mentors engaged with founders

Dealing with Mentor WhipLash

Startups in any mentorship-based accelerator program should, obviously, meet a lot of mentors, investors, and advisors over the course of the program. Even outside of an accelerator program, early-stage startups tend to seek a lot of advice, and should try to meet with and listen to a broad range of people with different opinions.

Hard Questions

Something that we notice happening with our startups toward the end of StartupYard’s “mentor month,” is that founders start to get a bit tired of meeting with new people. This is, overall, a good sign. Frustration with mentorship means that they are starting to notice a consistent theme in the feedback they are getting, and they are probably ready to start executing on the feedback they’ve received so far.

This is why we do virtually all of our mentoring in such a compressed period of time. And It is time consuming. Every startup we’ve accelerated has given us the same feedback: “this is really taking a lot of time and energy!” It does, but if it’s used effectively, it will be worth it.

Common objections to a startup’s idea, to its plans, to its approach and view of the market, tend to become quite obvious when a founder hears them many times in quick succession. A period of organized mentoring can allow a founder to develop strategies for answering the most common objections, and it can reveal objections to which their answers aren’t good enough yet.

If you aren’t tired of mentoring, you haven’t done it enough.

The best startup mentors are not necessarily those who just give startups clear instructions on what to do next. The best mentors ask the hardest questions. “How do you know that?” “What proof do you have for this assumption?” Good, searching questions can reveal to founders how weak the foundations of their thinking can at times be. When startup founders tend to rest their hopes on these assumptions, good mentors seek to poke holes in the theory of a startup, in order to make it stronger.

As mentoring goes on, there are fewer “ahah” moments for founders, and it becomes easier for them to answer tough questions that insightful mentors bring up. They start to be better at handling common objections, and identifying objections that do really demand more work on their part. They start, in short, to grow a pretty thick skin for new feedback, and they become less questioning of themselves, and more questioning of the mentors.

I can spot founders who have had good mentors by the way they deal with my questions: they’ve heard them all before, and they have answers that make sense, and that don’t ignore the question, or attempt to change the subject. They don’t dismiss the objections: they answer them convincingly and easily.

That growing confidence is double edged of course– too much mentoring can make founders immune to hearing new ideas over time– but just as importantly, it can make them more immune to what prominent VC Fred Wilson calls “mentor whiplash.”

Mentor Whiplash

Every startup has at least a handful of these experiences in our program, and in every accelerator program in the world. Mentors often leap to radically different conclusions, and offer radically different advice to startups.

When one expert tells you that you absolutely have to do X, and another equally experienced mentor tells you that Y is absolutely, without a doubt, the way to go, and X and Y are mutually exclusive, what do you do? You may not know who to believe at this point.

The fault isn’t with the mentors. Mentoring can be difficult for both sides of the equation. I sometimes feel like my advice roles off startups like water off a duck’s back. It takes a long time, and a lot of effort, to make certain ideas stick. So I become quite forceful with my opinion. That’s a natural tendency for a mentor to have. Suggestions become commandments to be followed.

What startup founders learn over time, is that clearly two mentors with opposing views can’t both be right, but that both mentors may not necessarily be wrong. In the aggregate, over many sessions with many different people, a path will emerge. The founder’s job is to synthesize all that input into a plan that makes sense.

There will always be smart people who don’t buy your ideas, or who think you’re doing everything wrong. But if there were someone who knew exactly what you should do in all circumstances, then that person would surely be the richest person who ever lived.

Sounds Smart Vs. Is Smart

Really engaged mentors and advisors get to be fans of their chosen startups. We root for them, and we start thinking we know what’s best for them all the time.

Like being a fan of a sports team: it’s all the feeling of accomplishment, without having balls kicked at them at high speed.

It’s easy to spend 30 minutes with a startup, and give them the impression that you know your stuff. It’s much, much harder to do the work that startups do, which involves making something out of nothing. Mentors are domain experts, but not always startup founders themselves. They know their domains and they know their own jobs, but they won’t really appreciate the responsibilities of the person sitting across from them. How could they?

Sounding smart takes only experience. You can make an idea sound appealing if you know how to sell it. But being smart involves trial and error. An idea isn’t smart until it actually works, and this is largely in the execution, which can change over time. The work always ends up being worth more than the inspiration.

Keep Your Compass On You

We work hard to make sure our investor mentors aren’t seagulls (the kind who shit on an idea to make themselves feel more important, and then fly off). And we also work to make sure our mentors are focused on the needs of startups, rather than the needs of ego.

But one inherent danger, especially in a formalized mentorship setting, is that mentors never have the same motivations as startups. They can try to put themselves in the place of the founders, and sympathize with their experiences. The best mentors do this well, and continue to do it long after the first meeting.

However, mentors have things that they also believe in, and a way of seeing the world that they don’t necessarily share with a startup founder. Mentors can push a startup to think about things from their own perspective, which is fine, but they can also forget that their perspective is unique to them.

If a mentor is a VC, they may complain to a startup that they aren’t thinking big enough. If the mentor is a marketer, they may push the startup to think in terms of their own experiences.

This is all necessary input for startups, if they keep in mind that mentors speak for themselves, and about themselves, as much as they do about the startups they are counseling. A mentor has to dig into their own history, to offer startups the benefit of their experience. It is still the founder’s job to make sense of that experience for themselves.

A mentor’s experience and their opinion are separate things, which is important to remember. A mentor may have failed at what a founder is trying to do, or may have seen others fail. The founder can learn from that experience without heeding all the mentor’s advice; advice like: “don’t do it, it won’t work!”

Make A Mentorship Map

Effective mentors accelerate the growth of your ideas, but also, just as importantly, the growth of your personal network. They can give you contacts and directions to explore, and it becomes a complex undertaking to follow up on and use all the input and contacts you get.

One of the single biggest failings that early stage startups have, is that they don’t adequately follow up on the contacts offered to them by mentors. Every startup is guilty of that to a degree, which is unavoidable. Still, our most successful startups have been those who have pursued contacts relentlessly, both during and after our program.

Fred Wilson recommends that startups keep a feedback spreadsheet for input and contacts from mentors. That’s sound advice, and it’s something we require our startups to do. But I would also suggest a slightly more creative approach, that might work better for startups who are getting a lot of mentor whiplash: a mind map for feedback.

Your mindmap might look very different from this one, but here’s a possible example using

Mindmap General

You could go into much more depth, and create a mindmap for each general category, employing each one for each different type of mentor, with a mindmap for Marketing, another for Investment, one for partnerships, etc. Or you could create a mindmap for each mentor individually.

It takes a bit of time to get used to mindmapping, but it’s a good skill to have when you need to have a reliable way of processing a lot of input from many different sources. Over time, you can customize your map to show your own priorities and the frequency of certain types of feedback as well.

Introducing StartupYard Portfolio Manager Jaromir Beranek

We’re pleased to introduce Jaromir “Mirek” Beranek, the latest member of the StartupYard team.

Mirek joins us as a full time team member and Portfolio Manager. It will be his responsibility not only to keep track of and stay in contact with the startups we have accelerated in the past, but also to advise and consult with startups during and after our program on matters of finance, financial reporting, and investment planning. Mirek will also manage StartupYard’s own budgeting and contracts with incoming startups.

