4 Ways To Kick Ass at an Accelerator

My job about half of the year is to travel around Central Europe meeting with startups and entrepreneurs, listening to pitches, and scouring the internet for what might just be the next great startup to join StartupYard.

We have a new batch of startups joining us in Prague in just a few weeks, Batch X, which means we’ll be doing this for the 10th time. We’ve seen lots of startups benefit from a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we’ve also seen others not get everything they could out of the program when they were here.

Sometimes founders tell us what they wish they had known to do before getting here, so in the spirit of that request, here are 4 things any startup can do to kick ass at an accelerator.

You can also read more about the acceleration process in other posts like: 5 Tips to Get the Most out of Your Mentors, 11 Things We Say All the Time to Startups, and 6 Silly Startup Mistakes You Can Fix in 5 Minutes.

One: Know Your Mentors

“Oh hi… who are you?” Is not a question you should be asking the CEO of a major technology company who has taken a day off from a very busy schedule to come and talk to you about your business for no other reason than he or she feels like giving something back.

Certainly StartupYard is selective when it comes to our mentors. We look for humble, experienced, informed, and engaged people with powerful business networks, who generally have enough of a sense of self-worth that you don’t need to suck up to them. Still, there’s a world of difference between being a kiss-ass, and not knowing someone’s name or where they’re from before you meet them.

Your attitude as a founder in any accelerator program should be: “I have limited time with these resources, so how do I maximize my use of them?” Being with a C-level executive of a major corporation, or with the managing partner of a VC fund, or with a successful startup founder for a mentoring session is like the intellectual equivalent of being left alone in a bank vault. You should really spend your time going after the important stuff.

What important stuff? What is this person’s relevant experience in my field? What connections do they have that could save me weeks or months of waiting for cold emails to get answered? What do they know that I don’t? We say you should try and treat mentors as potential customers, and that’s true as well, but just as with a customer, most of that communication should be you learning from the mentor, not you spending the mentor’s time trying to convince them of your vision.

Wait, what am I saying? Don’t try and pitch the mentors your ideas? No, of course you should do that, but many founders get carried away with this. A mentor hears your pitch, raises a few objections, and before you know it, the whole session is taken up with the two of you in a battle of wills, one trying to convince the other of their rightness.

You know who loses in this situation? You do, because the mentor has nothing to prove. They’ve already had impressive accomplishments and success along the way. They have no pressing goals in their meeting with you. You have goals, so spend your time finding ways the mentor can help you meet them.

That means knowing as much as you can about the mentor before the meeting. Ask the management team about them. We know the mentors. Check out their companies and their profiles on LinkedIn. Get an idea of what you think they can do for you before you sit down and ask them for help. Help them help you, as we say.

Two: Know Your Numbers

 

Below I’m going to share with you a number of real life #epicail scenarios for founders who have been with us, sometimes for a full 3 months, and have not managed to quite grasp this essential lesson: Know Your Numbers.

  • So how many email subscribers do you have right now?
  • Uh.. i would have to ask the marketing guy…
  • Do you have over 1000?
  • It could be…
  • Over 10,000?
  • Probably not…
  • Do you have any idea?
  • No… 
  • What’s your runway?
  • Well, we have XX Euros in the bank…
  • So what’s your runway
  • It’s… if we spend it slowly then it could be….
  • Ok, hang on: What is your runway at the current burn rate
  • Uh… I have to ask…
  • You don’t know.
  • I don’t know  
  • How much are you raising?
  • It depends how much we can get….
  • How much do you want to raise?
  • As much as we can get…?
  • Yeah, no.

This is about two things, mainly. First, it’s about answering questions as straightforwardly as you possibly can. This means yes or no questions have yes or no answers. Do you have cash for the next 6 months? Yes or no. Of course it’s never that simple, but when a mentor or an investor or a stakeholder is asking you a question like this one, they want a straight answer. If you need to qualify, ie: “yes, but…,” or “no… if,” that’s totally fine.  Yes and no are powerful words, which is why founders so often try to avoid them.

The other, related thing some founders try hard to avoid is real numbers. Real numbers are your friend! How much money do you need to raise? “Well… we could get by with around…” No. Start with a round number: “We need to raise €150K for runway for the next 12 months.” Again, you can qualify these answers later, but if you don’t start with something real, then there’s no way for anyone asking the questions to understand what neighborhood they’re even in.

Just giving straightforward answers, with the understanding that you don’t have to know every answer precisely every time (though it helps if you do), we can see these conversations going a bit better:

  • So how many email subscribers do you have?
  • Last I checked it was between 2000-2500, but I would ask my marketing guy for an exact number
  • Great! That’s more than I was expecting

 

  • What’s your runway?
  • It’s 6 months with our current cash burn, but we can sustain ourselves if we go lean and cut costs.
  • Ok, how much would you have to cut?
  • About 50%. We are covering half our burn rate right now in net income
  • Ok, thanks for the info

 

  • How much do you want to raise?
  • We want to raise €300k in a seed round. If we can’t do that, then €100k in an angel round will be ok for the next 9 months
  • Great, let’s talk about your strategy

Those conversations are so much better than the initial ones, right? The truth is, you don’t even have to know a lot of your numbers with great precision. You just have to know what they should be, and what they are not likely to be.

How many email subscribers do you get in a week? Most founders don’t know that to an exact figure, but they should have enough of a finger on the pulse to be able to estimate: if it’s been 10 a week or so, and the last time you checked was last month, then there are probably 40 more than before. It bears checking, but it’s a best guess. It’s an answer, which is better than “I would need to check on that, because I have no idea.”

A lot of numbers questions are asked with the understanding that your answers will be either guesses or estimates. Runway is only semi-concrete. It’s an estimate. Number of downloads is concrete, but again, the exact figure is less important than the ballpark. The amount of money your raising is understood to be a goal, not a figure set in stone, but you have to have an answer to that question that sounds reasonable and compares favorably with the reality.

The simple fact is that often times, founders just don’t study their numbers closely enough. They don’t work enough in spreadsheets and they don’t work enough on contextualizing, for themselves and for those around them, what their numbers and metrics mean, why they are important, what they are, and what they should be.

Anyone might have a difficult time answering “what will your cash flow situation look like in month 15 of your financial projection?” But on the other hand, I should know if I’m going to be making money or losing money at that point. A familiarity with my own numbers saves me from the embarrassment of not knowing this basic fact about them. “I’m going to be making net profit at that point, but I think less than €10,000. I need to check it.” That’s an answer we can work with.

Three: Know Your Deliverables and Your Schedule

Investors, including accelerators like StartupYard, manage their relationships with portfolio companies in ways that are quantifiable and hopefully easy to chart over time. We need data from our startups, and we need to know, within reason, that startups are working on the things we need them to work on. It’s not that investors should run a company, but rather founders should be given certain clear hurdles that they need to meet to satisfy our relationship. This is mutually beneficial, if done correctly.

For example, early in our cooperation, during the acceleration phase, we will have a lot of “deliverables” which we expect founders to work on with us, and to have done by a certain time, to a certain standard.

