Payowallet, StartupYard

Meet Payowallet: Customer Rewards for the Rest of US

In our continuing series of up-close, in-depth interviews with the founders of the StartupYard Batch X companies, we come to Payowallet, a Slovak startup founded by Klaudia Drabikova, and Gabriel Cegledi. Payowallet helps small retail businesses graft world class customer loyalty and rewards programs using their mobile-first application and payment platform. Unlike the loyalty programs of major retailers, Payowallet is accessible to any small business, and can be set up in minutes.

 

 

For this interview, both Co-founders chose to speak with me, so you will read answers from both Klaudia and Gabriel.

Klaudia Drabikova, the CEO, Has worked for 15 years in international non-banking and banking financial companies, specialized in consumer lending as Head of Direct business. Her working experience wass enriched in operations matters as a former COO and member of the Board of Cetelem Slovakia.

Gabriel Cegledi, the CTO, also has 15 years of experience, implementing loyalty rewards and payment cards programs for leading merchants and banks across Europe. Gabriel previously worked as Loyalty Products Owner at EMEA and International levels for First Data. 

PayoWallet, StartupYard


Here is what they had to say: 

Hi Klaudia,you come to building a startup from a position of more experience than a typical founder. You spent 15 years in banking, and you were COO and a member of the board at Cetelem in Slovakia. Why found a startup focused on small retail businesses?

Payowallet, StartupYard

Co-Founders Klaudia and Gabriel

Klaudia: That’s an interesting question, because in some ways it is a big leap. Still in another way, I see this move as a natural extension of my career long interests. At Cetelem, I learned that it is increasingly difficult to differentiate a retail brand according to pricing, or even the number and location of branches. Those may be the first things you think about when it comes to a retail bank, and these factors matter, however they matter much less in proportion to the impact that good customer experiences can have on brand loyalty.

One of the ironies for a big brand is that as you scale larger over time, you focus increasingly on these marginal factors such as price and location, because they are easier to quantify and manage using a data centered approach. However, customer experience remains a huge factor in creating loyalty among your userbase. That is harder to do as a company gets bigger, because the ways you execute customer experiences at scale are different from those of a smaller company.

What I found over time was that big companies are investing a lot into large-scale customer experience solutions, such as loyalty programs, apps, messenger bots, and such things. Still, these investments are really trying to mirror what smaller businesses do as a matter of day-to-day practice in customer service. The result is that big retail brands have very sophisticated technology, but still many of the best practices in retail come from smaller brands that are more free to innovate on a smaller scale. So, small retailers have great ideas, but no way to support them with technology. It’s too expensive, and too de-focusing for them to develop their own apps or programs.

So Payowallet is trying to provide that technology basis for excellent customer experiences. I believe, and I have seen it, that better customer experience can create customer engagement, which is more important today than ever to differentiate from competition. Small businesses only lack the technology to execute on their customer knowledge and ideas. They don’t lack for either knowledge or ideas. So we want to make customer loyalty programs and digital payment systems available to retailers of any size, in a format simple enough for anyone to use without a major investment of time or resources.

Why found a startup focused on small retail businesses?

Gabriel: There are two questions in this sentence actually. First question – why did we want to found a startup? Well, we both worked in big companies – each of us in a different one  – which grew from quite small firms to large corporations. From companies, where you knew all the employees – your colleagues, you all work together, you all work hard to get things done, all were personally responsible for every action, every success and mistake.

You had to find solutions despite different opinions, attitudes and varying personal characters within the team. The results and then also the joy and feeling of success from having done a great job were very tangible and personal, thanks to the real cooperation of all colleagues in the team and/or particular projects. We had really good times – both of us in our own companies. Now those companies have gotten very big, and these aspects naturally change to accommodate the new scale. We both felt it was time to search for something new, and begin again from the small scale.

Second question: Why focus on small retail businesses? The technology all retailers can now benefit from has progressed dramatically over the past few years. A few years ago, only large retailers, such as Tesco or Starbucks could have their own credit cards, loyalty programmes, analytics and proper full-stack marketing to end-customers.

Now, new technologies and new programming languages allow anyone to build marketing and payment systems in a fraction of the time for very little money. We saw these technologies evolving, we saw them coming, we were part of the process, we saw what impact they can have. And, these technologies small brands to be more relevant and personal when it comes to appealing to their customers. On the other hand, the end-customers have become more demanding – new generations (Y and Z) require more comfortable, easy-to-use and relevant products and personalized experiences when shopping.

Meeting all these new trends and requirements is not easy – but it is thrilling. It is extremely interesting to be able to help these small retailers who don’t really have the resources  to keep up with all these new communications methods (e.g. Facebook, instagram, chatbots, messengers etc) and technologies (e.g. analytics) – not because they can’t or don’t want to – but simply they don’t have time and money for it (as they are doing all the hard work around their core products)…

To me it is a shame if a big retailer beats a smaller one only because they can outspend them on technology to reach the customers. That does not encourage a true vibrant competition between small and large players in the retail world. Democratizing the technology used for marketing and customer experience means better experiences for everyone.

