StartupYard Invites 9 Startups for 2016 Accelerator

We’re very pleased to announce that after an intensive screening process that whittled the over 300 applications to StartupYard 2016’s open call down to only 19 Startup Day participants, we have now selected and invited 9 startups to join us for the 2016 accelerator program.

19 teams attended Startup Day, a two day event in which the startups pitched, and met with a group of mentors, and the StartupYard team. They also heard from Mergim Cahani, CEO and Co-Founder of one of StartupYard’s major successes, Kosovo’s Albanian language search platform Gjirafa. Mergim spoke about Gjirafa’s recent successes, explosive growth, and the role of StartupYard in his success, both during and after acceleration.

A Diverse Group

As we noted recently, this year gave us the most geographically diverse group of applicants we have ever had. Among the finalists at Startup Day were entrepreneurs from The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, India, the UK, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Russia, and Romania. Among the 9 teams selected for StartupYard 2016, are Czech, Swiss, Polish, Bulgarian, and UK teams.
Startup Day, StartupYard

There are surprises and unexpected outcomes every year in the StartupYard selection process. This year is no exception. No less than 3 travel startups will join us at Node5 for 3 months of acceleration- an outcome we could not have predicted, but a testament to how much technology is now disrupting travel around the world. We will also welcome our first health startup, our first sharing economy startup, and our first “neural networks” focused team. Also for the first time, we have accepted two teams focused on exciting new advertising technology.

How We Select Teams For StartupYard

StartupYard Startup Day

Mergim Cahani, Founder and CEO of Gjirafa, spoke to Startups about the StartupYard experience

19 finalists joined us at Node5 last week, in a marathon session involving pitching, individual meetings, and conversations with the StartupYard team, investors, and a select group of mentors.

As always, each member of the selection committee had their own views on each startup, and each had their favorites, but the final decision to invite each of the 9 companies we have selected was arrived at by consensus. We believe in every one of these companies, and their potential to succeed globally.

As we’ve said frequently, both to our applicants and to the mentors who participate in our selection process, StartupYard is not a contest, and there are no losers at Startup Day. Each of the applicants impressed us and managed to convince us in different ways. Most of the applicants have the potential, and the ambition, to raise successful companies that have a positive impact on many people.

So when we decide not to accelerate a particular company, that isn’t necessarily because we don’t believe they can succeed. We often think that they can and will.

StartupDay StartupYard

But we have to also consider whether a startups wants to be, and can be, the kind of company that will be a smart investment for StartupYard, in terms of time, money, and energy from our team, our mentors, and our investors. We only succeed when our startups grow and expand globally, so no matter how interesting a team and their idea is, it has to have the ambition to be that kind of globally scalable company.

There is nothing wrong with companies that want to be influential and disruptive on the local level. But these companies would benefit less from our help, and would be pushed in a direction that they don’t necessarily want to go. We can’t be the main drivers of ambition for a startup, so that vision of the future has to come built in.

Names to be Released in February

Startup Day

As in previous rounds, StartupYard will release the names, web pages, and descriptions of each of our 2016 Startups sometime in February of 2016. While several of these companies have products on the market, and some are already generating revenue, we don’t discuss startups until they have had a month of intense mentoring in our program, and they are thoroughly ready to talk about their future plans.

By then, we’ll be ready to roll out detailed interviews with each company, and an in-depth look at each of their future plans. Stay Tuned!

6 Tips For Finalists at StartupYard

This week, StartupYard will welcome about 20 finalists for up to 10 positions in our 2016 cohort. They’ll spend a full day meeting with the StartupYard team, and a select group of mentors and investors from the StartupYard community.

This isn’t a competition, and it isn’t a job interview. We aren’t typical investors, and we aren’t employers either. We have a special relationship with all of our startups, and we have to make decisions quickly, but carefully.

So what are we looking for in our final finalists? Ultimately, we are looking for the smartest investments for StartupYard. That means teams that not only impress us with their vision and ambition, but that also offer us an opportunity to make as big as an impact as possible, so that their successes will be our successes too.

