Frequently Asked Questions about StartupYard

What is StartupYard?

StartupYard, based in beautiful Prague, is Central Europe’s leading seed accelerator for technology startups. Founded in 2011, we have accelerated 72 startups from 20+ countries, and over half of our alumni have been either funded receiving in total more than €30m. 7 companies have been acquired.

StartupYard alumni include a broad range of successful and award-winning tech startups including BrandEmbassy, Gjirafa.com, TeskaLabs, NeuronSoundware, Rossum.ai, BudgetBakers, DameJidlo, and SteelMountain, among many others. Our alumni now collectively employ hundreds of people, across the world, and have created 100s of millions of Euros in shareholder value.

What are we looking for?

StartupYard invests in and accelerates “Deep Tech” startups that are solving a unique and difficult technology problem, or tackling an old problem in a unique and challenging way, with the possibility of scaling globally. Startups that apply should be able to benefit from intensive mentoring from some of the tech industry’s best minds.

What do we offer?

Program: StartupYard is a 3 month, in-person mentorship based program for early to seed-stage companies, that leverages deep corporate partnerships with telcos, banks, tech companies, and many others, to help a high tech company develop its business with access to a top-tier network.

Funding: Startups may be offered €20,000 in initial seed funding via a convertible note from StartupYard if they need it, and we operate a follow-on fund for startups that perform well during and after the program. This is in addition to over €1 Million worth of  perks offered through the exclusive GAN (Global Accelerator Network) partner program, including free access to professional services.

Network: More important than money, our startups gain access to our extensive network of mentors, investors, and advisors from Central Europe’s leading firms in Technology, Finance, Telco, Software, and Retail. Among our top mentors are C-level executives from KB- Bank, Vodafone, Accenture, KPMG, Seznam, Google, Microsoft, E.ON, and many more.

Can I apply even if I don’t have a product yet?

Yes you can. We are interested in people who have the capability and the ambition to deliver and build global solutions.

What type of commitment do you require?

StartupYard’s official program lasts 3 months, during which time the core team of your startup will be resident in Prague. We look for startups that will benefit most from cooperation with StartupYard, so ongoing support and assistance should become a natural extension of our relationship over time.

StartupYard is a mentor-driven accelerator. Deep and valuable mentorship can only happen in person, on an intensive day-by-day basis over a period of time. An in person commitment is essential to this process.

What do you mean by mentor driven?

Our program revolves around the mentors. During the first month, you will go through intense mentoring sessions with industry experts from many different businesses, including a host of c-level executives from leading tech companies, as well as successful business founders. You’ll then follow up continuously with those mentors who are best placed to help you expand your network, and make connections you need going forward.

Will we receive training?

It depends what you mean by training. We’re not a school, and we won’t teach you how to code, but we organize extensive workshops and on-to-one sessions with experts on specific topics like financial projections, investments, growth hacking, media training, pitching, etc.

Do I have to pay to participate?

No. Participation in StartupYard is free of charge.

Do you invest in start-ups?

Teams that are selected can receive, if they want, a €20,000 investment via a convertible note. We also offer follow-on funds to our best performing startups.

I’m a single founder. Can I still apply?

In rare cases, we select solo founders. However, the vast majority of our startups have a founding team. A founding team is not only important for you as a company, but it is vital for the StartupYard program, which is far too demanding for a typical single founder alone.

We don’t have any programming skills in our team. Can we still apply?

Non-technical teams can apply to StartupYard, and will have to quickly find a way to build their product.

I’m not located in Prague. Do I have to be physically present on-site?

Yes, for 3 months you will have to be with us in our great open-space.

Can I apply even if I am not from Europe?

Yes you can but be aware that you will require a Visa to stay and work in Prague for 3 months.

We have already raised money from friends/family or business angels. Can we still apply?

Yes you can. We are not about money. We are about growing your company to the next level.

How to Hire a Developer if You Know Nothing About Coding?

I was asked recently if we would accept a team without a technical co-founder in the accelerator program and as of now, I am still struggling in giving a straight razor-cut answer Yes or No.

