provide isn’t helpful to the investor, or doesn’t provide the investor a chance to intervene and help the startup.

Dashboard

An early prototype of a Decissio dashboard

 

The basis of a good relationship has to be one of understanding. So Decissio is going to solve that problem by bringing a startup’s relevant data directly to the investor in a very easy to use dashboard, that provides a range of datapoints from the APIs of common platforms, like Google Analytics, MixPanel, Intercom, even Slack. The idea is to give the investor a very clear heads-up on exactly what the current status of the company is, including even clips about them from the news and social media, backed up with real live data that can’t be faked, or “massaged” or sugar coated.

On the other hand, all the great data in the world isn’t very useful if you can’t contextualize it and use it to make better choices. That’s why Decissio will be more than just a data platform- it will be a decision engine that helps investors to get actionable advice about investment decisions. We will do this by learning from the way investors use the platform, and, over time, by widening our understanding of data trends and their relationships to the industries in which our investors work.

Over time, we will be able to build an engine that deeply understands the trends in the market, and provides actionable advice to investors, and eventually to startups as well- helping them to calibrate their expectations for investors based on the real situation.

Without revealing any secrets, what was the thing that surprised you most, after talking to over 20 VC investors about their decision making processes?

The fact that many of them aren’t really as organized or as systematic as you would expect, given the power they have and the amount of money they manage. In the end, we are all just people- and investors are just like everyone else (although they may not see themselves that way).

Most of them do not have strong data solutions, and I was astonished by how much of their decisions were based on gut feelings. That serves them well and our goal is not to suplant their judgement – at the end of the day they still make the decisions. We want to enhance their gut feelings with data.

This is sort of like using AI for medical diagnostics. The AI is very good at recognizing patterns in data. But just in data. An AI can’t tell you if someone is lying by the look on their face (at least not yet), and an AI doesn’t have a lifetime of connected experiences that inform its judgement about people, the way a person obviously does.

So we don’t seek to change that. But we do seek to help in situations where judgement is clouded by our misunderstanding of data.

I will give you an example: in the 1990s, studies were conducted by researchers at Cook County Hospital in Chicago about triage decisions in cases of suspected heart attack. What the studies found was that the questions that physicians asked patients they suspected of having had a heart attack were actually making them less likely to give a proper diagnosis. For instance, asking a patient whether they have had a previous heart attack, according to the data, does not help a physician to diagnose the patient. And yet physicians always asked, and that changed their standard of care.

The result was a decision chart that was implemented around the world, in which doctors were instructed to only ask specific questions that helped them make a determination of the best care for the patient. The result was a rise in the response time, and the success rate, of treating heart attacks.

The physicians, at the end of the day, still need their judgement to understand how to treat the patient, how to talk to the patient, how to assess them, and what not to do. But it turned out that in this specific case, having more data didn’t mean making better decisions. Not all data is good data. So having AI as a backup for human decision making processes is very important in a data-filled world.

You talk in your pitch about “decision fatigue.” Can you explain why this is such a big problem, and why investors should be particularly concerned about it?

Our minds have a limited capability, and there is simply no way around that. The only way we can go about it is to acknowledge our limitations and let advanced tools help us when possible.

We make around 35,000 decisions a day. And each of those tiny choices is a mental effort. It can tire us and stress us out. Mistakes earlier in a single day can affect your thinking for the rest of the day. A bad experience 10 years ago can negatively affect your decision making today. We can all relate to that experience.

You make around 35,000 decisions a day. No wonder you're tired - Sy2016/2 Startup: https://decissio.com/ Click To Tweet

Decision making stamina is of limited capability so it is important to use it wisely. Several key decision makers of our times including Obama, Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs handled this by eliminating small decisions – such as what should I wear today, by having the same type of outfits ready for them daily. As trivial as that sounds, that ensures them one decision less per day, which in annual terms compounds fairly well. Not feeling the stress of wondering if you’re dressed appropriately can be a huge relief.

Investors are prone to decision fatigue since the nature of their work involves large sets of daily decisions. In addition to that, all their investment decisions are important. Deal flow management, term sheet structuring, hiring and firing can all take a toll on the day of a investor. As these decisions may or may not break the firm, if they make bad investment decisions surely places them in a dangerous place. And the thing is, having a bad morning can cause you to make a very expensive mistake later in the day. It’s very random.

So we help them by eliminating some of that burden- at least the part that they have the least control over to begin with.

How will investors use Decissio to make better decisions?

In an investment decision there are inputs that come from the investment specification. A VC receives  startup data, due diligence, market research and financials as inputs. Then there are the key performance indicators that are results coming from the operation of the company.

Decissio correlates successful outcomes with positive inputs to give investors hindsight advantage, before they decide to go with an investment. We use decision trees and self-adjusting regression algorithms to connect these factors in a way that was not possible before. That means an investor has the benefit of experiences they don’t personally have- Decissio will be able to recognize trends no human will notice.

Before the investment is made, Decissio performs a pre-screen where it looks at ratios of data provided and whether they make sense. It cannot always determine if something is wrong or right, instead it raises red flags for the investor team to go and analyze thoroughly.

Our algorithms learn from hundred of running investments therefore the network effect that they benefit from is massive. We place that massive power back in the hands of individual firms.

What about startups. Many mentors cautioned you that startups will be disinclined to use Decissio, because it seems too intrusive. What will change their minds?

Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and data driven companies are revolutionizing how business is done across industries. The revolution is already here and we have to get investors to join it. Not every investment firm has the funds to build their own data teams and solutions. We have built an easy to onboard tool that’s intuitive to use. Using Decissio saves far more time and effort, not to mention money, than the efforts it requires to onboard a company in the platform.

That being said, our belief is that startups will eventually welcome this kind of process, because it will be much more transparent, fair, and informative for them. They won’t be wasting their own time chasing investors who aren’t interested, and they’ll be able to see clearly what investors expect, and what’s wrong with their own numbers.  To us, that’s a win-win situation.

What are your goals for growth in the next year or so?

We are moving in full gear towards the first MVP which will be ready in early spring for alpha testers. We want to expand our reach to 100 venture capital and private equity firms by the end of 2017. We are currently working on this and we value our connections highly. Our goal is to learn, grow and serve our investor needs the best possible way.

The MVP should be an instantly useful and actionable set of data and insights that an investor can refer to on a daily or hourly basis, that not only assures they are informed, but also keeps them on their toes, and questioning their underlying assumptions. That’s the initial success condition we want to meet.

How about long term? Where do you see Decissio as a company in 5 years?

Our goal is to scale our technology to serve hundred of thousands of investors and decision makers globally. As soon as we have a stable product in terms of revenue, we are planning to expand our reach into other industries. Learnings from early stage investing, where the data is quite loose and fluid, will help us in tackling more staid industries, in which the data are more stable and predictable.

Our goal is to saturate all fields where collective decision making occurs. Being a part of a startup you always can plan, however the environment is constantly shifting so one needs to be flexible. What we are doing within is creating scalable process and methods from the get go, that allow us to scale quickly

You’re our second startup from Kosovo. Can you talk a bit about the unique experience of starting a company in that region? What are your unique advantages and challenges?

I’m proudly the second one from many to come.

We were lucky to have [StartupYard 2014 startup] Gjirafa’s success coming before us, they really paved the way for us and other startups to start working with StartupYard. This is my second started startup in the region and I have learned so much during the process. If we are dealing with online solutions then it becomes easier because you can market your products anywhere.

On top of that the government does not interfere, so you can enjoy not having to deal with bureaucracy. Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in the European continent. However, our crumbling education system does not produce candidates that are ready to join the job market, leaving professional training to companies. In a sense that might sound like a disadvantage but we have a high employee retention rate, which is important. Young people in Kosovo highly value their work relationships.

Last but not least the standard of living is lower than in most of Europe, therefore if carefully managed, companies operating there can become cost leaders.

How has your experience with mentorship been so far? What surprised you? Which mentors had the biggest impact?

Starting off the acceleration program I was quite stubborn and persistent in my ideas, which is a trait a large amount of startup founders have. In order to go anywhere worthy, one must be persistent.

However mentoring session had a very humbling effect on me. We had the chance to speak with many well known professionals who are kings on their fields of work. Including several high level executives that manage important decisions and millions of euros. That shifted my perspective from a “I know a lot” to “listen and learn” attitude and it served me very well. I became very equipped with knowledge I would have no other way managed to get in such a short period of time.

In addition to sharing advice, mentors have very important professional networks that if you work with them, they would be happy to open up for you. Mentoring sessions in StartupYard I would say introduce an upcoming entrepreneur to the crème de la crème of Prague.

Everyone here really wants you to succeed and of course you never want to let them down.

How has your experience been with acceleration at StartupYard? Did it match your expectations?

I only heard great things about StartupYard before coming here and initially I was thinking it’s probably okay but most of it is going to end up being hype.

I was wrong, StartupYard managed to surpass all my expectations. The teams are so diverse, the staff itself is super knowledgeable and helpful. There is a no-bullshit atmosphere here and everyone is really pushing the hardest that they can. The clock on the wall has a sticker that says “Need more time? – Sleep faster!” and on the first week here I thought “That’s funny” – now I realize that it’s so true. I haven’t found a way to sleep faster yet though.

Beeem, StartupYard

Meet Beeem, A Website for Every Thing

Google is betting on beacons. They aren’t the first, but this time it’s with a twist. It initially struck us as odd, that though beacons as a concept have been around for a long time (Apple launched iBeacon in 2013, and we even accelerated an iBeacon startup back then), we had very rarely seen any really practical use case for them. Apple treated iBeacon as a bit of a novelty, failing to establish an attractive platform for developers, or to educate the public on how beacons could be used.

That’s changing– beacon technology may finally be getting its day in the sun. The proliferation of bluetooth enabled smartphones, and the rapidly dropping cost of the physical hardware mean that sooner rather than later, beacons will be an integral part of our experience of the world around us. Google calls it the “Physical Web,” and evangelists inside Google see it as tomorrow’s answer to the disconnect between in-person activities, like shopping, visiting a museum, or taking public transport (or parking… yes even parking), and our lives on the web.

Meet Beeem, the StartupYard 2017 startup that is looking to bring the Physical web to your smartphone. They’re doing it with a “WordPress for the physical web,” a platform that allows pre-configured beacons to broadcast the URL of a microsite which can be launched by anyone nearby using Android or Google Chrome, on any smart device. Beeem helps businesses, event spaces, and others to create web-apps and pages that connect their in-person customers with their web presence, allowing for smart enabled storefronts, content, interactive display ads, customer retargeting online via Facebook and Google, and even payment systems.

Beeem.co, StartupYard, beacons

 

With Beeem, a restaurant could easily allow customers to order electronically, without having to wait in line, or a museum could do away with expensive audio-guides in favor of a web-app. An electronics store could allow customers to order and pay from the aisle, rather than lugging their purchases to the counter, and cities could eliminate pay boxes for public transport or parking. To Beeem, the Physical Web means is a website for every thing- the opportunity to create a web presence for virtually any physical object or location, with a central content management system that allows a beacon’s owner to easily configure the web experience it provides.

