6 Entrepreneurs’ Blogs We Keep Coming Back To

We read a lot at StartupYard. In fact, if you were to visit our offices at the co-working space Node5 (and here we are defining offices in the loosest sense possible, as we don’t even have chairs that swivel), you’d likely find Cedric or me reading something or other.

When the accelerator program is running, we’re usually too busy to do more than browse headlines, or steal a moment to tweet something, but when our startups aren’t here, we’re busy reading. Occasionally, one of us might remove his headphones and say: “hey, did you see this thing about…” at which the other will interrupt to say that of course he had.

Given how much is available, it can be difficult to tell what’s really worth reading. With blogs especially, so much of the attraction is not in what content or news is covered, but rather in the personal appeal of the author- the way the person thinks, as much as what they say. Reading a strong personality can be a brilliant way of resetting and challenging your own thinking. Could I be more like this person? What would this person say about my situation? These are helpful thoughts to have as an entrepreneur and a startuper.

We read more than just these blogs, but one of our rules in narrowing this list down was to provide a list of bloggers who are dependable, experienced, post fairly regularly, and are not as interested in news as in deep thinking about technology, business, and the future. In short, these bloggers write out of a passion for their subjects, and not a need for attention.

So here then is our list of 6 entrepreneurs’ blogs that we come back to week after week: 

@AndrewChen

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Andrew Chen is probably most famous as a blogger, but his blog, which features nearly 700 essays, many with original research on the topics of mobile products, user growth, and retention, is one of a kind. It’s probably the best blog I read on a regular basis, and certainly the most quotable. If there’s an issue that one of our startups is encountering when it comes to marketing, there’s probably a relevant post on @AndrewChen.

Chen has a habit of creating and defining very sticky and useful terms, which he self-references within his essays. Over time, as you read his work, you become familiar with the way he thinks, and can follow his logic from one topic to the next, gaining context with each click. This also allows you to get lost in his little universe of ideas- which is not a bad place to spend some of your time.

It’s hard to pin down a few favorites when it comes to Chen’s blog, but I’ll name a few essays I refer to often:

Why Are We So Bad at Predicting Startup Success?

Anyone Can Start A Groupon: And Other Startup Myths

After the Techcrunch bump: Life in the “Trough of Sorrow”

The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs

Minimum Desirable Product

Paul Graham

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You probably know the name. But do you read his essays? Paul Graham is the infamous founder of Y-Combinator, who had his first high-profile success with the sale of his web-store creator ViaWeb to Yahoo! (later to become Yahoo! Store) for 455,000 shares of Yahoo! stock.

Graham is now best known for his work with Y-Combinator, and for his writing, which includes 3 books, and a handful of essays every year, any one of which would make the common blogger jealous for their popularity and influence.

Over the years, Graham has honed his blogging craft over time to reflect his work. These days, his essays usually hover around a central thesis which he elaborates on from personal experience. Unlike Chen, Graham focuses less on data, and more on ways of thinking and behaving which he believes to be ethical, fair, and workable for his readers.

His advice is mostly practical and day-to-day, rather than technical or proscriptive. Rather than lists of “dos and don’ts,” he presents simple maxims like “mean people fail,” and “The Island Test,” which prompt the reader to consider a few basic principles of doing business or leading one’s life, and reflect on whether those principles matter to them.

Again, almost every single one of Graham’s essays have been influential in some way, so it’s hard to pick favorites, however, here is a list of some really good ones:

Why Nerds are Unpopular

How to Start a Startup

What You Can’t Say

Before Startups

Unicorn Free

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Written by Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman, founders of Freckle, a service that allows you to track your billable work, individually or as part of a group, such as a digital agency, and bill clients using the same system, Unicorn Free is a little bit of everything. Mostly, it’s a practical look at the real-life problems associated with running a small startup that has become a moderately successful business.

Unicorn Free calls itself a guide to Bootstrapping- running a startup without outside funding, but in practice it covers a big range of topics, from product development, to marketing, to copywriting. There’s a little something for everyone, and Hoy and Hillman both have an infectious energy and enthusiasm that makes them easy to read. Often, what they write is not as much practical as it is motivational. They constantly exhort their readers to recalibrate their expectations, and question their ways of doing things.

Some of Unicorn Free’s better known posts:

Why you should do a tiny product first

How do you create a product people want to buy?

Don’t Fave This Post: How to REALLY Launch in 2014

Why Blacksmiths are Better at Startups than You

NirandFar

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Nir Eyal, the author and creator of NirandFar, calls his subject “behavioral design.” His essays usually center around aspects of UX/Ui, economics, human behavior, and neuroscience. He wrote a popular book companion called Hooked, which promoted the popular “hook model,” for user behavior, and which has been lauded by Andrew Chen, among many others. Eyal also writes for TechCrunch, Forbes, and Psychology Today, among others.