Q: How did you two begin working together? Why are you a good match for this project?

Klaudia: First of all we know each other from the past, when Gabriel was working for a company delivering payments and loyalty services. Both of us left our companies, and were looking for new opportunities. When we met, of course there were discussions what to do, and because we have seen the trends in other developed countries in areas we had a knowledge in, we started to be hungry to do something similar in this region. Why we are a good match? In my opinion it’s like this: Gabriel has many, many ideas, and me, I like them to get them done! Gabriel always has many questions, like when a kid ask you why, why, why? All the the time, so he forces me to think and to be more prepared. We fit together in that way: by being opposites.

Gabriel: I saw these new technologies and opportunities coming, I saw them hitting and scratching the surface of the corporation I was working in as well – but months passed and none of the promising new technologies was being realized. None of them took off in the corporation really. It was not easy – to quit a good and safe salary, but couldn’t do it differently.

When we both quit – literally at the same time – despite the fact that it was not coordinated, we started to look at a couple of new opportunities, potential startup projects and technologies together – with some other friends of ours and our former colleagues.

We tested a couple of projects over a period of 7 months or so, and then decided on Payowallet – digital loyalty and marketing, including payments with mobile and sophisticated analytics. Very cool.

Why are we a good match? Well, the thing is that we are quite different, we have a different nature, we have different ideas, we have a different style of work – I like to work alone, closed in a basement in a cellar.  But Klaudia needs plenty of people around her all the time. But when it’s time to get things done, we alighn. Obviously, we share a common vision and strategy. The differences help us look at the same thing from different angles, and so we are able to see new and more opportunities and options that would be overlooked otherwise – if we were the same or similar. This is a very good thing indeed. Obviously, different natures come with some disagreements, fights, arguments etc. But we respect each other well enough to overcome these in order to achieve a better outcome and result.

Q: Most people probably have some loyalty and membership cards. Why is it so hard for small businesses to run their own loyalty programs, and what are the benefits of doing so?

Klaudia: There has been research recently showing, that 44% of small businesses are focusing their marketing activities on acquiring new customers, but only 16% of them spend as much on existing ones. And there is other research showing, that 67% from existing customers are likely to buy another product from a retailer they go to regularly. These are not huge new discoveries in retail. It is an axiom of sales that an existing customer has ten times the value of a new customer.

So, why do they not focus on existing customers? I believe it is partly because in this technological age, they are not sure where their customers are, or how to reach them. It may often be as simple as not really understanding which of your customers is even a loyal customer, and past that, how to actually reward that person. Keeping track of these things as a small business is difficult to do. Loyalty programmes play a big part in customer retention and not all retailers see the value in that, because they don’t know how to measure it.

The second thing is, that old-school style loyalty programmes, like paper or plastic cards don’t tell you that much. They don’t provide any data, or statistics. Much of the effort that goes into them is wasted. It’s hard to know their impact, or even know how many rewards you’ve given away. Plus, today another issue is privacy and GDPR. You now need informed consent to store customer data, and you need to justify its use.

This all sums up to a situation where small retailers can’t justify the cost and now the legal risk of initiating their own programs, particularly not being able to identify a clear return on the investment. New technologies make that decision a bit easier. We help retailers bring loyalty programs direct to the mobile number of each customer, opening up a new marketing channel, and a direct link with a loyal customer.

Gabriel: It is not only about rewarding my customers (as a retailer). It’s about the whole approach to communication with them. It’s also about a customers’ shopping experience. Small retailers have a massive disadvantage compared to large players in terms of marketing budgets. And then – what will be the customer’s choice if she is bombarded with more than 4500 marketing messages per day – as one marketing professional/specialist confirmed to us?

it is easy to guess. So, being able to “stay on the customer’s mind,” by choosing the right communication channels, being able to handle them all – so called omni-channel communication – FB, insta etc, providing relevant and personalized messages and communication to the customers – this is deeply challenging to a small coffee shop or burger-bar owner. They don’t have the resources of a nationwide brand or chain.

On the other hand, the retailers now really can benefit from the technologies – technologies provide them data insights – about customer’s purchase behavior, and technologies enable delivering the messages and communication right to the customers and in a manner that doesn’t annoy them and doesn’t spam them.

And as regards customers’ shopping experiences – you can see all those trends – order ahead and pay cashless – Uber, shared economies, buy online, get products delivered to your home, fine-tuned and sophisticated online shopping experience, after-sale care and services, in-store marketing and merchandising. All of these are available thank to progress in technologies, and the new generations take full advantage of these, grew up with these technologies, so they can’t even imagine doing any different. Keeping up with all of these opportunities and options is challenging for small retailers. That is where Payowallet is aimed at helping them out.

Practically speaking, what does it take to get set up as a retailer on PayoWallet?

Klaudia: PayoWallet is a mobile marketing platform, which consist fof components like digital loyalty, mobile payments, and data insights. For every retailer who is busy with their own activities and duties, but is looking for ways to engage with his customers better, we are the right solution. We help him to motivate his customers to come back more often, by providing technology to manage his loyalty program in a fully  digital way.