– “It depends”

Personality Matters

There are multiple parameters coming into friction when starting and running a startup and the personality of the founders is one of the most important one. Before looking at the idea, we have to decide if the person in front of us is capable of turning this idea into a sustainable business. In the case of a technical co-founder we also want to be sure that they have the right skills to deliver a good product. Not all technical co-founders are born equal.

Pure business founders, as a team, can apply to StartupYard. If they are selected, one of their first goals will be to find how to deliver the goods. This is a disadvantage compared to a team with a technical co-founder but not an impossible one to overcome. There are two ways to approach the problem: go on a hunt to hire a technical co-founder or a full-time developer (for cash and/or equities) or sub-contract the development of your first version. There are a lot of talented coders out there; who under the right management and direction will deliver your first version for a fraction of the price it would cost you to hire a full-time developer. Also the time it will take you to find that full-time developer might be longer than initially expected so you might want to get something out first while looking for your technical white knight. The difficulty, in either case, is to select them, understand how they work and make sure they are able to build what you have in mind.

How do you Hire a Developer or Technical co-Founder?

The first thing you want to find out when interviewing a developer, whether it is for a full-time position or for sub-contracting is if they have already built the same kind of product. The main reason why you want to know that is for the time-to-market of your startup. A developer who has already been faced with a similar system will know the caveats of one approach compared to another. Ask them for a sample of their work or a link to the service and see how it relates to what you want to develop. An online service is usually based on data you enter, store, manipulate, modify, search, display and interact with so ask them how this other product relates to yours in term of data manipulation and storage. You will save a lot of time and a lot of money if your candidate has done it before.

Tell them you would like to speak to 5 of their clients (in the case of a sub-contractor). A developer who has a good track record will have no problem providing you with the information. When contacting the former clients, ask them if they would hire him again and if so what would they pay attention to this time. If not, try to understand if the reason can be addressed by you.

Depending on the type of product your startup is about, it’s possible the developer will have to deal with some technologies he is not that familiar with. Ask them how many programming languages they are going to use and for each of them, ask them if they like this language and if they would consider themselves an expert at it or not (you can ask them to rate from 1 to 5 their knowledge of each programming language they are going to use). Programmers usually have one or two favorite languages so be wary of developers telling you they are an expert at everything but they do exist so make sure they can prove it to you.

Communication Matters

Ask them how much they enjoy programming. Is it just a job or a passion? Do they participate in open-source projects? Like for any other position, the more passionate they are the better.

Developers are not worldwide renowned for being the most extroverted individuals (“Do I really have to talk to a person?” once joked a coder friend of mine) and you want to be sure that you will be able to get on well with them. Since you won’t understand what they are doing, you want to make sure you understand when they will explain to you what is happening in the software they write.

Ask them what makes a good developer and then ask them how this relates to them point by point. There are no good or bad answers; you just want to see how the person reacts when put in a defensive position and also how they consider themselves. Ask them how they handle delays in delivery of their software.

Show Them the Final Product

By now you need to have every single screen of your product designed in the form of wireframes or mockups and ideally documented. This is what they will use as a reference to build your product.

First, you want to see if they like your product or not and if they are going to be able to build it and in what amount of time. If they look at it and seem as excited as you are when you look at a pen on your desk, you might want to reconsider the person.

Looking at the screens, if you did your job well, your candidate should not have to invent what happens when a user clicks on a button or what happens when the user enters bad information of any sort. They concentrate on how to represent the data of your product and what needs to be done to them to go the next state. For each screen ask them if they see something that they do not understand and see how confident they feel about making it happen. Ask them once again if they have done it before. If you hear that a lot of screens ‘will not be that easy because…’ ask them how they would approach the problem. See how confident you feel about their confidence.

Be nice! You will meet some fantastic people with a passion for writing computer code. Try to understand them and create a connection because when you find the right person with the right skills and the right attitude, great things can happen.

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8 Lessons I’ve Learned as a Code Reviewer

While you’ve probably made a few New Year’s resolutions this year, if you’re anything like me, you’ve intentionally put too much on your plate, just to have a good excuse not to have completed any of them by the end of the year- when you can conveniently forget you made them before, and make them all over again.