Jaromir studied International Management (CEMS) at the University of Economics and Law at Charles University in Prague, taking exchange semesters in Management at the University of Cologne and Law at NOVA Southeastern University in Ford Lauderdale. In 2011, he joined Telefónica’s Aspire Graduate Program and spend the following three years on different assignments in finance, strategy and marketing in Prague and Munich. Mirek is also a veteran of Wayra CEE, the Prague-based branch of a global accelerator network, where he took care of financial matters and portfolio valuation.

I caught up with him this week to talk about his new position with our team:

Hi Mirek, welcome to StartupYard! What makes you want to work with startups?

Let’s put the question differently: What makes you not to want to work with corporations? Then it would be much easier for me to answer: the corporations I have worked for are incredibly slow, most negotiations are very political, middle management often lacks both education and capabilities, no one outside the board has the authority to decide anything and many colleagues felt demotivated and transmitted their foul mood to others, including me.

I simply had to find a different place for self-realization where I could use what I had learned and make some impact. Luckily, the opportunity came at the right time and it was quite easy for me to get used to this Brave New World. First it was Wayra and now it is StartupYard. Of course, even startups can be slow, incapable and helpless at times. But in general, I feel that on this side of the fence I can see results quickly while having fun and doing the work my own way.

Can you tell us a bit about your background in the corporate world?

Being an alumnus of an international management program, I was almost pre-destined to be successfully lured by a corporation once done with the university. And I really liked it at first.

Having gained some internship experience from the time of my studies, I suddenly felt like I became a true member of the big world consisting of huge buildings with shiny glass façades. I wanted to work on interesting projects and be seen. But instead I found myself sitting behind a computer screen all the time and there was no one who would care.

Thus I started learning and learned quite a lot from finance, marketing and strategy. But the frustration began to snowball gradually. Once back from my foreign placement in Munich, I somehow resigned myself to it, and kept on going to work just to make money and make sure I have enough free time to do what I like most. All in all, it hasn’t been a very shiny experience, and now I know for sure that if I was to return to a corporation, I would have to design my own role first and have at least some executive power.

What made you want to become a member of the StartupYard team? What do you hope to accomplish here that will have a lasting impact?

Well, because you are all very nice guys in the first place, that’s an easy one! But seriously, people always make a huge impression and here I felt we would fit well together. Next, I wanted to follow up with my previous work for Wayra and give an afterlife to all those beautiful charts and models I have built. 🙂


Talking about my footprints, I want to make our financial reports at StartupYard more user friendly, both for us and the investors and then, hopefully, help create a solid and trusted alumni pool where investors could come and pick from them– sort of plug and play. Nice and neat.

And one more thing, I want to help build a strong community around StartupYard so we are heard and seen and more talented entrepreneurs join our acceleration program.

What do you think are important qualities for someone working in accounting, and financial control?

Clearly, to be a good financial controller you have to develop some kind of affection for numbers and tables. It’s definitely useful if you have strong computing skills and can visualize graphs and models you want to build. Analytical thinking is definitely an asset if you want to work with the results further and reflect them in your business.

When it comes to data collecting and work with excel, you have to be patient and thorough but at the same time be determined and know how to make the others give you all the information you need. If you work often with invoices and paperwork, it’s also quite important to be well organized and remember all due dates and deadlines.

You’ve been brought on as Portfolio Manager for StartupYard. How can StartupYard improve our support of alumni?

From my experience, whenever you leave an organization you have been a member of for some time, you tend to lose interest in a few years. Therefore, we need to communicate with our alumni more frequently, tell them about all important events but most importantly invite them for at least two community events every year and make sure they really come and talk to us.

However, this is only possible if you can offer something valuable. In our case, the key should be our contacts to investors and continued mentoring and business consulting. On the other hand, we shouldn’t promise what is impossible – there should be realistic expectations set from the beginning and a mutual relationship of trust. Eventually, I would like to make the StartupYard be seen as a “safe harbor”, a place where all alumni may come to for a piece of advice, sympathy and also a friendly kick if needed.

How do you envision your role with the incoming startups in 2016?

I could be talking about my big dreams and great ideas but the truth is that my role at StartupYard was defined quite clearly. Therefore I know that I will be responsible for a successful and timely negotiations and contracting in the first place.

In order to avoid the nightmare scenario of not having signed one or more contracts by the end of the acceleration period, I have to meet our new startup co-founders very early and build relationships with them. Then, hopefully, they will be also open to share their financials with me, which I need to work with not just to establish business value of the portfolio but also to help them set realistic goals and secure financing under fair terms.

To sum up, I would like to be a partner to them and make sure they make the most of their business.

On this topic, in your experience, what are some of the most common and problematic mistakes that startups make when it comes to their accounting and financial practices early on?

The biggest mistakes some of the startups make is that they completely give up on planning their revenues or only do a few “pro forma” tables.

I agree that it might be difficult to predict your business development if you have just started but it tells a lot about your level of competency and trustworthiness to potential investors. Also it helps to give the starting business some direction.

Another common mistake is that startups tend to rely heavily on first investment prospects based on initial meetings with potential investors or even only on declared interest. It’s important to realize that negotiations may last several months and if you aim too high, you may easily run out of cash and make a fool out of yourself. That was just to name a few common mistakes, but I could continue for hours and I don’t want to be evil! :laughs:

What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of finance and startups?

Most of all I love hiking in the mountains and outdoor sports. Usually, you would find me running, roller-skating, biking or skiing in the winter. Less than I used to but I still play drama with my friends in a student artistic group OLDstars. I also used to play music quite a lot before: clarinet, saxophone, guitar and a bit of singing. Over time, I started to prefer going to theaters and concerts as a visitor, having realized that I will never be as good myself.

Two years ago, I meet a group of very interesting and active people in Vacation School Lipnice, who organize one or two week experiential courses and workshops for groups of people across generations. There you learn by playing games, discover new things about yourself, fight your fears and make new friends. I would like myself to organize a course like that to promote political and journalistic engagement among high school and university students.

Last but not least, it’s also worth mentioning that my friends and I write a blog about Prague confectioneries

Philip Staehelin: Corporates Need Startups Too

Former StartupYard Executive in Residence, and current managing partner at Roland Berger, Philip Staehelin, wrote us this week with something to say.

Philip represented Roland Berger, along with StartupYard, at Startup Summit last week in Prague. He noticed a conspicuous absence, and wanted to share his views about the corporate relationship to startups.

LinkedIn_StartUp Summit

Here’s Philip:

Don’t companies realize they need the startups as much as startups need them?

Last week I spoke before a full house at Prague’s Startup Summit. Over 500 participants listened eagerly to a full day of speakers, including the CEO of O2 CZ, the CEO of SAP BSCE, and the Strategy Director of MSD IT Global Innovation Center, to highlight but a few. There were panel discussions (one with the top regional PE/VC firms, and one with successful startup founders), and a few cool startup pitches to keep things interesting.

However, this was not your standard Startup event. Instead, it targeted the corporate sector, to help it address the startup community in order to strengthen, supplement, or jump start corporate innovation efforts.

Unfortunately, many of the larger corporates that I was expecting to see didn’t get the memo apparently, even though this was one of the biggest and best CEE events of the year. Not to mention the fact that it was completely sold out. It seems everyone else did get the memo.

Having worked in a few large, international corporations, I can see from where this disconnect arises. Most companies well understand the need to be more innovative – or to risk obsolescence. They’ve seen the destruction that companies like Amazon, Airbnb and Uber can quickly wreak on an entire industry. CEOs of all stripes are keenly aware of the plausibility of John Chambers’ (former CEO of Cisco Systems) assertion that “40% of today’s businesses will not exist in a meaningful way in 10 years”.