Many of Eyal’s posts center around user acquisition, retention, and what he called “behavioral economics,” or the study of what people are willing to do with technology, and what they’re not willing to do. But they’re a little more “newsy” than similar pieces by Andrew Chen and others, offering more background reading, and often less of an insider view on the subjects they cover.

NirandFar is frequently just fascination to read. Here are a few examples of great articles that will get you thinking in a new way:

The Limits of Loyalty

People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently

Your Fitness App is Making You Fat

Habits Are The New Viral: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts

ViperChill

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ViperChill is a little different from the other blogs we usually read. Glen, ViperChill’s author and creator, has a biography that reads a bit like a get rich quick scheme. He claims to have started making “thousands per month,” at the age of 17 offering online marketing services. His posts are sometimes rambling, disjointed, or lacking in context for the casual reader.

More importantly, a lot of the activities that ViperChill advocates to its readers are, well, not always tasteful. There is much info on building link networks, building websites to cash in on consumer interest in specific subjects, and generally scheming about ways to make money online without really contributing anything terribly unique or new.

If you’ve rolled your eyes at the unavoidable noise of SEO driven websites that appear high in search returns, but read like they were written by a sleep deprived university student who was skimming a Wikipedia article, then you’ve probably run into something that ViperChill, or somebody a lot like him, has created or funded. While his more recent work has hedged towards calling an end to the SEO madness of the past, his work often reads as somewhat nihilistic in its view of the internet as a money machine, rather than something slightly more humanistic.  

Still, ViperChill offers some fascinatingly geeky looks at hardcore online marketing techniques and strategies that few marketers have time to think about. In the weird hidden world of SEO aficionados and affiliate marketers, ViperChill is a strong presence.

While most of our readers are not looking, as ViperChill advocates, to become totally immersed in the world of link-building, SEO, and affiliate marketing, ViperChill presents an insider’s perspective on that business- one many of us have to dabble in to draw attention to our real world projects. If you think you’re being clever with your Facebook pages, your adwords, and your homepage SEO, he’s being downright devious.

Some of ViperChill’s more fascinating pieces:

How to Build a Billion Dollar SEO Empire

How 3 Guys Made Over $10,000,000 Last Year Without a Single Backlink

Why Google Pushed Me to Build a (Bigger) Link Network

BothSides of the Table

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Mark Suster has sold two companies to SaleForce.com, and has since become a VC and prolific blogger. Much of the advice he offers on his blog is focused on relationships between investors and startups. Having been on “both sides of the table,” Suster offers a great deal of advice from his own experiences, particularly for startup founders who don’t know much, and are naive, about finance and investment.

Suster’s hallmark is explaining complex and dry topics in really human terms; breaking down the complex nuances of investment rounds, seed funds, A-rounds, and convertible notes into more practical exercises in figuring out what an entrepreneur wants, and whether that is aligned with what investors might want, and if not, how to pick an investor with similar priorities. You can learn more from one of Suster’s posts about any flavor of startup investment, and how it really works in practice, rather than just in theory, than you can from reading a handful of articles elsewhere.

The blog also contains some great advice in sales and marketing, but the real gold is in Suster’s practical experience with investments and the enormous amount of time he’s spent working on both sides of the table. It’s a must read if you’re thinking about raising money.

Some great advice from BothSides:

VC Seagulls

Finding and Investor Who is in Love with You

What I Would Look for in a VC, Knowing What I Know Now

Education Content Platform and StartupYard Alum Educasoft Secures Funding

Educasoft, creator of Hrave.cz and MyPrepApp, content systems for secondary school test preparation, have announced this week that they have secured a 5 figure investment from an unnamed private investor, to focus on the Czech test preparation market. We caught up with StartupYard Alum Vaclav Formanek to talk about Educasoft, MyPrepApp, and the investment process. 

So Vaclav, tell us about Educasoft since you left StartupYard.

Well, as you know, we were one of the few teams who entered StartupYard in the last round with a functioning product, and even some customers. We had been working on Hrave.cz for some time, but we were at the accelerator to build a more “global,” education product, MyPrepApp.

At the end of acceleration, we really just had a prototype, and a good sense of where we were heading next. In the first 6 weeks after StartupYard, we really had to keep working on the product, and prepare our marketing channels, Facebook registration for users (so they could sign up for MyPrepApp through Facebook), and other things that we needed to really launch a paid product. It went from an experiment to a real business in that time.

What I see as the biggest step in development since then was that we opened our CMS to partners. We want to be more than an application, but rather a platform for content creators. We aren’t the primary content creators, so we want to attract content creators by being an easy, effective platform for great educational content, that allows that content to be used by students in an effective, fun, and focused way.

We have developed some potential content partners as well, ranging from regional content developers, to one content creator who is focused on a single university. I really enjoy seeing how the product scales so well to these very different uses.  The content partners we have attracted really know good content, and they are interested in piloting the use of Hrave/MyPrepApp to publish content on their markets. These early partnerships are really important for us in validating this business model.