Examples are things like a website, media kit, business plan, user projections, market overviews, competitor analyses, and so forth. Later it’s a pitch script and a slide deck for Demo Day. Then maybe a one-pager for investors. Years after the program, it may just be basic financial data every quarter. Deliverables at the beginning can be quite big and important items, and deliverables at later stages can be less all-consuming or critical, but they are still deliverables. They still need to get done.

A deliverable that doesn’t seem important to you might be very important for the other party. At least knowing this, and knowing why, is going to help you get much more out of an accelerator. You may find what you didn’t value before, when properly explained, is more valuable than you first thought. It can be the difference between something feeling like homework, and something feeling like it will really help your company move forward.

A big challenge for some founders is to understand that when you are dealing with outside advisors and investors, you are dealing with someone else’s standards of what constitutes “finished,” and “acceptable.” Hopefully, in the best case scenario, this is because the advisor or investor has a bit more experience than you do about what level of work you should be delivering, which is why the item is something they are interested in seeing by a certain date.

The deliverables should be helpful to you. If they aren’t, then there’s something wrong.

At StartupYard, for example, we don’t wait until the day we announce the names of our latest batch of startups to make sure that they all have working websites. These are deliverables that come up weeks before that time. We do this because we know that the odds are good that we will not be happy with the first version, and we want there to be time to change it and improve it.

We only do that because experience tells us it is usually necessary. If it weren’t necessary, we wouldn’t do it.

A later investor might not expect this kind of hands-on access to your work, which is clear to you only if you know what your deliverables for them are. This can mean going out of your way to make sure you know exactly what is expected of you, because that might not always be clear. It’s ok to ask what people expect, and it makes your life easier. You don’t want to be caught out the day before your product launch by an investor suddenly demanding that you change your website. You want to know whether that’s something the investor will want some control over.

For example, you can end meetings by saying: “ok, so if I understand correctly, you want to see XYZ, with these details, by next wednesday, and then a final version of that the next week?” This is getting to know your deliverables. It’s much better than just saying: “oh, we need a website? Ok, I’ll get it done pretty soon.” What does it mean to get it done? What is soon?

Discussing your deliverables also allows you to shape them in a positive way. You may not believe a later investor needs to sign off on some aspects of your work. That’s something to make clear beforehand. You may decide together that a particular deliverable is not needed, or a particular schedule is too ambitious.

A major frustration for an investor or advisor who is trying to help a startup to meet a high standard of excellence is to not have the founders take these deliverable schedules seriously. These schedules are in place (hopefully!) for a good reason, and though it may not be one you necessarily agree with all the time, it serves as a fundamental basis of our relationship. This is how we understand if we are being helpful to you or not.

Four: Use Your Management Team

(Half of) The StartupYard Team

Hey, we’re people too! Each of us has particular skills and particular strengths. If you don’t know what we’re good at, then it’s hard for us to be good at that thing on your behalf.

Remember the axiom: “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” The management team of the accelerator is there working for you. If the organization is well run, and the incentive structure is set up correctly, then the management team should be interested in making portfolio companies more valuable, founders happier, and products and services better. That’s why we exist, and it’s our main role with our member companies and alumni.

The acceleration process does create a certain sense of whiplash, particularly with a very hands on program like we have at StartupYard. We are so hands on from the beginning that when we start to pull back and let founders steer on their own, they can and sometimes do feel like we’re “letting them go,” or distancing ourselves. Like we don’t care about them anymore, or that they’re “on their own.”

Of course we don’t want that, but the relationship has to change from “push,” to “pull.” Instead of the management team looking over the shoulders of founders, founders exiting the program or even years out have to reach back and ask for our attention if they need it. In my time at StartupYard, I’ve helped to accelerate nearly 50 companies. I can’t spend my days checking up on 50 different founders and seeing if they need my help. They have to come to me, but some never will, even if they need help.

I know this because when I do happen to be talking with alumni founders, it’s a rare instance when it turns out that they haven’t needed help from the management team at some point since we last spoke, and still failed to ask for it. They’ll say: “I didn’t want to bother you… I should have called.” Well, yeah, you should! Some of the best performing startups in our portfolio use us the most. They get that attention just because they ask for it.

StartupYard, Startup Founder, Brutal

11 Ways Being a Startup Founder is Pretty Brutal

Are you a startup founder? Welcome to the suck. Last week I emailed StartupYard alumni to ask them one question: “What has been the most brutal part of your startup journey?”

We talk a lot about the joys of success and the feeling of accomplishment our founders get from overcoming their challenges. Actually though, being a startup founder can be pretty brutal sometimes, and there are plenty of situations where there is no real silver lining. A big part of making it as a founder is relying on your friends and your mentors when things go bad. Even if there isn’t a way to fix it, we can help you move past it and use the experience to grow and mature, even just a bit.

Brutal Doesn’t Mean “Not Worth It.”

It’s rare that a negative emotional or inter-personal experience as a founder is enough to make our alumni give up- in fact we’ve never seen it. Still, it can make the world of any entrepreneur lonely and discouraging, sometimes for long stretches. The best founders have to stick out those patches and make it through anyway.

I’ll be quoting our founders in this article without revealing names. There are some things we can learn from, that are still best not discussed in detail. Here is what a few of our alumni had to say:

  1. Partners Suddenly Change Directions

“Representatives of [A Big Tech Company] said we would ‘build an ecosystem together.’ They got us really excited. 3 months later they ended that initiative and nothing happened. Everything we thought was going to happen never did.”

  1. People Waste Your Time

“I traveled hours to meet this VC, only to find out he wasn’t interested at all. I talked with him for 20 minutes, then traveled hours home for nothing.”

“People want to meet you and they want to cooperate with you, and they can’t do anything. They don’t have anything for you. They’re doing it just to do it. You have to be able to say no at some point.”

  1. People Break Apart

“I had to break up with my co-founder, whom I have known since childhood. It was for the sake of the company, but it made me very sad.”

“I saw that our vision of [my co-founder’s] role, was not the same. He wasn’t doing what we had agreed, and we suffered for that.”

  1. Investors Get Cold Feet

“We shook hands on an agreement. I followed up with him the next week, and he never returned my email. He didn’t even say why he was backing out.”

“We were going to sign, literally that week. The papers were all finished, and they backed out. We had to start from zero.”

  1. Customers Are Harsh

“You change one crucial feature in a way [your users] don’t like, or it doesn’t work for 1 day, and they kill you in the [app store] ratings. They absolutely kill you.”

“The product was just not working well, and I was trying to ignore it. I was trying to be positive, but we needed to really close in and refocus on our existing customers. It was very hard to admit the product was not what we were promising.”

  1. Sometimes Nobody Cares

“We invested in this whole campaign. We thought it was really valuable and people were going to like it, and share it, and buy the product. Nobody did. Not one person.”

“Some features you think are going to be a killer, and nothing happens. Other times it’s something stupid, and everybody loves it, which is confusing.”

  1. You Have to Let People Go

“I had to reduce the staff. It was very hard, even though they knew it could happen. I have since felt cautious about getting close to new people I hire. I am afraid of having to do that again.”

“She was really a great fit for the role, with the right personality and the talent, but she just didn’t want to do the work required. She didn’t have the commitment, and I had to let her go.”