I caught up with Ferenc Brachmann, CEO and Co-Founder of Beeem, to talk about the Physical Web, and his young company:

Hi Ferenc, how did you come up with the idea for Beeem?

I think this story is going to sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever started a startup, really. I was at a Metallica concert in 2014. I’m really into thrash metal music. Anyway, at the concert, they had a voting system, where fans could vote on their favorite songs, and the band would play them. Pretty cool.

But here’s the thing: they asked fans to vote via SMS. In 2014. To this day I remember seeing the message to vote in an SMS, and looking down at my pimped up new phone with a quad core CPU and 1 GB of memory, and realizing there was something very wrong here.  And that got me thinking a bit.

Beeem, StartupYard, Central Europe Accelerator

Co-Founder CEO of Beeem, Ferenc Brachmann

Of course, the concept of using the internet to interact live and in person was not new at all. But the fact is that there were essentially two approaches, neither of which work incredibly well. Either you could create your own app or website, and populate it with interactive widgets and forms (and face all the challenges of compatibility and scalability that entails), or you could use a platform designed specifically for the kind of interactions you want, and get everyone to use that.

Metallica could do an app, but then everyone would have to download it and it would still have to connect with something on their back end. Using SMS was the platform solution. It could easily have been some other web service, like Google forms, or one of a hundred voting platforms. It works, kind of, but it leaves a lot to be desired.

For starters, Metallica can’t turn around and leverage all those people who voted via SMS to come to their next show or buy an album. What can they do? Spam them with SMS messages? That won’t work, and it will be really expensive. They don’t own the channel they’re using in that case. The telco owns SMS, and charges a lot to use it despite it being decades old. They’re a gatekeeper.

This issue bothered me for a while, until I went on a trip to South Korea, and had an eye-opening experience. In Korea, mobile internet penetration is basically 100%. It’s everywhere, and it’s fast: you can get a strong connection even in the middle of the Busan Fireworks Festival, which means that there are about 1 Million other people around you in a very small harbour also connected to and using the same networks.

And yet there too, companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook function as the “gatekeepers,” just like the telcos formerly did in the days of SMS. And like the telcos, these big tech companies aren’t necessarily the best medium through which a live venue or a business could communicate with its customers. Their value propositions are all different, and none are a good fit.

WIth Apple, you need an app. That’s a lot of time to download, install, and log-in, not to mention the limited storage space. Google has the same problem with Android apps, or even with search, which requires you to search for the business you’re looking for, only to end up on their website, which is unlikely to work well for communicating with a business then and there.

Facebook is slightly better, especially with their focus on messaging and pages but even there, you don’t have real control over your own audience as a business. And people still ultimately have to actively find you there to connect to you.

So that’s a long story to say: Beeem is the answer to all that. It’s a way for businesses to connect directly with their customers, and to have complete control, without having to rely on any one of these other platforms where they can’t be in control. And it solves the problem of scalability and repeatability that a lot of businesses have, which is: maintaining a web presence takes a big commitment of resources to stay up to date. With Beeem, that part is all taken care of – you’re left just to worry about what you show your customers, and not about which platform to use, or whether your technology is up to date. The future of apps is no apps. No downloading. No waiting. The Physical Web is there when you need it.

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The Future of Apps is... No Apps. via @beeemapp – a Website for Every Thing. Click To Tweet

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How is your team uniquely suited to taking on the status quo?

After my trip to Korea, I came home and shared my frustration with my friends Norbert and Peter. Norbert is the owner of a  software company  with a ton of experience, and Peter is the brains behind  the biggest e-learning platform in Hungary. I knew they were just the right guys for the job, so we formed a team, and we’ve been working together now for over a year.

Our team is ideal, I think, because we all really love thinking about these very complex problems of how people use technology, how businesses use it, and how the system in general fails to really reconcile these two sides. Once you start looking at some of the behaviors businesses and people have adopted to communicate, it’s really bizarre.

Beeem Teeem

For example, you walk into a store -let’s say an electronics store- and you find an item you think might be the right thing for you. Does this part sound familiar? You probably pull out your phone, a computer more powerful than the sum of all the world’s processing power combined 20 years ago, and you… Google it. You Google it. And Google may or may not tell you what you need to know about the product. Maybe it even offers you a better price, and it certainly shows you ads from the store’s own competitors.

Do you think that makes sense to the store, which is bearing the cost of stocking the product, that its customers can walk in, Google something, and order it for cheaper somewhere else? There have even been movements to ban use of the Amazon barcode reader in stores in the US because of this problem. People would “shop” in stores that they never bought anything from, and Amazon would benefit from the capital costs that the in-person retailer bore to keep the store open.

That’s ultimately bad for the consumer and for the business, because in the end, the platform is going to win that battle. Cheaper is cheaper. Our team is genuinely committed to reversing that problem, and giving in-person retail a new and unbeatable advantage: which is a direct line to a customer who is interested in something right here, right now.

We need in-person retail. The social aspect of shopping and dining will always be important. Perhaps now more so than ever.  But these businesses need new tools to fight the battle with the big platforms. That’s what Beeem is all about.

Where do you see the biggest impact for this technology in the next 1-3 years?

I haven’t touched much on what Beeem actually is, so I’ll talk a bit about that.

Beeem is like wordpress for the physical web. The physical web is something that will continue to grow in importance in the coming years, as physical beacons (using Bluetooth), become ubiquitous and cheap. What these beacons do (at least right now), is very simple. They can broadcast a very basic URL. A physical web beacon is detectable from any smart device with Bluetooth, and will continue to be integrated deeper into our devices both on iOS and Android work.

What we do, is help businesses to leverage that technology, by sending anyone within range of that beacon to a web-app that is set up under the complete control of that business. We provide the content management system that supports that web app, and provides the business with easy drag-and-drop tools to build the app that suits their business most. We can support virtually anything a smartphone can do, including easy stuff like messaging, video and audio, and even payments, but also complex things, like live interactive programs and even games that combine the real world and the web.

Ultimately, even beacons themselves will not be that important. Anything electronic will be beacon. A phone, a watch, and soon even a clothing tag can broadcast it’s own webpage, broadcasting useful content and services tied to that object specifically. Soon, you’ll be able to “search” the physical web that is around you, and interact directly with every day objects using your phone, or your watch, or maybe VR glasses, or something else entirely.

That’s why Beeem is an App for Every Thing. Because in the Internet of Things, nothing is very useful unless you can easily and seamlessly connect to it and tell it what to do, or ask it to help you. Beeem allows a business or a venue, or anyone, to target their messaging directly to individuals around them, with customized services, made only for them, based on past shopping habits, or location, or many other factors. It could be kind of like the advertising seen in the in movie Minority Report [starring Tom Cruise].

Do you worry about what this means for privacy?

I don’t. But not because I’m not concerned about privacy or about issues of space and invasive advertising.

The truth is that visions like that in Minority Report tend to get the general idea (ads that talk to you as an individual), but they get the execution all wrong. The truth is that people’s standards shift over time, and technology and business have a way of fitting into new standards as they evolve. For example, I very much doubt that businesses would be successful if they shouted at their customers in the way that ads do in many dystopian future films. In reality, we find that as advertising becomes more targeted, it should become more useful, and the need to be aggressive or “salesy” should actually diminish.

Annoying marketing is also inefficient marketing. It spoils the customer experience rather than giving the customer something they really want. The physical web allows online interaction to be much more efficient, and much more relevant to the customer. Nothing you don’t need- everything you do.

Ultimately, the best form of marketing and advertising is the kind you don’t even consider marketing and advertising, because it gives you exactly what you need, when you need it, and never offers you things you don’t want. We don’t consider the signage inside a store to be advertising, because we choose to see it. The same will be true of the physical web: we will be asking for this information, just as when you walk into a restaurant you are, in a way “asking” to be seated and served.

Let’s talk about some of the use cases right now. What can people do with the physical web and Beeem today?

As of today, you can create a fully customized web-app that your customers can access directly from the notification screen on  their Android phones, or via Google Chrome for iOS. We expect that support for the physical web will soon expand in all Chromium browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Opera) and we see hints that other browser vendors will soon join the list.

Beeem, Product

Businesses, venues, or public spaces like museums and libraries can today create pages for visitors, gather instant feedback or field questions, share content like videos and images, and also receive content from visitors, such as visitor photos or other media.

We will soon be adding e-commerce to this mix, meaning that business can direct customers, with only a single tap on their phones, directly to the portal to purchase items from the store. This could be applied in all manner of environments, from sports events to public transportation. No searching, no downloading- just tap and go.

Those are a lot of diverse and complex areas. Where do you want to focus first, and why?

We’ve been focusing on live events like trade shows, sports, and conferences, because that’s often where the early tech adopters are. There are a lot of people with open minds, and strong incentives to be unique in their fields, so we are targeting hobbyists and geeks to really get a sense of how our customers will use the platform.

In order to scale, we’ll need eventually to shift focus to businesses and use-cases that will be easier to apply to a huge number of customers. Things like retail-location web-apps that let people buy on their phones instead of waiting in line, or restaurant apps that let people order on the go. To accomplish that, we are looking at a mix of online marketing, and cooperating with resellers who already provide payment, IT, or web services to these kinds of customers.

What do you see as not really working in the current status quo?

Well, the status quo certainly works for the gatekeepers. Their ad revenues are built on the lack of penetration that businesses have among their target customers. But ultimately, it just doesn’t make sense for consumers to be directed to 3rd party platforms that aren’t controlled by the companies they are actually doing business with.

There will soon be 5 billion smartphones in the world. Having a handful of platforms funneling all the traffic and keeping all the advertising revenue just isn’t right, or fair. Facebook and Google, as they grow in dominance, can demand more control over what businesses do on their platform, when it should be the opposite.

Beeem, StartupYard

That forces businesses to play the game of Google or Facebook, instead of focusing on what they do best. It encourages them to be more like others, and less like themselves. And that ultimately costs consumers money. If you can spend your marketing budget more efficiently, and target it at the right people, then you can provide a better service at a lower cost.

We’ve seen this all before in the history of the web. Apple and Facebook could be seen as some later version of Prodigy or AOL – closed systems that wall off huge online communities. Facebook wants people to spend time on Facebook. Not go somewhere else. They want to scoop up all the customers, and control the whole experience of the web in order to make money, just like Prodigy and AOL wanted to before Netscape. The World Wide Web, at least for a while, stopped companies like AOL from doing that. It offered a variety and authenticity a single company couldn’t.

Mobile has given companies like Facebook and Google, and especially Apple, a second shot at end-to-end control of our online experience. They want us to stay in their worlds, and not create anything outside of them. But hey, that’s just not right. I believe it isn’t the way forward for business, or a healthy open society.