 

What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered in repositioning Hrave.cz as a more global product?

Vaclav Formanek talking MyPrepApp at StartupYard Demo Day 2014

Vaclav Formanek talking MyPrepApp and Educasoft at StartupYard Demo Day 2014

Well, Hrave is essentially the Czech local version of MyPrepApp, the global product. It has acted as our laboratory, in a market we know best and can easily test in. The goal for the next 6 months for us is really to learn how to do business in the Czech Republic.

We left StartupYard thinking that MyPrepApp would be a more global product, much sooner. But we’ve learned that we need to spend more time on the local market before scaling globally. We don’t see this is a failure, but to be honest, it was difficult to convince investors that we already had a winning strategy for a more global product, and they had good points. We needed a stronger testbed for the product, to allow it to mature over a longer period. So we’re growing more slowly than we thought we could be, but this change of direction was, I think, still the right thing.

 

Was that a disappointing outcome for Educasoft?

I am a bit disappointed by this, but I chalk it up to experience. It wasn’t catastrophic for us, at all. Our future doesn’t depend on being a global product overnight. We still got to take advantage of the exam season in Czech Republic, and we are still growing. We also got to slow down and build our team more slowly, which allowed us to make some smart hiring decisions. We have recruited some great developers and business managers who we might not have found otherwise.

We got very deep into discussions with a few investors. This process really reshaped the business, and talks with investors did give us good ideas. But it took a lot of time and energy, and we weren’t able to arrive at terms. That was hard, but I’m glad we went through it.

 

Why is innovation so important in the Education field? What are you doing that major publishers like Pearson can’t? 

What I see as most important is that education has to somehow follow the trends in students’ lives. Modern students consume and interact with content in very modern ways. If the  educational process wants to be successful, it needs to be tailored to the way that people interact with the world today. That is not really the way education currently works.

Educasoft is about providing the best educational content possible to each individual student. Not all students are lucky enough to have great teachers, and we hope that technology will fill that talent gap- making good teaching available to every single student. Some teachers are fun and interesting, but some aren’t. We want to bring fun and interesting ways of learning to every student. So our goal isn’t just to reform the education system from above, but to reach students on an individual level, and then do that as many times as we can.

I think when it comes to major publishers, the difference is that they don’t see being fun and enjoyable as an important goal. They only see outcomes: students are statistics to them by necessity, but we think about our products on a much more human level. We are motivated to be engaging and fun, and we are closer to the students, making that possible for us in a way that it isn’t possible for major publishers. Agility is a huge advantage when it comes to innovating in education. We’ve done questionnaires, and they get huge response rates- 10% of our users respond. And the thing that comes out of these is that students want customized study plans, which really stears our development in a very flexible way.

The way we will find success and survive is to be accountable to the students first- not to the system that they inhabit. That is fundamentally different from how major content publishers work. It’s not just about persuading a huge district or a school to buy our content, but about appealing to each student with content that speaks to them. We can communicate also with individual teachers, and actualize their feedback in a much shorter time. So I feel that we are living closer to our students’ real needs of today. That’s not something a major publisher can do, or even has a reason to do.

Vaclav Formanek, getting passionate about education.

Vaclav Formanek, getting passionate about education.

 

Let’s talk numbers! What kind of traction does MyPrepApp/Hrave have? 

August was the first month from which we have real data. 1,100 registered users, which is 6% of the target group for Hrave.cz. 20,000 students retake maturita exams in September, and we got 6% of them, with a 2.5% conversion rate. We were hoping for better, but we learned a lot from that first push.

Now the new school season has started, and Hrave has 10-15 new users every day, about a thousand since September. The numbers are still pretty small, but we’re improving our conversion rate between visitors and registered users. We’ve been able to track our website changes and leverage them to significant increases in the conversion rate. We’ve also established a really good track record for technical issues- we haven’t missed any sales due to technical issues at all.

Visit time averages for all users was over 16 minutes since September, and we have a 40% returning user rate, which we are really happy with. What I also see as a good thing is that we’ve started learning how to study user behavior, and increase our conversion rate. We’ve established some gamification elements to sell licenses, and we’ll keep perfecting that.

We’ve also learned a lot about A/B testing for email marketing, and we’re in a much better position now. This is how lean startup methodology works- we meet every week, and we always start with 10 key metrics. Everyone in the team has to see how they “move the needle,” and influence the metrics in a positive way. It’s very motivating.

 

You recently closed an investment. What has been the hardest objection to answer with your investors? How have you solved it?

Our first investor was interested in how we were planning to succeed on the US market. That was a hard thing to tackle for us, and it led to us taking this different approach.

Our current investment is mid-five figures, and the terms were much better than with previous investors that we talked to. He really believes in us, and that has made this process relatively easy. Maybe that also means that our current plan makes a bit more sense, or is a bit more realistic when it comes to a real chance of achieving our goals.