Today, we’ll share a few pieces of advice that we’ve come up with over the last few years, on how to navigate this process for the best result:

1. It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know.”


As we wrote about yesterday, being a credible leader doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. If you do have all the answers, there’s a fair chance that some of your answers may not be the best ones possible.

Better that you should be able to say “I don’t know,” when faced with something you haven’t had the time or resources to address yet. Part of being a high growth company is not being able to predict every little thing you’ll have to do along the way. You can show you’re prepared, but you will never be able to convincingly show that you’ve figured out every step. If you had, you wouldn’t be talking to us anyway.

2. Acknowledge Challenges You Face

On a few occasions (thankfully never at StartupYard), I have had the displeasure of witnessing really poor mentoring and feedback on startup pitches.

The worst, and most useless kind of feedback goes like this:

“Well, I worked with a company that tried that, and it didn’t work. So, I don’t know. You’ve got a lot of challenges ahead.”

Duh. This can hardly be called feedback. But sadly, as a startuper, you’re going to hear it a lot.

There are going to be inherent challenges in your near and long term future. That’s a given. But it’s important to recognize, especially when talking to an investor or a mentor, the difference between useless feedback like that, and more serious questions:

“What are you going to do about x competitor?” Or, “Why would people would pay for this?”

A lot of founders get so used to being bludgeoned by stupid feedback, that they start to ignore legitimate concerns instead of acknowledging them. They’ll give bogus answers like “we are smarter than the competition,” rather than talking specifically about how they’re going to challenge a competitor. Or they’ll say: “we are going to work really hard to sell this,” instead of really answering the question, which is not about how hard they’ll work, but about what strategy they will use, and what opportunity they see in the market.

The fact that you have challenges ahead shouldn’t be news to anyone. But how you face those challenges says everything about how you’ll fare against them. You won’t overcome these challenges because of who you are, or how much you want to. You’ll overcome them by thinking about them, so start doing that first.

If you can show you understand what the challenges are, you will have a much easier time convincing us you can solve them.

3. Demonstrate Ambition

Arrogance is certainly a problem for many entrepreneurs, but it can be just as easy to make humility into a vice.

What we’ve found over the years, particularly with startups in Central Europe, is that they can be surprisingly shy about sharing their long-term, “big vision” ideas, because they are afraid that they will appear either stupid, or foolishly ambitious.

It’s not fun to listen to someone who can’t stop talking about their big vision and focus on the details, but it’s important that we do understand what your ambitions really are. What kind of company do you ultimately want to have? What position do you want to be in, in 5 years? It’s really ok for these ambitions to seem somewhat unrealistic. Again, if they were realistic at this moment, you wouldn’t need our help at all.

So don’t think we’ll laugh at you for wanting to be a worldwide leader- if that’s what you really want.

4 Talk Yourself Up

We just got done saying that you shouldn’t be shy about your ambition. You also shouldn’t be shy about your accomplishments.

Last year, as we were working on the Demo Day pitch for one of our startups, the founder was having trouble with what he wanted to say about the team. He couldn’t come up with a convincing argument for why they were the right people to solve a complicated problem on the market.

As it turned out, and as the founder had never shared with us previously, he just happened to have previously worked for companies who needed to calculate orbits and fuel usage for satellites in Earth orbit- he helped those satellites in the sky.

So, in other words, he was a rocket scientist.

And he was someone who was having trouble articulating why it was that he was qualified to take on complicated problems.

I don’t think many reasonable people would think he was being arrogant for mentioning that qualification to investors. But I’ve been consistently surprised by startup founders who do fail to mention important details about themselves and their qualifications.

That’s admirable, that these people choose let their work speak for itself, but if you’ve earned a little bit of respect for what you’ve done in the past, by all means, use it!

5. Ask Questions

This process is not just about us picking favorites. It’s also about you deciding what’s best for your company, and your own future. We don’t know what you don’t know, and since we assume we’re dealing with pretty smart people , we don’t always tell you everything you might want to know.