  1. You Run Out of Money

“We were going to be broke in like a month or two. It was either fire everybody right now, or we make a product and sell sell sell. That was a scary time. We kept everybody, but we worked our asses off to do it.”

  1. You’re On Your Own

“You feel a real let-down when you leave the [StartupYard] program. It feels like there was all this momentum behind you, and now you are flying on your own and you don’t feel so confident all of a sudden.”

  1. Your Relationships Can Suffer

“She put me on notice. I knew I couldn’t make her happy and do this, and I had to do this, so we took a break, mutually. So many people depend on you, it’s not possible to be everywhere.”

“[My co-founder] and I were friends  since we were in high school. I think we will get past this and be friends again. But not right now.”

  1. You’re Not Always Sure Why You’re Doing it

“It just wasn’t working. It wasn’t happening, and I was just sticking with it ‘to the end.’ I felt very alone.”

“I fear the risk of failing, so I just try to keep things going, but why am I doing this if it’s going to be like this forever? I don’t want that.”

Luck, and getting Getting Past the Brutal Parts

Every founder in our experience has at least one story like this one. Usually they have lots. The only thing that separates the startups that fail from those that succeed, apart from a lot of luck, is sticking through the hard parts. One of the best ways to do this is to build a very strong network of advisors and mentors. That’s something accelerators like StartupYard can help you do.

Are you ready to build the network that will take you to the global market? View StartupYard’s Open Call for Startups:

 

Mentorship

Is Mentorship Like a Game of Chess? (Updated)

Today our Batch 9 startups had their first meetings with StartupYard mentors. There are the first of about 6-7 45 minute meetings a day for a month. To put that in perspective, it’s about 80 hours of meetings with over 100 people. A lot to get through. 

So how do we prepare startup founders for getting the most out of this crazy rush of ideas and perspectives? Simple: we give them tools, and training on how to use them. Pro tip: start with David Cohen’s Mentorship Manifesto.

The First Best Tool: Positioning

Typically when you ask accelerators what they do to “onboard,” their startups, they’ll talk about having a party, maybe doing team building, or giving an orientation. If it’s an American accelerator, except feel-good soul-searching with optional campfires and singalongs.

That’s not really our thing at StartupYard. Day 1 is about positioning. It’s about how in hell you’re going to manage to explain to 100 people what you do, in a way that a) doesn’t drive you crazy over the course of a month, and b) actually generates useful dialogue and common understanding with the mentors.

“Product positioning,” which we’ve also written about extensively on the blog, is really as much art as science. In short, it’s the art of framing your work in a context that others will immediately understand, accept, and sympathize with. A position statement details the target customer, what their problem is, how you solve their problem, what their alternatives are (your competition), and how you’re different.

We strongly believe that starting mentorship sessions with a positioning statement is key to getting the maximum possible value out of mentors. It sets the ground rules for a conversation at the outset: helping a mentor to understand what your basic assumptions are about the world and what you’re doing, and letting them know what you’re working on, and what you know about the business you’re in.

Positioning and Mentoring as Chess

Mentorship can be thought of as like a game of chess. There are two players, they are equally matched, but one must move first. Both know the rules, but neither understands the thinking or tendencies of another before the game begins. The game is limited to the pieces on the board. Slowly, by making their moves, the two players reveal to each other what is important to them. Every move has an answer, and you don’t stop until one of you is out of moves (or time is up).

Of course, mentorship isn’t a competition, but then in some ways, neither is chess. It’s an exercise in controlled, directed communication. That is what good mentorship is: a focused, stripped down form of conversation that teaches two people about each other.

In this light, mentorship can be seen as a process you can optimize and perfect. You can get better at it over time. Moreover, your planning and preparation for a match matter as much or more than your in-game execution. Going in with a clear strategy, and developing that strategy to control the board. The game is played before you sit down, mentally. 

Here are some steps on how to prepare for mentoring:

Step 1: Setting the Board

Mentorship


Some founders rightly value their ability to react in the moment. We can call that natural salesmanship and charisma. It’s a great quality, but the truth is it is often bad in the long run for a startup founder to be too self-confident in conversation. More humble and more prepared founders end up getting more out of mentorship simply because they think more deeply about it.

A mentor that exists in the moment can be very effective because he or she meets many different startups. But a startup founder always has to talk about the same thing. Preparation helps us to avoid being predictable. Worse: failure to set the board properly can put the other person in control of the game.

Don’t Present: Lead a Conversation

Setting the conversational agenda is a vital step, and there are many ways of screwing it up. One of the ways founders fail at setting the agenda is by refusing to lead. Rather than come out and state what they do, and what they want to talk about, they will bite around the edges. They will delay, and distract, rather than getting to the point.

And this happens because of fear: fear of failure, or of looking stupid. That fear leads founders to try and push the focus of the conversation away from themselves. Sometimes they try to start with “literature” such as an executive summary or a pitch deck or video, as a way of easing the pressure on themselves. But this is usually a mistake, because the opening of a conversation is about “setting the board,” and bringing a mentor’s attention to the topic you want to discuss. A pitch deck or a video might be interesting, but it’s also impersonal. It isn’t you. You are a living mind, not a pitch deck.

If the first thing you show someone is a presentation, then more often than not, the whole conversation becomes *about* the presentation, or video, or whatever it is. Rather than engaging with ideas, a mentor reacts to things they are shown: they react to what they see, rather than what they are asked to imagine. This limits the conversation, and usually wastes time and energy.

Like in chess, getting the focus of the other player to the center of the board (and away from your side of the board), is critical to controlling the game. If you start out offering your work to a mentor for a critique, then the rest of the “game” is played on your side of the board. This is how mentoring sessions turn defensive and counterproductive.

Step 2: Following a Strategy

Mentorship

As conversations have many layers, so too does chess. There are tactics, such as using combinations of pieces or positions on the board to accomplish tasks, and there is strategy- the way you pursue your overall goals by using certain tactics instead of others. Just as in a conversation, the tactics you use are superficial: a certain combination of words or a way of speaking. Jokes are a conversational tactic. So is eye contact. But these are not strategy.

Often we confuse tactics for strategy. We talk about the superficial aspects of conversation: how to talk to people, and how to please them. But ingratiating yourself is one thing, and getting what you need from a mentor is something else. Establishing a deeper understanding is about genuinely testing the other person’s mind. 

Your strategy is more premeditated, and it requires planning. How will I win this person to my way of thinking? How will I talk to them in a way they will understand and sympathize with? We do not achieve very effective conversations by relying on charm and wit alone – those are only tactical elements. Really good mentoring only happens when the founder plans ahead, thinking carefully about what they want from the mentor, and about how they are likely to get it.

Sit down and ask yourself these questions:

  • What is this mentor expecting this to be? How can I confound that expectation to make my impression?
  • What does the mentor want out of this?
  • Where is the mentor stronger or more capable than me?
  • Where are my relative strengths in comparison?

Having a good strategy means gathering intelligence about the mentor you’re talking to, having an outcome for your conversation in mind (the thing you want the mentor to give you or do for you), and understanding what it is the mentor wants from you. 