 

Where do you see yourselves in 6 months with Educasoft?

There are 3 big goals for us in the short term. First, we are developing a “multi-player arena.” Imagine Mortal Kombat, but with a study prep angle. We think that will have great viral potential, and it’s something we are exciting to test.

Second, we want to leverage the content we already have for content marketing, to generate more traffic for our paid product. Good interactive content glossaries that are focused on explaining of key terms any student need to know to pass a particular exam are lacking in the Czech market.

Third, the tailored study plan we mentioned early. This is, I think, going to be a really killer feature. We’ll be able to convert many more paid customers if we can create an easy-to-use, intelligent test prep plan, based on actual student needs.

We also want to broaden our content base with new courses and content, including grammar school admission tests for younger kids. We are also working on a pilot program for the Polish market, because of the similarity of the test prep system there. To help us grow, we are testing affiliate marketing and content marketing strategies.

We are looking to get mid-five figure revenues within 6 months, and we have an ambitious goal in that regard. We want to nail down the Czech market fully during that time, and be in a great position to scale to nearby markets.

Ondrej and Vasek taking a break on the TechSquare swing set.

Ondrej and Vasek taking a break on the TechSquare swing set.

 

How did your time at StartupYard have a positive impact on your direction as a company?

We came to StartupYard with just a prototype and dreams. During the program and mentor sessions, we learned a lot about how to shape our dreams into achievable plans, and how to present these plans to other people in a way that makes them both attractive and realistic.

StartupYard had a very inspiring atmosphere. The fact that you’re there every day meeting mentors, who “made it” and you are surrounded by other teams who are just “making it” makes you believe that you will succeed in the same way.

 

Which of the StartupYard Mentors has been most helpful to Educasoft, post acceleration, and why?

We have been in contact with a bunch of StartupYard mentors who have been helping us with fundraising. Director Nikola Rafaj is one person who was extremely helpful and supportive for us during the investment negotiation. In the last weeks we have been consulting about investment terms on almost daily basis and I am sure It would have been much more difficult for us without him. Thank you, Nikola!

5 Months out of StartupYard, Gjirafa.com Thrives

We caught up with Mergim Cahani this week to talk about the beta launch of Gjirafa.com, the Albanian Language Search and News Aggregator that is making a name for itself in Albania And Kosovo. Cahani took part with his core team in our last accelerator round, and raised substantial angel investments for the venture, which launched in October of this year with a public beta. 
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CEO and Founder of Gjirafa.com, Mergim Cahani

Mergim! A lot has happened since Gjirafa left StartupYard 5 months ago. What’s the latest news?

Yes, we’ve been quite busy. After leaving StartupYard, we launched our private beta by user invitation only. This has really helped us to fine-tune the Gjirafa engine, and allowed us to really tackle the UX perspective and the search quality. We’ve indexed over 20 millions of pages in Albanian so far. Our staff has grown to 18, which is fantastic, because we have all the talent we need, and much sooner than I thought we would be able to find it all. That’s really exciting in itself. We get to follow our potential, just as quickly as we can. A strong group is really essential to that effort.

Finally, on October 9th, we launched the public beta. We just had a one month birthday. We are really excited. The product is full-featured, it’s public, and we’re seeing some amazing numbers. I can’t wait to tell you about it!

left: Cedric Maloux, Director Startup Yard. Right: Mergim Cahani, Founder CEO, Gjirafa

left: Cedric Maloux, Director Startup Yard. Right: Mergim Cahani, Founder CEO, Gjirafa

 

What features did you launch with?

There is the core product, which is search in the Albanian language and English, news aggregation, and bus schedules. We have over 3500 Albanian language articles per day aggregated, and we have amazing user statistics, but it’s too early to share those. It hasn’t even been a month! The bus scheduler is also a core product, and we’ve added 8,000 lines in the region, covering big cities to tiny villages, making our site the only place where this information is available online. That has really engaged people, which is what we wanted to do: give Kosovars and Albanians the rich web experience that others in Europe just take for granted.

But beyond that, we’ve brought in a couple of features we didn’t expect to have so soon, because user feedback in the private beta was so strong. This includes a weather widget with weather in 320 cities, and a searchable used-car database which is really popular.

 

How are the features being received?

What we’re finding is that there is a huge hidden demand for all these verticals. We just launched this car-search service on Monday, and already we’re seeing enormous traffic. Our CTR for Facebook ads is also tremendous. Have you ever heard of a 10% CTR? That’s what we’re seeing right now for Gjirafa.

The news aggregator has also been doing really well, particularly our algorithm based “Daily Top 3,” which we’ve proven can consistently determine the most important news of the day on the Albanian web.

Pristina: Capital of Kosovo and home of Gjirafa.

Pristina: Capital of Kosovo and home of Gjirafa.