Customers love it. Retailer gets statistics and insights, which can tell them much more about their customers, comparing with paper or plastic cards. Imagine, that you can easily set up your next marketing campaign to the right person and send it straight to her phone within a few minutes. If you are a retailer, with no time, or skills to manage campaigns by yourself, we can do it for you as a managed service too. Mobile payments will be the feature which will complete our brand name (the wallet part) and will make the experience much more convenient. Payment and loyalty will be just one transaction, which will deliver new data about customer purchase behaviour to the retailer.

Imagine being able to conceive and sell a new offer to the right set of customers within moments. Have an idea? Test it out on a group of your customers, and see the results instantly. Get people to come into your store or restaurant at just the right time.

What are some of the ways you would like your users to change their relationships with their customers using PayoWallet?

Klaudia: For the moment, first thing is that retailers start to think more about existing customers; because this is the target group you can rely on and you can sell more. Remember the statistic I told you earlier, 67% of existing customers will buy another product from you. Imagine having a tool to delight your customers individually and invite them for a specific, contextual reason to come again and to spend in your shop.

We can see many validated products in other markets, like the US, or UK, where it’s important for retailers to start to think about mobile strategy, which will help them to engage with their customers. This will become a standard. And small retailers can be even more happy that there will be such a SaaS technology they can use afforably.

Gabriel: We help the retailers to analyze what is happening at their stores. We help them understand they have top customers – who are returning to them often – and WHO they are! Now, the retailers are able to thank them, stay in touch and delight these customers with special perks, treatment and personalized messages. They couldn’t do this before (except a very few small exclusive shops, where they know all their customers by name).

On the other hand, we can help them understand other customers who haven’t returned for a while. How could the retailers have a chance to reach out to these customers and re-engage with them? No chance! Now, we can tell who they are, how long they’ve been away, and enable the retailer to send offers to motivate the customers to come back.

Another thing – imagine announcing and sharing news about what is happening in my store with the customers – what options do the retailers have now? Posts on Facebook reach a fraction of their customers. But their regular customers, who shop with them quite often may really want to know if there is a new flavor of their favorite coffee, a new type of burger or a wine-tasting event. They would love to hear this. We help span all these missed opportunities.

What do you hope PayoWallet is going to be in 5 years, as a business, or as a technology. What would be your ideal scenario?

Klaudia: I would love to see a PayoWallet sticker on as many shops as possible. That means, that retailers are open to using mobile technologies. Their customers spend pm avg. more than 3 hours looking at their phones every day, so retailers have to adjust to be present there. Our goal right now is to increase the numbers of our partners, ideally in the Czech Republic and other countries of CEE and SEE  that we find a good match with.

At the same time, we are working on the technology, which will combine mobile payments and loyalty in one simple transaction, which will deliver insights to retailers to help them make sales. In 5 years it will be a standard to pay with mobile, but our standard will be to pay with mobile and deliver added value for both: a retailer – having more data on who is his customer, and for the customer to enjoy all the benefits of one click payments and targeted communications they actually want.

Gabriel: I see this from two perspectives: regional and technological. Technological – as Klaudia said – retailers heavily using the advantages of the technologies and services provided and all parts of it, reward programmes, analytics, and mobile communication. And end-users benefiting from the ease of use  of payments and of being rewarded.

What has been the biggest challenge for you, personally or professionally, in transitioning to the role of Startup CEO? How has the StartupYard experience affected that transition?

Klaudia: For me as a person it was like entering a completely different environment comparing to the  corporate world. I had to overcome the fear of not knowing many things. In a startup you do so many different things on your own, in most of them you are not an expert, or you have no idea “how to”, but definitely “you have to”, because it is your company. Sometimes it takes you really far out of your comfort zone.

Startupyard is helping us to focus on what is important and whe,n and showing how to make each next step. And of course the people here are willing to share and give us courage, when needed. You don’t feel that alone though.

Gabriel: Running a startup is really completely different to working in a corporation. Obviously, this has been said many times, but just to confirm – in a corporation, there is a distinct and limited and defined set of tasks and content you are responsible for. In a startup, you do everything on your own. From marketing, through product, technology, infrastructure, wording on your facebook and on your web page. Obviously, you have colleagues working on this with you, but it is your call. So, yes, it is about overcoming the fear of unknown waters, and about trying to learn as much as possible and as quickly as possible.

How can businesses start taking advantage of PayoWallet right now? How do they get started?

Klaudia: First of all, very easily. If a retailer has decided to become our partner, we just give him set of easy questions to be able to manage his offer towards customers, which will be displayed in our app. From loyalty rules, exclusive offers, or products, which can be sold in advance. We do the rest, set up in the system takes a few minutes. The retailer can start to create their own database of customers from Day one. No complicated integrations, no GDPR issues, just one smartphone and that’s it.

“I would like offer you rewards, use our app” is the only sentence they might use in the checkout process to create the engagement. The rest is on us.

You both have children. What is it like to be a mother or a father and founding your own company?

