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

 

StartupYard

10 StartupYard Companies Raised €2.2M in 2017

2017 was a good year at StartupYard. Not just financially , but also because we saw a number of our Alumni and recent graduates accomplish amazing things in the past year. Of course, 10 companies raising over €2 million total makes us very happy.

Still, the money is less important to us than what the money says, which is that these companies are doing good things that investors believe in, and that therefore we’ve done our job well.

10 Companies, €2.2 Million

More StartupYard alumni raised funding in 2017 than in any previous year. 10 Alumni and startups in the program raised funds in rounds worth between €35k and €750k. Many of these investments we’ve announced, but others have not been made public yet.

We’re also happy to report that there are additional deals in the pipeline, and we will hopefully be able to announce those very soon. We hope that 2018 will follow 2017 as another record year for fundraising.

How Does StartupYard Help Startups Fundraise?

The Network:  Aside from the obvious, which is that we begin by investing in Startups that go through our program, every deal that one of our alumni have closed in the past year has been with the help of the StartupYard network.

Through mentoring, and especially Demo Day and the following Investor Week, our startups meet and get a chance to pitch a huge number of likely investors, including business angels, VCs, and even banks and large corporate investors. In every case in the past year, our startups have been able to raise money because of contacts made during the program. In most cases, the startups raised directly from StartupYard mentors or existing investors.

The Reputation: As with any long-running accelerator program with a decent track record, we have a smart group of investors who will pay close attention to any startup we work with. Being around for many years, and having made many right calls in the past, we are trusted by investors to offer clear, honest and helpful feedback about our alumni.

That doesn’t mean investors do whatever we say. But they do listen.

Our investor network know that we do not shop investments that we don’t believe in ourselves. Credibility in the investment community matters very much. You don’t always have to be right, but you have to be informed, open, and honest. I can safely say that every company I’ve worked with in the past 4 years at StartupYard that deserved an investment, got it. We find a way to make it happen.

The Program: Just as important as having the right network to do your initial fundraising, you have to be an investable company to begin with. One of the things we look for in startups we select is that they are usually almost investible, or we see that with some hard work, they will be investable sooner rather than later.

That naturally incurs a big risk for us, but it also helps define our mission- not to find “the best” most shiney startups out there, but to find the ones with the most real potential. One of the metrics we use to determine our success at picking “go over show,” is how well our startups do after our program at raising smart money (that is, from investors who know what they’re doing).

The Backup: Another quiet but important part of StartupYard’s role with alumni companies is to provide “backup” in negotiations with future investors.

Having an existing investor on your side of the table is an important practical and psychological advantage in investment negotiations. For one thing, an existing, experienced investor helps ensure that new investors behave themselves, and make fair offers on fair terms. Knowing an experienced partner is behind the startup encourages fair play and discourages game playing.

For another, StartupYard has the network and platform to expose bad actors, and to make sure our startups don’t deal with them in the first place. We have the power, in extreme circumstances, to block investments in our most recent alumni. This should be seen not as a blocker for investment, but as a negotiating advantage for startups, who can always fall back on us to block or negotiate terms that are unfavorable to the founder, on their behalf.

As we say, we can be “the bad guy,” with future investors when we are needed to be.

Listening to What an Investment Actually Says

Many founders who apply to StartupYard, and many who join us and go on to raise further investment, begin with some wrong conceptions of what raising investment is all about.

Of course, it’s the money they’re usually thinking about. But this is only part of the picture. If you need money, there are lots of places to look for it. Not all of those places are good, and not all of them are ultimately worth your effort or the risk you take in going there.

I used to joke with our founders that if you got into this business just to make money, you should just sell drugs instead. It’s almost true.

If there is good money and not so good money (clean or dirty, smart or dumb) how do you decide whom to take money from, or whom to ask for it?

Try approaching the question from the opposite tack: not “how do I get this money,” but instead: “what will it say if someone gives me this money?”

It should say that the investor believes in the upside potential of what you’re doing. Any investor in an early stage company should be nowhere near defining the real market value of the investment, because that value hasn’t been fully explored or proven yet.

The investment has to say what the investor can reasonably believe. Here are some things an early stage investment should say about what the investor believes:

  • The company will be worth more in the future
  • The founders are honorable and trustworthy
  • The product is good and there is a market for it
  • The founders will work hard, and pivot if necessary
  • The founders will eventually sell or realize a profit
  • Failure is possible, and ultimately acceptable

Maybe one or two of those points surprise you, but I hope not. We should not expect early investors to be total true-believers in what a startup is doing, but we should be able to answer all these questions before accepting an early investment from someone.

We should also not expect investors to be unemotional, or completely calculating in their early-stage investments. A true opportunist is a dangerous friend to have.

Picking the right investor is not just about sleeping well at night, though that’s part of it. It’s also about making sure that you actually have the clarity of vision and the confidence you will need to do what the investor believes you can do. Convincing someone of something is a lot harder than telling it to yourself.

One of the best ways to get someone to believe all the things I’ve mentioned is to really believe them yourself. The best way to believe those things is to make them true.

Make Yourself Investable

As we’ve seen, becoming an investable company is about more than having a great idea, or the energy and determination to make it happen. It’s also about the network you have, and the choices you make early on.

If you think you have a tech idea with great potential, consider working with an accelerator like StartupYard to grow your immediate network, and turn the idea into a business investors and customers can really trust.

Finding investors, just like finding any business partner, is about knowing what exactly you need, and what to reasonably expect. StartupYard helps you figure those things out.

 

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.

Startups: Do You Make Me Money, or Save Me Money?

Something jumped out at me from a recent podcast by Y-Combinator with Des Traynor, Founder of Intercom. Asked about the problem he solves, he described how over time, their approach to sales has changed:

“. When you’re trying to pitch them something, they just say “Hey, here’s my two numbers, which one of these are you changing?” And I think when we show up and we’re like, well if you love your users you’re going to stick around, and they’re like sh-sh. Don’t care about any of that. Are you going to make me money or save me money? And we need to get better at answering that question. And we need to have better evidence to answer that question.”

In Startup culture, there is always a lot of talk about “solving problems.” Every product and service has to solve some problem. That’s true as far as it goes, but “solving a problem” for your users is not, in itself, enough to build a business on. You have to also answer some version of this question: how do you make me money, or save me money?

As we accept applications for StartupYard Batch 9, this question will be forefront on our minds when making initial selections.

Lots of problems exist, but not all of them are promising new businesses. How do you know when you’ve nailed down that problem that people are willing to pay money to solve?

You can check out the video podcast here:

A Problem That Isn’t a Problem

The reason we always begin our acceleration program with the classic Positioning Statement, is that expressing the problem you solve is one of the hardest things an early stage startup has to manage.

Often times the “problem” founders pick to talk about is just another way of saying that their customers want their product. Maybe they do, but why?

Over the course of in-depth positioning discussions with dozens of startups, I’ve developed a sort of framework for determining whether a problem is in fact a real problem, and not a “startup problem.” While not universal, this framework is extremely helpful in determining whether you’ve really nailed down the problem you’re solving.

I apply this mental checklist:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?
  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?
  • Does the customer actively search for other solutions?
  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

One of the most typical early positioning problems is that founders will identify things like “a better interface,” or “more efficiency,” or “saves time,” as the key benefits of their solution to a problem.

But by applying this checklist, we can see that benefits like “saving time,” are not always as urgent as they might appear. Does the time have a clear financial cost? Is the customer aware that they can do something faster? Would they actually seek a faster solution on their own? Is this time that they are wasting a concern for them?

You can sell me a way to shower in half the time every morning, but I wouldn’t buy it. It’s only a problem if the time I spend showering is a frustration to me.