We’re beginning to develop the Gjirafa name. We want to be known as a product made for and by the Albanian community. So we see our whole user community as part of the effort, and we’re going to be listening to them very closely to see what they need and what they want from us. People are really speaking up and letting us know that they support this effort, and they want us to succeed. It’s been amazing.

 

So the reaction in the Albanian language community has been good? What do they like about it? What do they ask for?

The first thing they like about it is that it’s their language, and that it’s an Albanian/Kosovar company. They’re really proud of that fact, and they think it’s past due, frankly. They feel that Gjirafa is theirs and they identify themselves with it – and that’s exactly what we want. We are for Albanians, and the reaction has been really strong.

Gjirafa-beta

The Gjirafa Search Service

I’ll give you a great example: One of our users contacted us the other day, and wrote “I’m checking this bus schedule, and I can see this line from city A to city B, but there must be a mistake here, because you’re missing two stops on the way.” We checked and he was right, so we wrote him back to let him know we’d fixed it. He turned around and posted our email on instagram and proudly declared that he had fixed the problem, and made the information available to the people. He was putting himself, sort of, on our team. Which I think is right- he is part of the effort.

People are even calling me on my mobile and ask me about this and that line, and about how the site works! People create videos on how to use Gjirafa and put them on Youtube. We don’t ask them to do this- they just do it. We receive resumes daily, and people want to volunteer to help us for no pay. Comments on articles about Gjirafa encourage people to use the product patriotically. People are saying: “You have to use this, and help make this work, because it is our thing.” That’s so heartwarming for us. It’s amazing.

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The Gjirafa News Aggregator

And it isn’t just people. Other companies in the region have also reached out, and let us know that they are on our team as well, and rooting for us. That’s so great.

 

How has your impact in Albania/Kosovo met with your expectations? Is this where you thought you’d be a year ago?

 In some ways yes, in others not at all.  We expected to have good traffic, but for the first month after the public launch, we’re on track to double our goals for total traffic.

And we never thought we would have such interest in vertical searches like cars- that was a big surprise.

Also, I didn’t expect to have such an all around well-rounded team. I thought we’d be missing a few key parts, or not be able to afford to hire the right people. But everything is now covered in terms of staff.

People really engaged more than we expected. Our research showed that 30% of visits would be mobile. But over 50% are now mobile. That changed our focus and direction. Prioritizing of new features was greatly affected by that. It is becoming a much more mobile market, and we have to focus on that. 3G is just coming to this region -I know, it’s so late!- so our services are more relevant than they’ve ever been. 4G is coming soon, so we have to be ready for that.

 

Where is the development of the site so far? What do you need to improve on, and what seems to be working well so far?

The development supports all the launch features. Fully mobile responsive. What we need to improve is our ranking algorithm. We have taken several items into consideration in ranking general search results, and now we are adding around 20 factors to take into account with ranking. Ercan for instance, the co-founder and the CTO, is working on Data Science of the Albanian Web, and this will have a big impact on improving the search results. This new ranked search will be available by the end of this month.

The general search often provides fantastic results- often better than Google in the albanian language, but sometimes it fails to provide useful results, so we’ve experienced a learning curve. We have identified those issues. Google probably uses over 200 factors in ranked search, and Seznam probably uses nearly 100. We “only” use 20 now, but you have to remember that Google has more to worry about in providing a personalized search. They have to worry about user history, location, language, and a much bigger base of data. We only focus on websites, and the content on those sites so far. It’s a smaller web, so we are starting with the brass tacks. That allows us to actually beat Google on speed, at 250 ms response times on average. We’re very happy with that figure, and it improves when many searches are occurring at the same time, so the more our index is used, the better it will be.

 

How did the StartupYard shape your trajectory over the last year?

I see everything that’s happened so far as ingredients in a recipe that got Gjirafa this far (although not there yet). They are: the market (our users), the team and the technology, and the support we received; starting and leading from angels and other supporters.

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Cahani at the Gjirafa Launch, October 2014

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The Gjirafa Team

StartupYard, on the other hand, was the secret ingredient that made the recipe work and pushed everything forward. It is like a hydrogen bond, that keeps the water molecules together. The investors and the customers are the atoms, but the bonds make them chemicals and compounds- they make them *be* something. I sincerely believe it would have been very difficult, maybe impossible, to have brought Gjirafa to where it is today without Startupyard. Without StartupYard’s management team, mentors, and the experience it brought with it. I don’t know how we’d be here.

Just one example of what we got out of it: the bus schedule idea was born in Prague, at StartupYard. It was that kind of insight into: “ok… you have a country full of customers… how do you reach them?” that StartupYard gave us. It made us believe that what we were doing was possible, and showed us the way forward.

And StartupYard was our access to angel investors, Microsoft BizSpark Plus, and the partnership with Seznam.cz, and the list goes on and on. Simply put, without StartupYard we would not be where we are today – we would be somewhere of course, but we would not be one of the fastest growing platforms in the Albanian web, that is for sure.