And this sense of fear and foreboding has companies banging the innovation drum more and more fervently.

But it’s not much more than noise for the most part. Does creating an internal “innovation department” cut it in today’s world? Does hiring more digital savvy millennials make a company innovative? Does throwing money at the problem make it go away? Quite simply – no.

Innovation is not a simplistic corporate function. Perhaps it once was, when innovation meant finding ways to be more efficient and to reduce the defect rate to as close to zero as possible. But that’s so last century.

In today’s age of disruption and compressed business cycles, companies have no other choice than to leverage the rapid innovation happening outside company walls. They need to think about creating a multi-pillar innovation strategy inside the company that: a) facilitates idea generation through many different channels (internal and external), b) nourishes and leverages fresh ideas that young startups bring to the table, and c) funds innovation efforts within the startup ecosystem. They need to put real skin in the game in order to increase their odds to survive and thrive.

But, why didn’t more corporates show up to last week’s game to show that they “get it”? I’m sure there are many reasons, but there are certainly two things that companies can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

Ensure that there are people in the company that are tasked with “engaging” with the startup ecosystem. Get them out there. Empower them to be gateways into the company for startups, partners, academia, etc. Typically in a company, there is simply no one that feels responsible to participate in these types of events. And those that might be interested are afraid to ask the boss to “take the day off” to attend a conference – regardless of the fact that this (if done properly) can impact a company much more than a standard workday. And when done right (i.e. networking like hell, getting stimulated with new ideas, seeing new contexts), it should be far more exhausting than a normal day in the office!

Don’t believe that your HQ is “doing all the innovation”. Innovation should happen everywhere, in each branch and in each subsidiary. If you’re lucky enough to have a global presence, leverage it to find that “diamond in the rough” that may be a small local startup in one of your backwater geographies. That can only happen if you take full responsibility, and create a culture that is “looking” and “enabled” – something you can certainly do at a local level. Excusing your lack of initiative on a global policy (or lack thereof) is simply that – an excuse.

That’s a very long-winded way of saying: next time there’s a cool startup conference in your neighborhood – sign up and engage!

8 Reasons Not to Join an Accelerator

Yes, yes. We’re always trying to convince people that accelerators are generally a good idea. And they are, for a lot of you out there. But not for all of you.

Here are 8 reasons not to join an accelerator. If any of these speak to you, consider very carefully whether going to one won’t be a frustrating waste of your time and energy.

1. You Need the Money

Time and again, we meet with startups who only have questions about the money and terms we offer to startups. If you’re joining an accelerator for the money it provides, think twice.

First of all, it isn’t a lot of money, really. 30,000 Euros might seem like a lot  -older accelerators like Y-C give up to $120,000- and more in follow on financing. But if your idea is really workable as a business, you can find that money somewhere else. And when you do, it’s likely you wouldn’t have to give up a sizable stake in your company for it.

The money-for-equity equation doesn’t make sense by itself, but the accelerator model makes sense when you look at the results. StartupYard companies are at least 3 times more likely to survive their first year than companies who don’t join an accelerator, and our vested interest is in every one of our companies becoming a success, and fetching a high priced exit. The funding we provide couldn’t accomplish this. It would be a poor investment. But the connections, guidance, and support we provide can make the difference between a company falling off the map in a year or two, or getting seriously funded, and having a shot at real success.

2. An Accelerator Means Instant Growth and Recognition

Sorry, it won’t work that way. DropBox, Twitch, Stripe, AirBnB, Softlayer, and SendGrid (all companies that went through accelerators), did not become successes just because they were in accelerators. Quite the opposite: these companies made Y-Combinator and TechStars famous.

No, they became successes because they had dedicated founders who made the right decisions and just as importantly, worked hard. We can’t make you work hard, but we can help you make the right decisions, and forge important connections. That’s it. It’s hardly rocket science (though some of our alums are rocket scientists).

Every startup, to some degree, has to be in the right place at the right time. An accelerator can help you be in that right place, and help you determine whether it is the right time. We can be a firewall against your worst impulses, but we cannot do any of it for you. If you expect that an accelerator will make you famous and win you funding, don’t be so sure. You’ll be the one doing the work.

3. You’re a Solo Act

You’re a lone wolf, who plays by her own rules. You don’t need a co-founder, because that person would just get in your way. The glory will be yours alone.

That’s all fine, except we’re not interested. A single founder can become a bottleneck for new ideas and input. He or she can also become a blocker for needed action. A single person with too much control over a startup will find it easier and more tempting to resist doubts, and to avoid stopping to reconsider strategy. Beyond that, a single founder usually just can’t handle all the demands of attending an accelerator and running a company at the same time.

Anybody who has ever watched a police drama knows the dynamic. A partner is somebody who can play good cop to your bad cop, and can back you up when you’re in trouble. They’re someone who can tell you you’re crazy, or can confirm that you’re really onto something. Nobody wants to approach a lone wolf, so get a partner you can trust.

4. Your Ideas Are Perfect

You don’t tolerate criticism. Why should you? You’ve been successful all your life, and this situation is no different. You will just make your company work, no matter what, doing what you had it in mind to do.

My advice is, go for it. If it’s a perfect idea, then it really will all work out without you having to question it. But if you’re coming to an accelerator thinking that even the basic idea behind your company can’t change, then don’t come. Stay home.


Accelerators are for failure as much as they are for success. Better to fail early on, and in a controlled way, than to build an empire on sand. We will push you to falsify all your notions of what will work, and what won’t. Most startups discover basic, critical flaws in their concepts while attending our program, which is exactly when they should discover them.

5. You’re a Tourist

Like a weekend wine-taster in Napa (or maybe Moravia), you’re just dipping your toes in the water to see what this whole startup thing is about. You’re not about to buy a winery and start mashing your own grapes, unless somebody can convince you it’s a good idea.

We don’t have the energy or the heart to sell your own startup to you. If you’re not sure it’s something you want to dedicate your life to working on for at least several years, then don’t join an accelerator. You’ll save everyone, yourself included, a lot of grief.

On the same token, don’t join an accelerator expecting to pick and choose what you’ll get out of it. “I just need the mentors, I don’t need the workshops.” I can’t say how many times I’ve heard words to this effect. And yet, these are usually the founders who need our input the most. But if a founder isn’t open minded and open hearted, there isn’t much we can do to change that.

6. You’re Not a Startup

That sounds a bit silly, but it’s a real thing. Part of the problem is something we’ve discussed a lot, which is that tech companies today seem to think they have to be “startups.”

Startups are companies that need to scale quickly in order to survive. They are companies that are innovating a new technology or business idea or process that hasn’t been tried before in just that way.

But every year, we get applications from game companies, digital agencies, and e-commerce providers who want to tap into the “startup mojo,” and experience hyper growth without having a hyper-growth product.

The line between a traditional business and a startup can be unclear at times- sometimes their products do essentially the same things, but in radically different ways. Make sure your path forward involves rapid growth, and global reach, and that it isn’t, in the parlance of Y-Combinator, a “lifestyle business,” set up to make a small profit over many years of steady business.

7. You’re Looking to Cash Out

Your results may differ.

I wouldn’t compare running a startup to gambling, but there is one parallel that is inescapable. When you go to a casino, the best practice is to give yourself a limit, and expect to lose all the money you’ve committed to gambling. If that’s an amount of money you’d be comfortable simply setting on fire and walking away, then it’s ok to play a little blackjack. Otherwise, don’t play.