Where do you see Beeem in 5 years time?

Powering this revolution of direct, instant P2P communication between everyone and every thing. We aim to be significant in 5 years time, hopefully working towards becoming a global infrastructure provider.

How has your experience with mentorship at StartupYard been? What surprised you?

The mentors have truly been amazing. I personally never thought that you can put such a strong team of mentors together in the CEE region. Out of the close to 70 meetings we had, we had over a dozen fantastic meetings.

A lot of names come to mind but what has really blew my mind is that several mentors have reached out to us afterwards to recommend us or to get more involved in what we’re doing. That really showed me they take this seriously.

I’d like to specifically mention [Former SY Mentor in Residence] Philip Staehelin, [Longtime SY mentor] Tomas Riha, [Springtide Ventures] Karel Tusek and [Axa Insurance CFO] Sebastien Guidoni who all went out of their way and did things that we really did not expect from a mentor.

How has it been for you at StartupYard?

We got accepted to another accelerator in the region, but we decided not to go. We met Lloyd Waldo in Vienna at the Pioneers festival. We had a really good talk and he kind of sold me on the idea that the program here is good. Later I met Cedric Maloux in Budapest and at that time I realized that the program is probably going to be very good for us. Especially because all of Beeem’s co-founders own companies and know business, it’s just that we’ve never owned a startup before.

The startup mindset is all about scaling. It’s about repeating something millions of times. We wanted to get out of our comfort zone, out of our country where we know the market. Even though I had high expectations I think that this program is just spot on. The depth of mentors here is surpassing even my really high expectations. I think Lloyd and Cedric and the gang have their act together. They know how to put you in difficult spots, how to challenge you without you ever knowing about it.

Meet Cryptelo: The Unbreakable Dropbox

Cryptelo joins StartupYard as few companies do, with a fully launched product and existing customers. Founded in 2014, Cryptelo is an end-to-end secure file storage and messaging platform, offering a measure of protection unparalleled by the major file storage, transfer, and communication platforms.

Cryptelo, originally targeted at security conscious consumers, has shifted its focus toward organizations with highly sensitive data, and a need to make controlled access to that data readily available, and totally safe. Already becoming a favorite among the Czech legal community, Cryptelo is poised to challenge big storage providers by offering first-in-class protection against all manner of cyber-attacks, including physical penetration. To do this, they’ve recruited one of the world’s leading cryptologists, Vlastimil Klima, who was among the first to crack the SSL protocol, the security relied upon by the world’s banks. I caught up with Founder and CEO Martin Baros, to talk about his technology, and his vision for Cryptelo.

Hi Martin, Cryptelo is a very ambitious project; solving cloud storage security is something the biggest players haven’t really tackled. What made you want to do it?

Martin Baros, Cryptelo, StartupYard

Martin Baros, Founder and CEO of Cryptelo

My personal experience has taught me how important security really is. Years ago, I was hacked, and my intellectual property was stolen. That cost my company over 2 million CZK (about 100,000 Euros).

It was not fair. It felt like a violation- and that’s a common feeling for victims of theft. I blamed myself, but in time, I came to see that people are really being set up to fail when it comes to digital security. Someone, somewhere, decided that security doesn’t sell, and that’s not right. I set out to change it.

So I decided to create my own solution. This was the start of Cryptelo. I believe that no matter how big your company is, you should have an accessible tool for great security to keep your documents yours.

There was a time in which company security was easy: someone just could not read your documents and communications from the other side of the world, much less the other side of the room. But no more. Most information today is created digital. I’m convinced that we must have a full right to decide who can read our documents. This sense that we now have, that nothing we say will stay private, is chilling. It tells us that we cannot be candid and we cannot take intellectual risks and speak our minds. That’s not right at all.

That’s why I like cryptography – it can bring freedom and real security in the current digital era.

Let’s talk a bit about your team. You have some of the best cryptography talent in the world. What makes your team better than any other?

Vlastimil_Klima_Cryptologist

Vlastimil Klima, world leading cryptologist, and the mind behind Cryptelo security.

I have a strong technology background based on studying at MFF UK and 10 years of professional experience as a software developer, team leader and key account manager in projects with Accenture, Wüstenrot and AirBank.

When we developed the technical proof of concept of Cryptelo, I decided to approach Dr. Vlastimil Klíma – one of the best cryptographers in the world. After just an hour’s discussion where I described our vision, he decided to join us and has became part of our team. He created the cryptographical basis of Cryptelo

Then we needed superior implementation. Just imagine a product, which could encrypt all of your data, but wouldn’t be able to decrypt it. It would be secure, for sure, but not that useful.

That’s why I set out to build our team from the most talented programmers I have met during my career. Together we have over 40 years of experience in enterprise development. With this knowledge we started building the best software of our careers.

During development we have applied modern methodologies for software development and created amazing infrastructure, which enabled us to deliver new features almost immediately after they passed through testing. From the beginning we focused on automated testing – the underlying cryptographic elements are tested cross platform, to find incompatibilities which exist between different implementations on different platforms. Each change is built, packaged and is required to pass through wide range of UI tests, where an automated process simulates a user clicking in our application, trying to verify, that everything works as expected. We manage our fleet of servers remotely using SaltStack and monitor a wide range of properties of each host. We have also been running all of our services on docker from the beginning, which allowed us to offer on-premise solution early on.

You’ve experimented with B2C and B2B business models. What are you focusing on now, and why?

We started the service Screesh.com, which is similar to uschovna.cz (a file storage solution), but with strong encryption in the background. We also allowed users to encrypt files with a password directly in the browser without any extension. We believed that this would be much easier than usual way – using winrar with a password and sending documents as attachments.

We observed that even though screesh.com is so easy to use, the number of users was growing slowly. We found out that people individually don’t really understand how to  price their own security. It makes it very difficult to sell a totally secure solution.

We began to realize that a better way is to go for institutions that you trust, and put great security there. We all rely on banks, telco operators and even small businesses on a daily basis. Why should you take sole care of your personal security if big companies aren’t doing it themselves?

Currently, selling digital security to individuals is like selling crash helmets to pedestrians. It doesn’t do much good if the corporations are driving rally cars on the sidewalks.

 

Individual digital security is like crash helmets for pedestrians while companies drive rally cars on sidewalks. @CrypteloDrive Click To Tweet

 

Why do you think it is that in 2017, security discipline is still generally so poor in many companies?

Imagine that you built a city with parks, family houses and skyscrapers. And when everything is ready you find out that you built it in an earthquake zone. But your houses are not ready for circumstances like this. What would you do? Would you demolish the whole city and build it from the scratch?

Cyber attacks are quite similar. Most companies didn’t know they should implement security and they built their businesses without it. And now there are 130 000 cyber attacks every single minute. That’s like 130,000 tiny little Earthquakes, and you’re just praying it doesn’t happen to you.

There is a significant trend to move data to the cloud. Cloud is connected with a lot of risks – you lose physical control of your data. End-to-end encryption is one answer for that. With E2E encryption your data are locked in the black box and travel like this securely over internet and are stored on the server. Only authorized people have the right key to open it on their computers.

All well and good, but the problem is that the most effective way how to implement this level of security is start from scratch. Especially big companies cannot demolish houses in their cities, because there are people already. But the truth is that the infrastructure of many big data companies just wasn’t designed properly. They are built for speed, for flexibility, and for accessibility. You can’t do that and expect unbreakable security at the same time, unless you build something secure from the ground up.

What are, to you, the 2 or 3 biggest mistakes most people make when it comes to their digital security? How can they fix these mistakes?

Cyber security risks are invisible to most people. That’s why they aren’t mindful.

We wouldn’t walk in a bad neighborhood in the night with money in your hand. But we pay online with our credit cards through unknown web pages using unsecured wifi. That’s pretty much the same thing. You won’t automatically get robbed, but if you knew how dangerous it was, you might not do it.

 

You don't walk around with your money out in public. But you do the same online every day. @CrypteloDrive Click To Tweet

 

We wouldn’t use a postcard even for love letter, but we send our personal information and details of million dollar contracts by email. That’s a serious dissonance in our sense of what is secure and what is not.

Worst is that the big players don’t want you to care about security, they want you to use their service and share there as much as possible about your likes, plans, dreams and your friends. This data is gold in the e-commerce business and many businesses are based on it these days. That’s why Facebook will never bring real security to their products. It would kill its business. They will always be playing catch-up with cyber-security because anything more proactive would only slow them down.

It’s also much cheaper if you don’t care about security too much. Have you ever tried to upload a well known movie on a file-storage platform? It’s uploaded in a few seconds. How is that possible? The reason is that users data are shared between accounts. That means, in effect, that the platform is scanning and analyzing everything you upload, and that data is all going somewhere out of your control.

Tell me a bit about your technology: how does Cryptelo work, and why is it unique? What can customers do with the platform?

CrypteloID_Preview_ENG

Cryptelo is a virtual encrypted drive. It has the basic functionalities of a Dropbox or a Google Drive – you can use your web browser to access files from any computer.

Even though Cryptelo is as easy to use as Dropbox, it brings end-to-end encryption and a zero-knowledge server concept. We have a totally different approach to security than Dropbox or Google drive. The standard approach is to create a service, put it on the physical server, and build barriers – spread data into more datacenters, put this servers behind a firewall, keep servers in the datacenter located in an anti-nuclear shield, restrict people who can access it.

But even with top-notch data center security, a “mission impossible” type attack could breach these barriers and gain physical access to the server. That’s about as secure as a bank vault- and bank vaults get robbed all the time.

Our approach is that we also have all these barriers, but when Tom Cruise steals the server, there is nothing useful on it. All data are encrypted and the keys for opening it are not there. The data is useless.

But Cryptelo is not just virtual encrypted drive. Drive is just one of the uses, and a first step toward what we are building with our secure platform. The technology we’ve built is able to secure chat, email, and provide strong authentication based on cryptography.

Just out of interest, why do you think it is that Czech engineers have gained such a strong reputation for security and cryptology prowess? Does something in the culture or history of Czechia make them particularly suited to the task?

It’s probably a combination of talent and environment. Slavic people are known for their strategic, probing thinking, and it’s a bit of justified stereotype that we produce chess masters and rocket scientists faster than we produce world renowned writers and artists. We have these  too, but to Czech people, there is art in working with your hands, and solving puzzles.

If someone describes the rules of a game – law, technical environment – we start to think: Is it bullet proof? Could I bypass it? It’s natural. We just like puzzles and smart solutions. And that’s exactly what maths and cryptography is.

We call it the “Zlate Ceske rucicky,” or “Golden Czech Hands.” Czech people just like to fix things, and to squeeze the tiniest efficiencies out of their materials. Sometimes we say this in a joking way, as a Czech would rather fix something old than buy something new. But it is deep in our culture that we build things that will last a lifetime. Just look at our cities: we have trams that have been running continuously for over 60 years, bridges and towers that have stood for centuries. We build for endurance.