Will I lose 20 Kilos this year? It’s possible I guess. There are parasites I could be exposed to. Will I call my mother every week this year? 5 fruits and vegetables a day? Now we’re just being silly.

So let’s not make this a resolution. Let’s just make this a kind of reminder. If you write code, and you aren’t a total cowboy about it, you do some version of code review. So why not do it right? We surveyed a few of our mentors and friends on good Code Review practices, and here are some resulting tips from a Startupyard Mentor Mathew Gertner, Founder and CEO of Salsita Software and Martin Čechura, Senior Developer at Wikidi.

 

"Code Review is for city folks son. Let's go straight to release and see what happens"

“Code Review is for city folks son. Let’s go straight to release and see what happens”

_____________________________________________________________________

Why is Code Review such an important process?

Lesson: “I’ll Fix it Later”

Mathew Gertner

The most obvious benefit is to get an extra pair of eyes on the code to find (potentially subtle) errors and suggest better ways of doing things. This is particularly useful when a senior developer reviews code from a less experienced colleague, but we’ve found the inverse to be true as well. A junior developer or one who is unfamiliar with a specific language or technology can learn a lot by reading and understanding the code of someone with more experience.
A particularly valuable consequence of our policy of manual code reviews is that developers write their code more carefully in the first place. Knowing that it is going to be reviewed, they are less likely to write a quick hack while telling themselves “I’ll fix this later.”
 
_____________________________________________________________________
 

Do you like a more formal, or less formal approach to Code Review, and why?

Lesson: Save your time, do it over coffee.

Martin Čechura

 In my opinion, the correct way is a combination of formal and informal approaches. A purely formal look feels more forced, while an informal approach does not impose such an emphasis on good habits.

Mathew Gerner

Formal code review is very time -and resource- intensive. In my opinion it doesn’t make sense unless defect-free code is critical (e.g. aircraft control software). In other cases, good code review software and practices provide much of the benefit at much lower cost.

 

_____________________________________________________________________

What are a few things developers are consistently under-prepared for in Code Review, and how can they be helped to prepare better?

Lesson: Take your time, and use your noggin.

Martin Čechura

Imagine a problem in the real world, think abstractly (to some degree), split bigger problems into smaller parts, and don’t not be afraid to ask someone else. Use your head.

Mathew Gertner

Developers are generally unprepared to spend the necessary time to do effective code reviews. They claim they don’t have time due to their other workload, and they rush through reviews just checking the high-level structure and cosmetic details like code formatting. It’s not possible to do a proper review unless you understand the other person’s code at a deep level. The best remedy for this is to provide explicit time for code reviews. Another technique might be to do meta-code reviews (reviewing the reviews) to make sure that people are taking the necessary time, although we haven’t tried this yet.

 

_____________________________________________________________________

What are some mistakes you’ve made in your approach to reviewing otherpeople’s code? How did you recognize and correct those mistakes?

Lesson: Trust the process.

 

Martin Čechura

Code review is not a way to criticize other developers, or to prove that one is better. It is a tool for checking and preventing errors, and getting perspective on the problem, which is written in code.
 

_____________________________________________________________________

What are some things you do to stop Code Review from becoming stressful for a coder?

Lesson: Take it easy. Give praise.

Martin Čechura

Making it too large a formality is a problem. Penalties for errors (if still not reproduced) instead of using that to generate new knowldge. It’s also stressful if a coder isn’t praised for a job well done.

Mathew Gertner

I solicit feedback frequently from our developers, and I’ve never heard the comment that someone felt stressed out by code reviews. Maybe this is because our reviews are done by peers, not bosses.

 

_____________________________________________________________________

What are the worst habits for a person in charge of Code Review?

Lesson: Be consistent, be open.

Martin Čechura

Thinking only one view is the correct one, an inability to adopt a different way of solving the problem than the one already verified, and an inability to appreciate a good idea, or solution.