So it has to be with running a startup. If you’re not comfortable with existential risks to your business, then you should probably be in a different field. And if you’re drawn to running a startup because you know that some startups get large payouts in the form of acquisitions, then it’s unlikely that you also have enough affinity for the idea behind your startup, to stick with it even when things look bad. And they will, at some point, look bad.

8. You Want to Be Famous

Let us not dwell on this. Just, no.

We Want to See Traction, not Fake Traction

Last week, we made the final stop on our 6 city, 5 country FastLane tour, meeting over 50 startups from The Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Kosovo. In Warsaw, we FastLaned two more startups, giving them the chance to get ahead of hundreds of other applicants. In total, we FastLaned twenty companies.

Highlights from Poland

We had been hearing about the active Polish startup scene for forever, but Reaktor, run by Borys Musielak, was our first real chance of seeing it up close. Over 150 people packed into a house that is strongly reminiscent of an American college fraternity for their monthly OpenReaktor event, where 4 startups pitched to us, and 2 were FastLaned.

What do I have to have to get into StartupYard?

We heard this question a lot from Polish startups in particular, but it’s something many startups or entrepreneurs ask us when we’re on the road. Do I need a prototype? Do I need users? Revenue?

But this is really approaching the question the wrong way around. We don’t establish a minimum cutoff for the progress or stage of the startups we take, because every startups has a different path to take. We look at startups as potential partners. In our partnerships, it’s important that the accelerator can provide value. If we can’t, then there’s no reason for a startup to join us, or to let other startups know that we can help them too.

It so happens that we can most often help companies that are just about to or have already launched a beta product of some kind, and who have a few users or customers to boot. But we have also gone as far as to take a company with only an idea of what they want to do, as well as companies who already have a steady stream of paying customers.

Team and Traction

A really interesting female entrepreneur from India pitched us in Warsaw. She had approached us about pitching, but warned us that she had no product, no team, and no code. Just an idea, and a will to make it happen. She also had set up an MVP without any coding. And despite her having none of these things, she was so convincing, that we decided to FastLane her anyway.

So she asked me: “Thanks for that, but really, at what stage can this be something you’ll consider?” I answered that she had a month to show us how she can execute on her idea.

“But I can’t get a product done in a month!” she said. Well, of course not. And we wouldn’t expect that. But what we would expect to see, if we were to consider her for the accelerator, is some form of traction. People usually confuse traction for user growth and revenue. That’s not the whole picture for us.

Traction means evolution and progress. Where are you today, and where were you a month ago? If you’re the type of person who gets stuck, and doesn’t move forward because something is blocking them, then you probably won’t do well at an accelerator. You have to be willing to move where you can; to flow in the direction of what is possible, and deal with what isn’t yet possible as soon as possible.

How can a non-coder make progress on a technology project in a month? Well, she has to move in the direction of what’s possible. She can spend that time finding and convincing team members to join the project. At the same time, she can begin working on recruiting users for the day when she will have a beta product available. As I often tell startups: you do not need a final product in order to start delivering value to someone today.

If she can convince a team to join her on her quest, and she can convince future users that there is a great product on the horizon, and that they should be the first to use it, then she can earn a place at StartupYard on the strength of her personality alone. When we say it’s all about the founders, we mean it.

We wouldn’t exclude a team that didn’t have a line of code to show us, if the founder could go from an idea, to a team and a list of users in a month.

Professional Startups


A flip side to this equation is probably the worst breed of startup out there: the Professional Startup.

These startups look great on paper. They can talk about their ideas, and they have a sexy concept, probably good UI, and a slick website. Maybe they have a few clients.

But there’s one tiny problem. They’ve been at that stage for years, and they’ve attended every incubator, accelerator, and startup challenge that would take them in that time. In our scouting for startups in the Central European region, we can spot these startups most of the time by their website’s emphasis on these “credentials.” One website had a timeline of programs and contests the startup had done, going back over 3 years.

The company had no feedback from actual customers. That should not inspire confidence.

This is most often what you’d call “fake traction.” It’s easier to talk to other startup people about your startup idea, than it is to talk to customers and sell your product. It’s sexier and more ego-boosting to talk to investors than to woo users and write content for your website. And I think many of these startups have the idea that the goal in startup life is to get scooped up by some magical acquisition before ever having to deal with the dirty business of doing actual business.

Or worse, they’ve been hoping all this time that the accelerators and incubators were going to do the work for them. No thanks.

But here’s a little secret: acquisitions of companies that don’t have any customers is rare. It happens, but it’s not a realistic goal for any startup. And anyway, if you’re acquired before you even get any customers, there’s not much chance that you’ll be acquired for very much- certainly it will be for less than if you get your hands dirty, and actually prove that you have some product market fit.

So what would we rather take? A 3 year old company with a sexy idea, a crack team, a nice website, and no customers to show for it? Or a woman who has never run a company before, but can pitch like crazy, and convince a couple of guys to help her get it off the ground in a month for no pay? We’ll take the newbie, thanks. That’s somebody we can really help.

Central Europe Accelerator

One Month Left To Apply to StartupYard

The cutoff for applications to StartupYard 2016 is now less than a month away, on November 11th.

Over the past few months, StartupYard director Cedric Maloux and I have travelled all around Central Europe, meeting startups and entrepreneurs eager to take the next step, and accelerate their businesses. It’s been quite a ride so far, that’s taken us to 6 cities, where we’ve met scores of people with talent, energy, and great ideas.

What Are We Looking For?

Why do we do all this work to reach out to startups? Finding a gem among hundreds of new and untested ideas is a tricky business. We never know what the next big idea is going to be. If we did, we wouldn’t be running an accelerator!

We are looking for startups who can convince us that their idea may just be the next big idea in the areas of Mobile, Data, Anaytics, and IOT.

We are looking for talented engineers, but also dedicated and tireless advocates for a new way of doing business, a new way of thinking about an old problem, or even something entirely new and untested.

Above all, we are looking for teams that we can believe in, and who are ready to use our knowledge, connections, and experience to grow on a global scale.

Demo Day

Why You Should Apply to StartupYard

You shouldn’t think of StartupYard as a menu of things you’ll get when you join.

Of course, we provide 30,000 Euros in funding, and up to 250,000 Euros in follow on financing. We also provide over 500,000 Euros in perks exclusive to members of GAN, the global accelerator network. We also provide workspace, resources, training, and our extensive business network. And who could forget the pizza? We hope you like pizza.

But we are not looking for startups that view us as a source of funding, or a stepping stone they are obligated to use. An accelerator is not a box you need to check off your startup to-do list. At least StartupYard isn’t.

We cannot do anything for a startup that it is not willing to do for itself. But what we can do, is put a startup in the best possible position to succeed. We can’t create relationships for you, but we can provide connections to an unbeatable network of mentors and investors, and the context for building relationships and building trust.

We can facilitate, encourage, and act as a safety net and a sounding board for startups that are willing to take leaps of faith and of imagination. We can push startups -and provide them with the right tools- to improve their communication abilities, refine their business models, sharpen their customer focus, and hone their pitching skills until they can speak convincingly about their ideas in their sleep.

In short, we can be there every day with startups, making sure they have no excuses for failure.

We are often asked what our relationship to our startups is. Are we investors? Are we teachers? Are we consultants? None of these descriptions is right.

We are partners in the plainest sense. We neither lead nor follow, and we don’t profit from our startups until they are successful in the real world. Our interest lies entirely in helping you to succeed, and we accompany our startups on every step toward becoming a real, thriving business.

In short, we live and die with you.