And I think Czech technology proves out that trend as well.  We have had 40 years of communism behind us. Times when we had to find ways to create and fix things with limited resources. Look at our arms industry, or automotive- we produce robust products at low prices.

Combine these things and superior programmers and security experts are born.

And you can really see this trend in Czech: Avast (now together with AVG), TCP Cloud (acquired by Mirantis), TeskaLabs, Apiary (acquired by Oracle).

Before Google built sales offices in Europe, they built a development center in the Czech Republic. No coincidence.

What is the biggest difficulty you have in selling Cryptelo as a solution for your core customers, like law firms or consultancies?

Cryptelo, StartupYard

A look at Cryptelo Drives UI

We are currently targeting trusted institutions that need to set a high bar for their security with client communications, as well as internal communication. That means law firms, tax and finance companies, even banks. And one of the challenges here is that, again, people do not want to think about security. We find, for example, that potential customers often want to buy our solution because of its features, like storage and sharing, and not because it is secure. To them, security is seen as an add-on, and not the core value.

That takes some adjusting, and we need to meet our customers somewhere in the middle. They need to see the value in security, and paying more to have it. But that the same time, they need to feel that they are doing something that will not create an undue burden on them. People don’t want to “buy security.” They want to buy secure solutions- and that means selling both security and the solutions together, and they need to be educated to measure their value appropriately.

That has been a learning process for us, and one we have been applying successfully in our talks with law firms in the Czech Republic. Finding out what is most important to these law firms is key to helping them see the benefits of using Cryptelo- so we have learned more and more to focus on what the customer sees in the solution, not just what we see as its core value.

How has your experience been at StartupYard? What surprised you? Which of the mentors had the biggest impact, and why?

In StartupYard I fully realized that there are two different tracks in building a real company: the hard part of creating a product, and then the even harder part of selling it. It’s crucial to get advice from someone who’s been in your shoes. Thanks to SY we got the opportunity to talk with scores of experienced mentors and entrepreneurs who have all been there, and understand our struggles, and how to get past them. You can’t read this kind of thing in books.

Would you recommend that other startups apply to an accelerator?

100% SY is like a First Aid Kit for most of your business troubles. Imagine that you decide to build a company to fulfill your vision. How will you incorporate, get first money to build MVP? How would you know it wasn’t just a terrible idea, or completely the wrong direction to take?  Where will you meet tens of your potential customer to verify your market fit? How will you create and learn how to perform the perfect pitch, that you need for getting customers and bigger investors?

 

Feedpresso, StartupYard

Meet Feedpresso: A New Way to Get the News

The problem isn’t a new one. And yet it may be even more important today than it has ever been. Since the web started changing the way newspapers, magazines, and even academic journals spread their content, and make money, a constant and seemingly intractable problem has remained firmly resistant to any solution.

How do you deliver, consistently, a broad range of content to a single reader that challenges them, engages them, informs them, and helps them keep an open mind? While institutional media returns to subscription payment models as a bulwark against the dominance of ad-based media and social media sharing (as well as ad-blockers), and paywalls return to the internet in larger numbers, consumers suffer from a lack of quality, trustworthy, and diverse content.

Feedpresso, which is in StartupYard’s current accelerator round,   is the startup tackling that problem. Unlike a typical newsreader or aggregator, they aren’t interested in what your friends like, or what advertisers would prefer you see. Instead, they approach news curation on an individual basis, using machine learning to understand each individual’s information needs, and help them to discover and build a strong stream of high quality content.

They do it all through a cross-platform application that analyzes a person’s reading history, and works constantly to bring that person content that is highly relevant and useful to them personally. I caught up with the founders of FeedPresso this week to talk about their project, and how they’re doing at StartupYard so far.

Cool! Check out the Interview with @Feedpresso, changing the way you find and read the news. #startup #innovate Click To Tweet

Hi Ernest and Tadas, tell us a bit about how you started working together, and why you founded Feedpresso.

Photoshoot SY 2016-2017-35

Feedpresso CoFounder and CEO Tadas Subonis

Tadas: We met 4 years ago when we started our studies at the University of Edinburgh and we had some shared courses.

For the final MSc project I needed to come up with an idea, and at the time I was annoyed that my Feedly inbox was always getting overloaded and I couldn’t find interesting stuff. So I decided to fix that. After my studies I continued working on Feedpresso, and Ernest joined me a few months later.

 

Feedpresso Cofounder Ernest Walzel

Feedpresso Cofounder Ernest Walzel

Ernest: After the university course was over, we parted ways for awhile. Tadas left for Vilnius, Lithuania to start the company and I was starting a new job at the university. Just before he left, I’d given Tadas a €5 note as my investment into the company, I think he still carries it around in his wallet.

Six months later I decided to quit my job and look for something new. Tadas invited me to Lithuania for 1-2 months in the summer. I thought it might be fun to see what Lithuania’s like and to help out on the project for a little. A year and a half later I’m still there.

 

The problem you’re attacking with Feedpresso isn’t new. There have been dozens of attempts to create the “perfect feed” for avid readers. What makes Feedpresso unique?

Tadas:  Since it is started as “Feedly on steroids,” it remains a very customizable tool. You can add any content source in our system and it will work just fine. We’ve also made sure it works in languages besides just English. This is super useful for readers in Europe, and not a common feature.

Finally, our personalization algorithm doesn’t rely on “popularity” or traction of a story to determine what’s interesting – it’s all done on a per-user basis. All other solutions do some kind of “that’s trending, so it must be interesting” approach. The problem inherent in that approach is that it creates feedback loops. Things that are “popular” become more popular, while things that aren’t popular don’t get any traction because something else is taking up all the attention. It’s like a fire sucking the oxygen out of the room.

I don’t know who just decided that we should pay so much attention to what other people are reading, but that has been increasingly the dynamic with most newsreaders and on social media. The question i have is this: is that actually helping people to read things that matter to them? I’m not sure it is.

Ernest: One problem with most global products is that they aren’t local-friendly. They start with English and they pretty much stick with English. Only roughly half of Europeans speak English. Most of our generation consumes lots of content in English, but we all want to consume local content too. This market is hugely underserved at the moment. Not all news is in English -particularly local and specialized content- and yet virtually all the tools to find content focus on English.

Feedpresso’s offer is to combine all of those big, trusted sources with your local sources like magazines, newspapers, and little blogs. For example, my Feedpresso is a mixture of big UK publishers, Slovak news sites and blogs about cooking and typography. Not a combination you can accomplish with most readers- certainly not in an intuitive way.

What kind of a user experience can people expect from Feedpresso in the near future? What are some of the use cases you’ve been considering?

Tadas:  At Feedpresso, our primary goal is to help people to find and stay current on stuff that really matters to them personally. Whatever that happens to be.  One thing that we have been seriously lacking in that regard is story and sources discovery. At the moment, we let people pick the sources themselves, and leave the selection of stories for us.

We think this approach is superior for a number of reasons, but still it isn’t the final answer – we want to take an active role in recommending what kind of sources users should follow as well.

Also, we don’t have the iOS version quite yet, and the Web version is coming along as well. Those are things people have been asking us for, so we are working hard to release them pretty soon.

IMG_7757

A look at Feedpresso’s design.

Ernest:  We want to become the first go-to place for reading in general. There’s great content out there that’s available for free and lots of good writing behind paywalls. One goal of ours is to merge these two worlds, to help you simply focus on quality reading.

I think it’s a bit silly that in 2017, we haven’t found a way for people to get access to a range of premium content at a single price point. Micropayments haven’t worked well, and ad-supported content has a lot of problems, both economically, and trust-wise. Technology like ours may be the key to finally solving that riddle- helping the professional media make a fair wage while helping people get access to what they need most.

Of course it’s not humanly possible to find all the interesting and relevant quality reading on the web. And that’s where our prediction technology comes in. Right now we as consumers rely on very inefficient means of locating trustable and relevant information. Think of Google or Facebook: they don’t go out looking for what you really need, they can only respond to what you do, what you like, and what terms you might search. That simply isn’t enough.

It’s a topic for a later discussion, but we believe this is ultimately because the business model of social media and search are good for some kinds of content, but fundamentally bad for quality journalism in particular. I want Feedpresso to be an answer to that problem.

 

In the discussion about Feedpresso, the debate has been ongoing about what your strategy will be: Local vs. Global, Freemium Vs. Content Bundling, etc. What have you learned you don’t want to do in the coming year?

IMG_5571

The Feedpresso team

Tadas:  We know for sure that we don’t want to be a general reader for everybody. We want to create something that people that care about content that they read would find extremely useful. Again, our aim isn’t to show you what others are talking about, or what’s hot: it’s to show you what matters most to you.

Ernest: Our focus is two-fold. In terms of strategy, we want to serve the European market with non-english news, and in terms of long-term goals, we want to promote “value over clicks.”

Every time you open an article in Feedpresso, we want to make sure that you learn something new. That means that we will not be serving sponsored content, or PR disguised as news. We’ve learned that most people who say they ‘hate news’ actually just care more about the quality of what they read.

The current distrust in media is caused by the current ad-driven approach employed by many media companies. We want to go in a different direction.

“Fake News,” and disinformation are hot topics now. Do you see Feedpresso as a part of the solution to this problem?

Tadas:  Definitely! One problem is that people have lost control of their news. We know that Facebook is already where the majority of news content is found by readers. Over 50% of news clicks go through Facebook. But Facebook is only as good as your friend list, or as an algorithm you don’t see, and which may or may not be  designed to actually help you become more informed.

“Filter bubbles,” don’t happen because people don’t want to know the truth- they happen because people who are part of a group tend to form standards of thinking and behavior, and to follow those standards unconsciously. Facebook is the perfect place to form a group or a community, but it’s also the perfect place to filter out anything that might not agree with the inherent biases in the group.

Feedpresso is approaching the news not according to what is acceptable or vetted by a group of peers, but instead is private, fully customizable, and impervious to the usual human biases. Machines have their own problems with bias, but they are not emotional, or personally invested in an idea. People in groups can make bad decisions because they want to believe things are a certain way. That’s where machines can help us, just like a compass tells you where North is, no matter what you believe.

Ernest: These problems are symptoms of people reading increasingly more on social media platforms. Fake news sites live on Facebook. They make money when people share them, and so they have to be “shareable.” For some of them, Facebook makes up 80% of their traffic. Fake news articles are designed to be shared and spread within the groups whose opinions they support. And data shows that people share them without even reading them- often based only on a headline.

When you think about it, Facebook is a really bad platform for news consumption. It’s designed around you having a good feeling about yourself, because then you stay on the platform longer and click on more ads. These ‘filter bubbles’ we’re talking about, they’re not a secondary effect of using Facebook, they are its product. Facebook’s advertising engine provides access to the filter bubbles we create for ourselves.