Mathew Gertner

The biggest danger is inconsistency. It’s tempting to forego reviews when work is urgent, which sends the message that they are a luxury we indulge in when we have time, rather than an important and integral part of the development process.

 

_____________________________________________________________________

How about some better habits for a person leading Code Review?

Lesson: Don’t be a teacher or a cop, just do your homework.

Martin Čechura

An ability to explain what is wrong and why and to show a better solution, and patience. I have to be a co-worker, not a teacher or a cop. 🙂
 
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Mathew Gertner

This involves going through their code before they post it and, essentially, reviewing it themselves. This is particularly important when the reviewer is not intimately familiar with the relevant code base. Not only does it make the review faster and more valuable, it often leads to developers finding errors in their own code before it even gets to the reviewer.
 
It is also vital to avoid having code reviews become a bottleneck. A development process where code reviews block the developer leads constantly to situations where a developer is hectoring the reviewer to unblock them. The result is generally a fast and sloppy review. Of course, the review has to happen eventually, but we have structured our process so that the developer can continue to more forward, with the review required only in order to release the next version of the software to the client.
 
What I’ve found to help reviewers most is to urge developers to heavily annotate their reviews.

_____________________________________________________________________

Can you list 3 to 5 bad coding habits for developers that come up often in Code Review?

Lesson: Don’t be a cowboy, leave comments.

Martin Čechura

Unused or incorrect use of design patterns, algorithms that are too long and complex, retaining bigger problems in smaller parts, repeating of code,  and absence of basic documentation.

Mathew Gertner

Inconsistent naming and code formatting, code duplication, insufficient code comments.
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StartupYard and GoodData Partner to Provide Data Platform to European Startups

Today is a Good Day for all the future StartupYard projects of 2014. We’re very excited to announce that GoodData, the leader in cloud business intelligence, has agreed to give to the teams who will be selected this year free access to their GoodData platform!

You’ve read that well.

This year, as we are focusing on Data, Search and Analytics projects this partnership is fantastic as GoodData is all about Data, Search and Analytics. Having free access to an open and flexible data platform can save our early stage startups huge amounts of time and money that would be spent on building similar technologies internally. The teams accepted to this round will benefit from a bleeding-edge platform that already serves Fortune 500 companies around the world, allowing them to focus on what they do best: innovate and grow.

This partnership includes technologies that have not yet been announced and that will be release later this year. The good people of GoodData have been working on them throughout 2013. In other words, if you apply to the StartupYard acceleration program and are selected, you will be amongst the first ones in the world to access and be able to build new products on top of this unique platform.

You can read more details in a blog post by Jaroslav Gergic, VP Operations and R&D at GoodData on the GoodData developers’ blog

Let’s see who will be the first to come up with an ambitious and unique idea to build on top of these technologies. The future is yours!  Apply to StartupYard before January 31st, 2014.

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Why All Founders Should Read a 78 Year Old Book in 2014

“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”  – Dale Carnegie:  How To Win Friends and Influence People

Help Me, Help You 

I’m not big on self-help books. Well that’s not exactly true- I do read them, but I hate them all. I read a quit-smoking book a few years ago that explained that the key to quitting smoking was not to ever smoke again. Very enlightening stuff, to be sure, but we all know what these kinds of books are: inspirational blather that, when it isn’t telling you what you want to hear (I’m Ok, You’re Okay!), is mostly lying to you about how easy it is to do whatever the author does. And authors rarely have any valuable insights into what makes them good at whatever they do.

If it’s easy, it’s not worth writing about. And if it’s hard, it’s not fun to read about.

But I am a big reader, and I have, time and again, gone back to the well to find out what brand of bullshit is being sold this season. If it isn’t The Secret telling people that the key to success is to wish really hard for things (no seriously, it’s magic), it’s a fat guy telling you that the key to weight loss is common sense. Thanks alot, asshole.

Irony is Wasted on Evil People

There's a book listed on Amazon as "The Speed of Trust." Seriously. Look that one up.

There’s a book listed on Amazon as “The Speed of Trust.” Seriously. Look that one up.

“Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.” – Dale Carnegie

And people who publish books like those are evil. I mean really, how low does your self-esteem have to be to go paying for advice like that? Anyone who sells you something when you’re in that vulnerable a state, promising to make things better, is an evil bastard.

There are lots of books out there. Read a lot, it’s good for you. Read about starting a business and about psychology, and history, and whatever. But don’t buy those books. Have some self-respect.

That being said, do buy one book.

Dale Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People

“Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” – Dale Carnegiecarnegie03bk1

Carnegie got his start as a company leading salesman for Armour and Company, selling various items to ranchers and farmers in the American midwest at the turn of the century. Not at all shy about self-promotion, he changed his name from Carnagay to Carnegie, so as to associate himself with famous entrepreneur and millionaire Andrew Carnegie, and became a lecturer on salesmanship and soft-skills in 1911, after failed attempts to become an actor. While his “self-help,” movement has had bad press in recent years, with some justice, still the original is a classic, and as relevant as it ever was.

Carnegie was good at one thing: selling. And he had what can honestly be called a novel approach, now and then: caring about people.  Really, deeply, with a full heart, paying attention to other people, and putting yourself in their shoes. 

Why You Should Buy the Book

“You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” – Dale Carnegie

Carnegie’s book, born as a companion to his lecture series, is not only brilliant, it’s an ur-text of content marketing. It employs, and shows how to employ, all of the skills Carnegie taught his students, holding back no secrets, and freely giving away the “game plan,” Carnegie sold in his courses. The book shows an incredible confidence in itself and its writer as the product; there are no “weird tricks,” or “10 secrets,” just point by point advice on how to conduct yourself in your business interactions.

What I really love about this book is how openly frank it is. It’s not in the least egotistical. It not only serves as a guide to how to lead a happy life as a professional, but also works as an example of how people should do business, making all the arguments transparent, clear, and responsive to doubts. Carnegie lives his rules, and the result is a genuine feeling that he cares about the reader: he wants people to do better for themselves and others.

Not Just Common Sense

“Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.” – Dale Carnegie
 
"Common sense," is code for "Because, dude!"

“Common sense,” is code for “Because, dude!”

Many modern reviews of the book twig on the old-fashioned wisdom involved. Gems like (paraphrased): “never send a letter criticizing anyone for anything,” seem broadly proscriptive. But its Carnegie’s pragmatic reasoning that is convincing. Why should you never criticize anyone? Because, he argues convincingly, it will never help you or them.

Most of us have been in office environments where “constructive criticism,” was basically just saying something nice every time you say something devastatingly harmful. Carnegie argues with a great deal of evidence, that we rarely if ever have the power to truly reform others, and that we should make business decisions on a cost/benefit basis. If telling a person they aren’t performing well helps your business, you should tell them. But find a case in which doing so has a globally positive effect on that same business, and Carnegie might be impressed. He never found any such case.

He argues instead that our instinct to criticize and control the outputs of others are only superficially justified by “the bottom line,” and that the true costs of negativity are deeper than quarterly or yearly profits. If there is even a whiff of ego involved in employee discipline or in job training and retraining, he says, it is almost sure to be counterproductive. If you aren’t on the side of your employees as much as you are on the side of your customers, you might be financially successful, but you will never be happy, and neither will your employees.

And the same goes for his advice about names. It’s not for Carnegie that you should just remember someone’s name (for which skill he gives various tips and tricks), but the why of remembering a name. It’s not manipulative, and it’s not about seizing control of the conversation or getting the upper hand, it’s about making the other person comfortable: it’s about talking to the other person with the deepest level of respect; reminding yourself, by saying the person’s name, that you are helping them- that your mission is to be of service.

Carnegie wasn’t himself a business tycoon. But for him, that was never really the point. His passion, even before he left sales as a career, was to humanize business interactions. He’s commonly cited as an inspiration by successful businessmen, including Warren Buffet, who attended his courses at the age of 20. His principles were that a truly successful businessperson not only makes money, but also makes people, him or herself included, happier in the process.