All these questions can be asked before hand, but often are not. Some founders never engage in a clear strategy, and so they simply chat with mentors, never really getting anywhere. They try to be liked, rather than to earn respect and attention. Don’t make that mistake: having a “nice” conversation, and really getting something out of a mentorship session are not the same thing.

Step 3: The Endgame

Mentorship

Chess also has an end. Or rather, it reaches a point at which there is nowhere to go. That is the nature of the game, and to some degree, it is also the nature of a productive mentorship session.

Knowing when you should stop is as important as knowing how to start. When founders begin to repeat themselves, or to delay the end of the interaction, they start losing ground. Just as in chess, “getting to yes,” is about taking your shot when it’s available, and ending the game. Once you have agreed with the mentor on what the next steps are, you’re finished. Checkmate. 

Sometimes too, mentors like to talk. I am guilty of that as a mentor, and I rarely end a conversation myself. If the person I’m talking to is very interesting, then I don’t always want to end it. But then that is about what I want as a mentor, not about what the founder needs. Thus, I do notice when founders are unable to break away and close the discussion. If the conversation takes on an air of inevitability, then don’t drag it out. Don’t get repetitive.

By having clear goals in advance, you’ll be more able to decide when and if those goals have been achieved, at which point you can conclude the conversation, and move on to other things.

Is ending your session hard for you? I know how it feels, and there are tactics for that too. You can try to:

  • Summarize the conversation and thank the mentor for their time
  • Repeat the agreed next steps, and say “I’ll get to it,” and get up to go
  • Give the mentor a concrete time or date when they will hear from you again, eg: “expect an email from me by tomorrow evening.”
  • Bring a third party into the discussion to break up the discussion, eg: “Cedric, I was just having a great talk with Lloyd.”
  • Bring the mentor somewhere else physically, such as to get a cup of coffee
  • Check the clock and apologize for using up so much of their time

State the Outcome Clearly

It’s gentlemanly and professional to state clearly what you intend to do next. Even if you’ve not had a very good session with a mentor, make a point of articulating the action you are going to take as a result of the meeting. “I’m going to think about what you said,” or “I’m going to read what you mentioned.” If you want to see the mentor again and they have agreed, then state that clearly: “I will see you in 2 weeks,” or “You can expect my call this week.”

It’s tempting to be vague in this regard, but don’t do it. Come away knowing exactly what comes next. No “so we’ll sees” or “maybe laters.” Just reset the board, and move to the next game.

mentors engaged with founders

How Smart Startups Keep Mentors Engaged

A version of this post originally appeared on the StartupYard blog in January 2016. As a new group of Startups joins us in the next few weeks for StartupYard Batch 10, we thought we’d dive back into a very important topic for them: How do the smartest startups engage their mentors?

But first: why do some of even the most successful startup founders continue to seek mentorship?

Strong Mentors are Core to a Successful Startup

Mergim Cahani (right), CEO of Gjirafa, one of StartupYard’s most successful alumni, is an avid startup mentor himself.

Founders have to balance mentorship with the day-to-day responsibilities of their companies. But sometimes founders approach mentorship as a kind of “detour” from their normal operations- something they can get through before “getting back to work.”

This is the wrong approach. Having worked with scores of startups myself, as a mentor, investor, and at StartupYard, I can comfortably say that those who engage with mentors most, get the most productive work done. Those who engage least, are generally the most likely to waste precious time. 

How can that be? Well, simply put, the first line of defense against the dumbest, most avoidable mistakes, are mentors who have made those mistakes themselves. I’ve seen this happen: a startup decides they’re going to try a certain thing, and it’s going to take X amount of work (often a lot of work). They mention it to a mentor, who forcefully advises that they not do it. The mentor tried it themselves, and failed.

Now this startup has 2 options: proceed knowing how and why the mentor failed, or change direction to avoid the same problems. Either way, an hour-long discussion with a mentor will probably have saved time and money, simply by raising awareness. I have seen 20 minute conversations with mentors save literally months of pain and struggle for startup founders.

Recently, one of our founders reached out to a handful of mentors for information on an investor who was very close to signing on as an Angel. The reaction was swift, and saved the founder from making a very serious mistake. The investor turned out to have a bad reputation, and was a huge risk. As a result, mentors scrambled to suggest alternatives and offer help securing the funds elsewhere. That is what engaged mentors can do for startups.

Engaged Mentors Defeat Wishful Thinking

There’s a tendency, particularly among startups that haven’t had enough challenging interactions with outsiders, to paper-over issues that the founders prefer not to think about. Often there “just isn’t enough data,” to prove or disprove the founders’ theories about the market.

Conveniently, “lack of data,” or “need for further study,” can serve as an excuse for not making decisions. That’s one of the main reasons startups fail – refusing to make a decision before it’s too late.

We like to focus on things we can control, and things we have a hard time working out appear to be outside of that sphere, so we are more likely to ignore them, or hand-wave their importance away.

Founders sometimes long to go back into “builder mode,” and focus solely on executing all the advice they’ve been given. And they do usually still have a lot of building to do. But one common mistake -something we see every single year- is that startups will treat mentors as the source of individual ideas or advice, but not as a wellspring of continuing support and continual challenges.

The truth is that a great mentor will continually put a brake on your worst habits as a company. They will be a steadfast advocate of a certain point of view- hopefully one that differs from your own, and makes you better at answering tough questions. But you have to bring them in.

Treat Your Mentors like Precious Resources

I can’t say how many times great mentors, who have had big impacts on the teams they have worked with, have come to me asking for updates about those teams. These mentors would probably be flattered to hear what an effect they’ve had on their favorite startups, but the startups often won’t tell them. And the mentors, not knowing whether they’ve been listened to, don’t press the issue either.

Mentors need care and feeding. They need love. Like in any relationship, this requires effort on both sides.

But time and again, mentors who are ready to offer support, further contacts, and more, are simply left with the impression that the startup isn’t doing anything, much less anything they recommended or hoped the startup would try.

Mentors who aren’t engaged with a startup’s activities won’t mention them to colleagues and friends. They won’t brag about progress they don’t know about, and they won’t think of the startup the next time they meet someone who would be an interesting contact for the founders.

This isn’t terribly complicated stuff. Many founders fear at first that “spamming” or “networking,” is the act of the desperate and the unloved. If their ideas are brilliant and their products genius, then surely success will simply find them. Or so the thinking goes.

Alas, that’s a powerful Silicon Valley myth. And believe me: it doesn’t apply to you. Engaging mentors is just like engaging customers: even if you’re Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, you still need to be challenged and questioned. You still need support.

As always, there are a few simple best practices to follow.

1. A Mentor Newsletter

Two of StartupYard’s best Alumni, Gjirafa and TeskaLabs, provide regular “Mentor Update” newsletters. These letters can follow a few different formats, but the important things are these: be consistent in format, and update regularly. Ales Teska, TeskaLab’s founder, sends a monthly update to all mentors and advisors.

In the email, he has 4 major sections. Here they are with explanations of the purpose of each:

Introduction

Here you give a personal account of how things are going. You can mention personal news, or news about the team, offices, team activities, and other minutiae. This is a good place to tell small stories that may be interesting to your mentors, and will help them to feel they know you better. Did a member of the team become a parent? Tell it here. Did you travel to Dubai on business? Give a quick account of the trip.