Sometimes I ask founders: “Have you ever sat down and googled: “how to do x faster?” Most of the time, they haven’t, because that’s not typically how people behave. Only when something is taking so long, and is so arduous that it has become a clear problem, do people act to find solutions.

A Case Study: Steel Mountain

Steel Mountain

Getting your positioning, and particularly your problem statement to answer those questions can mean changing deeply how you talk about what you do, and how you see your customers, and who they are.

I’m going to use the case of one of our most recent startups Steel Mountain, the home-network security company that will soon be offering a single device to monitor and protect homes from digital intruders, viruses, and other threats.

Steel Mountain, it must be said, were already in a more than usually advanced stage of development when they joined our program, but I would say this exact roadblock was among their toughest questions early on. They had a compelling product, but they needed to really be able to express the problem that it solves.

The “You Need Us” Problem

After about a month in the program, their positioning looked something like this:

“The privacy and security of homes and small businesses are increasingly at risk from digital threats. Steel Mountain’s Secaura device plugs into your router, providing enterprise grade security across your entire home network. Unlike typical security software, Secaura covers all connected devices instantly, requires no active maintenance, and employs advanced artificial intelligence against known and unknown security threats.”

That is a very straightforward positioning statement, quite typical of a security company. Just one problem: it doesn’t quite pass the checklist I mentioned earlier. Let’s see:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?

Not really. We are told first of all that there is a threat lurking out there somewhere online. But that threat has no exact proportion, and the target customer (the head of a household or small business), is at pains to estimate how much exactly a digital threat means in terms of lost income, lost business, theft, or other mischief.

  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?

Maybe… although given that this is such a simple solution to a complex problem, it’s rather doubtful that anyone who truly understands the problem doesn’t already have a solution in place. Perhaps there is market awareness of the problem, but we aren’t yet clear from this statement that the target market knows they’re in real danger.

  • Does the customer active search for other solutions?

Again, it’s not yet clear whether the target customer actively engages with this problem at all. Some probably do, but the alternatives mentioned, such as security software, serve only a minority of households. Most do not have a sophisticated solution in place. Is the product only for security minded people, or is it for people who can’t deal with complex solutions?

  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

Again, we can speculate that the typical household or small business does not list security among its top concerns. Those that do are probably using more complex solutions. For those who are using no solution, it is seen more as a low-level, constant issue that many people would rather ignore than understand, and most people believe will never have an effect on them either way.

As we can see clearly from this checklist, we haven’t identified an urgent, well-understood need from a well-defined target customer. 

Making the Problem a Real Problem

How did Steel Mountain come down to a positioning statement that did involve a clear problem and urgent need for the solution?

First, they took the painful but necessary step of considering that while their expertise and the value of the product as they see it is in security technology, the typical customer in their target market has no way of evaluating such products.

Instead, they went back to these 4 checklist questions and identified a problem that satisfies all of them at once.

The problem they identified was this:

 

“Parents of families feel great pressure to provide a safe digital environment for their children, and are prone to wasting money and effort on partial security solutions that never completely protect their homes and families.”

Bingo.

For starters, we have narrowed the customer set in this positioning statement to parents. In doing so, we’ve been able to identify a more universal emotional and social problem that the target customer can easily identify with.

So the problem is no longer: “my home is not secure,” but instead: “I am afraid of feeling like a bad parent who can’t protect their family.”

How does it do with the checklist?

  • The problem has clear financial implications. Every parent has wasted money on safety equipment that wasn’t really needed. This solution promises to end that guess-and-check approach to digital security.
  • The customer is very aware of the problem. Any parent who gives their child a smartphone or a tablet knows the dangers, and tries to consider them.
  • Nearly every parent in the target market has or will in the future investigate digital security to protect their children. The solutions are in fact much broader than merely software, as in the earlier positioning statement. Education products, specialty devices, operating systems, and many other solutions are available to address the same concerns. This solution can now be compared to those as a cost effective and complete alternative
  • Child safety is a top concern for most families with children. Again, by shifting the problem to one of “parents with children” rather than “owners of homes,” we have also shifted the conversation towards top concerns that parents have, for their children. Now, rather than comparing Secaura to an anti-virus software, we can compare it to other home security essentials: baby monitors, door locks, or fuse-plugs.

This process also helped the founders identify more features of the product that were very attractive for customers. Parental content locks, and “bedtime” settings for individual devices, though the founders had included them as an afterthought, were of prime interest to this new target market.

The reactions the founders got began to change because of this new positioning.

When Steel Mountain’s CEO Will Butler began pitching the company with this strategy, the change in enthusiasm was remarkable. People in his target market started asking: “Can I have one?” And “I’ve always wanted that!” It went from a geek product to something the customer had to have, and should have already owned.

Steel Mountain CEO Will Butler pitches about the stress of living up to your role as a parent.

It’s often said that “people don’t buy security.” What’s really meant by that is that people have a hard time seeing the value of something that protects us against a problem we don’t understand. If the product solves a problem we do understand, and even better, one we already have right now, then the customer is much more likely to consider buying it.

Some security companies only manage to sell to customers who have already been victimized by attacks and theft. But others find a way to sell “peace of mind,” instead.

When solutions really find a clear and understood problem and customer, they begin to feel not just strong, but practically inevitable. Why hasn’t someone done this before?

Applying it Yourself

Of course, not every problem has to do with security, or money, or peace of mind. Your customer might not be concerned with saving or making money. The logic of the framework is about the relevance of the problem to a particular customer. Have you picked a customer and a problem that match?

If not, how can you change your thinking about who the customer really is, or what their problem really might be?

Squaring that circle is never easy. As a founder, you’re naturally absorbed in what you’re building, and driven by your own reasons for building it. Opening up and applying that work to problems you haven’t considered is part of a continuous creative process. It involves talking to your target customer and others about what their real feelings and concerns are.

You have to talk to a lot of people. Not just customers, but the people who sell to those customers, and understand them best.

Getting the problem right is a life or death challenge for an early stage company. That’s one of the reasons an accelerator can be such a great choice for a team like Steel Mountain, or many other companies we’ve worked with. The opportunity to shift your thinking and test it with so many mentors and potential customers in such a short time is a rare opportunity for a startup.

 

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.

Video: StartupYard Alumni Founders Tell Their Stories

At the end of StartupYard Batch 8, we asked our founders, along with some alumni to tell us about their experience with us for 3 months. Here is what they had to say.

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.

 

Accelerator, StartupYard

Choosing an Accelerator: 11 Questions to Ask

So you’ve got an idea for a tech startup. You’ve done your positioning statement, you’ve talked to people you trust about the idea. Maybe you’ve even talked to customers. Maybe you’ve already sold your product, or gotten users to sign up for your beta. Fantastic. Now maybe you need a Seed Accelerator. Not every tech startup needs one, and not every accelerator is the right choice. How do you know?

To Accelerate or Not?

At StartupYard, 59 startup investments in 6 years have shown us that the most important factor for founders looking at acceleration programs is fit. If the founders and their company are a good fit for the program, with the other startups, the mentor community and investors behind it, then the stage of the company, the domain, and the market focus are not nearly as important.

Accelerator, Startup, StartupYard,

This is why we’ve invested in companies doing hardcore cutting edge technology like AI and Cybersecurity, but also companies doing technologically simple things, like marketplaces, and sharing economy startups. If the fit is good, then the diverse backgrounds and ideas of the founders enhance each other, and mentors and investors get more engaged, because all of them are able to find something they’re passionate about in every batch.

We emphasize fit over most other considerations. How can we actually help companies succeed?

Nothing can guarantee fit, but there are at least 11 things you *can* ask any accelerator to determine whether it is the program you really need.