Social Media Marketing: Where We Could Use a Little 80 Year Old Wisdom

“Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” -Dale Carnegie

A few weeks ago, I needed a question answered by the company that supplies my home internet connection. They’re virtually unreachable by phone: it’s a Kafkaesque tangle of extensions, computer voices, and automated messages, resulting (as I suspect is the intention) in rage-quitting and going off to search for answers on their website. Frustrated with this process, I posted the question on their Facebook page, and a real human being responded in less than an hour. He used my name and everything. It was great. His answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I’m still satisfied. Why?

As conversations with your market become more public, old fashioned salesmanship is becoming more important than it has been in a long time. Ironically, as we get more and more digital, we yearn more and more for the human element in our business interactions.

Carnegie was writing in a time in which mass consumer marketing was a brand-new industry. The types of businesses that thrive online today are those that were just in their infancy in the 1930s: the sales catalogue, the publisher’s clearinghouse, the mail-order fabric company, and more. And while it might seem that he wouldn’t have much authority on the subject, quite the opposite is true: Carnegie eyed the rise of mass marketing with the eye of a seasoned salesman, and believed that the principles of good sales were no different by mail.

The insistent minority voice in marketing is that the old-fashioned, bespoke approach to customers is far from dead, and is coming back in an age where direct marketing can be humanized by leveraging new technologies. It may be that a time is soon approaching when the shifting economics of online business, push the majority of the customer care and sales focus to social media accounts and public, online interactions. Will your company be prepared for that? Will you?

I think we could all use a little more humanity in 2014. So read this book. I wish everyone would.

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10 Reasons to Join StartupYard’s Accelerator Program

You have a project in Data, Search or Analytics?

Here are 10 good reasons why you should apply to StartupYard Accelerator program:

  1. We have been accelerating start-ups for 3 years already so you can expect a program that has been developed over time.
  2. You will learn how to write a financial and business plan and how to pitch it to investors.
  3. You will receive €250,000 worth of perks that will last you for months.
  4. Experienced coders will sit down with you during code review sessions to help you optimize your product.
  5. You will have access to amazing mentors who will challenge you and push you to get the best out of your idea.
  6. If you are not from Prague, we will provide you with free accommodations and office-space for the duration of the program (and we will fly you to Prague for free).
  7. You will participate in growth hacking workshops and learn ways to increase your user base.
  8. Your start-up will be exposed to the international eyes of the leading European tech journalists and bloggers.
  9. You will go from an idea to a business that investors will want to invest in and users will want to pay for in 3 months.
  10. You will meet scientists who are doing machine learning, natural language processing, maintaining Hadoop and learn how to run these technology on a mass production level.

Did we convince you? Here’s the link to submit your application.

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Meet the Only Company in Europe that is Beating Google: Seznam.cz

Full disclosure: Seznam is a major investor in StartupYard, and this piece and interview are a promotion for our accelerator candidates, who will get access to Seznam’s search technology, and will work with Seznam staff through Startupyard. Nevertheless, Seznam is a phenomenon worth reading about and being aware of, as they define what alternatives to Google can do, to the advantage of smaller local markets.

Google is the biggest search company in the world, by more than a big margin. Of course you know this, and perhaps you’ve heard that Google is so big, that it dominates search traffic not only at home in the US, but in every market in the world except Russia, China, and South Korea. That makes sense: none of these countries use the latin alphabet, and their huge online markets are fertile ground for competitors, keeping Google from reaching dominance, and even so, Google is making huge in-roads in all of those markets. And Google owns the west outright.

With one exception.

How Do you Beat Google? Give People What They Want.

Founded in 1996 by Ivo Lukačovič, Seznam.cz has grown to become the only latin-alphabet based full-text search service in the world that is beating Google in its own market: the Czech Republic. Seznam means “List,” in Czech, but has a richer meaning: as in a catalogue or directory of information. Today Seznam employs over 1000 people, and has revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

With a population of just 10.5 million (with perhaps a million Czech speakers elsewhere worldwide), the Czechs don’t seem likely candidates for a powerhouse search engine. But careful attention to the specific needs of the local market has brought Seznam to the top, with a suite of online services dominating news, advertising, local retail and exchange, maps, email, and search in the Czech Republic. Around 90% of Czechs are regular users of Seznam.cz and its various services, and they enjoy a range of services at a quality level unmatched by local services in much larger neighboring countries, including Germany (8 times larger in population) and Poland (4 times larger).