Klaudia: I feel good, because as a founder you are the owner of your time and you can adjust to the needs of your child. But I am not the mother with fashion bags anymore, because I need to carry my notebook everywhere, using every opportunity while waiting for my son at his guitar classes, or sport activities. My time is calculated to every minute. To watch another movie, is today a task for time management! As a co-founder of such a company it is very much about networking and this is a part you are quite often limited, but we are trying to manage and to share with Gabriel if needed.

Gabriel: Frankly, it’s extremely challenging and really not an easy thing. A friend of mine once told me: your first children will eat 90% of your free time. The second kid, she will require the remaining 60% of your free time! I fully agree. And now – I have 3 kids. And I’m telling you – a startup will eat through the remaining 200% of your free time. And it comes with so many uncertainties and unexpected situations. So, juggling with time, that’s priority number one for me. I’m dealing with it every day, and I’m considering every ten minutes of my time  – where and how I’m going to spend it. But running your startup is so interesting – it’s worth all the hassle.

 

StartupYard, ShufflUp

Meet Shufflup: Bringing the Benefits of Crypto Trading to the Masses

In our continuing series of up-close, in-depth interviews with the founders of the StartupYard Batch X companies, we come to another of the 3 companies that join us this round are working in the field of crypto asset trading.  ShufflUp is working to make the growing world of crypto-currencies and crypto asset markets available to regular people. It’s a fully automated trading platform that uses techniques from electrical engineering and high-frequency trading to generate steady profits for small-time investors. The team comes from India, and has decided to locate its operations in Europe, incorporating in Estonia. 

Shufflup Co-Founder and CEO Shilpa Mitra is a data researcher with 5 years experience in statistical data analysis. During her engineering career she has focused on building software, and in the process got into close proximity with many programming languages. She was part of a collaborative research project with Tokyo Electron Limited during her Ph.D. studies which culminated into a full length academic research paper, published in one of the esteemed peer-reviewed journals. She is captivated by the possibilities of blockchain transforming the current inefficient financial system. I spoke with her this week about Shufflup

Hi Shilpa, first of all I want to highlight your career so far, because at 26 you’ve accomplished a lot of amazing things, including studying for a PHD in electronic engineering. Can you tell us how you got to where you are?

First of all, I want to clear this that I am not a PhD.

My Co-Founder Sromana Mukhopadhyay and I went to the US with the vision of changing the world through our love for maths and technology, like any other PhD student might think during their first year of study. By the end of the first year, we had published two research papers in two esteemed peer-reviewed journals, completed almost all the courses, taught a bunch of undergrad students, cleared the dreaded PhD qualifying exam but still somewhere the creative soul within me was not satisfied.

StartupYard, ShufflUp

Co-Founders Sromana (left), and Shilpa (right) come from the same region in Eastern India and studied in the US together

I realized that I can better utilize my data-processing skills to develop something which is useful for the people I care about and this realization brought me back to India. The tech-lover within me got fascinated by the revolutionary concept of digital currencies and the more I learnt about them the more I realized that they possess the power to change the future economy.

Going from electronic engineering to blockchain technology seems like a big leap. What got you interested in working on blockchain and cryptocurrencies?

You can say it began as an academic sort of curiousity. There are interesting mathematical concepts in blockchain technology, and the idea of distributed databases and trustless networks.

I started reading the whitepapers of various cryptocurrencies in order to understand the underlying blockchain technology. I started trading with crypto-coins on various exchanges but soon enough spotted the obvious inefficiencies of the crypto market. I realized these inefficiencies provided the potential of being even larger than the inefficiencies of the current unbalanced financial system. Upon researching more and after some days of digging deeper, my calculations proved that the inefficiencies that prevail in more than 15,000 crypto markets and 500 exchanges are capable of creating 440 thousand arbitrage opportunities per second, which are capable of producing 8-10% profit each month.

Now let’s dig deeper into how two electrical engineers have done it, considering we have always dealt with electrical signals and currents coming out of transistors. As electrical engineers we have used time series analysis to predict the useful lifespan of transistors. We realized that the data coming out of exchanges is also time-series data and the same time-series analysis tools can be applied to exchanges’ data as well. It is simply the source of the data that has changed, not the nature of it. Hence is not a ‘big leap’. It is because of our backgrounds that we are able to build everything we are building today.

Just imagine the global currency system as a series of outlets and inlets, just like an electrical grid. You have a peak flow that is predictable. You have a directionality in the system that can be modeled and observed. You can see that money and transactions flow across the system in a certain way, based on the capacity of the various parts of the network to manage the traffic, as well as the actual needs on the side of the users of these systems.

Now, whether it is crypto-currency or forex or electrical grid systems, the same type of statistical analysis can be applied to predict movements and to design the ideal way of managing those movements. What we do is called “currency arbitrage,” but it resembles electrical grid arbitrage as well. Providing liquidity where it is low, and sucking up liquidity where it is high, in order to keep the whole system stable, is the same whether you’re dealing with crypto tokens or energy itself.

Q: What are you trying to accomplish with Shufflup that you think no other platform has been able or willing to do?

Arbitrage and automated trading are not new concepts in the least. Our approaches to these activities I believe are unique, however I want to be clear why we have chosen this direction for our company.