So here they are:

1. Why Is the Accelerator Interested in My Startup?

Few founders ask us this, but to me, it’s a potential game changer as a question.

What I see as an ideal answer is: “Because we see potential in your team, because we believe in the market you’re in, and because we think our program can help you.” It helps if the accelerator likes your technology, sees it as a big opportunity, and doesn’t want to miss out. But that’s unlikely to be enough on its own.

If the accelerator can’t clearly show you why your interests are aligned, you should think twice.

2. Are You Convinced by My Pitch?

Everyone likes validation. But you don’t necessarily want an accelerator that isn’t willing to say “no.”

We are not convinced by every pitch we hear, and that’s ok, if we *are* convinced by the team. Founders should go into a program knowing that they may need to consider big changes to their approach, and their assumptions. We want teams with a passion for their ideas, but not with a toxic sense of pride.

If an accelerator is not willing to voice doubts when you ask, then it might be a sign that they aren’t going to challenge you when needed.

3. What Do Your Investors Want, and/or Where is the Money Coming From?

Another key question almost no one asks. You really should, because the investors largely determine the direction of the accelerator. They ultimately control who runs the program, and thus the decisions being made.

If the money is from a corporate sponsor, what does the corporation want? If the money is private, then why are the investors backing this accelerator? Pay attention to how aligned the accelerator team are with the investors. If the investors and the team have a solid relationship, then you aren’t dealing with office politics or competing ideas about what success looks like.

4. Does the Accelerator Management Team Have A Stake?

This is related to the previous question. Ideally, the decision makers at the accelerator have a financial stake in the decisions they are making. This helps you to determine what their motivations in working with you really are.

Is it a deal breaker if they don’t have a stake? Maybe not, but you need to know who you’re talking to. The decisions a person makes when they have no financial stake in the outcome are bound to be different. Is the person making a decision because of the politics of their job, or because they really believe in it?

5. Why Are Your Terms What They Are?

Terms vary between accelerators. I don’t think there’s an ideal formula for how much an accelerator gives, or how much equity it takes. Zero equity programs are not always a bad thing, and programs that give more or less money for more or less equity have their own reasons for doing so.

Accelerator, StartupYard

The answer tells you how the accelerator views their role in your company. “Founder friendly” terms are very important. On the other hand, a mature investor is also up front about what they would be willing to do in case something went wrong with the relationship.

The terms are one thing, but the answers are another. Any contract is in place primarily to outline a relationship, not to define it in personal terms. Those personal terms often matter more than what’s on paper, so you need to know why the terms are the way they are.

6. Have You Ever Fired a Startup During the Program?

Not every accelerator has ended a relationship with a startup in less than ideal circumstances. It does happen though, and the story is usually instructive.

StartupYard, for example, has been very open about relationships that have gone wrong. In case such a thing happens, we try hard to identify the mistakes that *we* have made that led to the problem. In each case (and there has only really been one out of 59), we recognized our own errors in choosing, working with, and helping those companies. We have only “fired” one company during our program.

Accelerator, StartupYard

We were not vindictive and did not blame them for our own mistakes. If an accelerator puts blame only on the other party, that may indicate that they don’t acknowledge their failures or their part in the relationship. We all make mistakes, but you need investors who learn from theirs, and are not afraid to tell you about them.

7. What Do You Expect from Me?

What we expect from our founders informs how we choose companies to work with, and what we see as success when they go through our program. We have our own tough standards, but they are not universally what all accelerators expect.

We want every one of our companies to be a unicorn. We expect them to try. We expect ambition and drive, and hard work. We expect companies to improve markedly in all areas during our program. We expect them to challenge themselves and to meet challenges that we help them set.

But if you ask us, we will tell you that we also expect things like personal availability, honesty, willingness to talk about your motivations and to discuss your feelings. We expect our founders to take a broad range of input that other accelerators might not insist on. We expect them to adjust their ambitions according to new realities; to make changes swiftly if something doesn’t work, and react to obstacles rather than avoiding them.

Some accelerators will give hard and fast expectations in terms of growth, even on a weekly basis. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but you need to understand the consequences of failing to meet those expectations.

You just need to know what you’re getting into, and what success looks like to accelerator you choose. Be honest with yourself, as to whether these are things you really want, and can handle.

8. What is Special About Your Ecosystem? Why Should I Go There?

Accelerators are deeply affected by their location in a particular ecosystem. What that ecosystem has and doesn’t have, and where it is, are important factors in your decision.

For example, StartupYard is located in a beautiful, accessible, and highly livable city: Prague. Our geography places us between East and West. We see that as a big advantage, and we want startups who also see it that way.

Our ecosystem has its strengths and weaknesses. Its size makes corporates more available, while it also limits which industries are most engaged here. The history of our region affects what we have to offer startups, and we work hard to express those peculiarities and special qualities to our companies.

Pick an ecosystem that works for you. Just because a place is big, doesn’t mean it’s best. Just because there’s money, doesn’t mean it’s the *right money*. The accelerator’s answers to this question will tell you a lot about how they see their value to you.

9. Does the Accelerator Pay The Mentors?

Accelerator, StartupYard

Hopefully the answer is “No.”

Of course, accelerators do pay for input from professionals in areas like design, marketing, speech coaching, in-person sales, and other soft skills. These workshop runners are professionals, and you get what you pay for. Mentors are different, however.

A mentor community should be all-volunteer because the connections that founders make with their mentors must be genuine. These are people who you will be relying on to follow-up, to open their contacts to you, make introductions, and be available for further advice and support down the line. That has to come from a place of passion, not greed.

Our mentors do it for various reasons. It improves their personal or company brand, it makes them look good, it gives them insight into emerging trends, etc. Primarily our mentors tell us that they do it because of the personal fulfillment and stimulation they get out of being mentors. These are high achieving individuals, who relish the chance to talk to people at the beginning of their own journey, and share their wisdom and knowledge.

That should be enough.

10. What Entrepreneurial Experience Does the Management Team Have?

An accelerator is for true entrepreneurs. No one is better suited to recognize your entrepreneurial strengths and weaknesses than a fellow traveler. That’s why most of StartupYard’s management team are founders of one kind or another themselves.

The management team don’t have to all be former tech startup founders. I was not a startup founder when I joined StartupYard. Neither was our Associate Helena, or our Portfolio Manager Jaromir. But we had all been entrepreneurs of one kind or another.

Cedric Maloux, our Managing Director, was a tech founder before it was cool, in the mid 90s. Helena owns a Yoga Studio, I run several side projects, and our Head of Partnerships, Gustavo, ran his own healthtech company for several years- we met because he applied to StartupYard with that project. It failed, but no one has better insight as to why it failed, than he does.

A military leader with no combat experience is a danger to the people he leads. It’s the same in Startupland. An advisor who hasn’t seen plans and dreams fall apart, is a liability to the founders he or she advises.

11. Do You Have Partnerships with Potential Customers?

Accelerators are not just about learning. They’re about doing. A key part of growing your company is going to be working with larger partners inside and outside the tech industry. A B2B startup needs real customers to talk to, and a B2C startup needs to talk to companies who serve the customers they are after. So ask about the accelerator’s real relationships with companies that may be important to your success.

In Startupland, there are “Partnerships,” and there are Partnerships. Promotional partners are cheap, and the relationships totally impersonal. Sponsorships and co-operational partnerships are better. An ongoing partnership is better than a short-term one.

You want an accelerator with a real working relationship with key players inside multiple industries and corporations. You may not always know which contacts you need, so the depth of the partnerships are important. Just because a company’s logo is on the accelerator website, doesn’t mean you’ll get past the secretaries if you need to.