What We Learned From Demo Day: TechStars London 2015

StartupYard Director Cedric Maloux and I attended TechStars London’s 2015 Demo day this week, StartupYard’s first official trip to London, thanks to our own TeskaLabs, who pitched as part of an 11 team cohort.

This was actually my first experience of a Demo Day outside of StartupYard. Though I’ve seen streams of other demo days online, I’d never attended another one in person, and the experience was enlightening in several ways. Of course, the quality of pitches was extraordinary, both visually and in terms of content and polish. That was very inspiring, and a challenge for us to live up to.

We do know that TechStars has a preferred format for pitches, and that was clearly on display. Virtually all the companies pitching covered the same data points, and there were certain stock data points that were used frequently, ie: “68% of companies have X problem.” Strangely, the number 68% seemed to have been used several times, though it must have been a coincidence.

Overall though, the pitches were masterful. It is an enormous task to turn a complicated, unproven idea, and render it as something seemingly completely obvious. But that is what most of the founders managed to do.

Of course, accelerators like TechStars pioneered the Demo Day format, but it is also constantly evolving. Here’s what we learned from TechStars London 2015:

Strong Focus on B2B, Platforms, Big Data Analytics, AI

Out of 11 companies, 9 were B2B products, and 8 of those were B2B platforms of one kind of another. In fact, our own TeskaLabs was the only B2B product that wasn’t focused on building a platform.

The reasons for that are obvious. As the pitch for NomNom, a customer feedback aggregation platform, stated quite clearly, online businesses are typically suffering less and less from an absence of data about their customers. What they are increasingly lacking, is a way of using that data which is not either grossly inefficient and expensive, or overly simplistic and prone to error.

At the same time, across consumer and business technology, it has become progressively easier to interconnect various services, leveraging data from different sources in cleaner and more intuitive ways. Platforms breed more platforms, because the more people use online services, the more data they generate, and the more potential uses for that data emerge.

It’s All About Timing

This trend of platforms breeding platforms is a perfect example of what Max Kelly, the new Managing Director of TechStars London, mentioned in his opening remarks: Startups are all about timing. You can have a good idea at the right time, and a good idea at the wrong time. Now, it seems, is the time for many ideas that you could hardly brand as “new.”

I found myself talking about this with one of the developers of SorryAsaService. They use data from CRM platforms like ZenDesk, SalesForce, and other CRMs, and allow customer service reps to send personalized apologies (in the form of gifts like cakes) to customers. This is not a new idea, and so when I first heard the pitch, I wasn’t expecting to be impressed. But I was.

So much customer data now exists, and so many logistical solutions are now available, that a one-button service like this can actually scale in a meaningful way. 5-10 years ago, when ideas like this one were first circulating, the companies had often to do most of the logistical work themselves, which proved not to be scalable or ultimately very profitable. At the same time, it was more work for their clients to use the services, because they weren’t easily integrated into an existing customer service platform.

Today, a “sorry as a service” company can integrate itself into existing CRM systems, and into logistical platforms that are already operating in many regions, and they can focus on crafting an experience for the clients, rather than on the logistical and informational challenges of delivering 10,000 or more apologies a week.

One of the trends I also noticed was an increasing focus on the application of AI to different fields. A fascinating pitch by, for example, promised to build a platform that intelligently accesses email, calendars, slack, and Google Drive or Microsoft Office, to provide “context” to the work interactions we have on a regular basis.

SImilarly, a music platform: Ambie, aims to provide intelligent music selection for venues, shops, cafes and other spaces. While this is far from new, the company banks on being able to integrate data from the businesses into its music choices, not only optimizing the type of music based on location, weather, day, and time, but also according to the data it takes in from the location.

While it has been the age of platforms for some time now, it may finally actually be the age of AI as well. That would certainly be what the pitches at Techstars London indicated this year. We’ll see how these projects evolve in the near future.

All About the Value Proposition

2015-10-13 08.43.45

The TeskaLabs team had, we thought, the best rollup in town

Just as we focus almost maniacally on the problem that our startups are solving, and the people they are solving it for, so too is the focus at Techstars very heavily based on the value proposition. Interestingly for me, many of the pitches also included specific ROIs and profit/loss figures for existing customers. While it’s obviously a sign of the state of progress for these companies, it’s also a pleasant surprise, considering that most pitching events stay fairly far away from the actual dollar figures in terms of the money startups can save or earn their clients.

And I was pleasantly surprised that “make the world a better place,” seemed to have been banned from the event- or at least it was certainly not something that TechStars required or encouraged its startups to say. This refrain has become hackneyed in the past few years, and at this point often comes off as false or simplistic. Everyone now seems to see technology startups as a means to a better life, and now we are more often interesting in precisely how those startups will survive as businesses, rather than as just ideas.

Cheap is not A Thing

Several of the pitches at TechStars mentioned how their products might save their clients money, but these selling points were always connected with tangible, productive changes in the way companies do business and operate. It was clearly far more important that they be able to generate new business for their clients, and fulfilling experiences for their users, rather than simply being cheap, or cheaper than other solutions.

In fact, only one startup used the word “cheap,” by my count. That startup was Ambie, and the founder was comparing his service to existing corporate music subscription programs. And significantly, he stated that Ambie would allow its users to access a much broader range of content for far less than that content would cost, as a whole, if it were bought from a range of other services. So “cheap,” in this case doesn’t exactly mean “cheaper,” but rather more value for money.

All About Numbers

Cedric and I joked after the pitches that it seemed that half the startups claimed some sort of “68%” statistic. It might be a funny coincidence, or our imagination. Most of the startups used strong statistical, demographic, and financial arguments during their pitches.

File 14.10.15 18 04 55

Ales Teska of TeskaLabs, with his all important numbers

And, innevitably, each company had a slide in their pitch with a big orange circle and the words “$8 Billion Market,” or some close variation of this. As predictable as it is, it’s also very important to establish the context and ambitions of a startup in its chosen market.

It seems easy to grab a supporting statistic for your business, but doing so in a way that is both genuine and relevant is not.

Many of the investors and startupers who listen to pitches know very well how subjective those figures can be. It was obvious that the pitchers had taken some care in vetting their figures, and in working out how relevant the figures really were. There were also a *lot* of figures. More than startups at StartupYard have typically used in the past few cohorts.

Our Favorite Startups

We decided to break this down into our favorite businesses, and our favorite technologies. A lot of people think that startups are all about tech ideas. While the tech has to be unique to build a truly innovative company, it’s not true that the most complicated or novel tech ideas make the best businesses. Again, this is all about timing. An idea ahead of its time can fail just as easily as a business that is behind the technological curve.

Favorite Tech

Cedric Maloux and Ondrej Bartos, of Credo Ventures, chat after the show

Cedric Maloux and Ondrej Bartos, of Credo Ventures, chat after the show

While there were a few really interesting tech ideas, especially TeskaLabs, which for objectivity reasons, we will not name as our favorite startup of the event (though of course it is), one really stuck out for us. We should note, they did have the best MMR of any company at Techstars London 2015, but we shall say no more., which I mentioned before, gave us a view of something that I think will be central to the evolution of mobile computing in the next decade. Platforms proliferate, but our time and attention, and ability to absorb, categorize, and prioritize, never really gets any better. And the more of our lives are digital, the more like machines we are expected to behave.

What I really loved about, was that it acknowledge this conflict between the way technology is headed (big data, massive content, ubiquitous computing), and the way people really behave. Their solution, while it’s not guaranteed to be the final answer, is certainly a convincing argument for how business should be done in an all mobile world.