Seznam generates 60% of all Czech page views, and a dominant position in online advertising, serving 90% of the Czech market regularly. It is synonymous with the internet for Czechs online, in the way that Google has become in many other countries.

Seznam’s local presence makes the Czech Republic fertile ground for competition, and has been a singular advantage to the Czechs, bringing Google Street View to Prague before it arrived anywhere else in Central Europe, and helping to make Czech language services on Google far more sophisticated than in neighboring Slovakia or Austria. A plethora of apps from Seznam, specialized for the Czech market and language, offer Czech consumers a set of mobile options rivalling markets many times their size, and keep the Czech Republic burning brightly as a place for cutting-edge innovation, despite its size.

A Q&A With Seznam

Irena Zatloukalova, Seznam spokesperson and mentor at Startupyard.

Irena Zatloukalova, Seznam spokesperson and mentor at Startupyard.

I caught up this week with Irena Zatloukalová, a spokesperson for Seznam.cz, and a mentor in PR and communication at Startupyard to talk about Seznam’s amazing success, and their cooperation with Startupyard. Here’s our exchange:

How long have you been with Seznam? What’s it like working there (and in the Czech Republic in general)?

It will be 3 years in 2 months. Seznam.cz is a very different place to work at. I worked for three other companies before Seznam.cz and nowhere else was I able to find such a combination of all the attributes of my work here. People here like their jobs, and like the brand they are working for – that is why you can always expect them to want the best for the company.

By pulling from the same end of the rope, everyone is motivated to always find a solution and get the things needed to be done, done. So you don’t do purposeless work. And the atmosphere at seznam.cz is very informal. And I also believe that the management chooses very competent people, to whom they give responsibility for specific fields, and then listens to their expertise and trusts their opinions and knowledge. In most companies I’ve worked for, at least one of these attributes has always been missing.

That’s interesting. How does Seznam keep itself from falling into the trap that so many companies fall into, of not trusting their employee’s judgment? We’ve all worked in places where our boss didn’t want to let anyone else have a good idea. How do you overcome that instinct?

I do not know, what the trick is. I suppose it comes from our management team. Pavel Zima as well as all the other members of the management just live the values of informality. Whoever comes with a good idea, can go directly to anyone in the company. You do not need to wait in a long line, or consult 6 other people before getting to the person that can decide what you have come up with. Also, you directly know who is the one you need to see on what issue. So you just go directly to them. No matter if they are juniors or if the one you need to see is the GM. If the idea is good and viable, it will be taken and you will not be reproached if it is not. This method leads to results very fast. And as I have said, maybe seeing that what you do has a meaning and you do not have to waste your time, is the secret ingredient to overcome that suppressing instinct.

But from the perspective of someone responsible for internal communication, I have to say this environment is very challenging too – everyone feels free to tell you, they would communicate every single thing differently. But trust me, that is the smallest tax one is willing to pay in a company where informality and openness are not just phrases you say, but the values the employees live.

We did a piece recently where we argued that Prague was the next great place for “the startup life;” a place that’s perfect for young companies to grow. Do you agree with that?

Prague is full of very interesting people. On the Prague startup scene, I have met many interesting people who not only having good ideas, but are also able to bring them to life. So I would agree. And moreover, the Czech Republic has many successful IT companies that have been launched as startups, or one-man ideas, and have made their way to companies known to the Czechs and outside the Czech Republic – I mean not only Seznam.cz but also AVG, GoodData and many others.

Seznam is famous for being one of only a few search services around the world besting Google in its own market. How did Seznam reach this position in the Czech Republic?

As our General manager Pavel Zima says, we have not given up on our products.