So when you ask about these partnerships, pay attention to which contacts the accelerator actually has: they should be C-level, or other empowered representatives like board members, founders, and investors.

No accelerator will have powerful contacts in every corporation or government institution you may need, but an accelerator should have strong relationships in a range of key industries. This is why StartupYard has a dedicated team member for Partnerships, and it is why we have investors with deep ties to tech-related industries, who can leverage their networks for founders.

 

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.

Blockchain, StartupYard Accelerator

Why Blockchain Startups Should Apply to StartupYard Batch 9

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. One of the key verticals we are focusing on during this round is Crypto-tokens and Blockchain.

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

 

2017 : The Year of Bitcoin?

From the original appearance of Bitcoin on the web forum The Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives in February 2009, to today’s craze around ICOs and explosive cryptocoin market capitalizations, the world of crypto has drastically changed.

Bitcoin’s unsavory early associations have meant that many have tried to separate the discussion of Bitcoin and Blockchain technology. But that is an incomplete approach. Blockchain in a technical sense is just one of a number of elements that make up crypto-tokens, like Bitcoin, and will continue to form the basis for future innovations.

StartupYard, Blockchain, Bitcoin

The central idea behind crypto-tokens is to create trust via collaboration, communication and computation through cryptography. This approach relies on a number of technologies: the blockchain (a distributed database), a decentralised consensus algorithm (proof of work) that allows security and open systems of access (no accounts are necessary). For more information on bitcoin, we encourage you to follow one of its most outspoken evangelists: Andreas Antonopoulos.

Today, a lot of startups are working with crypto-tokens and distributed ledgers to create new decentralised services to reinvent entire industries.

Why is StartupYard Investing in Crypto Startups?

This week we also wrote about why cybersecurity startups should apply to StartupYard. Much of the reasoning is the same, however unlike Cybersecurity, where the list of customers is long, and the need is very well understood, crypto-token technology is in its early years.

Bitcoin is making headlines, but the deepest benefits to society of secured distributed ledgers, transparent transactions, and the decentralization of data sharing and communication are still to come. Most of the true benefits have not yet been realized, but are appearing on the horizon. Startups need a deep network of business, tech, and investment mentors who can help them turn novel technologies into tangible, real world change.

Our interest is in finding those founders who have the ambition to solve societal, business, and governmental problems using this technology for the good of mankind. The ways in which crypto-tokens can benefit us all can’t be tallied, but just a few examples are:

Transactions: Crypto technology opens up the potential for a true peer-to-peer transactional ecosystem, in which both people and machines can trade anything from processing time, to energy, bandwidth, or currency, in a secure, trustless and cost-effective way.

Net Neutrality: As open access to the internet comes under attack in the US and elsewhere, crypto can provide a check against the censorship of information, and the suppression or preferential treatment of some sources of data and services over others. Distributed ledgers may also help fight state and non-state propaganda operations by providing tools to check facts and records.

E-Government: Transparent, open, decentralised networks without a single point of failure allow for decentralised trust to provide potential open-source solutions to election fraud, voter suppression, online voting, and voter identification- all problems that are linked with corruption and inefficiency in state and local governments.

Security: Crypto and blockchain technologies provide a potential defense against cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare, and malicious destruction of data, or the dissemination of false data and malicious code across networks. It also provides the potential for more secure collaborative networks that are not based on a central entity such as a corporation or government, eliminating the need for 3rd party support of data storage and sharing.

Why StartupYard?

StartupYard, DemoDay Batch 8, Blockchain, Crypto

Opportunities for crypto and blockchain startups appear to be numerous at the moment. Blockchain is having its first day in the sun, and ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) are now proliferating. However, this unregulated and largely disorganized market is poorly understood by institutional investors, and especially corporations and governments.

This is a shame, because it will be these players who will give breakthrough technologies access to global markets and the customer base they will need to really have an impact. This is what StartupYard offers: not the quick cash of an ICO, but the stable foundation of a sustainable, global business.

For that you need:

Credibility and Access

StartupYard is a trusted partner for corporations, utilities, and investors who are seeking to engage with early-stage cutting edge technology startups. Translating and aligning your goals with those of large organizations with a global footprint is a long and painful process in the best circumstances.

Without a key partner providing access and credibility, this becomes even harder. StartupYard allows a crypto company to get their foot in the door of banks, telcos, and large investors with our deep network of mentors and advisors. Convincing those in power to trust and rely on you is a key step toward achieving your global ambitions. It should not be ignored or minimized in its importance.

Business Fundamentals

Blockchain and crypto technologies are exciting, but the fundamentals of business have not altered because of these technologies. Companies that operate outside traditional business structures and legal frameworks put themselves at risk, and just as importantly, risk the future of their technological breakthroughs.

Building a sustainable and rational business is as valuable today as it was when StartupYard was founded in 2011. You need experienced partners who have built fast growing tech companies before, to share their mistakes and their successes, and give you your best shot at success.

Experience

StartupYard’s hands on experience in blockchain technology is still recent, but we have already made two investments into companies leveraging the blockchain – one in Cryptelo, which has turned to providing secure key storage and transmission for blockchain products (and is raising an ICO), and Bloknify, a winning project in our most recent hackathon in partnership with KB Bank. Blocknify is developing a solution for secure contract verification using blockchain.

Beyond that, StartupYard has a deep well of experience in turning novel technologies with unclear or undeveloped applications into real businesses. We helped turn an NLP product for the Albanian language into Gjirafa.com, the fastest growing tech company in the Balkans. We helped turn a team of music and neural network geeks into Neuron Soundware, now making enterprise grade IoT devices with on-board AI that diagnose faults in heavy machinery (like Airbus jets).

We helped boost a once hobby project (BudgetBakers), into a global company serving hundreds of thousands of active users, and we have helped Rossum, an AI company doing document analysis, evolve into a venture invested company with a growing team.

Not all of our bets will pay off, and crypto-token technology will be no different. But as any one of our alumni will attest, startups at StartupYard do not fail due to lack of preparation.

Should my Blockchain Startup Apply to StartupYard?

Are you an early stage company, with a unique approach using crypto and blockchain to one of the problems we’ve talked about (or a new problem we haven’t), that would benefit from a deep network of mentors and advisors with the reach and scale the technology needs to succeed?

Are you two or more founders, who know the value of an accelerator, and are looking to build a global, sustainable business, serving clients potentially all over the world? Do you believe in what you do? Do you think you can convince others that you’re right?

Does your work have the potential to impact the lives of many people in a positive way?

If so then yes, you should apply.

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

Mixed Reality Cloud, StartupYard

Meet Mixed Reality Cloud: Augmenting Our Reality

It has been a year of firsts for StartupYard. In Batch 8, we’ve invested in our first vr company, our first Regtech company, our first Proptech company, and finally, our first Augmented Reality (AR), or “Mixed Reality” company as well.

Mixed Reality Cloud, headed by Adam Roszyk, is working on their first augmented reality product: Cloud Stories. It’s a “Photoshop for AR,” allowing creatives in advertising and digital agencies to create AR experiences for brands with no coding, and no need for a specialized IT development team. Roszyk’s mission, as a long time AR geek and a serial entrepreneur from Poland, is to push AR out of the realm of geeky ideas, and into the mainstream, by helping brands to create compelling content and experiences that blend with our reality.

 

The future of advertising (and content), is AR. Where will your customers be in 5 years? I talked with Adam about the project this week:

Hi Adam, first of all, I think we all need a little education on the difference between Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR). What is the difference, and what does Mixed Reality Cloud do?

Hi Lloyd, first of all if our readers haven’t yet tried Virtual Reality – they’re missing something important. Both VR and AR are new types of human-computer interaction. They will replace keyboards and screens in the coming years.