Favorite Business

Just in terms of businesses, two that we mentioned, SorryAsAService, and Ambie, stuck out to us as interesting, if not novel, business ideas. When I listen to a really polished pitch, the first thing I do is try to do is see if the pitch can convince me that a real market exists, or will exist, for the product.

If I start off with a dismissive reaction: “this is such a non-idea!” I wait to see not if the pitch can convince me it’s a new idea, but rather if it can convince me that it’s an inevitable idea. These two pitches really struck me as things that are going to happen, whether I like the ideas or not. They did this by carefully establishing their underlying value propositions, and supplying their ideas as inescapable solutions to real problems.

After viewing these pitches, my reaction was that yes, there is going to be a massive player in this market, and this company might be that player. It might not be, but I am deeply convinced that the market is real.

SentiSquare: Big Data Means Big Mistakes for Brands

Last week, I sat down with Founder and CEO of StartupYard 2014’s SentiSquare, Josef Steinberger, to talk about how the company took 3rd place among 72 challengers at the UPC: Ignite innovation competition, and what SentiSquare has been working on since leaving the accelerator last year.

sentisquare-logo Hi Josef, how have things been going with SentiSquare since you left StartupYard in 2014?

Wow, has it been 18 months already? We have been quite busy, and we’ve signed a few really high-profile clients, including Nestle and T-Mobile in the Czech Republic.

Our most exciting recent news is that we took 3rd place in the UPC competition: Project Ignite, which is for the best tech entrepreneurs in the country. We took 100,000 CZK (about 4,000 Euro), which we plan to use on further development of the SentiSquare service.

How did you get involved with the UPC contest?

Stanislav Rejthar, our financial director, is quite well connected to business in Prague, and he found out about the competition, so we decided to enter. There were 72 projects in the 1st round, with 30 semi-finalists, and 11 finalists. Five finalists passed to finals from the Facebook voting and 6 were selected by jury. And we took third place overall.

The first place winner, this is a bit funny, but they are actually working on turning pig-dung into water and other nutrients. So we got beat by pig shit :laughs:. But we were really happy with the results, and the upside is that UPC has expressed a lot of interest in working with us going forward.

Can you talk a bit about how you can help companies like Nestle, T-Mobile, or UPC, without talking about the specifics of those clients?

Sure. What we do, as you know, is a sentiment analysis across the whole web. This means that we are able to tell our clients in good detail, what their customers are talking about, and how they feel about those topics and specific things they discuss. We get this info from social media, forums, websites, and comment sections that number in the 100s of thousands and more.

So, for example, we are able to tell a large name brand that is about to launch a marketing campaign based on a specific topic, what people are already saying about that topic, and the feelings of consumers related to that topic. And we can give this analysis in much more detail than simply: “good or bad.”

In fact, one of the reasons we start working with the brands even before the campaign starts, is that we can help them to shape the nature of the campaign to get a better response. We can tell them what their consumers are likely to respond to, and it works.

Can you give me an example of how that works?

Yes. For one client, we worked with them on launching their company blog. This was a pretty large brand. They wanted to launch their blog in the new year, attracting people who were interested in new year’s resolutions and this kind of thing.

So, the company had a list of topics that they thought people would be searching for on Google, which they could take advantage of by writing about those topics, in relation to their own products. What we found, though, was that there were a number of topics being discussed quite a lot related to new year’s resolutions, but involving topics that were not included in the campaign’s key word targets. It happened, however, that these topics were very relevant to the company, and that PPC prices for these search terms were a very good value for the price.

So we were able to identify, among the company’s core demographic, a topic that was not being served, and allowed them to have a very good search position for those terms.

We did more than just help the company understand what people liked and didn’t like, but also things that the company had no idea they were talking about at all. That was a big advantage for them and they saw the results in their search traffic and ROI for that campaign.


Click to learn more about SentiSquare

Are big brands surprised by what you tell them?

All the time! Marketers and managers like to have very clear and precise information, that they can sort of divide into yes/no decision processes. So, for example, they want a clear yes/no answer to the question: “is my campaign working?” But what we are always showing them is that these questions are more complicated than they want to make them. And in that complexity lies a lot of opportunities that are not being taking advantage of.

For example, a big brand might say that a campaign is a “success,” if people are talking more about their brand after the campaign than before. That is easier to measure also. But campaign managers can’t tell whether people are talking about the actual messaging of the campaign. They have to assume that more people talking about the brand or product means the messaging is working, but it might not be. Even if they use simple positive/negative sentiment analysis, they can’t tell why people feel positively or negatively. They can’t tell if the message is working as intended.

We can help brands determine if people are talking about the messaging that the brand is using, and this can give a much better sense of whether the campaign is a success. We can also do pre-analysis to understand whether the intended audience will be receptive to that message, and if not, to what messages they might be more receptive.

How do big brands currently determine what their campaign messages should be?

It’s mostly about intuition. Some big companies literally have someone going through thousands of customer posts on social media and forums, and trying to glean some kind of insight about what customers are interested in. So it is possible to get a subjective, intuitive sense of what is important to your customers. But it is very difficult to get an objective, provable figure to support that intuition.

On the other side, it is relatively easy to analyze the sentiment of your brand’s audience in positive/negative terms, but that doesn’t help you at all to understand what your messaging should be. Even positive/negative terms are super-subjective. They are down to culture, to context, to the type of person talking, and the person they are talking to. A human can recognize sentiment when we see it, but it is much more complicated to see sentiment in the aggregate. It is very easy to think you understand it, when you really don’t.

We are providing a kind of intuition engine. It has the reach of a large scale data tool, but it can provide the subtlety in insights of a human.

So you help companies to avoid false positives in sentiment analysis?

False positives or also completely wrong assumptions about data.

There is a really funny example we experienced recently. We were doing analysis of the wine industry. The customer had already had another company scrape a large amount of data including basic search terms, such as the word “wine” and its variants in Czech. They wanted to see what kinds of wine people were talking about in a one month period. So far so good.

Now, you can do a broad sentiment analysis based on positive or negative keywords, and give some impression of whether people have good or bad associations with certain types of wine, right? Well, not in this case. Our analysis was able to show that a huge amount of this data (about 80% actually) was totally useless. Why? Because it wasn’t about wine! It was about cars.


Yeah, cars. The data scraping had caught a lot of information about VIN numbers (vehicle identification numbers). It had also scraped a lot of information about Vin Diesel, the actor. Wine, in Czech, is written as vino, or vin, or some variation. So without our analysis of what the subjects actually being discussed really were, the client might have made a lot of really wrong assumptions about what people feel about different wines. You think a lot of people like red wine, but they really like red cars! Or maybe they say they love wine, but they are really fans of Vin Diesel movies.

The data would be worse than useless. It would cause you to make all kinds of wrong assumptions about your audience.

But we were able to pre-process that data, and make the final data set much more valuable for analysis.

You said earlier that you can give more than a black and white look at customer sentiments? How do you do that?

There are a few ways.

One of the problems with sentiment analysis for large amounts of written text, is that there are a lot of positive and negative keywords mixed together. It doesn’t make sense just to count them up, because the actual construction of thoughts is not so binary.

So what we can do is to provide a sense of the intensity of sentiments overall. Is a customer generally happy, or generally unhappy? A customer can use a lot of negative words, but still be mostly satisfied with a product. Some people just enjoy complaining, and a brand shouldn’t count that person as an unsatisfied customer. So we can provide this shading of sentiment by intensity.