So ask us. And judge us on our answers. That’s only fair. Our reputation has to be built on our transparency and honesty with startups. If we don’t have that, we don’t have much.

6. Don’t Sell: We Aren’t your Customers


This advice goes back what we said yesterday about “trying too hard.” You have to acknowledge challenges, and talk yourself up, but if you aren’t careful, doing all those things at once can put you right into “salesman mode.”

Pretty soon you’re “acknowledging challenges,” before they’re even brought up, and talking yourself up when you don’t really need to. Your ability to sell is important, but we aren’t your customers.

The unvarnished truth, or at least something closer to the unvarnished truth, is important to investors in making the right decisions- not just for them, but also for you. As I often tell startups: you can sell anybody something they don’t need or want, but only once. After that, you’ll never be able to sell to them again. But if you find the right “customer,” or the right investor, you can develop a lasting relationship.

So don’t treat us like a customer. We aren’t buying anything.

What It’s Like to Interview 40 Startups in 2 days

StartupYard’s open call for 2016 has attracted more applications than we’ve ever received before. More importantly, it has attracted more high quality applications than we have ever seen.

And that makes our job both exciting and difficult. As has been our pledge since the beginning, we’re going to try to be as transparent as possible about what this process is like for us, and how we can possibly hope to decide on only 7-10 startups out of a pool of over 300 applicants.

It’s Really, Really, All About the Team

We say this so much, but I don’t think startups ever really believe us. I like to put it this way. Imagine StartupYard had a grading system for Startups. Now imagine that 70% of that grade was the team, and 30% of that grade was the product, with just 75% would be a “passing” grade. We would want a team that was scored at 75%.

While we don’t actually judge startups this way (how do you exactly grade a product or a team?) We do try to think this way. If a team really blows us away with their ambition, their poise, their market knowledge, and their confidence in what they’re doing, then we can overlook serious reservations about the product they’re working on.

At the same time, a team that raises a lot of question marks can potentially blow us away with a killer idea- although that pretty much never happens. We don’t look at product demos or pitch decks, so even when we’re hearing about the idea, we’re really hearing about the team; about the team’s ability to draw us into their ideas and keep our attention and imaginations going along for the ride.

It’s Not a Pitch, It’s a Conversation


When we talk with our shortlist of founders who make it to the semi-final round of the StartupYard selection process, we give them only 3 minutes to pitch their startup, and 12 minutes to answer questions. We don’t allow them any visual aids (other than their own faces and hands), and we don’t look at any charts or figures they might try to get us to read.

Several teams were surprised, and asked us why they couldn’t give a “pitch,” the way that startups have been trained to imagine them. Their charts and graphics were very important to making their point.

Except, they really aren’t. Pitch decks are great for talking to a huge audience with a range of interests, who may or may not know what you’re talking about half the time. And slide-decks are great if you need someone to quickly understand what you do.

But when you really need to get to know people, and if you want to work with them every day for 3 months, then these things are at best distractions. At worst, they push the conversation down a rabbit hole of irrelevant details.

Most of what’s in a pitch deck isn’t real, particularly at an early stage. It’s aspirational. three quarters of startups who applied to StartupYard this year are not even incorporated, so revenue projections for 2 years aren’t based in any reality. But that’s only one part of what we need to know about teams. Aspiration is important, but perspiration is also vital. We need to know what teams have actually done, what they actually know, and what they are actually working on.

Trying Too Hard

One of the hardest things about this process is that people come attached to ideas.

Ideas by themselves can be attractive or not, and people can be charming and interesting, or not. But evaluating a startup forces us to evaluate a person in the context of an idea, and an idea in the context of a person.

This is why we do interviews. On paper, an idea can be deeply inspiring and exciting. Or it can be deathly boring and played out. But the person attached to an idea is the one who will bring life to it, so that person has to fit the idea well. And figuring out how a person fits with an idea, much less how that person and their idea fit in with us, is a scary thing to have to do.