Unlike other complex crypto platforms, which try to serve more sophisticated and more liquid investors, at ShufflUp we are trying to help that section of people in society who are neglected and not taken into consideration by other crypto trading platforms. There are 25 million crypto wallets in the world and out of which only 3- 5 million are in active use, whereas the world’s population is 7.44 billion.

The Co-Founders in New Jersey during PHD studies.

Other algorithmic trading platforms are making their tools available to this bracket of tech-savvy and the so-called ‘accredited’ investors who are already in the business of crypto trading. At ShufflUp we will initially target the rest of the 20 Million passive wallets of ‘HODL’ers who have bitcoins sitting in their wallets and doing nothing. Then we will move forward to target retail users. We are primarily focused on small investors and the minimum deposit is 0.025 BTC. At present in order to use ShufflUp, a user only needs to have bitcoins in his wallet, deposit them to our platform, sit back and relax to see his profit steadily moving up.

With ShufflUp, no complex setup or figuring out innovative trading strategies or 24/7 monitoring is required, ours is a no-brainer and hands-off platform. We want to be a sensible bet for the average low income person who wants to profit from a dynamic, changing economy.

Can you tell us a bit more about how your technology really works?

At ShufflUp, our mission is to bring cryptocurrency profit to the masses because we believe digital currency is the future. A part of making that future work is distributing the gains of growth in the crypto market, and getting more people engaged with it. Through our technology, we have been able to eliminate the long-standing issues of arbitrage crypto trading. To realize significant profit through this form of trading by a single trader, huge funds are normally required upfront. A person also requires his/her funds to be properly distributed among several exchanges and the right coin-pairs where the opportunities are occurring. Basically, you need a large reach and high liquidity to profit from helping to maintain the balance of the system.

 

ShufflUp aggregates data from several exchanges, analyses them based on historical data patterns to understand where the next arbitrage opportunities are going to happen and distributes the funds in those coin-pairs. As of now, our system processes 40,000 datasets/sec to identify the next set of arbitrage opportunities. Needless to say, this will go on increasing as we scale.

Identifying the opportunities is one thing, but not all of them are executable for various reasons, such as network latency, high associated fees and volume associated with the trade. In order to avoid order slippage our technology determines the exact quantity at which to place the order based on statistical correlation and then executes only those trades which it predicts to be executable.

So far our algorithm has correctly predicted and executed 99.62% of all the arbitrage opportunities that have occurred during the last 3 months in the integrated coin-pairs. One of the things that few of you who are familiar with crypto arbitrage trading must be wondering is the transaction time and transaction fees associated with the arbitrage trading. Our smart system distributes the funds in such a way that it reduces the transaction time & fee by 90%. Also it is important to mention that all the profit that our system has made during the last 3 months is after taking into account the maker, taker, deposit and the withdrawal fees in the exchanges.

We have been organizing our private beta for the past 3 months with 12 investors – 2.5BTC and generated 55.2% profit for them. Also 250 users are in the pipeline eagerly waiting for our product to go public.

Many people including many mentors of SY have asked us, ’what if these opportunities gradually diminish in numbers as the market matures?’ That is a valid concern, because as a market matures technically and in scale, arbitrage becomes more common, and so less profitable.

But here I would beg to argue that even after so many years discrepancies still exist in the traditional market. Arbitrage always becomes more complex, but it does not go away. We will have to continue to evolve and learn from existing datasets. In that sense, our early mover advantage will be increasingly important, as we will have more data than others who attempt to enter the market later.

Having said that we have two very different trading strategies currently under simulation which will drive us forward in the path of our broader vision. One of them is based on complex predictive trend line analysis coupled with a few technical indicators which we know only the top experienced, disciplined, dedicated and the rich bracket of traders can take advantage of. The other strategy is based on analyzing market psychology because ultimately, market prices are created by the constantly fluctuating perceptions of market participants.

Here too, you can take some clues from understanding the flow of an electrical circuit or grid. The needs of a system can be understood through outside indicators. For example, famously, electrical grid operators must study television schedules to understand when consumer are likely to turn off their televisions at night, in order to ramp down the supply quickly enough not to over-power the grid. They must understand the upcoming weather patterns in order to provide enough power to the grid to run cooling systems.

You can apply the same macro forces analysis to crypto trading as well, which is something we don’t believe is common in this market yet.

Q: What do you hope that Shufflup will be able to do for its users in the next few years that they can’t do now?

As we are targeting the masses, or in other words retail investors, we will have our focus in developing an end-to-end solution for our users where they will be able to buy not only Bitcoin but also other cryptocurrencies because with arbitrage we will have an umbrella of cryptocurrencies. They will be able to buy these at a much lower commission than what is available at other exchanges/platforms.

We will also have two different schemes for our users based on a long-term and a short-term approach. If someone prefers to keep their crypto with us on a short-term basis, we would take a 20% cut from their profit, on the other hand if they stay with us on a long-term basis, we would take an even smaller cut from their profit. We are planning to go into partnerships with different companies which would enable our users to pay for their rent or coffee or pizza directly from our platform at a discounted price. Again, this is helping to spread the use of the currencies, and make them more attractive as a real utility to more parties.  At ShufflUp, we are dedicated to expediting the mass adoption of cryptocurrencies.