There is also aspect based sentiment analysis. This is the analysis of not just a brand as a whole, but as related to specific aspects of the brand and its products. Maybe people love a brand, but they have negative sentiments about its prices. Or the opposite can happen. Maybe they love the functionalities, but hate the color. By combining these insights, we can present a much more realistic picture of a customer than simply: like/dislike.

How are you different from other monitoring services like BrandEmbassy (also a StartupYard Alum)?

BrandEmbassy provides monitoring of keywords, which allows service representatives to see live conversations on social media and elsewhere. The big advantage for them is that they can route those conversations to the appropriate person on their team and engage directly with the customers.

What we do is the eagle eye view of all those conversations- we can tell companies what the totality of all those conversations really means. So it has a bigger effect on a company’s overall communication and branding strategies, whereas a company like BrandEmbassy helps a company to improve its small-scale interactions with individuals.

What are your plans for the near future?

A big request is for our system to be available in real time. This is something that we really want to develop more in the near term. Having the ability to see the conversation changing online at every moment, and being able to understand how people feel about things from day to day, is an important thing for big brands.

As conversations online get only more numerous and also more specific, the job of keeping up with that volume is getting unmanagable for the biggest brands. SentiSquare can provide a pulse of conversation that really provides valuable insights, even in the day to day. Brands can use SentiSquare to get an evolving list of important keywords that are related to their brands.

That list changes every day, but currently it takes a long time for that information to filter into a brand’s messaging. Given the prioritization on the topic or opinion level, brands can quickly get a gist about the actual situation The speed is important, because all the brand managers are busy people. We can make them more responsive to the conversation of today.

We want to change the way people look at sentiment analysis. Things are not black and white, positive and negative. Somebody says something is “big.” What does that mean? It’s not good or bad in all cases. Nothing in discourse is cut and dried, and all sentiments have levels of intensity.

Our clients usually want black and white answers. We have to educate our customers about the danger of viewing their brands in this way. The magic answers that big data is supposed to provide can easily be very wrong. And we can help companies identify opportunities they are ignoring, because they have been addicted to this positive/negative polarity.

StartupYard’s Viktor Fischer on Quitting Your Job, and Overcoming Fear

Hi Viktor. You’ve had a really interesting career, co-founding Innovatrics a decade ago, and most recently becoming a junior partner with McKinsey and Company. Can you tell us your personal story as an entrepreneur?

Hi Lloyd – sure, thanks for having me.

When we founded Innovatrics in 2004, I had no clue how to build a business. We created a software development kit around a fingerprint algorithm, put it online and waited to see who would buy it. When after 2 weeks no-one replied, we started to think about who might be the customer, what were their needs, what was the right product, what was the right pricing, and how we would sell it.

Early on we copied competition (copying is good), and negotiated licensing deals with major biometrics players such as Bioscrypt and CrossMatch – to survive. Over the next several years we found our niche: high-speed AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems), defined the target customer segment. We fine-tuned the pricing and focused on the most efficient marketing & sales channels. Last year Innovatrics won Deloitte Top 50 in 2014 for its 344% revenue growth and last week was designated IT firm of the year in Slovakia. I am congratulating the team for those fantastic achievements.

After 5 years at Innovatrics, I decided to pursue an international MBA to grow my network and then entered McKinsey. Surprisingly, although McKinsey works for corporates, it follows a very entrepreneurial way of working. Projects (called “engagements”) are delivered by small teams (2 to 3 people full-time supported by experts and senior leaders), who work by quick iterations with the end product in mind (similar to “scrum methodology”). There is flat hierarchy and even junior members are encouraged to disagree with the most senior partners.

Aside from consulting, you are also an active angel investor. How do you pick your investments?

I only have 3 criteria: First, would I be a user of that product, and would I be excited to use it? This is my way of validating the value proposition.

Second, I need to know the management team, and have them be introduced by a person I trust.

Third, I need to have the knowledge I can use to help the startup. In broader terms, anything commercial, and in narrower terms, anything related to defining value proposition, validating product/market fit, modeling financial plan, raising funds, orchestrating B2B sales, or expanding internationally.


Fischer chats with fellow StartupYard mentor Ondrej Bartos at a StartupYard event

Have you ever broken one of those rules? If so, what was the result?

Yes, sometimes an edge in 1 or 2 criteria can balance-out the 3rd criteria. For example, recently I invested in MPower Financing via MPower provides loans to US university students coming from ethnic minorities.

Although I would not be a user of such a product, I like the mission of the company: I believe funding should not be a barrier to education. And I know the founders really really well (both CEO and CTO are my MBA classmates).

You recently left McKinsey to open your own club/bar, and focus on startups. What motivated the move? What will your club be like?

:Laughs: how much time do you have? I can talk for hours about this.

I think we do our best job when we do something we love (call it passion). There is one way that really worked for me to find that out: Think that tomorrow is the last day of your life. Really. Then imagine:  If that was the case, what would you truly like to do today?

My answers were: A) go for a drink to a nice place with friends, and B) help startups grow. So I left the corporate job and bought an old but legendary nightclub called Meloun. The idea is to create an ultra-lounge like we all miss here in Prague. An exclusive place with great drinks and great music for a fantastic night out. It will be kind of a secret place so I cannot say more about it at this stage – sorry!

To help the startups, I am becoming more engaged with the teams, helping where necessary depending on the stage of the company, and more engaged with the local entrepreneurship community (including Startupyard).

Can you tell us the story of your favorite investment, and, if you have one, your biggest investment mistake or failure?

I don’t have a favorite investment – all my startups, those I invest in or simply advise are like children – no one is preferred.

Failure? Probably those I decided to pass on (yes, I’m thinking Gjirafa), or those where I miss the team’s engagement. There is nothing more demotivating than a non-motivated team. There are two mindsets with which a company is created: either to be a lifestyle business, or to build a company changing the world. There is nothing wrong with either of those. But it needs to be clear from the beginning to the team, the investors and the advisors.

You are an active StartupYard mentor, and you hosted a workshop with us this year. What motivates you to work with startups in your free time?

My sole motivator is to help startups avoiding mistakes I made. Whether it is in their value proposition, defining a target customer, pricing structure, international expansion, or even personal work-life-balance and facilitating discussions between shareholders. I have scars on my back in all these areas. I want to help people avoid getting a divorce, arguing with business partners or putting thousands of work hours into a feature that is not needed.

Do you believe that successful Czech entrepreneurs like yourself are giving enough back to the startup ecosystem in terms of attention, mentoring, and investment?

First of all, I am Slovak. Just kidding, I miss Czechoslovakia and I believe the countries together could again reach the 10th place in industrial production they had in 1938 – although in different industries :laughs:.

It will not happen however without the government’s support. When founding Innovatrics, we received around 150 thousand Euro from the French government to get us up and running. Although there is a risk to receiving government funds (often startups use that funding to delay product introduction to the market), there is an improvement in Government funding: the Czech government spends ~2% on GPD on R&D and Slovak government spends ~1% on R&D versus the US ~3%.

I know I am not answering your question, but I don’t know yet whether local entrepreneurs are helping enough. I know some of them invest through [prominent venture firms] Credo and Rockaway, or directly, and they mentor via Startupyard. But I don’t have a benchmark. It would be great to compare for example the amount of Czech angel and VC funding to overall angel and VC investments in the UK, and US, but I don’t think there’s a clear benchmark.

What is a piece of advice you find yourself giving over and over again to startups? What is the hardest piece of advice for startups to really listen to?