We are not only deciding whether we believe in people and their ideas. We have to also somehow decide whether we are going to be able to help them. The last thing we want to do is to take a startup, and be a blocker to its success by wasting its time and energy. Our definition of success is one thing- but for many companies, that definition is unrealistic.

We get many notes following rejection letters, asking for feedback: “what did I do wrong?” “What could I have done to succeed?” These are in many ways the wrong questions to be asking. Not joining an accelerator is the right outcome for a team that is not going to benefit from being here. We don’t want to be tricked. We want applicants to show us who they are, and give their best effort, but not be who we want them to be, just to get in.

We also get notes saying: “we’ll try harder next year.” I can’t disparage those people. They have the right attitude. But at the same time, we have to be looking for people who aren’t trying too hard,  to be the kinds of people we want to work with. Ultimately, they have to be themselves, and play to their own strengths, or they won’t be able to grow professionally, or as a company.

We often meet with startup founders who we believe are perfectly capable of being successful, but who should not be running global startups. These entrepreneurs play to their weaknesses by trying to overextend themselves, and their ideas. But that is what they think they should be doing, because so much of the startup culture is focused on the rare exceptional people who can play at an international level. Most never will, and not because they aren’t trying hard enough.

Trying often seems to get in the way of doing. Trying harder can be an excuse for not changing something you don’t want to change, either about the idea, or about yourself.

For example, we meet startup founders, many of them young, but some who aren’t, who want to compete in global markets that they clearly don’t understand well. Often we don’t even have to know much about those markets ourselves to know that they don’t either. We have to rely on instincts, and a spidey sense for bullshit. We have to listen for red-flags in a pitch: “nobody else in this market does this,” or “we have no real competitors in that.”

These are the kinds of projects that can sound really good on paper, because the founders have spent time building a case for why the business will work. But they haven’t spent time really challenging their own assumptions, so when they’re faced with questions they can’t answer, they tend to try and change the subject, or just plead ignorance. These kinds of founders end up sounding like an actor who has lost his script- something very polished and rehearsed quickly turns into an uncomfortable squirm-fest (for us as well).

It’s not that their ideas are bad either– sometimes founders come to use with great ideas that they just aren’t ready to execute. We also meet founders who just don’t have the skills they will need to do what they want. These startups often reveal themselves in their choice of project, and how they talk about it: “we found an easier way to do this,” or “nobody ever combined X and Y before… so that’s what we’re doing.”

These startups are often looking for someone to save them from themselves. They’ll say they want help “figuring out” what to do next, but in reality, they’re looking for someone to tell them what to do. As an accelerator, our job is to point startups in the right direction, not push them over the line.

And I don’t think this happens because people are lying to us. I very rarely get the sense that applicants are being basically dishonest. More often, they’re being dishonest with themselves. They may be engaging in wishful thinking and hand waving about the challenges they face, or or maybe they’ve been too lazy or in denial to do their research. Whatever it is, one of the most common failings that a startup demonstrates during our interview process is that they have ignored their own doubts, and so haven’t really been able to overcome them constructively.

Leadership: If and Wow

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too; “

from If–, by Rudyard Kipling

Cedric Maloux, our Managing director, put this to me very succinctly this week. He said: “There is a very big difference between ‘if’ and ‘wow.’”

It seemed that interviews tended to end one of two ways. Either we would hang up with the candidate and say: “if he’s right, then this is a pretty good idea,” or “if the team can do this, then they can definitely be successful,” or, we would hang up and simply say: “Wow.”

The “wow” teams didn’t leave many questions for us about their abilities, their market knowledge, or their passion. The “if” teams gave us reasons to doubt them in at least one of those areas.

Most companies have their own “ifs.” That’s not a failing, but we go into every interview hoping for a “wow” team. And what that usually comes down to is a sense of strong, clear leadership.

The above couplet is from a legendary poem by Rudyard Kipling about leadership. The poem has enjoyed a lasting impact in schools, and among people who talk about great leaders and visionaries. You have probably encountered it before somewhere.