Ask

This is one section which I love about Ales’s emails. I always scroll down to the “ask” section, and read it right away. Here, Ales comes up with a new request for his mentors every single time. It can be something simple like: “we really need a good coffee provider for the office,” to something bigger, like “we are looking for an all-star security-focused salesman with 10 years experience.”

Whatever it is, he engages his mentors to answer the questions they know, by replying directly to the email. This way, he can gauge who is reading the emails, and he can very quickly get great answers to important questions or requests.

Audience engagement happens on many levels. Not everything engages every mentor all the time, and that’s important to keep in mind. A simple question can start an important conversation. You don’t know what a mentor has to offer you until you find the right way to ask for their help.

Wins

Here, Ales usually shares any good news he has about the company. This section is invaluable, because it reminds mentors that the company is moving forward, and making gains. A win can be anything positive. You can say that a win was hiring a great new developer, or finally getting the perfect offices. Or it can be an investment or a new client contact. These show mentors that you are working hard, and that you are making progress and experiencing some form of traction.

You’d be surprised how many mentors simply assume that a startup that isn’t talking about any successes, must have already failed. StartupLand in can be like Hollywood that way: if you haven’t seen someone’s name on the billboards lately, it means they’ve washed out.

The fact might be that you’re quietly doing great business, but see what happens when someone asks about you to a mentor who hasn’t heard anything in 6 months. “Those guys? I don’t know… I guess they aren’t doing much, I haven’t heard from them in a while.” There’s no good reason for that conversation to happen that way.

KPIs

Here Ales shares a consistent set of Key Performance Indicators. In his case, it is about the company’s sales pipeline, but for other companies, it might be slightly different items, such as “time on site,” or “number of daily logins,” or “mentions in media.” Whatever KPIs are most important to your growth as a company, these should be shared proactively with your mentors.

If the news isn’t positive, then explain why. You can also have a little fun with this, and include silly KPIs like: “pizza consumed,” or “bugs found.” This exercise shows mentors that you are moving forward, and gives them a reliable and repeatable overview of what you’re experiencing in any given week.

I heard one mentor complaining not long ago about these types of emails. “The KPIs don’t change that much, it’s always the same thing.” But he was thinking about the startup in question. The fact that the KPIs hadn’t changed might be a bad sign to the mentor, but probably the absence of any contact would be worse. At least in this case, the mentor might care enough to reach out and ask what’s going on.

2. Care and Watering

Mentors aren’t mushrooms. They don’t do well in the dark. Once you’ve identified your most engaged mentors, you need to put in as much effort in growing your relationship as you expect to get back from them.

How can you grow a relationship with a mentor? Start by identifying what the mentor wishes to accomplish in their career, in their life, or in their work with you. Do they want to move up the career path? Do they want to do something good for the human race? Do they just want to feel needed or important?

A person’s motivations for mentorship can work to your advantage. Try and help them achieve their goals, so that they can help you achieve yours.

Does a mentor want his or her boss’s job? Feed them information that will help them get ahead of colleagues and stand out. Mention them in your PR, or on your blog to enhance their visibility.

Does the mentor want to be a humanitarian? Show them the positive effects they’ve had by sending them a letter, or inviting them to a dinner.

Does the founder yearn to be needed? Include his/her name in your newsletter and highlight their importance to your startup. These things are all easy to do, and can be the difference between a mentor choosing to help you, and finding other things to do with their busy schedules.

OptioAI

OptioAI On Their Journey from StartupYard to Techstars

Last month we announced that OptioAI, a member of StartupYard Batch 8 and StartupYard’s first Georgian startup, had joined TechStars Berlin. Techstars is the world’s largest accelerator network, with over 1000 invested companies, and $3.3bn raised over the past 12 years. OptioAI is through the first month of the program already, and will present at the Berlin DemoDay on April 19th.

OptioAI joined StartupYard with a plan to create a text-based finance management platform for millennials who weren’t seduced by traditional banking (which is to say, most of them). Today their core mission remains the same, and has evolved to become a text-based platform that “makes your money talk to you,” by connecting users with their financial data in a natural way, via voice and chat.

OptioAI StartupYard, Techstars

I checked in with Shota Giorgobiani, Co-Founder and CEO at Optio, to find out how the Techstars program is going. Here is what he had to say, this time via email.

Were you surprised to be selected for Techstars right after the StartupYard program?

The funny thing is, applying to TechStars started more as an experiment.

We’d heard how hard was to get to Techstars. Techstars does not officially publish information about the number of applications they get for every batch, but rumors say that only 1-2% of initial applicants get to Techstars and the number of applications per program can be near 1000.

Furthermore, Techstars generally accepts only 1 or 2 early stage company per batch, so it looked almost impossible right from the beginning.  Our goal was to understand how the process works and prepare for the future when we would be “ready,” but as always, you never know when you are “ready” and what “readiness” means. So we ended up by being selected for Techstars Berlin, which actually is a great outcome of the “experiment!”

How does the application process work?

The first part of the selection is pretty much standard: you send your application, you are shortlisted and then have a Skype call. If you are in the final round, you are invited to selection day.

Some cities have 2 meetings with startups and some just one, but overall it’s the same as at StartupYard. The main difference is the final selection process: It’s not like a “traditional pitch” competition, or a series of one-to-ones, it’s more a face to face meeting with the whole selection committee.

We had 2 meetings, each for 15 minutes with 2 different groups. The idea of this meeting for Techstars team is to get to know the team. It’s a known fact (and it’s true not only for Techstars) that most of the time, especially early-stage startups are chosen because of the team, not because of the idea or product. And when I mention team, not only the credibility of the team is important (like how many years have you been in the industry), but also if the team can be managed and helped to make better decisions or not.

This was something we really improved on at StartupYard: how to listen and to show that you are taking questions seriously; how to engage with debate and not be defensive.

Also very important is to show what you have. No matter if it’s a working product with 1000+ users or mockups of your idea. You should be excited about what you are doing and you should naturally show this excitement. It’s even good to start your talk with the demo (and most of the time – you are asked to do so).

One last thing: 15 minutes is too short period to cover everything. You may be tempted to use up your time talking about your plans, but you should be able to cover most important topics in 2-3 minutes and move to the Q/A part, where you have a chance to show your competence, passion, vision and also show where Techstars can help you. So you should be prepared and be able to manage your time well.

For us, it was a little challenge, because we naturally tend to speak a lot about our company, and you should really train yourself to do it quickly. At the end of the day, it’s all about the match: a personal match between team and Techstars and clear view of how Techstars can help, if any of these is missing, I think you will not be accepted.

How did StartupYard prepare you for taking on this next step? What has been the biggest challenge at TechStars?  

I can talk about that for hours, but to be short and clear: I think, based on our current stage, we had little chance to get to Techstars, if we had not been in StartupYard.

There are clear reasons for that: at StartupYard we learned to describe what we do and who we are quickly and clearly. This is a crucial thing, you should be able to explain in 2-3 mins why are you building the company, what are you building, how this team can achieve the goal and etc. And that’s very hard to do, it takes time and practice. Second is credibility: I think it’s very hard to get into the world’s top accelerator just by sending the application. Sure you can, but for us, at such an early stage and being from Georgia, it feels impossible.