In theory, Facebook and Google should be good for traditional publishers. Why do you think media publishers haven’t been successful in making significant revenue gains online, despite their broader reach? How can an industry outsider change that?

Tadas:  The problem is that except for a few really well established brands (like the New York Times), many publishers are earning the majority of their revenues from big advertisers, like retailers and Big Food, or they’re earning it from smaller advertisers who target a particular niche.

Either way, advertising tends not to favor quality. For example, in June 2016, MotherJones reported that one of its investigative stories ended up bringing the company a profit. What is remarkable there is that this was an exceptional case. MotherJones points out that in an advertising-based media market, the incentives are against putting in the time necessary to produce great work. Faster is more profitable.

Following on that, publishers then want to increase their pageviews so they could compensate for that and they do that by posting lots of low quality articles with click-baity headlines. In the end, the value of content decreases, reader quality decreases, reader trust in the media decreases, and the pageviews are worth even less. And the whole cycle starts anew.

At Feedpresso we let users pay for their content so they are the boss in the end. We are not interested in serving them clickbaity articles because that’s not in their interest. Furthermore, we hope that we will encourage people to pay for publisher content with monthly subscriptions that will ensure right incentives for publishers to produce good content.

Where do you hope Feedpresso will be in a year or two?

Tadas:  In two years we want to have a solid user base and community that would help us sustain our business. Feedpresso is going to be available on all platforms (Web, Android, iOS, Windows) and it is going to be a one-stop solution for news consumption.

How about 5 years from now? What kind of a company do you want Feedpresso to be?

Tadas:  We hope to become a major platform where authors could post their content and would get paid for that. We would become something like Spotify for News. Our long-term wish is to change the economics of news for the better. So far, the ad-age hasn’t been kind to news, and we think it’s time that changed.

We believe that ensuring stable income for authors will allow us to serve a high quality content for our users in the long run. We need self-reinforcing cycles of quality, not a constant downward pressure on the quality of journalism.

What kinds of people are you hoping to meet more in the coming year? What kinds of other companies do you hope to partner with?

Tadas:  I would love to meet with the guys from Medium. They are doing lots of relevant work in this field by ensuring that high-quality content reaches high quality readers. Furthermore, I would love to hear what Executives from Reuters, CNN and BBC think about current developments in the publishing field. How are they thinking to fight this ever increasing reliance on Google and Facebook.

It will also be important to establish relationships with charitable organizations that support quality journalism. Many governments also fund independent media, and we need to seek out ways in which we  can help those efforts to be more successful.

Ernest: I’m hoping we manage to form partnerships with media houses and content creators. The media industry is going through some challenging times and it is key to success to Feedpresso that publishers are able to ‘afford’ to produce quality in-depth journalism. I’d like to meet Tomáš Bella who started Piano, formerly a nation-wide paywall system in Slovakia. Piano did some real pioneering work in Slovakia: they ‘taught’ Slovak readers to pay for quality content and helped publishers stay more independent. Tomáš Bella knows the ins and outs of paywalled content and keeps experimenting and developing new solutions for subscriber-based publishers.

Can you talk about your experience at StartupYard so far? Which of the mentors have had the most impact on you as individuals, or as a company, and how so?

Tadas:  It’s been a great experience. And very tiring! There’s lots of things to do. Now not only do we have to do lots of coding, but we need to study our users much more (that’s something we should have done a long time ago), work on our wording — how we sell ourselves to our potential readers.

We got lots of great feedback from mentors but it’s hard to pick the best. We loved how Constantine Kinsky [the Czech-French Banker and Investor] explained word of mouth marketing, it’s been really useful to sit down with (StartupYard Management team member) Gustavo Vizcardo, and think really deeply about the problem we are solving.

We got lots of great ideas for marketing from [Merrybubbles Founder] Liva Judic and Darko Silajdzic.

Ernest: I like to say that StartupYard is the best thing that could have happened to Feedpresso. I don’t think any other form of investment would’ve given us more value than the input and feedback we’ve been getting here.

bBeing here made us think very hard about the core problem that we’re solving and the values that are important in solving it.

For me personally, interviews with Vojta Roček and Michal Čarný were quite eye-opening and helped me think differently about our target audience: do we provide more value to people who want to read as much as possible or to those that try to read as little as possible?

 

Ouibring, Startupyard

Exclusive Interview: Ouibring: Bringing a Bit of Happiness from Anywhere to Anywhere

Ouibring isn’t a typical StartupYard startup, and Joel Gordon isn’t a typical StartupYard founder. In a year dominated by deep tech companies, Joel, with Cofounder and fellow Australian Andrew Crosio, are trying to change the way we think about online shopping- one trip at a time.

Ouibring is an e-commerce and sharing economy platform, for shoppers who want access to international products and prices, and travelers who want to make extra money. How does that work? Ouibring gives shoppers the chance to make requests that travelers can fulfil during their trips, helping them make a bit of extra money, and bring a little joy into a stranger’s life.

Ouibring has already garnered nearly 40,000 Likes on Facebook since late last year, making it one of the most instantly popular startup ideas that StartupYard has ever accelerated.

I sat down with Co-Founder and CEO Joel Gordon to talk about his vision for OuiBring, and why he thinks the world is ready for a new way of shopping:

Startupyard, Joel Gordon, Ouibring

Hi Joel, tell us a little more about Ouibring. Where did you get the idea?

 The idea for Ouibring came from experiences gained living and working abroad for the last 15 years. The fun and excitement when a special package delivered by a friend arrives is the inspiration for Ouibring’s tagline – “Bring a little happiness”.

As any expatriate knows, living abroad can give you a special appreciation for things that those at home just take for granted. You look forward to that time when a friend will bring a special something you’ve requested from your home. That’s a magical feeling, as if you’re the only person in the world that has what you have. We wanted to capture that feeling, and make it something anyone could enjoy. A special moment of joy only for them; an experience no one else is having.

At the same time, we can give others the chance to make a bit of money, and reduce waste by sharing their spare luggage capacity.

One story I really like is how even a small, generic item that is plentiful in one location can provide a whole lot of pleasure and luxury when it appears in an unexpected context. When a Ouibringer arrived with three massive bags of Monster Munch Pickled Onion and delivered them to a travel blogger living in Bangkok. They really made her day.

Cool! Check out @Ouibring, the startup that helps you get anything you want, from anywhere in the world – Exclusive Interview Click To Tweet

The fun of getting a previously impossible to obtain snack from home delivered to the other side of the world is a great demonstration of our values in action.

What about the team you’ve put together makes you confident you can grow Ouibring as a global business?

We have a great team of people who are passionate and excited about making Ouibring a success. For us it’s the ability to focus on what matters most, avoid bullshit and listen to our customers every day that is key.

Startupyard, Ouibring, Andrew Crosio, Joel Gordon

Joel with Cofounder Andrew Crosio

We share a belief that the sharing economy needs to focus on making things easy for customers and making sure that the participants reap the majority of the rewards. We’re making sure Ouibring is easy, fun and safe to use while at the same time only charging fees for real value add services. We’re customers ourselves, and our experience buying and bringing, as well as hearing what our other customers have to say, helps keep us grounded.

Let’s talk a bit about the economics of Ouibring. How do you think you’ll make money? What will be the main attractors for buyers and “bringers?” Why would people choose it over more traditional channels?

One of the key challenges in making this kind of system work is establishing trust. We want to offer that by creating a safe system that ensures delivery, as well as payment, for each transaction.

We’re going to keep it simple and charge a small fee to cover the cost of managing payment transactions. Because our bringers are doing the leg work we’ll always make sure that they get the lion’s share of the rewards.

When we survey our customers that live abroad they all answer that they have asked friends and family to bring products for them. Ouibring is as an extension of this network, and connects shoppers with travellers all over the world who are willing and able to help source speciality items. The cool thing is that whether somebody is an adventurous traveller who likes the idea of meeting interesting new people, a frequent business traveller with luggage capacity to spare, or a long term expat who just wants a reliable supply of favorite comfort items from home, Ouibring can help connect and make these people happier!

Ouibring, StartupYardThe real attraction for our shoppers when they decide to use Ouibring is that they are able get the exact product they’re looking for, rather than settling for a substitute (not to mention a possible fake) from Amazon, or waiting until next year when their friends are next coming to visit. Our shoppers choose Ouibring because we offer the best, most reliable and effective way of getting exactly what they want, no matter where they are in the world.

Think about any great trip you’ve had somewhere far away. I bet there was something you enjoyed there that you just haven’t ever been able to find again. That’s a Ouibring kind of thing.

Our bringers are up for making extra money in a fun new way, enjoy learning about new products and places to explore, and we often get feedback from both people about how they enjoyed meeting each to exchange goods too!

When talking about a sharing economy platform, security is always a big concern. How has your thinking evolved since you joined StartupYard on how to build trust with your users?

The challenges of ensuring that the platform is used safely and for its intended purposes are daunting if you consider every possible bad thing that can happen. We are doing everything we can to make sure we are up to those challenges: having the appropriate contingency plans in place, verifying users and identifying bad actors, is something every sharing platform must face.

But it’s all about people. It’s all about building trust with our customers. We work hard to show people that we take each bring seriously and are there to help out if needed. This starts with taking care of people’s onboarding when they start using the site, guiding them through the process of signing up and creating their first request, through to connecting them with a reliable and trust-worthy traveller who will bring them what they’ve requested.

Since joining StartupYard we’ve learned a lot about how to use word of mouth marketing channels more effectively, and we’re also focusing on clear and simple testimonials to help show potential customers that other people just like them are already using Ouibring to import a little bit of happiness from anywhere in the world.

Where do you hope Ouibring will be in a year, and how are you going to get there?

Our focus right now is to get to 10K customers in BKK and by this time next year we will be expanding into other cities in Asia and Europe.

Long term, what’s your hope for Ouibring 5 years from now?

Longer term we are super excited about the future and where Ouibring will be. The combination of increasing bespoke and localised manufacturing with more and more sophisticated consumers that travel more often will create the perfect setting for a dynamic, scalable and agile global supply chain.

The inefficiency of all the wasted capacity when people travel with empty bags, suitcases and car boots is crying out for a better approach and we see Ouibring as being part of the solution by connecting this underutilised resource with demand.

People all over the world right now ask for, buy and bring things for friends and family when they travel, and with Ouibring at the end of the day we’re working hard to make this kind of personal, reliable and trusted shopping and delivery service something that everybody can use to get exactly what they want and bring a little happiness.

You joined StartupYard in November. What prompted you to seek out an accelerator, and has the experience fit with your expectations?

We want to make Ouibring a success and the decision to join an accelerator was motivated by being humble and willing to throw ourselves into an unfamiliar environment to maximise our chances of growing our business. We had very high expectations coming into the program and have really been impressed with the variety and calibre of the mentors, alumni and people we’ve met through the program.