 

Has Google taken an interest in your activities so far? Any menacing phone calls or mysterious packages?

:Laughes: No… not directly, no. But it’s interesting, because Google does deep crawl us quite a bit, and they use interesting keywords when crawling us. We have over 6000 pages crawled, and they use random words like “barbie,” and then they index the pages, then move on to the next term – we’re not exactly sure what they’re doing. They seem to be figuring out how big we are- seeing how many pages we index. They definitely know we’re here, let’s put it that way.

 

 

You managed to hit your goals for an Angel investment round after leaving StartupYard. Are you still looking for more investment?

The most important thing for us right now, is to hit our targets, and surpass them. We’re doing that now, and the more data we collect on our user base, the better position we’ll be in to understand our own value in this market, and our future potential. That real, hard user data is going to give us a picture of our value, and allow us to show that we have traction.

I’m so grateful to the angel investors who took a shot on us this year. They’ve given us the space and time to do Gjirafa right, and we’re focused on making this a great product, with a great market potential. The more space we have to do that, the better position we’ll be in when it comes time for looking to new investments. But without them, we wouldn’t be here discussing Gjirafa.

 

You’ve had some communication from Microsoft as well, is that right? What’s that all about?

 

Yes! This was very interesting for us. We have been in contact with the Azure team from Microsoft, primarily.  We have a lot of servers with Microsoft, and that intrigued them. They wanted to know: “What is going on in Kosovo? What are you doing with our servers?”. They met us, and invited us to be Microsoft Azure Advisors, which provides us access to benefits like directly communicating with the Microsoft Azure team, and the ability to give detailed feedback and input on azure products that we need. If we see that we need something new from Azure, we can shape the development of new products to meet our needs directly with Azure. That’s been great for us.

 

You launched Gjirafa officially at a big press event last month in Kosovo. Tell us about that.

It was a really exciting day. Firstly for the team, because we saw this is a day for us. We’d gotten “the beast” Gjirafa, to the point where it was ready to be seen by the world! In addition to the marketing perspective, we saw it as a moment to be proud of our accomplishments so far. The organization of it was excellent, where the co-founder and the COO, Diogjen Elshani, with the help of the team, was able to make sure everything was going smoothly – from the invitations, the live stream and everything in between.

The event was really unique for Kosovo. For a startup in Kosovo, it was really remarkable. It made just about every TV channel, and I was doing live interviews all day on various TVs. A special was done by one channel, and we had a 7 minute exclusive on a high rated network, and we had the #1 news channel dedicate 20 minutes about Gjirafa, which was replayed for a full week. We were all over TV that week, and from that perspective, it was a huge success in getting the word out about our efforts.

Some important people also came to the press event. Diplomats and politicians were present, and some local celebrities as well. It was a really big deal, and an amazing day for the team. We really followed the launches that occur in Silicon Valley, and modeled it after things like Apple keynotes. We tried to make it exciting and not too corporate. Stay conceptual, you know? Talk about big ideas, but in basic terms. It really caught the public attention here.

 

Where do you hope to be with Gjirafa in one year? What services do you plan for the near future?

We’re gonna have several vertical searches, including cars, real estate, specific products like phones, job opportunities, and we’ll include product comparisons between sites. We’ll double the reach of our index, and we’ll have over 50 million pages available through Gjirafa. We’re also going to launch an app for iOS/Android, and that will better be able to serve the Mobile market, which is becoming dominant here.

Potentially, we are looking at a few other things like an academic search vertical, and a vertical on public government documents- business incorporation, laws, and public records.

 

Thanks Mergim, is that anything else you’d like to add?

I have a story I want to tell you! It’s a good one, I promise.

So we have somebody on the team in the role of “information coordinator.” This basically means that he actually physically has to go to bus stops and make sure that our database is correct, and that the bus schedules haven’t been changed. The Albanian government doesn’t have this information online.

One time a few weeks ago, and I swear this is true, he was doing this in a really small village, with just a couple of people in it. He walked past a couple of middle-aged people, and asked for information regarding bus station and bus schedule. “Where are you going?,” they ask him. “I’m just checking the schedule,” he says. “Oh,” says one of them, “You don’t have to do that anymore you know, there’s this thing called Gjirafa, and it has it all.” It made me laugh when I heard that one. He *is* Gjirafa, but people are already taking this service for granted. And that’s just fantastic. In my opinion, if the people treat this like something they deserve, then they will make sure that we deliver what they need from us. And that expectation is exactly what we thrive on.