OptioAI Founders, StartupYard

Credibility and your network are so important, aren’t they?

Your network is your key to the world! You have to always be building it up and making it stronger.

For example, our story with Techstars actually started in Prague, in StartupYard, where we meet Techstars Berlin MD, Rob Johnson, and had the opportunity to talk with him and tell what we were doing. Rob was there because of StartupYard, so already you can see the network effect.

Rob suggested we try and apply for the upcoming program. When someone tells you that, listen to them! That’s a shortcut to being noticed among hundreds of applicants, because it comes from within their network. It comes with a degree of trust and confidence.

And believe me, if you are not already generating revenue and growing steadily and are still proving that your product makes sense, such a “shortcut” can be your only chance.

Overall, StartupYard gave us a lot of direct knowledge and experience and maybe even more importantly, wisdom, which helps us every day at Techstars.

For example, after one bloody month of mentorship in Prague, we had a very clear understanding of how the process looks and feels, how to prepare for meetings, what to expect from mentors, etc. Having that experience is invaluable when you get to Techstars and it helps you get the most out of the mentors there.

How has the move to Techstars affected your strategy going forward? What do you hope to get out of it?   

The main challenges now are achieving strong product-market fit and finding a sustainable business model.

So far we have not changed our strategy overall, but that’s an ongoing process and considering the stage of our company, there can and will be changes. For now, we are still working to give millennials an easy way of managing their money through conversational interfaces. At the end of the program, we want to have good traction in terms of users, the finalized core of the product, a clear vision of our business model and 1 or 2 pilots with potential B2B customers. That’s the plan for now.

Have you made big changes in the product? 

Yes, we just released an updated version and lots of changes are ahead.

OptioAI

We decided to focus on the simple, yet very valuable functionality of the product, so we narrowed down our long list of the feature set to something, we believe is valuable for our users on a daily basis. Still, we have to do lots of experiments and see how it goes, but we are now more solid in short-term vision and plan.

In short, we want to create a super simple tool/routine for our users, that can help them with daily money management. No long-term savings goals, no 5-year plans of repaying your mortgage – we are focusing on daily money management. Sounds simple, but as usual, the devil is in the details: if you can’t manage your daily spending, there’s no chance to solve your long-term problems., So for now, that’s our main focus and strategy.

6 Ways StartupYard Helps its Alumni Post Acceleration

One impression some startup founders have about accelerator programs is that they are a “one-off” activity that lasts for just 3 months, at which point a company moves forward to either grow and scale or falter and die.

Thus the constant objection some founders have to attending an accelerator: “It’s going to take too much of my time.” And yet the purpose of a good accelerator is to be a platform for growth, and a means to save time and deliver faster than you could otherwise.

An accelerator’s value has to live largely outside the time-frame In fact, over 7 years of operation, StartupYard has continued to grow its role in the post-acceleration success of our invested companies.

While we’ve always tried our best to take care of companies that have been through our program, these years of experience have continually shown us that our involvement is often as critical after the program as during it. That has led us to greatly expand our post-acceleration activities with alumni.

Here are some of the things a good program should be able to help alumni with:

Fundraising and Prep

An important part of growing a sustainable business is laying the proper groundwork with co-founders, employees, and investors from the beginning. This is an area where young companies fail needlessly. Flexibility and a “move fast and break things” attitude are great until they become roadblocks to growth. When you’re at the stage that you need capital to execute sales and development faster, you’ll need what any serious company does: a plan.

Yet few early-stage companies have access to the experience and resources they need to set up their ownership structure properly, much less to continue to manage that structure in a way that serves existing shareholders, and prepares the company for future investment. Then there is the need to develop a full set of contingency plans based on different levels of investment, with optimistic and pessimistic assumptions considered and accounted for.

Unlike a typical Seed fund or VC, StartupYard works with founders from the pre-incorporation phase if necessary, and can guide the creation of a growth plan that makes sense, and can make the company investible in the future.

Many of the blockers to necessary investment for growing companies are avoidable. They’re things that can be overcome early, or they can become a drag on your success. Few companies make it from incorporation to venture funding without a few nasty surprises along the way. These can be greatly limited by an early-stage partner whose job it is to make sure you’re laying the right foundation.

The Alumni Network

Often forgotten, but very important in our experience, is the role of our alumni network in helping new StartupYard companies gain a foothold. Like the mentor network, our alumni group is composed of people who have experienced every challenge young companies face. Not only that, the alumni have been in the founders’ shoes in the very recent past.

Because our alumni maintain such a close relationship with our team, they can be continually called upon to share their working knowledge of their industries, and make connections for new startups that even our mentors can’t. After all, who knows better how to approach customers with a brand new idea than someone who has just done it themselves?

StartupYard, DemoDay Batch 8

StartupYard Alumni

To a surprising degree, our alumni have also come to constitute a base of early customers and partners for our newer startups. As our network grows to inhabit more industries, the chances that a fresh startup can begin cooperating with an alumni company grows every year. In our last two batches, multiple new startups have signed alumni companies as their first customers. The process also works in reverse: our newer companies have also become customers of our alumni.

The Negotiating Table

One of the biggest hidden advantages of being a StartupYard alum is the leverage it can bring to negotiations with new partners or investors. Of course, name recognition and the social proof a founder gets from attending our program are important, but they extend beyond just getting that first meeting with an investor.

Because the accelerator is a stakeholder, we are able to weigh in on the side of our startups to ensure that they are treated well and fairly by their later investors. Tech investors know, or quickly learn, that their access to deal flow depends on the reputation they’ve earned with us and other programs. Investors who are founder-friendly and straight-shooting are invited back, while those who don’t play fair will find that startups avoid them.

Here our mentor network also improves the position of our startups in negotiations. Being able to receive feedback from other alumni and mentors from the same industry helps founders to approach business deals better armed with the knowledge and context they need to make the best deals. Often too, our management team and mentors are involved in deals as advisors, bringing increased confidence and experience to the negotiating table.

Hiring

Of all challenges an early to mid-stage tech startup will face, hiring is perhaps the hardest. This is a problem that gets harder as companies grow, rather than easier. Finding and retaining talent is the number one barrier to growth for such companies.

Though StartupYard isn’t a talent agency by any stretch, again, planning is the best defense against this inevitable problem. That’s why we focus from the beginning on helping our startups to make the right early hiring decisions, so that their growth down the line won’t be disrupted unnecessarily by having to make drastic changes to the team in mid-stride.

This planning process includes not only understanding what kind of talent a young startup can afford, but also what types of people founders should hire first. Does a company need a COO or an outside CEO? Does it need a business development specialist, or should it hire a crack product development leader first? These questions are vital to the early success of young companies, and they’re very easy to get wrong.

Business Development

Business development with our startups is never confined to the brief 3-month window of acceleration. In fact, that’s more like an introductory period. Our startups continually tap our mentor network and corporate partnerships for business development for months and years after leaving the program.