Which mentors, advisors, or investors have most surprised you during acceleration? What were you not prepared for?

Petr Ocasek, Daniel Hastik, Ondrej Bartos and Jan Urban. I really liked the advice about taking responsibility for the conversation and making sure that you get as much out of it as possible. Ask questions and listen more.

How would you say your team’s outlook has changed since you joined StartupYard?

Startups have to make do with limited resources and we’re very mindful of where our energy is being spent. We try even harder now to make sure we get a good return on it! We also have a clearer idea of the runway we’ll need to make this business a success and are even more excited about the future than before.

Neuron Soundware, StartupYard, Startup Roku

Exclusive Interview: Neuron Soundware Wins Yet Another Award

Neuron Soundware: Winning Awards and Customers

Since leaving StartupYard in this year, Neuron Soundware has made “soundwaves” in the startup community in Europe, winning multiple awards, including Vodafone’s Idea of the Year, and now, this week, Ceska Sporitelna’s Startup of the Year.

The company has come a long way in a year– from a small team that was able to demonstrate, at SY Demo Day 2016, a machine learning algorithm that could learn to mimic a human actor, to a company that provides machine learning diagnostic software to large equipment operators. They’ve received considerable press coverage. Already, they count both Siemens and Deutsche Bahn among their customers. 

I caught up with Pavel Konecny, Co-Founder and CEO of Neuron Soundware, to talk about what the team has been through since leaving StartupYard, and where they’re going in the near future:

Hi Pavel, a lot has happened for Neuron Soundware since you left StartupYard. Can you tell us what you’ve been up to since the program?

Pavel Konecny, of NeuronSoundware, talks about machine learning and sound.

Pavel Konecny, of NeuronSoundware, talks about machine learning and sound.

We were very busy of course. We have presented Neuron Soundware at international startup and advance engineering conferences in US, UK, Germany and Czech Republic. We got a lot of contacts, which we are going to leverage. We are also proud that we found our first paying customers including companies such as Siemens and Deutsche Bahn.

What are you providing for those new customers?

We provide sound analytics algorithms as a service – an early warning of the coming mechanical issues of machines such as wind turbines, escalators, etc.

Towards the end of StartupYard 2016, your team decided to focus on diagnosing mechanical issues for machinery. Can you tell us a bit more about how this works?

Neuron Soundware - StartupYard Alumni

Complex machinery with moving parts always has multiple points of potential failure. There are basically two ways to solve that issue: either you wait until something breaks, or you proactively monitor the parts you know are likely to break, and fix them before they do.

Waiting for a failure can be expensive, and even dangerous. We can’t wait for an airplane engine to just stop working. You can’t have a printing press suddenly fail an hour before the trucks arrive. The loss in business alone makes it a major vulnerability.

Why can’t humans do this kind of work? Why is a machine more effective?

I’ll give you a real world example: just google “failed wind turbine”. You would find scores of different pictures and videos from all over the world. Wind turbines are giant and very fast moving machines. If the blade breaks a part in the full speed, you can find the pieces miles away and this can be quite dangerous. Preventing these events is a huge challenge.

Currently they do exhaustive physical checks. What we found was that sound, the sound of a machinery operating normally, or machinery nearing a failure, was a very important source of data that was not being employed fully.

Wind Turbine, Neuron Soundware

Photo Courtesy of Kyoto Prefecture, Japan

If you can understand a machine by the sounds it produces, you can reduce the risk of sudden failures, and increase the effectiveness of maintenance, since repairs are directed according to some available data about what’s working and what isn’t.

A machine learning algorithm can learn to connect data points that a human would ignore. A particular sound or a particular frequency may lead to a particular failure at a higher rate. Many of these tasks are above the capability of a human, who has a limited attention span, and limited memory.

There are also practical ways in which a machine is more effective: nobody can listen inside an airplane engine while it’s flying. Nobody can consistently diagnose a mechanical failure based on auditory clues that humans can’t actually detect. You need machines and machine learning for that, and that’s the breakthrough we’ve made.

How does Neuron Soundware learn?

Some issues can be simulated and some just appear time to time and you need to be ready to record them.

Hence we have developed our IoT device equipped with several types of microphones, which we use for the initial data collection. The device is mounted to the machines, continuously listening and transferring audio files to our central server. When we collect enough samples, we use them as an input to our learning algorithm. The machine health monitoring is done using the same IoT device.

You’ve now conducted some pilots as well, how was the experience, and what have you learned that surprised you and your team?

We were surprised several times of the effectiveness of deep learning technology. It works with all type of sounds. If we collect enough samples, we can achieve quality of recognition above 99.5%. And that would get even better as the system would collect more data.

Already, our approach can detect and diagnose mechanical faults that human diagnosticians cannot.

What has been Neuron Soundware’s biggest challenge since leaving StartupYard?

Neuron Soundware, Napad Roku, StartupYard

The Neuron Soundware team wins Vodafon’s Idea of the Year

We are travelling a lot. So the most of the communication happens via Slack and Hangouts. We meet in-person as the whole team only once or twice a week. That’s an intense time, when we need to sort-out a lot of items quickly. It was very refreshing, when (Co-Founder) Filip got married in October and we were all together and not discussing business matters. So we went to (3rd Co-founder) Pavel’s band’s concert last weekend as keeping friendly team spirit is very important to us.  

You recently recommended another deep-tech startup for our program. Why did you recommend StartupYard? What do you think has been the most positive outcome of acceleration for your team?

We would not be where we are now, without StartupYard. We started with a long list of ideas, where to apply AI technology, and we end-up with The idea of the Year (awarded by Vodafone Foundation)- and now Startup of the Year (from Ceska Sporitelna).

So we would like to thank again the many mentors we met during the first month of the program. It also changed our mindset in several ways: how to validate the business potential; how to pitch our product. Rather talk to people than flood them with documentation.

I used to start a meeting by passing out a complicated document, outlining everything I wanted people to know. What I learned along the way is that it’s equally important for people to get to know me and my team as people. Business is about making a personal connection- and that was an important lesson.

You’ve been talking with investors recently. What have you discovered during this process? What are you planning to do with the funds when you raise them?


It takes much longer than anticipated. They all stated how simple it is. It looks nice as starts with an interview, a short two page document. Then you follow with more meetings and committee board presentations, longer documents and the whole process of due diligence.

It is difficult to imagine, even for me, what we could be capable of doing in two or three years with our self-learning AI technology. And how much value and money we can make. We will use the investment to expand our business. With a larger development team, we could quicker complete the self-service sound analytics platform we are working on. That would make our business highly scalable and we could ramp-up our sales team.


Neuron Soundware’s core technology has a lot of interesting applications. Where do you see your team focusing its efforts within the next few years?

We are working on a way to combine effectively the different datasets we are collecting.

That would practically allow us to skip the phase of training as the neural network would be already pre-trained to recognize a wide set of potential issues. This is basically the way a human mind operates: you use past experiences to gain insight on new situations, even if they are very different. A machine can be taught to do the same thing, once given enough data.

The goal then, would be to start shipping a small smart IoT device in large volumes, ready to be used within any machine. Imagine a kind of silent digital mechanic, always sitting and monitoring complex equipment, all the time, and getting better, and better at the job every hour of every day. That’s really the future we are building with Neuron Soundware.

partnerships

How to Spot a Startup Tourist

Applications for StartupYard’s second round of acceleration in 2016 have closed. Now, we dig into applications, looking at ideas, founders, and how founders talk about and express their ideas.

What we find is always enlightening, but also always an evolving challenge to parse and process.

The Idea vs. The Team

As I’ve written about before, it’s very hard to tell a lot about the scope and clarity of an idea from a narrowly focused written application. An idea that seems obvious might not be; an idea that seems obscure might in fact be a game changer. On the other hand, it can be easy to tell a few specific things about a person.

The way people talk about their ideas can reveal things about them as people. Is the person funny? Are they self-aware? Do they project confidence? Do they display arrogance? These qualities can be recognized in the way a person writes, and in what they choose to say.

But ideas are different. They are open-ended. They bring up questions rather than answering them. Great ideas are not always obvious at first glance, but can become “obvious” over time, after deep reflection and interaction. There is always a danger that a mentor projects their own hopes onto startup founders; thinking they can shape the team around their enthusiasm for an idea. That can create a disconnect between the motivation of the mentor, and the motivation of the team itself. Success and successful mentorship really ends up being about the quality and (forgive the cliché), passion of the team.

Startup Tourism

So what is a Startup Tourist? Put simply, it’s a person who wants to have a startup more than they want to actually do whatever it is that startup does. Startups, if successful, grow into regular companies, with all the responsibilities and daily obligations that come with them. Tourists aren’t interested in that type of success. They’re more interested in the status that running a startup confers on them– the appearance of success, more than the substance behind it.

Experience has shown us that some amazing startups don’t seem that amazing on paper. The passion may be obvious, but the idea itself may not be. Having difficulty expressing what you do, doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing, though. And a big part of our job is to help square that circle, and make startup founders good at talking about their work. We always have to keep that in our minds when reading applications: lack of clarity is not a killer, but lack of passion and sincerity are.

Tourists Can Be Great Communicators

We’ve reviewed, collectively, around 800 applications for StartupYard within the last 3 years. The vast majority of those are clearly not a match for us. Most are poorly presented, and probably also not very well developed ideas.

That’s ok though. We accept around 3% of all applicants, so we expect most not to qualify. And the only way a startup founder can learn is by trying, so we laud those who do apply, no matter the outcome.

What we worry about most are the “tweeners:” the ones who appear to offer a lot of promise, because they are usually very good at talking about their ideas. They have the ability to project passion, but just enough self-awareness to avoid being seen as arrogant or full of bluster. These applications are more polish than substance, but they hide their lack of substance extremely well.

As Paul Graham of Y-Combinator famously said: these are the founders who live by “the rules.” They learn the system (such as it is), and how to talk and act, in order to appear to be what they wish they were- promising startup founders. These founders often know the “rules” better than we do, and well enough to convince almost anyone at first glance that they belong, even if they don’t actually have the passion they need to build a successful business.

And that works for a few meetings. Maybe a few weeks. But eventually, the results don’t match the apparent promise, and the Tourist becomes more obvious.

One of my favorite movie scenes is from a Martin Scorcese film called The Departed (Spoilers ahead).

In the film, a police Captain (played by Martin Sheen), asks a young police Cadet and misfit (played by Leonardo DiCaprio): “Do you wanna be a cop? Or do you wanna appear to be a cop?” This is a question I would love to ask many startup founders I meet. Of course, the irony in the film is that the Captain had, moments before, congratulated a new sergeant on his promotion in the department- and that sergeant (played by Matt Damon), is a mole working for organized crime. The best of us can always be fooled, especially when we are shown what we want to see.