 

 

What “Mentor Driven” Means To Us

What an Accelerator is For

A journalist visiting TechSquare this week asked me an intriguing question. I say “intriguing,” because as it was coming from an outsider to this business, it demanded a single answer to a question that is not often taken by itself: “what is a tech accelerator really for?” That kind of question demands an answer that applies to all parties: to the investors, to the startups, and to the general public. What do we do that adds value to the world in which we live? The answer I arrived at was this one, and I think it covers all of that: “a startup accelerator helps to manage, facilitate, and encourage intelligent risk taking.”

As Techstars has explained about their own roots, the current mold of accelerators was formed in reaction to risk aversion. Angel investors and VCs were, from about 2002 onward, inflicting far too much pain on startups to prove their worth before securing seed investments, which probably led more than a few worthy startups to stall out for lack of access to funds. The tech crash in the early 2000s had soured many investors on the market, and introduced big barriers to entry. Imagine a world in which Facebook didn’t have the money to get to its millionth user that first summer. This was a real danger at the time. But today,  a service that has added half a million users in a period of several months would be unlikely to have that particular fear. The accelerator movement has been an important part of that shift away from risk aversion, to more intelligent risk taking.

What “Mentor Driven” Means

 

 Over the past month, our teams have met with nearly 40 mentors each. That’s 40 meetings with entrepreneurs, professionals from within their areas, and CEOs of companies that have been in the position that our founders are in now. There have been so many meetings, that many of the teams have had moments of frustration with the process. One of the CEOs told me last week: “They all ask me similar questions, and I haven’t had time to do the things they’re all telling me I should be doing.”

Yes, it can be frustrating, but we also view that feeling as somewhat positive. A founder of a young company who is very aware of the potential problems he is facing is more likely to take a realistic approach to solving those problems, instead of avoiding them. He may be tired of hearing the same concerns, but he will definitely find ways of addressing them- if only so that he doesn’t have to keep hearing about them. He knows where he stands, and where he needs to be when this process is done.

Bad habits and false assumptions, when untested too long, can ossify very quickly, and poison sound decision-making. The accelerator is the antidote to that problem, forcing founders to address their toughest challenges first, rather than wasting time and money working in a market they don’t understand well enough. Constant early contact with mentors breaks up patterns of thinking and working that will lead founders wrong.

It’s About Who the Mentors Are

“Mentor driven,” means that the first steps a startup takes are in consultation with people who want them to succeed. Most of our mentors are not investors, and most will probably not end up working directly with any of our founders later on, but they are people who care about spreading knowledge, knowing their industry well, and making valuable and useful connections with each other, and with new startup founders. While basically all accelerators are concerned with helping their teams raise money at some point, at demo day, or later on, the focus at StartupYard is on giving the company the strongest possible foundation as a means to that end, and to making the company a success in general. Knowing and understanding your own industry, how people talk and behave, and how they think, are really vital elements of that kind of success.

Startups are Not in Business to Raise Money

A lot of startups quickly start thinking that they are in the business of raising money. That’s a cycle that’s easy to fall into. The second an investor wants to talk money, a founder has to completely change how he or she is thinking about the business, and fit that thinking to the way the investor thinks. If founders have conversations with investors too early in their own development, both as business people and stewards of their own companies, they can easily be taken in by the investor’s agenda, which is different, on a basic level, from their own.

A founder should be interested in his or her users, in solving problems for the people that will use their products, and in forming a company that adds value to the world in which they live. A good product or service company needs these goals above and beyond profitability in order to shape its future and give it purpose.

But an investor is only interested in realizing gains on their investments. If 1 dollar today can gain 20 tomorrow, they will invest. And likewise, if making a company stop and completely reconfigure its own priorities in order to win investment can turn 1 million dollars today into 20 million dollars next year, investors will encourage that to happen. So having a company planted on ground solid enough not to be shaken by incoming investment is very important. A founder has to have a vision of his company in 5 years. An investor doesn’t buy that vision, just the part of it that has an upside potential. We need investors to make many startups work, but that doesn’t mean investors should run startups, or tell them what they want too early in their development.

Mentoring can be a cure for that illusion. Talking to people who have taken on investments and regretted it, as well as those who have done it well and made it work, is an experience of great value to someone who has never had a conversation about money that involved more than 3 zeros.

But most importantly, mentors remind founders that their businesses have to work, not just as investment vehicles, but as *real* businesses. As I said: an accelerator is about taking intelligent risks. Putting 3, or 6 or 12 months of your time into a company is in itself a risk. So why not make it an intelligent one?

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Make your Pitch “Real” From Day One

 This is one in a series of posts about the skills, tools and prep work Founders need for success in an accelerator. 
 

What a Pitch Really Is

Raising money is a deeply complex issue for a startup. We won’t reinvent the wheel here and now and tell you whether you’re even ready to try doing it. But we will talk about your “pitch.”