For me, the difference between VR and AR is similar to how a PC is different from your smartphone – VR is like a PC, or game console – it cuts you off from the real world to take you to the center of a story, game or movie. It requires full dedication.

AR is lighter, but even more powerful – it’s gonna replace your smartphone. It allows a computer to overlay objects and information onto the real world, in a way that feels natural.

This “overlay” of information will be similar to what a smartphone gives you now, but will exist in forms more connected with real objects. It will allow computers to give us much more timely and useful data, based on what we see, not what we type and tap. It’s everything a smartphone can do, but without having to look at a hunk of metal and glass all the time.

 

Adam Rosyzch, Founder and CEO at Mixed Reality Cloud

If you think about it, we have been familiar with the AR concept for many years as a society, via Sci-Fi films like The Terminator, or Iron Man. AR is great for film because it eliminates the very non-human, nonorganic idea of staring at a screen all the time to get data and use a computer. It has been used to show audiences how a computer thinks and decides things.

Very soon, we will start seeing how average people will enrich their environments using AR.

That’s what we are working to do. Mixed Reality Cloud is like Photoshop for Augmented Reality. It’s a set of tools to build AR applications. We do that by creating a virtual space in which a designer can create and test ideas, and then deploy them to the real world in AR experiences.

AR experiences are amazing for mixing ideas with the real world around us. How does a new car look in your driveway? How does a lamp look in your living room? How cool would it be to have your favorite Pixar characters walking around your house?

We don’t currently have software specially made to design and build things in Augmented Reality, and make those experiences accessible for ordinary people.

There are great 3d engines, that try to support AR as well, but at their core they will stay 3d engines forever. We’re AR at heart, and we’re focused only on tools which are necessary to bring AR to everyday life.

 

 

What’s your background in technology, and how did you come to found your own company?

I was studying CS at University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poland, where I started my first company, FunBrush. It was an IoT connected toothbrush to make brushing teeth more fun for children. It allowed kids to watch a screen and play a game while brushing their teeth, and parents and kids loved it. I raised funding at a $1mln valuation for this company, and led it from idea, to first clients, but we failed with scaling up the project.

I think the idea was a bit ahead of its time. The technology wasn’t common enough yet to make it easy to adopt. But that’s life.

After that, in 2015 I moved to San Francisco to work at VicariousVR – where for the first time in my life I tried VR myself.

 

Is the Hype over AR/VR overblown right now, or is something bigger happening?

VR has been overhyped many times in the past. The promise of the tech has always been too big for what we could actually do.

Now the market is slowly realizing its true potential. Every month we see more and more examples of new industries adopting it as a tool; graphic designers, architects, data analytics, or even armies.

VR still has many problems – it’s tethered to expensive pcs, you need tracking devices, there’s no keyboard in VR, etc. However – it’s like the first Mac computers: first we see entertainment and business use cases, then devices get cheaper, operating systems get smarter, and most important there are tools, which can be used only in VR. Businesses begin to see an advantage over those who are not using it yet. Then we’re gonna see way more broad adoption.

AR on the other hand seems to be underhyped, really but isn’t. We still don’t realize how much it’s gonna change our everyday life.

Mixed Reality Cloud, Ghost Shell

The 2017 film Ghost in the Shell demonstrated the potential uses of Mixed Reality

We’re in the Node5 – everyone is sitting in front of their desk typing on a keyboard and staring at a tiny monitor in front of them. Let me just remind you of something: that is not some law of ergonomics, and it is not the way people worked even 50 years ago. It won’t be the way we are working 50 years from now either.

Having lived with AR for years, this arrangement already seems old-fashioned to me.

AR will allow people to work wherever they want, without any other physical devices. You know – computers let people get rid of calendars, rollodexes, calculators etc. Eventually they allowed us to move our work from the desk to the cafe, and have everything with us.

And now AR will help us get rid of the desks and computers completely. You just won’t need them, any more than you need a physical rolodex.

 

Mixed Reality Cloud is focusing first on advertising agencies. Why are these a natural early adopter for the technology, and what problem do you solve for them?

That’s right. Creative and digital departments in advertising agencies are our first customers.

It’s because those people are the ones who already recognize the potential of AR, and they already gets requests from their clients about creating AR experiences. Ikea just released an AR app for phones, where you can see how a sofa will look in your living room before buying it. That’s just the obvious stuff.

 

Mixed Reality, Startupyard

Using Mixed Reality Cloud to look at some food items that aren’t really there.

 

Every business can came up with a similar case of how AR can help them promote, sell, or educate their prospects. I think the first big innovations in this area will come from content, gaming, and advertising – that is the classic progression for a new medium.

But the problem is that marketing agencies don’t have the tools or the know-how required to offer AR to their clients. That’s why they’re using our first product – Cloud Stories – to fill the gap in their production toolchain, and have a tool – which allows them to deliver high quality AR content quickly.

 

You’ve been talking to a lot of potential customers in advertising and design. How do they see the future with AR advertising? What are some of the coolest ideas that might be mainstream soon?

Let’s dive 5 years into a future where you are using AR glasses everyday.

Anything is a control surface. Anything can be enriched with data, if you want it to be.

Just imagine how special your coffee mug is with those glasses: you can see how fresh it is, see how hot it is, or make sure you don’t accidentally start drinking from the wrong one.

Now your calendar, news feed, or maybe even your Slack channel are a gallery of holograms. These data take the shape you choose, and appear when and where you want them, making it easy to share them, experience them, and get the best use from them.

Or you can have a look at a bike you’ve been thinking about buying recently. And it’s beautiful – on roads of Toskania, late in the evening, displayed as a highly polished 3d animation right in front of you.

Ghost in Shell, Mixed Reality, StartupYard

More Mixed Reality advertising in the future city of Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Everything will change with AR. With AR everything around you will have an internet connection– through you. Floors, doors, newspapers, credit cards – also everything will have it’s own interface, yes – every physical object you want- will have any additional layer of information you want it to have.

Putting control surfaces on objects will be as easy as grabbing a new app today. Probably easier. Buying products will be a smarter experience: you won’t waste as much, because you can see how a thing will really work, and if you really need it.

You’re buying a tent – isn’t it difficult to buy one online ? How do you know if that size is right ? With AR, you can set up a campsite in your garden and buy everything you need from AR. You can see and really think through your decisions, and make smarter ones.

A bag presented in AR via Mixed Reality Cloud- it’s hard to tell it isn’t really there.

Imagine searching for a nice place for a date with your wife – wouldn’t it be cool to see 3d models of the places and dishes, instead of just flat 2d photos? That kind of thing can even be experienced on your existing smartphone – like a little window into the AR world.

AR will democratize 3d content – it’s a long process but we’re gonna get there. Now it’s time to build tools for capturing, creating, and editing this content.

 

Some people view this vision of the future as scary, or invasive. It’s a common idea in dystopian sci-fi, for example. Are these cultural critics wrong about the promise of AR? 

Wrong is a strong word. I think in films and writing, you use these ideas to highlight the nature of people, and show how society can go wrong. So advertising and Augmented Reality are often mixed in sci-fi to exaggerate the problems of our current world onto a possible future.

You can learn from these visions, but remember that you have an effect on your own environment. People won’t accept things that they cannot accomodate in their lives, and many marketing strategies have failed because of that. In California, for example, they tried to play tv commercials at gas pumps and checkout lines in the grocery store. People hated it, and they went away. The truth is they didn’t make sense for the advertisers because of that.

We should look at marketing as more about trying to offer people things that are genuinely relevant for them, in the right time and place to help them make decisions. This idea of dystopian hyper-aggressive advertising is not nonsense, but it does ignore the point of branding, which is to be seen favorably.