Its ideas have also been thoroughly absorbed into the modern Startup culture. One often hears words very similar to these when Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk, or some other figure is under discussion.

We hear it all the time: “I know myself, and I know I can be a success. I don’t doubt myself.” But founders can easily confuse doubting oneself, and refusing to listen to the doubts of anyone else. If you aren’t a strong leader, you may try to seem strong by refusing to be dissuaded by doubters.

But the second line of the couplet is possibly among the most under-appreciated in literary history. Doubts, Kipling points out, are an important part of leadership. If you can’t engage with and answer doubts, then you can’t lead. People don’t believe in leaders who don’t allow themselves to be questioned, and the strongest leaders listen carefully to input, and make hard decisions to change direction when that input is convincing.

So these “wow” teams are really the ones where the doubts have been, and are being considered and worked on. These are teams led by founders who are aware of what they can do, what they will need to do, and what it will take to do it. In short, startups led by real, natural leaders.

And, not coincidentally, that’s the kind of team we can also help the most, because they will let us help them.

Can Central European Startups Compete?

The following was set to appear in a Czech business publication, but was, possibly to our credit, deemed a little too controversial. Thus we’re publishing it here, because we do stand by what we’ve said. 

2 years ago, StartupYard set out to answer a single, vital question. Can Central European, and especially Czech startups compete on the global market? After validating the concept of an internet accelerator for 2 years in the Czech Republic, mostly focusing on local startups, we set out in late 2013 to turn StartupYard into a platform for Czech and other Central European startups to go global. Here are the answers we’ve found so far:

Global Vs. International

To answer this question, first, it’s important to understand the distinction between a “global company” and an international one. Many Czech companies are, by necessity, international. Czech tech companies typically rely on clients and customers from abroad, often Germany, the UK, and the US, who can count on Czech agencies, developers, and manufacturers who are reliable, high quality, and above all, cost effective.

But being the cheap alternative to the local workforce for comparatively rich markets does not make Czech companies global in scale, nor in ambition. 

Instead, a global company is one that provides an innovative product or service, with the potential to disrupt the way all sorts of things are done, regardless of geography. A global company is one that has no borders, and that does not rely on its primary location as its main competitive advantage.

The Curse of Cheap

What we saw straight away as we turned StartupYard into an accelerator for global projects, was that the Czech tech ecosystem was addicted to “cheap.”

Today’s Czech software houses and digital agencies came of age when the costs of development, even for relatively simple products, were significantly higher abroad than they are today. Even now, these companies keep their international edge by keeping salaries low.

But this pattern of subservience to the bottom line has become a trap for the Czech ecosystem. By continually restricting itself to the low-cost alternative model, the ecosystem has encouraged some of the best and most ambitious innovators and engineers to flee to markets where investors have more appetite for risk. Czech startupers who are serious about global growth tell each other to leave the Czech Republic, and seek opportunity elsewhere.

Global is The Future

Czech entrepreneurs have been slow to enter the global market because of some obvious practical and structural barriers. Access to capital, and the ambition to match that access, has been limited by the size of the Czech market. It’s now easier for an American company to launch in Europe than for a European company to launch on the American market. That is owing not only to an imbalance in access to capital, but also to the historical fragmentation of the European market.

Language is another barrier , and the maturity of Czech business practices and the educational system have been another. Czechoslovakia’s long separation from world markets kept this country’s golden hands from important new ways of working for decades.

But today, these barriers are eroding. The Czechs are catching up, as the European economies integrate, and Czechs have several important advantages, not least a strong public education system, a smart and hardworking employment base, and a strong technical infrastructure. Today, as an example, the Czech Republic has faster average internet speeds than the UK and the US, ranked 9th internationally by Akamai Technologies.

No More Excuses

Wannabe Czech entrepreneurs are addicted to excuses, rather than to positive action. And we hear every excuse in the book.  “Investors here are too conservative, there’s no capital,” or “we have no Czech role models,” or “we’re not good at storytelling and marketing,” and “we’re just a small country after all… this isn’t Silicon Valley.”