We frequently connect alumni with new members of the network, as well as fielding requests from mentors and partners to connect them with our startups. As our network continues to grow, it becomes a richer resource for alumni and mentors both, often keeping connections going for years after the program. StartupYard’s in-person events and ongoing activities keep an open door between alumni and the broader network, so that early-stage companies that have grown in maturity and abilities can come back to mentors and partners when they’re ready, and mentors can keep up to date on what the companies are doing.

Press

Finally being part of StartupYard also means being part of our press operation. Though we aren’t the darling of the international media that Y-combinator is, our name recognition in Central Europe is high in the tech media, and we can leverage that name and our existing relationships with media outlets to highlight the activities and successes of our alumni.

In media, “relevance” is an important factor in getting any story told. Journalists look for familiar names and common connections to determine whether a startup or a particular story is noteworthy to its audience. Having the name of a well-known investor behind you helps to create that context for journalists and their readers, and makes it much more likely that you will receive coverage.

An exit is not a vision

5 Surprising B2C Growth Strategies Founders Rarely Try

I’m not a fan of so-called “growth guruism,” or a believer that so called “Growth Hacking,” is what separates successful startups from failures. Solving problems that matter, taking pains to understand your customers and your market deeply, and doing truly unique and challenging things set the best tech startups apart- not the tricks they use, but how they use them.

Still, a growth strategy doesn’t hurt. Netflix wouldn’t be Netflix if it didn’t have clever marketing back when it launched. But it might not be Netflix the global dominant SVOD platform if it hadn’t sent its early-days DVDs to customers by mail in bright, flashy red envelopes, making customers proud to evangelize a sexy new product.

Even absent a full-blown growth strategy, it often surprises me that more founders don’t do relatively simple things that can help them grow much faster, and fine tune their marketing and sales efforts much more quickly.

So that’s what this is, a list of simple growth ideas that most people don’t bother to try, but which may just work for you. As a bonus, I’ll be adding real world examples that you can study on your own more closely.

1. Tame Your Mavens

There are lots of ways to launch a B2C online product. There is no right way, but there are plenty of wrong ways.

Something pretty much every B2C company I’ve worked with has struggled at some point to gain traction for the launch of a new product. It gets a lot easier once you have a following and a track record with loyal customers, but your first product is like your first date. If it starts off badly, things usually don’t get very far.

Bad Version: The “I Hope This Works” Strategy

To ensure your launch will get the traction they need, many startups will “soft-launch” – an intermediate step between a beta version and a market-ready product. A soft-launch may be just a stealth launch with no marketing attached to it. That relies on friends and your personal networks to begin creating buzz about the launch.

It might work, but then it might not. No way to know.

Better Version: The “Connoisseur” Strategy

growth strategy

You can and should think about putting a bit more punch into a soft-launch pitch. Instead of just meekly offering your product, and seeing what happens, identify and close a group of customers who will be ready to use it from Day 1.

Use your customer personas (I hope you’ve done them), to identify a group of people who are in your key demographic, and are influencers in your market, and among your customers. What does an influencer look like? Somebody with a strong social media presence, plenty of mentions in news articles, or a following for a product of their own.

This group is what marketers call the “Mavens.” They are the ones whose social capital is invested in spotting new trends and talking about them. They’re the self appointed taste-makers, and you need them to like you.

Once you have a list, do whatever you can to get these mavens onboard with your launch. Give them free stuff, promise them visibility, praise their god-like skills of discernment. Whatever you have to do to be their best friends, do that.

Ever wonder how those startups with cool ideas end up in the gadget section of the New York Times, or the front page of Wired? That’s a process that starts long before the launch. In fact the launch depends on that process succeeding. Startups with a great PR strategy pre-launch will time their launch around the PR, not the other way around.

Real World Examples:

Netflix targeted avid film buffs on early-internet chatrooms and indy film reviewers in the 1990s before launching their DVD delivery service.

IndieGogo and other crowdfunding platforms turned this strategy into their core businesses: getting product enthusiasts to pledge purchases and hype products in exchange for special access and perks.

2. Be Controversial, Asshole

Growth Strategies

Startup founders can spend a lot of time (maybe too much time) studying the every move of a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. We all learn that you need to act successful in order to be successful.

That’s fine and good, but don’t be fooled: you are not successful yet. Why do we talk about these people now? Because of how diplomatic and strategically minded they are? I think not. The things those entrepreneurs had to do to grow their reputations and businesses would look much different to us if they did and said the same things now.

I’m not telling you to be an asshole. There are plenty of very successful entrepreneurs who aren’t. But I am saying to speak your mind when you can, because later, you won’t get that chance. Consider Mark Zuckerberg ranting in the Harvard Crimson that he was smarter than the entire IT department of the university in 2003. Consider Steve Jobs frankly insulting his future boss John Scully by calling him a sugar-water salesman.

Or just consider any successful entrepreneur who made people question what they really believed about how things should work. Feelings get hurt in that process, and a small company looking for an edge can’t afford to worry too much about hurting people’s feelings, particularly people a lot more powerful than they are.

Real World Examples:

Bitcoin was launched by the anonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto” in 2009 via a controversial white-paper. Regarded by some as revolutionary and prescient, and seen by others as problematic in its economic theories, the paper continues to enforce the Nakamoto brand even years after its author receded into silence.

Google began its campaign to expand beyond its beginnings as a search engine and launch Gmail. The company adopted the motto “Don’t Be Evil,” which at the time was interpreted as a hard swipe at competitors (like Microsoft and Yahoo) that Google was positioning itself against as a new Big Tech player.

3. Have a Gimmick

There are a few kinds of gimmicks. There are physical gimmicks, like a piece of swag or a clever trinket related to the product, and there are software gimmicks, which are a kind of game or a tool your target customers will like. Let’s take this premise in 2 parts.

  • The Physical Gimmick

A physical gimmick isn’t going to work for every company, because not everything lends itself to a physical hardware product. Then again, a lot of things really do.

growth strategy

Physical products, even very simple or decorative ones, offer an opportunity for your brand to reach customers in a new way. We are much more likely, as social creatures, to demonstrate new products we’ve brought to our friends and family if it has a physical component. This type of thing is sometimes referred to as “swag,” but a proper gimmick rises above the level of swag to become a part of the product experience.

Consider Google Cardboard – it’s a gimmick that advertises Google’s VR technology. Instead of a t-shirt or a coffee mug, customers get something that is contextual to the product itself. Because the product is also probably rare or unknown, it appeals to the human need for discovery and for “being first.”

How do you turn your product into a physical gimmick? There’s no one answer, but think about the ways in which your product is going to be used. What kind of physical tasks are involved? In what context will it be used? In the office? At home? On the toilet? In the car?

Not long ago one of our startups Beeem, the physical web company that helps retailers or venues broadcast webapps to nearby mobile devices, sent us a gift. They were standard sized “Business Cards,” enabled with Beeem’s beacon technology, that would broadcast a website where our LinkedIn profiles and emails would be accessible.

This is not really the business Beeem is in, but it’s a very clever growth idea. Now, whenever I talk about Beeem at a conference, I can whip out my business card and tell everyone how to get to my special, on-the-spot website from their mobile phones. It makes me seem geeky but cool, and it gets lots of people to try the service at once. Win, Win.