Brands can use AR to do public art and competitions. They can do it to delight their customers, and there will be ways of shutting it all out, just like there are today. Still today, advertising is a “price” you pay to get something you want, it’s not a tax that everyone must pay no matter what.

 

Why should big brands embrace AR technology, instead of relying on existing channels and methods of delivery? What’s the unique benefit in AR?

You could ask me about the unique benefits of mobile advertising in 2009. There are many benefits in the technology, but what made brands embrace it was that the users spent their time on their mobile phones. It will be the same with AR: the brands will follow the users, and the most creative companies will be there first.

In the last 10 years, it became possible for a company to thrive on the power of one mobile app. And AR will be just like that.

On YouTube you had RedBull, or a million startups selling cool new gadgets that look amazing on video. On AR there will be a big opportunity for brands to shape their image for the new generation. The risk takers will be rewarded.

Teenagers are already native to these technologies. They just gets how it works immediately, like a natural progression from mobile phones. AR will become something as natural as the swipe, or pinch to zoom – it will go from something weird, to the being “the way computers work.”

Brands cannot afford to wait much longer.

 

What is the main technical challenge you’re facing with your technology right now, and how are you planning to solve it?

The key challenges are streaming 3d content to a range of devices like phones, and standardizing how we code 3d assets.

3d models are essential for Augmented Reality, but the problem is that they’re much heavier than 2d photos. To be smooth and natural, they need to work very reliably and fast.

That’s why we’re working on a streaming technology, which will let users downloads only parts of assets which are necessary right in the moment. We’re working also on our own format for 3d assets, which will make integration with other tools easier.

 

You’re one of the younger founders at just 25. How has the experience at StartupYard been for you? Do you think your age has had a big impact on your experience?

Startup Yard has been great for me, mainly because it was reality check for the idea and strategy behind our plan. Talking to 150 mentors in the first month gave us a great perspective on the market and the product fit. It would be impossible to organize such an intensive period without your help. Thank you for that.

There’s no too old or too young in startups. Execution, experience, network and knowledge – those are important things, which you need to consider. Iyou don’t have them, fix it. Get the proper help on your team.
.
Having no resources is a challenge, but having no resourcefulness is death. One thing you learn at StartupYard is how really to value the experience of others, and use it well.

Mixed Reality Cloud, StartupYard, Adam Rozsyk

 

Who has been your most important mentor from StartupYard, and why has that person been so influential?

I think that you Lloyd and Cedric have been the most important people in the program for me – always looking forward to hear my thoughts, share ideas, give your own perspective, and willing to show me what effects certain decisions have, before making them.

Darko Silajdžić, from DDB (one of the world’s biggest advertising firms) was really helpful – and in terms of validating our product ideas, Darko has had a profound impact as well.

 

How can people get access to the technology you’re working on, and start using it?

Sign up on our website to the newsletter about the latest/greatest in AR: www.cloudstories.io
Also you can read my medium, I write a lot about immersive technologies: https://medium.com/@RykAdam

 

 

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

Are you a startup, or an entrepreneur with a great Deep Tech idea?
Applications are now open.

 

Mindbox, StartupYard

Meet Mindbox: The Future of Sales Training is Virtual Reality

Mindbox is every sales coach’s dream. It’s a Virtual Reality (VR) platform that allows sales trainers to create unique, repeatable, and data-enriched training activities in a virtual environment.

The team behind Mindbox, who join StartupYard as members of Batch 8, are Slovak entrepreneurs Peter Tomasovic, and Andrej Rybovic, old friends who have been VR geeks for many years. Originally, they began work on Mindbox as a tool for psychotherapists to treat anxiety disorders and phobias. Quickly they realized that anxiety and stress are widespread outside the clinical setting, and they set about looking for solutions to occupational challenges that many typical employees in large companies face every day.

I sat down with Peter to talk about how Mindbox became a toolkit for the sales trainer of tomorrow:

 

Hi Petr, tell us a bit about your team, and how you came up with the idea for Mindbox.

Hi Lloyd! Mindbox started out as something very different from what it has become over the course of StartupYard. It all got started two years ago, when I was just playing with VR (Virtual Reality) technology, and a few of my friends were finishing school in psychology. One of them is a clinical therapist now, and the other is a researcher at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

We are childhood friends, so we started mixing our interests; I came up with some ideas on how to use VR in the context of therapy, and they provided a lot of insight into the kinds of problems that are hard to solve with classic talk therapy.

For example, one thing that’s very hard to treat by talking is a phobia. You need to experience the phobia in a controlled way, and it can be hard to do in a clinical setting. You can’t take a patient to the roof if they are afraid of heights. There is no way to do it in a controlled manner- at least not affordably.

Another thing was anxiety disorders. It’s the same problem: it is very hard to control the process of exposing someone to their anxieties so they can confront them. So MindBox grew from these conversations, and we decided to make it a real thing. We built several “phobia” modules, and even did some testing on real patients, where we found the therapies were really helpful, and sped up recovery.

 

You’ve pivoted away from therapy to sales training. Can you tell us about that shift?

The experience we gained helping people overcome fears is still at the core of what we do. However, we also realized after talking to mentors and industry experts at StartupYard, that staying within the medical context would be very limiting to our ability to have an impact on people in the real world.

With sales training, you can address many of the same issues as with psychotherapy, but you can help many more people overcome their personal limitations. The benefits of VR are still there: it is safe, controllable, easy to repeat, etc. That can work for a lot more than just a fear of heights.

Currently, sales training techniques are quite good, but they require a lot of setup. Role-playing and workshops with hands on feedback are time consuming, hard to repeat, and are likely to be forgotten over time.

An angry customer in Mindbox

 

Research shows that after several months, the effect of a training session mostly disappears. If you could follow up on that with controlled re-training and repetition, the insights could be preserved and the training would stick.

A big influence was our new colleague, Serge Dupaux, a former sales training director with a ton of industry experience, who has helped us see the impact VR can make on that kind of work.

So now, MindBox is platform, that allows sales trainers to create VR training modules without coding. Our aim is to make it so easy to do, that an experienced sales coach can let their imagination run wild, and construct really unique challenges that can be shared and repeated even in really large organizations. Mindbox will be the non-coder’s tool for creating those VR training experiences quickly, and getting necessary feedback in the form of analytics, scoring, and other data.

 

What about VR makes it ideal as an addition to in-person training? Why not simpler methods?

There are easier ways to follow up on training, such as with e-learning, and periodic testing. But these are mostly about knowledge, and not experience.

Typically a sales trainer spends a lot of time simulating situations with the salesperson, doing role playing, and rehearsing strategies. That is quite personal, and can be affected by relationships, the moods of the people, and even the weather or time of day.

If you can add VR as a supplement to this training, then you can eliminate some of these variables and reinforce the important elements of the training. All the salespeople have a chance to work at their best, and experience the same quality of feedback and the same sense of immersion.

With traditional testing, you check knowledge. Here VR can be used to check attitude, comfort levels, and other soft skills that don’t appear in other tests.

 

How do you see VR becoming a broader part of how we do skill acquisition in companies, or even in schools? What will things look like in 5 years?

Our vision for VR at MindBox is about making it a regular part of somebody’s work life. It’s not just about sales training, but also skill assessment, team building, and skill extension and retraining.

Lloyds Bank already uses VR to assess employees, for example. I think this will happen much more. Of course the benefits of VR assisted training are clear also in dangerous jobs, like firefighting and police work, or in medical training. Already we use very sophisticated flight simulators to assess and train pilots.

I see VR training being a fact of life in 5 years. Everyone will see the benefits and the impact it can have. It will not be everything, but it will be a common tool.