Why do you believe so strong that blockchain technology can make the financial system more efficient, or more fair?

I firmly believe that blockchain is the future of finance, and this technology will do to the financial system what email did to the postal system. Remember, the postal system is not dead because of email. It’s bigger than it was when email came along. But we use it very differently now. We use it for much more important things. The use cases that migrated to email did so because the electronic form made so much more sense than the physical, in almost every way. I believe the same will occur around blockchain.

Blockchain will have a profound impact on the consumers who will hugely benefit from greater efficiency, greater security and greater transparency. A new decentralized financial system would remove the intervention and complexity that exists in the existing financial system and would lower the barrier to entry for those people who are currently denied entry (the unbanked population).

Yes the financial system would also become more fair as blockchain’s underlying protocols support stronger identity management thus helping regulators combat illegal money laundering and terrorist activities. The truth is that the financial system as it exists today is not technologically backwards, but it is built largely to the benefit of the wealthy nations, the rich, and the powerful. It has few real incentives to provide tools for smaller investors and for the poor and unempowered to use modern financial tools. That is a growing problem that I believe blockchain technology can work to counterbalance, and help to democratize access to finance.

What other things can blockchain be used for that most people have been ignoring?

I think in the areas of e-voting by bringing more transparency so that election results are honest and accurate, coming from a country like India I believe a fair electoral system can bring much needed socio-economic change to developing countries.

I also think the sharing and gig economy can strongly benefit from decentralization, as many of the existing systems are designed to benefit a relative few at the top of organizations, and are not equitable to the people who use the system. You can see this with companies such as Uber, where the drivers are being pushed to work for the minimum amount possible, while the company itself needs to take a larger portion of their earnings to stay solvent as prices continue to drop. If this system were mediated by a cryptocurrency where the economics were more transparent, I believe consumers could make better decisions, and those working in the gig economy would get access to fair compensation for their work.

As it is, these markets today work on a “black-box” basis, meaning that you simply have to believe that a company like Uber understands its own economic model, and that the driver understands the cost/benefit of working for them, and that the price you pay is fair and equitable. You must take the word of the company on faith, without proof. However, in a black box model, the company at the center is incentivized to change the rules in its own favor, and to profit from a lack of information from the parties it transacts with. That is not a system in which the good of ordinary people is the focus.

Decentralization means that the ability of the rich and powerful to take advantage of your lack of information in everyday economic decisions is neutralized. That is the ultimate promise of cryptocurrencies, and what we should all hope for in the future.

How did you start working as a team? What makes you the right people to build Shufflup?

Sromana and I know each other since our undergrad days (about 8 years). We initially started preparing for several competitive exams together, cracked all of them, and got admission to the PH.D. program in the USA together. In that way, we became a team before we had a mission. We noticed the loopholes of crypto trading world in a joint effort and wanted to solve it together.

Data analysis and data processing, dealing with different statistical tools like Wavelet and Fourier Transform has been our forte and this project requires deep digging of data.

Coding of course forms the backbone of any startup and both of us are well-versed in a plethora of programming languages like PHP, NodeJS, Javascript, C, Java, Python, CSS, etc.In college we organized a national level technology festival where both founders were part of the managerial team. We together raised funding, and scaled the number of participants by 1500.

We are each other’s best critics, and constantly pushing one another to perform better. For all the above reasons we felt uniquely qualified to work as a team and solve the problems that we are solving now at ShufflUp.

How has your experience been at StartupYard, and in Europe generally? Did it match with your expectations, or did it surprise you in some way?

A: Prague is a beautiful place to live, extremely peaceful with an extremely systematic and well-connected transportation system. These are the kinds of things that I notice as an engineer by training: that this is a society that understands organization of public spaces very well. Europe in general has wonderful advantages for quality of life.

StartupYard has been great so far, I love the people here at SY as you let us be ourselves yet push us at the right time in the right direction. We can’t thank you enough for accepting us into this program as it was a huge validation as well as support for us that we are moving in the right direction. We got to learn a lot from some of the mentors, actually formed a lot of ideas that we are working on now, which would never have been possible without SY.

Being in SY and attending the workshops helped us ‘know’ about different core metrics of building a business about which we did not have any idea even a few months ago. The most important thing which I learnt is finding like-minded investors who will push your company in the right direction and not just crave to get manifold returns. Basically I can go on and on, on how being at SY has been such a learning experience and a much-needed one for us.

Meet Yanda: The Future of Decentralized Investing

When we announced StartupYard Batch X last week, we noted that 3 of the 7 companies that join us this round are working in the field of crypto asset trading. Yanda is one of them, providing cryptocurrency trading novices and pros the opportunity to create and share trading strategies, and control their crypto assets from a single platform, without having to deposit their funds into a single exchange.