We have been developing our products constantly throughout the last 17 years. We have not given up on our own full-text search engine and robot, our maps or email. Within the last two years we have even sped up our innovations, so that we could introduce very simple, intuitive and as up-to-date versions of our services as possible for our users.

Also, we have stayed focused on Czech users and their needs. Our services have become an everyday part of the lives of most Czechs. We offer services for those looking for a new car, a flat, or consumer goods. At our home page we provide people with the basic service, so they know all the current info – weather forecasts, news from different fields, TV programs and so on.

The other very important thing is that our users are the starting point for us. With the services we provide, we always try to solve some problem or task one uses the internet for. And only when we are happy with the way things work (as we use our services, and try to find the best way to make them work for everyone), do we let the users try the service, and monetization comes only after that.

You mention how important Czechs and the Czech Republic is to Seznam. That’s very different from most similar companies, who are thinking globally — who are thinking that growth brings quality. Do you think Seznam’s model is conceivable in other countries, or is the size and culture of Czech Republic just right for this kind of service? 

That is hard to say. Ivo Lukačovič, the founder of Seznam.cz, had a very good business instinct. At the time he founded Seznam.cz he had a very good idea; he put together services people learned to use and he was brave enough to try and find a way to finance his hobby (find out more about this history). Much later, when there was more competition on the Internet, Seznam.cz has made the deliberate and rational decision that it wanted to focus on the business and environment it knows the best.

I am not sure if it is a recipe for everyone, but it worked for Seznam.cz. We started as a small company and grew big only on one market. I suppose every company has to find its way. Copying anybody does not work in a long run. You need to have your passion and a bit of luck, which you wittily use for your aim. That is something that I suppose happened to Seznam.cz and it does not have to necessarily be because it has happened in the Czech Republic. Yes, Czechs are specific – not many Czechs spoke English 10 years ago. But even now when English is much more common, they still use our services. We differ from our completion in many ways. Maybe diversity of business might be more important than just sole global growth. We live on Full text search and PPC advertising, display adds, yellow-pages-like on-line catalogue business and advertising at field-specific servers (Sauto, Sreality and so on). And these four legs of our business are approximately of the same size in revenues. That combined with focus on our users and innovations are the key to our stable growth, in my opinion.

 What is Seznam doing today to stay ahead of competition from the likes of Google, Facebook, or Yahoo?

We try to use our knowledge of the Czech market and Czechs to our advantage. For example: Czechs are very keen tourists, and at the weekends you can find many people with their small backpacks in the woods, following the tourist marks, going for a short hike or trip. For an international company it doesn’t make sense to come out with a special tourist map just for Czechs (as outside the CEE there are not many countries with such a sophisticated and well-maintained system of tourist markers in the countryside). Seznam.cz made that an important part of its web maps and also built a mobile map on the touristic data we have, with an offline mode. This is something that does not make sense for Google, but it makes sense for Seznam.cz and also wins us positive points among Czech Internet users.

Can you tell us about some other interesting projects Seznam has been working on?

Lately we have made a lot of product innovations. The big ones have been started within the last 3 years with Super.cz (a tabloid- web-news server). We have done it totally differently than any other similar site. We have completely skipped categories on the site, just providing the users with a stream of news and photos. With a big photo leading to the main article of the day in the background. Since then we have really started to innovate and simplify our products. For the latest innovations, you can see our English press release on innovations.

And in the last 3 months we have come up with about 7 new mobile apps. See them all here. 

Seznam is a major partner of Startupyard, how did the company get interested in Startupyard, and what do you hope to gain from the partnership?

The cooperation started 3 years ago. By then we had talked to other Prague accelerators, and the Prague Hub, to find out if there were any ways to share our know-how with the companies present there. At StartupYard, the deal was the fastest and made the most sense, as it continues to do. The first year was mostly about know-how; sharing and mentoring. To add to that, we became an investor in SY last year ,and for next year, we will also provide the teams with part of our technology. We believe it can help some people with very good ideas, to make their ideas become successful and viable projects.

To see what more we plan to do in 2014 with Start ups, please see our blog post from December (in Czech) – http://seznam.sblog.cz/2013/12/18/604.

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