Founders often enter the pitch under the false assumption that investors are looking for someone like them. Someone who feels like a peer, whose job it is to convince them. Paul Graham of Y Combinator wrote about this recently

“When people hurt themselves lifting heavy things, it’s usually because they try to lift with their back. The right way to lift heavy things is to let your legs do the work. Inexperienced founders make the same mistake when trying to convince investors. They try to convince with their pitch. Most would be better off if they let their startup do the work—if they started by understanding why their startup is worth investing in, then simply explained this well to investors.” – Paul Graham (Full Article here)

But your pitch is more than just a magical set of keywords that unlocks a golden elevator, filled with swimsuit models holding champagne flutes and suitcases full of money. The secret handshake theory of business is only attractive to those who aren’t sure who their customers are: investors or actual potential clients.

No, your pitch might be closer to your “identity,” as an early stage startup. Your pitch is not just your idea. That bears repeating. Your pitch is not just your idea: it is a demonstration of why you are a good bet. It’s also the first and consequently most important way that people will know you. VCs, angels, accelerators and even potential employees know you by your pitch. And avoiding the biggest mistakes, can be as key as making the best sounding pitch.

A Pitch is Creating a New Reality

One in which your product is real, and one in which it is something that customers need, and will pay for. This is why your pitch is not your idea. Your idea is plastic, and can change, but the reality you are pitching has to be real. Your product solves real problems.

And your pitch starts from day one. You should come up with a pitch that makes sense before going any further, because if you can’t sell your product, there may be little point in building it. This  ice-cream shotgun is still genius, by the way, but the pitch didn’t work out, so I’m waiting for the market to present a need before investing.

Ok... maybe not.

Ok… maybe not.

What’s in the Pitch

This is a “positioning template” first suggested by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm, a modern day “bible” for technology marketing. See if the pitch you have at the top of your head addresses each of these points in a meaningful way:

For (target customers)
Who (have the following problem)
Our product is a (describe the product or solution)
That provides (cite the breakthrough capability)
Unlike (reference competition),
Our product/solution (describe the key point of competitive differentiation)

In this post we’re primarily concerned with the first half of this template.

Create the Problem

All products and innovations address problems, and this is the For, and Who, and Unlike, of your pitch. A person/company/institution with an issue/need/lack/goal.

When entering your pitch, you should have in mind a typical customer who has a common enough problem. This works for anything- you just need to be creative. You are not inventing the need, but you are formulating its basis.

Nobody needed an electric typewriter in 1924 when IBM obtained patents that would later be used in its first commercial models. But there were key deficiencies in the design of manual typewriters, that caused common, known problems. Problems that could be solved. IBM identified those deficiencies, and attempted to eliminate them.

There was no work not being done because of these deficiencies; nobody was sitting around waiting for the automatic typewriter, but companies and individuals still invested in the new technology, not because they were aware of how automatic typewriters would revolutionize business, but because it solved problems they knew they already had.

Here’s a pitch for the electric typwriter, in this frame (freely invented by me):

There are over 50 million typists, secretaries, students and amateur writers in America all grappling with the same issues. Current typewriters on the market have frequent jams, rust easily, cause pain in the fingers due to the difficulty of depressing keys, and create type which is often uneven, and illegible. Our new automatic typewriter solves all of those problems, using revolutionary new technology that prevents jamming, ensures even spacing, and is easy on the fingers. It produces clear, legible, even type, at a speed before totally unprecedented, allowing typists to work more productively, more quickly, and more happily. Better yet, it is cheaper to manufacture than a manual typewriter, accepting universally interchangeable parts.

You’ll find every element of the above template present. Who the product is for (and size of the market), what their problems are, what the competition offers, what our product is, and how it solves all of those problems, along with a litany of killer features, and even a case for profitability. It presents the investor with a world that is broken (typing sucks and it’s expensive), and then presents the solution (typing made easier and cheaper).

That is the sort of pitch that grew IBM’s revenue by a factor of 20 in 20 years, and its profits by a factor of 7 in the same time period. All based on solving basic deficiencies in its marketplace.

Not all products are as glamorous to you and I as the automatic typewriter. But think about the executives who funded its development in 1925. They didn’t touch typewriters. They had secretaries who did that, and they dictated letters or scratched notes on paper. Typewriters were manual labor, and beneath their pay grades.

It was a dark and stormy paperjam.

It was a dark and stormy paper jam.

Give the Solution

These people had to be convinced that a problem existed, and that others, office managers, schools, and institutions of government, would buy the solution, before they invested in buying the patents and funding its development as a commercial product. The pitch provides the investor with a reason why the product is needed, the evidence that there is a market for it, the evidence that the market will accept it, and the evidence that this will be a profitable venture.

And this kind of pitch can be given in 30 seconds, or in 30 minutes. If it makes the problem and the solution real, it can win an investment.

So however tedious the problems that you’re solving are, if you believe there’s a market for the solutions you offer, you have to make those problems real to investors. Presenting a killer solution, even when the status quo still works, is the key to making the problem real for an investor. Make that investor see the current state of affairs as a net loss, instead of a zero sum.

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