Founder and CEO Mario Stumpo is a LUISS Guido Carli University graduate, where he obtained two Master’s degrees, in Law and Economics. He also studied at London School of Business and Finance, where he achieved a PGC in Finance. Mario started his career in Rome, working as a tax adviser for some of the leading Italian firms. After discovering cryptocurrencies in 2012, he developed several algorithms for trading and predicting the value of currencies.

I sat down with Mario this week to talk about why he got interested in crypto assets and cryptocurrencies, and what the future of Yanda looks like.

Hi Mario, tell us a bit about your personal journey towards founding Yanda. How did you get here?

I started really paying attention to cryptocurrencies while working as a tax advisor in Italy, and attending my second masters in economics. At the time, I was cooperating with law firms, chiefly as a tax advisor. I was investigating mechanisms of money laundering (not to help them launder money!), and in this way I came across Bitcoin in the early days of 2012.

Yanda, StartupYard

Mario Stumpo, Founder and CEO of Yanda

I was particularly looking at the Maradona case. I wanted to understand how these tax avoidance and laundering schemes were evolving in the football industry. I was advising football teams on how to avoid these issues and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Working with the financial authority of Italy and with private law firms, we helped football teams to structure their finances correctly, as there were many poor practices in the industry and surrounding it.

Bitcoin was then as now a target for money laundering. I started to see that there was a decreasing interest in the US Dollar as a target for laundered money. Money laundering is as old as money. It never goes away, so I knew that if there was going to be financial activity happening on the blockchain, then money laundering would be at the core of that from the beginning. That’s what drives many new financial technologies and assets. But I was thrilled by the idea around blockchain, to decentralize the monetary and economy system is to fundamentally change the way things work.

Everyone was talking about cutting out 3rd parties that are a huge cost center in the financial world. Particularly in Italy, middle-men institutions can kill deals by adding so much overhead cost to them. Fees are the name of the game. With decentralization, this power to tax the system on the part of central players would be at risk.

So I decided my studies weren’t done, and I moved to London where I had been in 2011 after doing a masters in law. London seemed like the right place to start my journey. I got a uni scholarship to study finance, and between 2012-2014 I got involved with bitcoin, making my first trades. I had started working as a trustee for a Tax and Finance firm, then moved on to working in the forex business. I built a lot of lasting relationships there that still come in handy today. As I began to understand the forex market, I saw that there were two sides to it: two ways of making money. Either you are in execution, or profit seeking. Either you help people execute their trades, or you try to outsmart everyone else with your trades.

All the money the forex traders make is based on volatility. And I realized that cryptocurrencies have the same qualities. I began coming up with some econometric models of the crypto markets, lots of predictive analysis, and started looking at patterns, all starting in 2014. I began trading with this approach, and making some money. In January 2015, I got to know Jonathan Price as a lecturer of mine. Everyone in the academic community was talking about Bitcoin being a pure bubble, and they weren’t interested. But Jonathan heard me out, and kept an open mind.

Mario STumpo, Jonathan Price

Mario with mentor and investor Jonathan Price

I showed him my results, and my system which was just Excel at the time. I pitched him the idea of a fully automated trading platform. I hadn’t even learned Python yet. He gave me 200 quid and said, “come back in month.” When I came back, I gave him 350 quid, which was the principle and profits. Ok, it could have been luck as far as he knew, but I convinced him that my approach was just based on consistent thinking and econometric analysis. It’s nothing fancy like machine learning. It’s not magic. It’s just math.

Jonathan opened up his network at London School of Business and Finance and Imperial College London. I gave some lectures, got to know the dean, and eventually Steve Bailey joined my team. He was an investor in startups going back to the early 2000s. By the end of 2015, we had a prototype, and Jonathan came into my office and said: “ok, quit your job, and let’s build this.” Since then I’ve been building Yanda, the team and the products.

Samir Allous joined Yanda as our CTO in early 2016, and together we have  been able to go from prototype to registered users without a hitch. His approach and ability to solve problems efficiently is the perfect match with me, and let us achieve great technology results.

Mario with CTO Samir Allous

We have a couple thousands users already using the platform, and we’re working on new things all the time.

What do you think is the biggest problem right now in the cryptocurrency market, and how does Yanda help solve that issue?

The main problem is not just the wild volatility that you see in prices and across exchanges. It’s really, sorry to say, the fact that the market is full of crooks. It’s full of people in it for all the wrong reasons, and it’s just become a big messy bubble.

Whenever you say that, lots of people react and say “you don’t know anything, you don’t understand what we’re doing.” Ok, maybe not. Or maybe I do know something. On the other side, I believe that there are lots of researchers and people like myself trying to nurture an environment where cryptocurrencies are really useful and play a needed role in the economy.

Then on the other side, you have people who are mostly interested in creating that volatility which is going to allow them to squeeze money out of unsophisticated investors. Over the Counter exchanges, totally unregulated, mean that the more money you have, the better infrastructure you have, and so you can make more money. That’s really just the way traditional forex works anyway. The ones who own the systems make the money.

So what we see now is a huge bait and switch. People bring a nice optimistic idea to the market, they promise investors to get rich quick, then they find out building value is just as hard as it always was. At the end of the day, having a coin is meaningless if you cannot build great products on top of that. Then you’re just selling tickets to a party that has no music. People think the coin has value, but when they eventually try to use it, they find out it doesn’t.