That is why it’s important to us today to create a platform where the most creative uses of this technology can be invented and put in practice quickly, to move VR out of the geek basement, to the mainstream.

Further Reading: StartupYard’s Recent post on why so many VR startups are applying to Accelerators in 2017

Short term, what are the biggest technical challenges facing MindBox, and how do you plan to solve them?

The big problem nowadays is finding  good people – technical people. We are looking for Unity3D developers, and it is very hard to find them. At MindBox, we are not looking for “just” an employee or someone who wants to try to work for startup. We are looking for a friend, team member, and a developer with ideas.

 

How has your experience been at StartupYard? What has surprised you, or particularly challenged you as a founder?

The experience at StartupYard was groundbreaking for us.

It has changed the life of MindBox and the whole team. First of all, we found not only mentors, but also friends, passionate people who are helping us and who are pushing us forward.

Most surprising for us was the team and mentors’ will to help. They don’t just introduce you to someone, they care about your progress and they are come up with ideas to help you as a business and a person. I have never seen something like this.

For us, StartupYard is something, like university and business school in 3 months. We definitely recommend it to every startup, because StartupYard can save you years of work.

 

How can people get in touch and see how MindBox works for themselves?

Right now, MindBox is in private beta. Trainers or companies can contact us and it would be pleasure for us to meet with them and talk more about VR and how VR can improve the effectiveness of their current sales training programs.

 

 

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

Are you a startup, or an entrepreneur with a great Deep Tech idea?
Applications are now open.

 

OptioAI, StartupYard

Meet OptioAI: A Fitbit for your Finances

OptioAI is the next generation of personal finance management applications. Though to be fair, it isn’t really an application at all. Instead, the first Georgian startup to be attend StartupYard (a member of the current Batch 8) has a new vision for personal money management: one driven by conversation, rather than calculation.

OptioAI is an AI layer, that stands between the vast troves of data that banks hold about their customers’ activities, and the customers themselves, who can benefit from a deeper understanding of their own relationship with money. The traditional budgeting and expense tracking approach is replaced with a more casual, and more user driven interactive experience, based on chat, or even voice. What’s going on with your money? Now all you have to do is ask.

OptioAI, StartupYard

 

 

OptioAI gives its users insights into how their daily finances work, how they spend money, and what they could do to improve their own financial situation. I sat down with CEO and Cofounder Shota Giorgobiani to talk about the future of money management.

 

Hi Shota, tell us a bit about your team, and how you ended up founding OptioAI.

For me the ideas behind OptioAI go back to me being a kid. I remember how my mother was budgeting and tracking each and every financial transaction in our family. That’s the way she is. Very responsible.

As it was a really tough time in Georgia, it was vital to control your daily spending to survive. I believe most Georgian families were doing the same. Since then times have changed, the situation in Georgia changed, I grew up, but as soon as I got my first salary, I understood how important it is to manage your money.

The solutions I found for that just never fit my way of thinking. I don’t want to manage every cent the way my mother needed to, but I do want some control over my money. I want a middle road.

Once my co-founder and childhood friend George and I were talking about this problem, and discussing our personal approaches to money management. He also had the same problem and developed his own methods.

We found that for us both, the problem always came back to the interface between a person and their finances. It’s always about numbers: amounts, dates, times. But if we’re being honest, this isn’t really the way that most people think about their money.

You can build a fancy budget in spreadsheets, and have all kinds of plans and variables. But should I buy a pizza tonight for a treat? Can I go to the movies Friday night? These questions remain pretty much as hard to answer as before.

I think that’s why a lot of people don’t track their finances, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t help them make daily decisions that much. It just introduces more data.

Slowly, over many discussions, the idea of OptioAI was born. We wanted to offer people a middle road between fully dedicated expense tracking and budgeting, and just flying blind, not knowing what you’ll have a week from now.

We liked concept so much, that decided to start working on that. As a team, we know each other for a long time, we were classmates and we even had a business together in Georgia in the past. Both of us have long-time experience in our industries: I’m a software architect and engineer while George is a banking specialist.

OptioAI, Shota, Startupyard

left to right: Optio AI Co-founders George Mirzikashvili and Shota Giorgobiani

 

How is “AI for Personal Finance” different from what most startups in this space are doing?

Our mission at OptioAI is to make money management simple and accessible for everyone. It should be as easy as asking simple questions to your virtual advisor and getting instant answers.

Imagine, you are at grocery store and want to know how much you can spend on groceries during the week.  Or you’re surfing Amazon.com and want to buy a cool new gadget, but aren’t sure you can afford it, or if you need to wait a month.

Those small spending decisions you make on a daily basis don’t always seem very important, but they add up to a lot of uncertainty over time. €5 here, €3 over there. For a working class person, this is the difference between saving and going into debt.

People don’t want to think about it. Our user feedback tells us that these end-of-the-month surprises are the biggest cause of financial stress. Most people don’t know how much they spend on food, for example. It’s usually more than they think.

 

So you are trying to show people the results of their smaller decisions?

Exactly. People can convince themselves that a few Euros wasted don’t matter. But they do matter, if you do the same thing hundreds of times in a month.

Buying things is an emotional process, and with most budgeting applications, people are asked to be rational. It just doesn’t always work that way. Am I going to spend an hour analysing my finances and making projections to see if I can buy an Apple Watch? Probably not. I’m going to be making excuses for myself about why I need the thing right now. Even if I don’t.

So to change someone’s mentality, you need to appeal to them in that moment with feedback that fits their mindset. “Can I buy an AppleWatch right now? It’s a simple question, and it deserves a simple answer.

So that’s where we connect the dots: we take historical banking data that our users already have and use AI on top of that, to extract insights, understand a user’s lifestyle, make predictions and proactively help them in building better spending habits.

If OptioAI knows you won’t be able to get by this month if you buy that AppleWatch, then it can just tell you: “Listen my friend, it seems like a good idea, but take a day to think about it. Meanwhile, you need some money to eat this month.”

Or maybe it says: “yeah! You’ve been good this month. Time to indulge.” Making decisions is about understanding the individual’s situation. You need to support good decision making overall, not just always tell the person not to spend money.

 

Why do you think no one has offered your target customers this experience until now?

The mobile banking era showed a lot of people that their banks were not innovating around customer experiences. Many banks have barely changed their mobile apps since first launching them. Today that trend is really coming to a breaking point. People are fed up with their banks, and are more ready than ever to ditch them for a completely new solution.

We’re targeting millennials, who are quickly becoming the most valuable cohort of consumers in western countries.  I think there are several reasons their needs have gone unmet. PFM isn’t a part of the core business of traditional banks. Their thinking about their customer relationships is shaped by consumer banking of the 20th century.

But today the cornerstone of consumer banking is not walking into a branch and talking to someone. Millennials don’t do that. They don’t want to do that. They want the bank’s services “a la carte,” picking and choosing for themselves, online, what they are interested in. Banks have been working towards offering PFM solutions, but it’s very hard to commit to something they don’t see as a core activity for them.

Plus, only certain types of customers like using a full PFM. It’s always going to require a lot of attention and time from the user in order to work well.

So first PFM startups emerged, and now I foresee a wave of AI-enabled finance applications that will do for the majority of customers what banks and PFMs can’t do: which is put a human face on your finances, and keep things simple enough that people don’t just give up.

 

What about the millennial generation is inherently different, and why do they want these new approaches?

In one sense, every generation is different, and in another, they are all the same.

Millennials have the same needs as older generations: they need financial products, cards, savings, loans, etc. But their expectations about how they get those products are completely different.