The dream is of course to find a founder who is really good at communicating *and* has a lot of genuine passion for their ideas. The genuine article, in other words. That’s the stuff unicorns are made of, but it is rare stuff indeed. The ugly stepchild of the unicorn founder is the Tourist- the applicant who knows how to play the game, but doesn’t know how to win it.

Spotting A Tourist

Startup Tourist

There are certain things that tourists do to tip their hand, and reveal that their motivations are more complicated than a simple passion to be great at something nobody else can or has done before.

So, here’s my (totally unscientific), list of signs of Startup Tourism. In no particular order:

  • Knows the Lingo… a little too well

Startup Founders learn about seed funds, VCs, valuation, down rounds, convertible notes, equity dilution, and the rest of it as they go along. They have to. These are things you have to become familiar with if you want to succeed as a high growth startup, but it isn’t necessarily something you need to know much about before you actually start. At the beginning, an idea and a team that cares a lot about that idea can get a startup pretty far with minimal wisdom about the intricacies of fundraising and corporate structure.

Moreover, a team that isn’t focused on these “status metrics” is more likely to be focused on what’s really important- which is building enormous value for their customers.

Tourists tend to know the startup lingo a little too well for their own good. This can reveal a focus on the trappings of success, rather than the work involved in achieving it. That’s not always true, but sometimes it is. Good startup founders can always become good at this stuff because they have to. It’s a means to an end.

A Tourist is more likely to ask a lot of intricate questions about funding and corporate structure, but to do so well ahead of the time when knowing these things is particularly relevant. The tourist is fixated on valuation, instead of value. On “benchmarks” instead of forward progress. So focused on appearing to be in control, a Tourist reveals that they are not focused on doing what their startup actually promises to do.

  • Asks “How?” Instead of “Why?”

Mentoring startups often involves throwing a lot of things against the wall, and seeing what sticks. It’s the startup founder’s job to talk to mentors, and to then try and process what they’ve heard, and find out what’s really relevant for them. That means listening to people you might not completely agree with, and then checking what you’ve heard with others, to see what they have to say. It also means listening to people you agree with, and then digging into your own reasons for agreeing with them. It’s about jumping into a swamp of conflicting opinions, and trying to make sense of it all. It’s messy work. It’s frustrating, and it needs to be.

Mentorship is more valuable when the startup founders are asking searching questions. “Why do you think we should do this? Where can I learn more about that? Who should I ask about this?” These questions produce more work for the founders, who have to follow up on what they’ve heard.

When a founder more often asks: “how can I do that?” or “How would you do this?” These are not searching questions, but rather invitations to do the founder’s work for them. They don’t open up new avenues of thinking, and are not so open-ended. It’s like the student in university who asks the professor how many pages the term paper has to be. That’s not information that helps the student perform better and be creative, rather it’s information that helps the student do what is expected. It helps you get a grade, but it will not help you actually learn anything.

A favorite professor of mine once answered by saying: “as many as is necessary.” I took that to mean that the professor would know very well whether the actual ideas a paper contained were worth the number of pages actually consumed.

Searching my memory, I cannot recall a single instance in which a founder who has gone on from StartupYard to successfully raise seed financing and build a growing business asked me how to do anything. But I can recall many instances in which those same founders asked me why they should do one thing, or another. And many more instances when they asked for my feedback on something concrete. Opinions and feedback are generative. Building on ideas and being creative are what matter. There are no gold stars, and no grades in real life.

Figuring out how to do something can be easier than figuring out whether or not you should actually do it. Founders who ask why, are much more likely to get useful answers than the ones who ask how.

  • Talks about Opportunities Instead of Challenges

A few weeks ago, I heard a very funny story about one of our investors. He was a jury member at a startup competition, which is something startup investors end up doing a fair bit. A startup had stated something like: “the market is worth an estimated $100Bn, we aim to capture 5% of that, and if we do, we will be worth over 5Bn in recurring revenues.”

That’s a pretty prototypical tourist point of view. The investor in question had his own brilliant response: “why 5%? Why not 8%? Why not 15%” The implication should be clear enough- the size of the market can be impressive as hell, but the actual dirty work of building a business is not as sexy as talking about money. If you’re focused on getting a slice of the pie, then you’re probably not thinking about building a whole new market. You’re probably not interested in changing the way things work, but rather making the way things work, work for you.

And if the thing that matters most is the market opportunity, then what are you really passionate about? If you’re smart and you work hard, you can make money at a lot of things. You don’t have to found a startup to do that.

The founder that is fixated on market opportunity is less likely to be laser focused on creating value for the people who will actually pay for whatever they provide. That focus on creating inimitable value is everything to a successful and disruptive startup. It’s not about trying to grab a piece of an existing market, but about creating a new market nobody else is aware of yet.

Much more interesting are challenges. What does the market not yet provide, and why is that badly needed? Why couldn’t the market provide it before now? What problem is just waiting to be solved? Disruptive startups tackle the status quo, and change the way people and businesses and the world around them works on a more basic level. They make things that are not just faster and cheaper and prettier, but actually different.

I see this problem as one in which the startup founder is too focused on what they think investors want to hear. They will say their market is growing, and hope that the mere implication of opportunity is justification enough to get funding for themselves, regardless of what they’re actually doing.

When making a case for itself, a startup can be much better served by talking about what hasn’t been possible before, than about what has already been accomplished by others, or things that would happen whether the startup existed or not. Yes, for example, the mobile gaming market may grow by 40% in the next two years, but that’s an argument in favor of investing in that market, not necessarily for entering that market with a specific product. The product itself needs to make sense, and the fact that it’s an expanding market is, perhaps, a bonus. 

Yet I hear this justification thrown out at virtually every pitching event I attend, over and over again. “The market is huge, and we’ll be a part of that huge market.” Yes, and?

  • Puts Their Fate in the Hands of Others

It can be as simple as this- a Tourist is a startup founder who is waiting for something. Waiting to get into an accelerator. Waiting to attract a VC. Waiting to quit their job. Waiting to be noticed. Waiting for the magic bullet.

This is part of what makes selecting startups so hard for an accelerator. We want people who are ready, but not people who are waiting. We ask startups when we first interview them: “What will you do if you aren’t accepted here?” The Tourist will answer: “I’ll try again,” or “I’ll apply to another accelerator,” or,  “I’ll stay at my job for now.”

A startup founder who is passionate about what their doing, and really believes in it, is more likely to say: “I’ll just keep going,” or “I’ll think about why I didn’t make it, and decide what to do next.” The genuine founder is already thinking ahead of the next failure, looking for the next challenge, and not waiting for success to strike them.

Soldigo, StartupYard

Meet Soldigo: An SY 2015 Alum with a New Brand

This week, on our trip to Romania, I caught up with one of our favorite StartupYard Alumni, Mathe Zsolt-Lazlo, known to us as Zsolt, founder and CEO of StartupYard alum Soldigo– formerly known as Shoptsie.

Soldigo has changed their name, but they’re still the amazing team they were when they joined us at StartupYard. I talked with Zsolt about what’s been going on at Soldigo since they left StartupYard last year:

StartupYard, Soldigo

Hi Zsolt, first let’s address the big question: your company has a new name: Soldigo. How did you pick the name, and why did you decide to rebrand?

Hi Lloyd. Indeed, we went through a rebranding so Shoptsie is now Soldigo. We got so many contradictory suggestions, many people told us we should change it and just as many said they loved the old name, but in the end we decided to change it after all.

As a result of many long brainstorming sessions we came up with nearly 100 new names. We did some research and because there is a lack in terms of .com domain name availability, we gradually reduced this number and arrived at Soldigo. We chose this name because it is short and sweet, in tune with the trend and somewhat catchy. Soldigo stands for “go with the e-selling flow”. It is intelligible in multiple languages and evokes optimism and fun.

What have been some of your biggest milestones since leaving StartupYard?  

Soldigo, StartupYard

Zsolt pitching Soldigo at StartupYard’s 2015 Demo Day

I believe our biggest milestones since leaving StartupYard were finding the right teammates and creating the new version of Soldigo. In our industry, technology and business development are often inseparable from one another and this is why we decided to change the platform to an improved version of itself. The new version of Soldigo is more intuitive, easy to use and fully supports the needs of small and medium businesses.

What about your biggest challenges?

Our biggest challenge and joy is to meet the needs of our existing and potential customers who are just as eager to perfect their online stores as we are to improve our service that allows them to do just that. We plan on introducing social selling and create a new plan called Marketing that will offer great marketing solutions for optimized selling.

Tell us what’s new in Soldigo. What are some of your newest features, and what have been some of the biggest changes to the product?

To meet all of our customers’ needs and requests, we added the following amazing new features and updates:

– we improved the product upload as well as the image upload features

– we enabled the possibility to add subcategories

– connecting the store with blogs is also possible now

– we re-thought the Designer and therefore the store owner will have more freedom with it, more customization options (possibility to add background images, more control over coloring the store, possibility to change font types and sizes, so an overall bigger freedom to be creative when it comes to the store’s look and feel)

– new server makes it all work faster and better

You’ve recently expanded your team. Tell us a bit about that process, and about the current state of the team.

The process of recruiting new team members was quite long since we had to make sure that the person joining us represented the same values and had the same goals and was enthusiastic enough to step out of the “8-hours-of-work-a-day” frame of mind.

We created a friendly work environment that is not about long hours but rather about focusing on work when needed and make it efficient. So we looked for people who fit into Soldigo’s team spirit and drive. While developing the new version of Soldigo, we expanded the team with a senior developer and a sysadmin. At the moment the Soldigo team is made up of 5 people.

Looking back, what has been one of the most important lessons for you and the Soldigo team coming out of StartupYard?

The most important lesson after coming out of StartupYard was to “get out of the building”, to engage with our customers and to allow their needs to shape the direction of Soldigo. We are constantly attending as many handcrafters’ fairs and exhibitions as possible and we aim at maintaining a constant contact with our existing customers.

You’re currently focusing on growing your userbase. What are some of the main challenges in doing that, and where do you hope to be in the next year or two?

That is correct. Since we finished the development of the new version of Soldigo, we are focusing on growing our user base. The main challenge of doing this our lack of experience in the marketing field.

Over 6000 customers are using Soldigo currently, of which 12% are generating an average 20-25 sales per day. To grow the number of our customers, we created a marketing strategy, both online and offline, but since we are not experts, we saw that we need help in this area. At the moment we are working with two really good marketing agencies and we got a lot of help from the StartupYard mentors.

The next two years are crucial for us. We want to put Soldigo on the map of the e-commerce world with hopes of it becoming one of the best solutions in helping small and medium size companies to succeed with their online businesses.

How have your ambitions for the company changed since you left StartupYard? Have you revised your vision in a significant way

When we arrived at StartupYard we wanted to reinvent the wheel and we felt that Soldigo was meant for everyone. We were really clueless in how to channel our ambition to get results.