Real World Examples:

Revolut, the recently launched “post-banking” fintech company that offers virtual bank accounts and ultrafast and cheap currency conversion, used a very similar technique to the one I described above. They created blank credit cards, which they then distributed at events for free. Users could “claim” their card by opening an account on Revolut and putting some money on them. Which many, many people promptly did.

growth strategy

Amazon, when launching the Amazon Dash service (which allows customers to order specific items with one click), distributed small “Dash Buttons” to consumers to place in areas of their homes where certain products are used, such as laundry soap or food. Today Amazon has hundreds of these devices available to buy.

  • The Software Gimmick

The other avenue for gimmicks is in software, either in a browser or via an app. A great example of a classic gimmick is The Calculator. Such as this Mortgage Calculator from NYT.

A software gimmick is something related to your product in some way, but appeals to your customers on its own, helping you to instill your brand in their minds. There are a number of classic gimmicks:

The Calculator: a tool to help your customers solve a specific problem related to the product (like the price of insurance, or the cost of owning something versus renting it).

The Map: A way for your customer to explore content or learn something with a geographical context. Examples: Airbnb, Kiwi.com

The Puzzle: A game to get your customer thinking about the problems that your product solves for them. Also a way to spread the world about the product. Example: Google Doodles

The Quiz: A questionnaire that gives the customer a feeling of accomplishment (and works well to qualify a customer for follow-up). Examples: commonly used on Facebook

The Secret: This is in the form of an easter-egg or a “lifehack,” that helps your customer accomplish something few other people know about. Examples: In&Out Burger, famous in the US for their “secret menu,” which contains a large list of items that are only available upon request. Google has famously introduced hundreds of easter egg functionalities, which fans share and explore regularly. By the way, if you haven’t already: Do a Barrel Roll.

4. Make it Rain – (Money, That Is)

The quickest route between two points is a straight line. This is as true in finding customers as in anything else.

StartupYard, growth strategy

One of the straightest lines to a customer is the offer of something for nothing. Pay your customers to be your customers.

While it doesn’t work for every startup, it has been proven over and over to work for a great many of them. In a B2C company, even a SaaS company, the classic marketing strategies still work fine. There are a lot of ways of getting people in the door to have a look around.

If you’re old enough, you might remember some of the classic tactics. Sending a potential customer a discount coupon with a specific cash value (only to be used for a purchase with the retailer). Promising every customer a cash rebate for signing up.

The classic rebate deal was essentially a way of giving a customer something for free, while also getting them to commit cash to the endeavor. That’s a classic foot-in-the-door tactic. Many younger entrepreneurs today are less familiar with these old-school techniques because they went out of fashion with the age of online ads. However, they are making a comeback today.

For example, the phenomenon of “pre-purchases,” particularly of products that are not actually constrained by distribution logistics. Yet companies like Apple and Amazon have brought back the practice in a big way, tapping into the same emotional experience that send-away catalogues relied on for a century before they were abolished in favor of websites and apps.

Even supposedly “crowdfunded” products are increasingly really just products in pre-sale. The shift toward a primarily marketing role among leading crowdfunding platforms has been noted for years. With good reason: the tantalizing appeal of something one cannot have is harder and harder to find in today’s online consumer world. Waiting can be a joyful experience, and it can make the product feel special and noteworthy.

Real Life Examples:

Damejidlo, our 2012 alum and now the dominant food delivery platform in Czechia, bought users by offering every new customer about €10 worth of free food. You could get more credits by bringing friends to the platform as well.

Uber and many other ride-hailing apps have also famously paid for customers, offering a free ride to newly registered users. Airbnb has offered similar deals to new customers, as well as hosts.

5. Become a Public Personality

Easier said than done, but it’s still worth a try. Becoming a known public face for your industry, or for the greater problem your company is solving, can open up an ocean of free publicity for what you make.

At StartupYard, for example, we operate on a loose rule that we don’t attend tech conferences unless we are allowed to speak at the event, such as on a panel, or a workshop or keynote. Once at the event, we apply our experience as presenters and coaches to try and be the most memorable and interesting speaker there.

By being controversial, being informative, and being most importantly fresh with our perspective, Cedric Maloux and I are both often identified as standout presenters. People frequently talk to us after speeches, and more importantly, they tell their friends about us. Being out there in public isn’t for everybody, but if you’re doing something that takes advocacy and education for people to understand and value, then you need to be a leader, and speak out.

Growth strategies

Here are some things that can really help you transform yourself into a public personality:

Join Reddit channels in your industry, and follow topics on Quora. Take the time to build your reputation as an expert in the field you engage with. This takes time, but it also keeps you informed about what interests people, what’s being talked about, and what most people are missing in the conversation.

Join Competitions (with a goal). Pitching competitions, speaking competitions, even pub quizzes are going to help you build your confidence and assert yourself in front of strangers. Make yourself a goal of first attending a minimum number of competitions every month. When you get better at pitching or speaking, aim to win all the competitions you enter. Approach them as a game, not an opportunity, and try to win. If you win, opportunities will come to you.

Get speaking gigs. This means volunteer yourself to talk in front of groups of people. Be it technical, or business focused, government, corporate, or open source, get yourself on the list of speakers at relevant events and go out and talk about things you know matter. Be controversial. Be informative. And say something people haven’t heard before.

Get a speaking agent: If you’re highly skilled in your area of expertise, it’s quite possible there are people looking for speakers just like you, and even better, are willing to pay you to advertise yourself.

 

Our next post: How to Create a Killer Talk

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9.

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Michal Kratochvil, StartupYard, BudgetBakers, Startups, Accelerator

VIDEO: Mentor, Investor, Startup CEO: Michal Kratochvil Talks Acceleration

Mentor, Investor, Startup CEO: Michal Kratochvil talks about life at StartupYard

StartupYard investor, mentor, and CEO of StartupYard alum BudgetBakers, Michal Kratochvil joined the world of startups after a career in corporations as Managing Director of Accenture Consulting in Prague. Michal gives us an idea of how working with startups has changed his view of business in the past few years, and how he became a believer in Acceleration.

Posted by StartupYard on Monday, 15 January 2018

 

Michal Kratochvil joined StartupYard in late 2015 as an investor, and our 3rd “Executive in Residence,” and has continued in that role ever since. In 2016, he took over as CEO of BudgetBakers, a StartupYard alumni company and personal finance platform that has grown rapidly to hundreds of thousands of active users under his leadership, and now employs about 30 people.

Michal joined us after a distinguished career at Accenture Consulting, where he served as Managing Director for Central Europe for over a decade. His switch to the startup lifestyle was gradual, as he slowly converted from his customary suit and tie, to t-shirts and jeans, also switching from an IBM notebook to a Macbook. Today Michal is deeply involved with StartupYard’s operations, particularly in selection of startups, and helping companies to grow their networks through his impressive personal rolodex.

Michal also studies martial arts, and is a fan of western style horseback riding, participating in rodeo events and exhibitions.

Great interview about #startup #acceleration with @BudgetBakers CEO Michal Kratochvil @startupyard in Prague! Click To Tweet