For millennials who are “digital natives,” everything has always been online, and accessible via computer, and then smartphone, instantaneously. Everything happens now.

Online banking evolved as a kind of version of impersonal in-person banking, which makes sense for someone who is used to in-person banking. Wait in line. Get your card in the mail. 3-5 business days. That’s what banks are like.

To someone who has never banked in person, online banking services make much less sense. For example, why does a transaction take hours or days to execute? That isn’t true in any of the other products that millennials use. Why is money different?

Why can I get packages delivered to my door faster than a wire transfer between two electronic accounts?

Of course it’s because banks used to get away with being slow, and they think they still can. But to people who grew up with a smartphone, 3 business days is a lifetime. It’s ridiculous to them. It’s unacceptable.

Another important thing is how young people use so-called “conversational interfaces.” In the past few years, messaging apps have surpassed every other category, and become the focus of many online activities.

Now younger people want their services to connect with them via messenger, and they don’t want to go to some company’s website and deal with their unique UI, and maybe-maybe-not mobile-friendly interface. Voice assistants like Siri and Alexa are a response to that desire to bypass the traditional web, and get information and answers in real time.

For millennials like myself, time spent scrolling is time wasted. Websites and apps are for the old internet. The new internet is where I am, when I need it, in the form I choose.

In a funny way, it really is something older generations wanted as well. In the past, that personal relationship between you and your banker was an in-person thing. But banks got rid of that, and made themselves faceless companies. Now we are using technology to “re-personalize” them, but around the types of interactions that work best with modern technology and lifestyles.

Millennials want transactional relationships. We want to be understood but not judged. Our generation avoids bureaucracies and hates formalities. We want “personalization at a distance;” experiences made just for us that feel personal, but are also done privately, anonymously, and without judgement from another person.

OptioAI, StartupYard

 

How can banks and PFM companies adapt to serve this new user base? How can they take advantage of what OptioAI is doing?

If there’s enough vision and understanding from their side, I think it’s pretty easy. Banks can even boost the process.

If you are a bank that is trying to adapt for younger users, you need to look at what they are already using and why. Where are they spending their time? That should tell you what seems natural to them, and you should work out new ways to make your services available in a similar way.

OptioAI can help banks to do that.  We can provide the “voice” with which the bank speaks to customers. The banks have all the customer data, and they’re not thinking about how that data is useful to the customer. They aren’t putting it in a language the customer understands. That’s an epic mistake.

PFM companies attract a certain kind of person. I think there are some great examples of PFMs that help their customers a lot. OptioAI can also serve as a way to get those users interested in their finances, and willing to take a “deeper dive” using a traditional PFM. We don’t provide the same kind of value as a PFM does. So we could compliment each other well.

 

Your vision has shifted quite a bit since joining StartupYard. Which of the mentors has had the biggest impact in helping you find this approach?

It would be hard to name one particular mentor or influencer, I think it was more result of teamwork of OptioAI and StartupYard team, as we were “distilling” the information from mentors more or less together, and that’s how we ended up with our current vision.

To be more correct, this process helped us to widen our perspective and correctly articulate what we are doing, I can’t say that we changed our vision by 180 degrees, it was more about understanding and formulating it correctly.

One thing about going to an accelerator, is that a lot of things you think are clear are just not that clear. Even to you. The mentorship process made this painfully clear to us, and we are stronger, and have a stronger vision because of that.

 

Where do you see OptioAI going in the next year or two?

The next two years are crucial for this industry, and our young company. We have to get great traction, expand to several countries, create a user experience that everyone loves and prove that our vision matches with our users’ needs. And somehow we have to do that all at once.

That makes for a super hard and exciting journey ahead. But we are loving it.

 

You have a vision for how OptioAI will fit into a “post-app” technology landscape. Can you describe what that experience will be like for your customers?

This post-app future we’re talking about is already arriving now, as we’ve seen.

Today it’s a text communication: you can talk with OptioAI using Facebook messenger, so there’s no special app that you have to download, install and register. If you are on Facebook, you can instantly start using OptioAI, and that’s how easy it is.

Just to give you quick glance of how it looks and feels: Imagine, you have your personal financial assistant: it goes through your banking statements, knows your balance, gets insights and trends from your historical transactions and works 24/7 to help you.

Every morning, it gives you quick glimpse of the previous day, just giving you info about cumulative spending, and then helps you to plan the day. This becomes a routine that continues every day. So it’s about setting up simple, contextual interactions that are not intrusive, and don’t take a big effort on your part.

Of course OptioAI has plenty of other skills, like you can ask in plain text how you spent last week on groceries, or how much you spend on average at Starbucks during the month. The great thing about this AI first approach is that we don’t have to redesign an app or think about the UI much at all: it’s all about what the thing can do, and what it can learn to do.

But for that, just talk with OptioAI, it’s always better to experience it yourself.

You’re based in Georgia. Are there particular quirks about the Georgian market or culture that you would say give your company an advantage or a fresh perspective?

Georgia is a fantastic country in many different aspects, and I think it’s also a great place for starting and testing your product, ideas and concepts.

For us, it’s a big advantage to start there as we know market, culture, and there’s almost no competition in personal finance management. Operating there is way cheaper than in the EU. On the other hand, because of the market size, it’s very hard to scale there, especially for products like OptioAI.

So, home-field advantage yes, but global impact, not so much. This is why we are planning to scale beyond Georgia as fast as possible. We will use it as our test-bed.

 

How can potential partners reach out and start working with OptioAI today?

We are ready and happy to partner with interesting companies. We are open for conversations to explore how well our product and potential partner needs are aligned. So if there’s any interest, I would be glad to start conversations today. For that you can reach me personally me at shota@optio.ai

But here’s an even better idea: talk to Optio right now on Facebook, and ask for Shota. Then we’ll be connected in the place where our company really lives.

 

Messenger Code Optio AI, StartupYard

Click to chat, OR scan the chat code using your Facebook Messenger App

 

 

Talk a bit about your experience with StartupYard. What were the surprises, challenges, highs and lows?

It’s not so common that Georgian startups get into EU or US accelerators and we had a long journey before we got our acceptance email from StartupYard (which was one of the most exciting emails on my life).

If you are going for the first time to an accelerator, the information you have is what you can find in Google, a personal recommendation if you know any alumni. It was hard, it was intense, it was exciting and super challenging.

I think the first phase -mentorship sessions- is one of the biggest advantages and differentiators of StartupYard. Meeting 100+ mentors in about 20 days is crazy stuff. There were days, when we had six or seven 45 minute meetings, one after another. It may sound hard (and it is hard) but it’s like putting your brain on steroids. You get so much information, so many opinions and contacts that sometimes you just can’t sleep later in the evening, because you are still analyzing what you have heard.

You get access to the C-level representatives of industry leaders, banking, insurance, car production, other startups, and the list goes on. In one day you may get a connection, that you would spend several months chasing otherwise. And they listen to you! That is the thing: they really want to talk to you, and many mentors are totally open, which is just a completely different experience from chasing them down and getting a meeting yourself.

But it’s also really hard not to lose your focus. If you are fresh startup and have not yet sharpened your vision, it can be challenging to choose from the feedback what’s important and what’s not. You can be tempted to try several directions at the same time, but it’s a mistake.

So you have to listen, analyze and use what makes sense for your startup. And that’s super hard, believe me! That’s where the StartupYard team helps you, they challenge you and go through the whole journey with you to explore the options and later, make it happen. So this is the main reason why someone should come here: you get a sharp vision, you get fantastic connections and exposure, and a super friendly team, which helps you all the time.

On the other hand, you will hardly have time for the product itself, at least during the first month and half, so be ready for that, get enough sleep before the program, as you will spend your nights on the product.

 

 

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