Identifying problems isn’t solving them. And we could dispute every excuse there is.

Two StartupYard investors alone, Credo Ventures and Rockaway Capital, have 10s of millions of Euros to invest in Czech startups, and they are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities. In our mentor group alone, we have a dozen angels actively looking for smart investments, and willing to invest early on.

And we have dozens of entrepreneurial role models, like Roman Stanek, Tomas Cupr, Michal Illich, and many others who are actively seeking to support Czech startups. The problem, more often than not, is that the startups just don’t reach out, and aim too low to begin with, assuming they won’t be of interest to these figures.

If small countries can’t make big waves in the international tech economy, then someone should inform Estonia, which has given the world Skype, and Transferwise, and is little more than a tenth the size of the Czech Republic. Estonia has turned its tiny size to an advantage by being globally minded for over 25 years. Czechs have no legitimate excuses for not doing the same.

I’m from “Silicon Valley,” which is not a real place in the sense that many Czech entrepreneurs imagine. I was born and raised just south of San Francisco, and I can tell you there is nothing special in the water there; no magical advantage that startups gain when they land at San Francisco Airport. Nor are most of the people there particularly entrepreneurial by nature.

People used to take buses to LA to “become movie stars.” Now it seems they think they can take a flight to San Francisco to become tech billionaires. But it just doesn’t work that way.

San Francisco arose from a gold rush which never really ended, but has constantly changed its focus for nearly two centuries, from gold, to silicon, to smartphones, and now to ideas.

Silicon Valley is a state of mind. It is just full of people who have strong views about the future, and refuse to see limits to their ambitions. Going there won’t change who you are. You can set your personal goals higher, no matter where you live.


The global marketplace has its own demands, and presents new challenges to Czech startups. Chief among them, is the importance of soft skills that Czechs have not yet emphasized sufficiently. The Czech Republic severely lags Germany, Estonia, and all of Scandinavia in English proficiency, and the vital (for a startup) skills of storytelling and brand building are de-emphasized in a business culture that is all about the bottom line, or about technical innovation over customer focus.

Telling stories, the act of constructing a convincing narrative for success that a customer, an investor, an employee, or a partner can engage with and which can inform and inspire people about your company and your products, is a precious and vital skill among startups.  

If Czech entrepreneurs face these challenges head on, they will find that they can win investments, gain customers, and attract talent anywhere in the world. Silicon Valley may be where a lot of startups live, but it isn’t where they all come from, and it isn’t where they will ultimately win customers, and make money.

The Czech Republic has produced generations of ingenious builders, who already have the skills to create some of the world’s best tech products. It must now produce a new generation of ambitious, thoughtful communicators in order to sell those products to a wider audience. Czech startups have to stop doing what comes naturally: they have to stop focusing on being builders for hire, and start focusing on building their own future, with their own customers, and their own stories.

Signs of Success

The Czechs, it seems, are in a constant state of crisis of confidence. But one wonders why that is. The Czech Republic is the only country in Europe that has developed a viable competitor to the global search giant, Google, in, and it hosts two of the world’s leading computer security companies, Avast and AVG. AVG became the first Czech company to IPO on the Nasdaq just 3 years ago.

Today, the Czech Republic is a net technology exporter, and its name is associated internationally with quality workmanship, efficiency, and creativity.

As barriers to the global market come down everywhere, and as consumers and businesses all over the EU and the world become more used to innovative and disruptive global startups, nothing stands in the way of Czech startups, and their global ambitions.

Today, Czech technology products touch the lives of millions of people, all over the world, in ways visible and invisible. From StartupYard alone, companies like BrandEmbassy, TeskaLabs, and BudgetBakers, to name a few, serve hundreds of thousands of people daily, and are growing fast.

A future in which a local resident of Sao Paolo, of London, of Bangkok, of Delhi, or of San Francisco, can make a Czech technology product a part of their daily lives and routines has already arrived, and there remains no excuse for Czech startups not to compete for the attention of customers and businesses everywhere.