Overcome fear. Often I see startup entrepreneurs doing what is easy: sitting behind a computer developing the next feature set.

Call a prospective buyer or an expert to get early feedback. Find an expert via LinkedIn. Send the deck or a link to the demo and set-up a call. There are plenty of people out there who would help you. Doing it you have nothing to lose. Not doing it, you lose the opportunity to score your first customer or a future team member.

Sometimes it feels  the hardest part for startups is to listen. Whether the founders are really able to listen, hear, reflect and incorporate the advice is what I am looking for during interviews.

Your career has been split between The Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, and recently Switzerland. How do you view the development of startup culture and investments in these different regions in recent years?

I cannot compare yet. But what I really like about the investment culture in other countries is the humility with which the investors and advisors help the entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is the shit, and our only mission is to help her succeed while increasing her self-confidence. Not the other way around (ie beat her idea and her self-confidence to death).

Are there things that bigger economies like France could learn from the startup and investing cultures in Slovakia or the Czech Republic?

I like how some of the local VCs really help the entrepreneurs think about the business during the investment process. They help to define and validate the value proposition, set up pricing, create financial model, key KPIs and develop a first 100-day plan. This process is beneficial to both parties and if I were the entrepreneur, I would embrace it fully.

Andrej Kiska recently told me in an interview that Czech (or Central European) investors are not as conservative as their reputations suggest. Do you agree with him?

I agree that the mindset is changing. That’s good. From my experience however, even as recently as the Webexpo couple of weeks ago, I noticed some investors using traction as their investment criteria (quote “For us to invest, you need to have customers. At least one.”) I think people should be the first criteria of choice and overseas that is understood.

What about StartupYard makes you keep coming back? How do you hope to have an impact on us as and our program?

This comes to my 2nd passion: helping startups grow. StartupYard is the largest local accelerator. Still however, some people do not know it. David Semerad from STRV mentioned during his talk at Webexpo that “YCombinator is like StartupYard but million times bigger”. I would like to help StartupYard bridge that gap, by making connections to  the international market stronger and by voraciously helping startups export. If we’re Czech only, we will not be successful and our startups will not be successful.

Why You Need a Sales Oriented Co-Founder

We already talk a lot about what Andrew Chen calls the product death cycle. The viral chart was created by David J. Bland, but the concept is familiar to many a startup mentor and investor alike. We see it all the time, and no matter how much we try to inoculate our startups against it, its pull is about as powerful as the dark side of the force. It looks like this:


Simply put, people like doing what they know. And engineers are good at solving engineering problems. The narrative for many successful startups also appeals to builders and tinkerers. Ultimately, we like to think of all the greatest startups and tech companies as successful because of their innovations, not because of timing or clever business decisions.

And it’s true that the most successful startups listen carefully to what their customers want. Slack has been a recent test case of a company that is totally focused on delivering exactly what its customers need, and innovating as fast as possible to provide it.

But that only works at the beginning. Early adopters know what they want, and can push you to create a product that is a killer app for them. Later, when more passive adopters are looking for the next obvious solution, your product isn’t necessarily going to be made for them as well. Great startups realize this, and begin the work of convincing a new market to use their products.

In the worst case scenario –and this is one we’ve seen personally more than once– a startup doesn’t even listen to the customers at all. When the product fails to sell or to increase its traction on the market, the founders just innovate new features anyway, hoping that the next feature set will magically do what none have done before, ignoring the fact that their market focus hasn’t really changed at all.

This is all to say, that the very best startups don’t just listen to what their customers want. The very best startups find out what their customers will pay for, and then provide it.

Customer Acquisition-Built In

Troy Henikoff, Director of TechStars Chicago, often says, loosely quoted: “If you hire a salesman to go out and sell something, and he can’t, you fire him. But if a founder goes out and tries to sell, and can’t, you change the product. It’s fundamentally different when the founders have customer acquisition built into their DNA.”

At StartupYard, we have continually had it reinforced to us, just how important this is. After taking on teams because we absolutely loved their vision, their products, and the team themselves, only to see them fail because they simply weren’t willing to be sales-oriented, we’ve learned to be wary of even those companies we are very attracted to initially. No product sells itself, and ultimately, we can’t be in this business for the love of products alone.

A team that is applying to StartupYard asked to meet with me this week. Aside from the fact that I love to see a team so keen, I could tell right away that this was a team that understood customer acquisition. They ostensibly wanted to meet with me to find out more about our program, but it became immediately clear that they were trying to figure out how to get into the program; what they needed to do to be sure they would be accepted.

I don’t mind that in the least bit. Of course, our job is to make sure the team isn’t just saying what we want to hear, but that is the job of any accelerator. The startup’s job is to say what we want to hear, *and* to have it be actually true. So I told them what they could do between now and the evaluation period, which is to prove that they can get customers.

They may not be able to sell anything right now, but traction with customers can come in a lot of ways. Will people sign up for a waiting list? Will they meet to discuss their needs? Will they consult on your product ahead of the launch? Will they recommend colleagues to do the same? There’s a good reason that “talk to 50 potential customers” is such oft-cited advice for startups. You can’t help but learn something by doing it.

And if the startup comes back and says: “well, we talked to 50 customers, but only a few said that this is something they would pay for,” then I would wait and see how they had reacted to that news. Did they find out what the customers were willing to pay for?

Having a Customer Acquisition Focused Co-Founder

Every startup is going to find one or two channels that work best for customer acquisition. The problem is that they will likely not be the first couple of channels the startup tries. An initial strategy may work, at first, for a while, but eventually, the startup is going to have to pivot to something else in order to grow.

Or even worse, a startup may have initial traction because it has a really great product. Then when that traction starts to flatten out, the startup thinks that the problem is that the product isn’t great anymore. In truth, that initial burst has just taken them as far as it can, and it’s time to try something new.

We often get the startups that don’t have a customer acquisition focus, but who did get lucky with some early traction, because the product is really fantastic.

I think back on one startup we worked with. They had a freemium SaaS product that was very popular in app stores, and they had had to do very little marketing to grow into the hundreds of thousands of downloads, and tens of thousands of active users. That’s fantastic. That’s part of why we took that team. And their product is really great. Truly.

But when that growth stalled, this was a team that had never even considered putting together a simple email marketing campaign. They hadn’t been concerned at all with customer acquisition or retention; they couldn’t even tell us their retention numbers. When growth slowed down, they started working on the product again- but lightning doesn’t always strike twice. The app’s initial popularity doesn’t ensure it can continue to grow beyond a certain number of users.

And what we often see is a founding team where nobody is responsible when that happens. This means that everyone on the team can take responsibility for their successes (and they do), but none have to take responsibility for the failures when the product stops selling.

There is little we can do to help startups like this one find religion in the form of focus on customer acquisition. It may not be in their DNA. But if you’re an entrepreneur who is just starting to get the idea that your awesome product may not be quite enough to take the world by storm, take heed: build your founding team, your company’s DNA, with customer acquisition as a focus.

If given the choice between two companies, one of which is comprised of engineers who have hired a sales or marketing manager, and the other with a sales oriented co-founder, we would nearly always choose the latter.

Engineers build. And they make So partner with a sales focused co-founder who will live and die by the numbers (users, engagement, sales, churn) that an engineer doesn’t want to focus on, and has the power in your organization to force changes when those numbers aren’t good. You can’t outsource something that needs to be central to your mission. You need customer acquisition at your core, and you need a sales oriented co-founder.