What we learned there is that targeting everyone at the same time is really impossible, and so we chose a niche that would focus our energy in a more targeted way. Our vision became clearer and Soldigo became more consistent, in brand image as well as brand strategy.

We have an open call for Startups closing on September 30th. What would you say to a startup that’s thinking about applying to StartupYard?

I would say that applying to StartupYard was hands down one of the best things we did as Soldigo. It has taught us everything we know today and, most importantly, that you can achieve many things if you have a good team.

It gave us an immense perspective on where we were and also gave us a direction for the future. It was an amazing learning experience that truly defines us to this day and we felt really honored to be mentored by such incredible mentors.

I believe that StartupYard is an amazing platform for startups to grow and to learn and to find their true calling, so startups, do yourselves a favour and apply, asap!

9 Things Not to Do When Talking to Investors

[Updated August 2016] We talk to a lot of startups, and we’ve talked to a lot of investors too, particularly since we published this piece way back in 2014. In that time, our portfolio companies have raised upwards of 4 million Euros, and many of the tips we’ve given them have been refined through their experiences, and our own.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #9.

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: January 31st, 2018

 

 

We’ve seen people make every single one of these mistakes, and we’ve made some of them ourselves. Live and learn. So here, updated for 2016, are 9 things not to do when talking to investors.

9 Things not to Do When Talking to Investors

Talk About Exits

Perhaps your dream is to found a startup, get some investment capital, pump up the valuation for a nice fat IPO, and blow town with a suitcase full of €500 notes, headed for a major tax haven. A noble dream, to be sure, but not one that inspires a great deal of confidence.

9 things not to do when talking to investors

Your investment opportunity sounds lucrative, if a little violent…

 

No, investors like to see that the stake you keep in your newly minted company is going to keep you properly motivated. And motivation is more than dollar signs: it is derived from satisfaction with your position, passion for your product, camaraderie with your team, and, of course, also money. So focus on those intangibles that you have that will keep your business moving forward. Don’t count the profit that someone’s investment is going to bring you, when you leave them holding the bag in 2 years. That’s not nice. And as the old adage goes, no investor wants to give money to a company that needs the money. They want to give money to a company that can use the money well.

Investors don't want to give money to a company that needs it. They want to give to companies who can use it well. Click To Tweet

Be Oblivious and Don’t Listen

In StartupLandia, obliviousness can be a good thing. Who would start a company like yours without being at least somewhat unaware of the potential drawbacks, the sleepless nights, the stress, the headaches, and the thought of near certain failure? Obliviousness can preserve your sanity while you attempt to do something that most ordinary people consider to be basically insane.

The thing is, while that kind of youthful naiveté can even be attractive to investors, it so often comes with a far less attractive trait attached: you don’t listen. Investors at least like to think they have some advice and experience you can learn from. Certainly, they want to you to fully understand what taking their money entails, concerning your responsibility to them and to your company. So you need to listen carefully to what investors say.

You don’t have to follow their advice, and you don’t have to take their money, but you do have to listen- now, and into the foreseeable future, until such a time as your leadership and the product you make have proved themselves repeatedly.

Ask for an NDA

Don’t ask for an NDA. You’re probably not working on anything sensitive enough to warrant this annoyance to an investor. I’ve written a more extensive piece on this, and you can read more about it there. But really, unless you’re dealing with technology so sensitive and valuable that some level of paranoia is truly healthy (cure for cancer, for example), then an NDA is not going to do anything but waste time.

Don't ask an interested investor to sign an NDA. It's pretty much never worth it. Click To Tweet

Say: “I have no competitors.”

We’ve all heard this: ‘if you have no competition, you have no market.” Besides, if your product asks for anything from a customer, be it money, time, or attention, you are by default in competition with all of the other things a customer could be doing with that money, time and attention. All businesses compete for customers. If they don’t, they aren’t businesses at all.

No, more often saying this is actually saying that you haven’t thought much about your market, your users, or your potential challenges. This past week, I ran a product positioning workshop with all of our startups. I asked them to position themselves against competitors based on relevant vertices for their market. The values on the X and Y axis are less important than the insight the teams can derive from comparing themselves to other businesses in the context of customer needs, wants, budget, or other factors. For example, a graph might look like this:

9 things not to do when talking to investors

Your graph has impressed us. Would you like that money in a suitcase, or do you prefer a novelty sized cheque?

As I noted, the values on the vertices can change to fit your market situation: is it about price, or time investment, or is it about the annoyingness of ad-support, or about some other value on the Y axis?

The X axis is also dependent on the market needs. But a successful business needs to find a suitable position graph that places their product somewhere that the competition isn’t competing well. In the above graph, the competition can offer good quality, but at the price of convenience. So my product has to be convenient and high quality. That is my market opportunity.

This sort of position graph also helps illustrate your market strategy. You wouldn’t market yourself as top-shelf quality if a competitor already holds that reputation- your quality would be a help, but it would not be enough to justify your product. If you can’t find a graph that shows a worthwhile market opportunity in concrete terms -something nobody and nothing else yet does well- then you may not have a viable product idea at all.

Tl;dr: If you can’t be better, be cheaper. If you can’t be better or cheaper, then you’re going to need a very good market strategy.

Don’t Have a Plan to Use The Investment

One VC I spoke to recently put this problem in terms of ambition. Wanting investment doesn’t make an entrepreneur particularly ambitious, except in the sense of possibly being greedy. Instead, a poorly laid or incompletely laid plan for go-to-market based on a number of possible investment outcomes is a sign that you don’t really care enough about your product and its future. If you did, you would have plans for any contingency, including a way to bootstrap your product.

Approaching investment this way, with an eye towards showing investors exactly what their money is going to do, also gives a founder much more leverage. It is a much more attractive argument to an investor that a founder *could* launch without his or her support, but that this support would only stoke the fire of success further. Being dependent on investment means being dependent on investors, and few investors want a founder who can’t stand on their own. This means being responsible, and having a solid, and detailed plan for how you would use money invested in your company.

In “A Unified Theory of VC Suckage,” which I recommend as good reading, Paul Graham theorizes that VCs suffer from perverse incentives to invest too much money into startups that don’t need it, and can’t properly use the investment. What can make such a situation doubly more dangerous (and frequently did in the late 90s and in the 2000s), is that founders also believed that a bigger valuation was actually going to make them rich. Which it did, at least on paper. This has caused more than a few companies to IPO when they shouldn’t have, and to crash spectacularly. It has also caused many worthwhile projects that needed much smaller seed-funding to struggle to get it.  But having a plan for what to do with the money you take in will show an investor that you’re ready for a big investment, or for a smaller one.

A high valuation does not make you rich. It makes you accountable. Click To Tweet

Project Your Growth Based on a Similar Product’s Success

Everyone knows a “me too” product when they see one. A “me too” market strategy may be no better than that. The old saying: “if it was easy, everyone would do it,” finds a perfect fit here. The success of another product, and that product’s similarities to yours, doesn’t mean much to the success of your product. Investors invest in people, just as much as in products, and execution, despite what we hear in the news, is 10 times as valuable as innovation for any company in the long term.

We often hear about innovation in the media, as if it were the sole distinction of success in technology. In fact, that isn’t remotely the case. While big companies that innovate create magnificent splashes and sell lots of their products, it takes just a bit of scratching at the surface to discover that the majority of that success is ensured by a strong execution of whatever plan the company has. That was as true a century ago for the Ford Model T as it was 10 years ago for the iPod. As true for Microsoft as for Facebook. These companies were not creating products that hadn’t been thought of before. But the background processes that they put in place to execute, reliably and efficiently, won them their market positions over time.

Think the Investors Must Be Smarter Than You

Our director Cedric Maloux told me a great story about an idea he had way back in 2008. He wanted to form a company to develop and market casual games for the newly launched iPhone. This was a market at that time, was worth much less than just a few years later. He discussed his idea with a VC he knew and respected, and the VC advised. “Video games need to be immersive and mobile phones don’t give this experience. Nobody wants to play games the way they used to [with the GameBoy],” the investor argued.

Cedric believed him and gave up on the idea. And today, the mobile games sector is worth 28% of the games market, according to ISSU. The market is worth some $13 Billion, which makes it bigger than the entire music industry. Growth in this sector has yet to slow since the release of the original iPhone. Investors are not necessarily visionaries.

Don't confuse smart money investors with visionaries. Click To Tweet

Last month, Techsquare hosted a meeting with StartupYard and another local accelerator. Its director and host listened to pitches from their startups, and from ours, and nearly without fail, addressed every single team with the same feedback, in sum: “I knew some people who tried what you’re doing. It didn’t work.” Experience is doubtless valuable. But failure in the past is in no wise a predictor of failure in the future. If that were true, the world would not know of most of the revolutionary products it has encountered in the past 30 years. Virtually every single one of them was tried without success, usually long before they were tried and succeeded. Listening to negative feedback like this is good. Letting it stop you is a shame.

Don’t Be Ready

Be Prepared. Always. Having and being prepared to share your financials, your projections, info about your team and your market is essential.

You can’t just chat up investors as a means of figuring out what they want to hear- that’s not the way the dance works. Your vision, your plan, and your goals are what the investors are buying into, so if you try to sell them their own ideas, they’ll know you don’t have a plan you really believe in. Having that plan, and sticking to it, only changing it for strong and valid reasons, is key to getting the right investors involved. So you need to be ready for what the investors might ask of you.

Luckily, there are plenty of investors who will tell you exactly what they would want to see from a potential investment. A great example is our own investment partner, Credo Ventures, and their own Andrej Kiska, who shares excellent tips on exactly that topic. He lists the number one failure point for startups as not building business forecasts ahead of a funding round.

in Kiska’s words:

The most frequent reason I hear for not building a model is that it is either too difficult or it just doesn’t make sense. But that makes me wonder what would happen if your startup will run into challenges that you consider too difficult or your market will desire a product you don’t believe makes sense and don’t bother to test it.”
 

There’s another pretty full-proof way of finding out what investors want to know before the meeting starts. Ask them. If the investor is a serious person you might actually want to cooperate with in the future, then they should be invested in you doing a good job, and making the best possible impression. The investor has a boss as well, in many cases, and needs to find justification in talking with you, just as you need to find justification in talking with them. So ask what they expect to find out from you, and plan accordingly. There’s no secret handshake. No checklist- every investor is different, and it’s ok to seek guidance.

Talk to the Wrong Investors

This seems basic, but it’s a mistake a lot of people make. You should know which kinds of investors you want to talk to. Don’t talk to a growth fund if what you need is seed money. Don’t talk to a VC firm unless you’re ready to do due diligence. Don’t talk to an Angel unless you’re looking for an Angel style investment. Each type of deal has its place, but not all money in investment is created equal. Each type of investment carries its own advantages and drawbacks, and you shouldn’t waste your time talking to investors who don’t have experience with companies in a similar situation. Andrej Kiska also has a lot to say on picking the right type of investor.