Our knowledge space is polluted right now, and people don’t understand what is really driving the market. That’s why we want to provide a tool for approaching the market, and sharing real working knowledge about cryptocurrencies. That’s what Yanda is all about: fighting disinformation, and cracking the wall of lies and promises that get built around a lot of cryptocurrencies.

Let’s also talk about Yanda coin. How does having your own token help Yanda execute its mission of helping retail investors to make crypto profits?

That’s a great question. Because I just got done saying how coins are being used all wrong – to sell something before it is even built. Well, we did Yandacoin the other way. We built a system and a set of tools for people to automate their crypto trading the traditional way.

We built this essentially as a SaaS service, however to distinguish it from any other such service, we realized that we needed to have a transactional model. We needed to charge users for the volume of their use, because otherwise you are not providing the right incentives for trading only at the right times. Unlimited use allows people to game the system, perform front-runs, pumps, etc. Pay-per-use is much more honest.

However, the cryptocurrency system is expensive to use in this way. Pay-per-trade costs users quite a bit of money over the long term, because not only do they have to pay us, they have to pay the cost inherent in the coins they are trading as well. So we came up with Yandacoin, which is a way for us to allow users to pay for our services on a per-use basis, and at the same time to batch their transactions with those of others, and save on the execution of their trades as well.

The main reason for running our blockchain on the multi-chain protocol is because we can cut all the expenses related to third parties when it comes to transferring funds from one wallet to another. The major value comes out of our blockchain, intended as a fully auditable ledger where we store all the data related to trader performance across multiple exchanges. Storing these data within our blockchain guarantees enhanced transparency about the performance of Yanda traders.    

Yanda StartupYard

We can do this because we are built on the open source Multichain stack. Our platform is a real database: and it can be decentralized, distributed, or private. That provides complete transparency to our users about how their transactions are processed. We have nothing to hide from anyone, and it will always be abundantly clear how and how much we profit from our activities. All data we collect is accessible to anyone with the blockchain.

We began to realize that we can function as a layer on top of the exchanges, which creates fully transparent and auditable databases for our users, who access exchanges through our platform. We serve to provide visibility to our users, and helps them to maintain auditable records for themselves as well.

Tell us a bit more about how your platform works, and why people should use it instead of others.

The way you use the platform really depends on your experience level. Our main tool is dubbed PATS, which si the Personal Automated Trading System. That is aimed at experienced traders who know what they’re doing, and are setting up strategies they would like to automate and use more often.

The advantage of using our platform to do that is that it’s completely safe. We never have withdrawal permissions from the exchange APIs, so we cannot move our customers’ funds out of exchanges. We don’t take a deposit, and we have no access to customer funds. Traders can create custom strategies from scratch, and we don’t offer strategies ourselves.

However, we want to provide the opportunity for experienced traders to leverage their strategies and help less experienced members take advantage of them as well. So the social trading feature allows novices to copy strategies of successful traders, for which a commission could be earned. We let them establish a relationship and talk to each other, explore each other’s profiles and compare different traders to learn about common practices.

In order to activate an account with Yanda, traders must provide their API keys (with no withdrawal permissions) from at least one of the available exchanges. Once they are settled with their keys, traders can opt for three solutions: Copy the trading strategies created and shared by other traders, Manage their crypto portfolio across multiple exchanges, or create their own trading bot with no coding needed.

We plan to offer a more comprehensive portfolio management tool as well, so that our users can see past trends and how they may affect the future. These are all standard analysis practices. There’s no secret sauce to doing it, it’s just being applied to crypto instead of to more traditional assets.

How to explain my approach? I’m a big fan of Bill Gates. I try to follow his example. What he did was catch great ideas from open source, and offered tools that were accessible to everyone. Like Excel: a tool to let you do whatever you want. From a simple calculation to a complex program. We have the same aim with Yanda: from trading a few coins, to having a comprehensive portfolio strategy, we want to provide that scalability to our users.

Where do you see the project in 5 years time? Do you see crypto and traditional stock investments each playing a role in Yanda’s future?

It may sound surprising, but we want to be a bank, more or less. We want to compete with companies like Revolut and Wirex, which are approaching the market from a different set of core values. Revolut is all about convenience of payments in real life and between individuals. Wirex is about foreign exchange and sending money. We will be about trading, but each of us will function as banks.

We have the right infrastructure, the ambition, and the right team to build the bank of the future. We will become a regular licensed broker, and wealth manager, but we will also offer, as Revolut has in its own way, a new conception of finance. The main difference is that we will be a “bank” that doesn’t hold the funds our members trade. We will create a bridge between their wallets and funds on multiple exchanges.

In some way, it’s almost the reverse of Revolut: they offer the advantages of having one account but being able to access dozens of different countries and currencies with that account. We offer the ability to take a bunch of accounts, and to localize them in one account. Where they help you spread out, we help you collocate.

I believe that the banking system ought to go back more to the way it was in the 80s and 90s. That is to say, more along the lines of the European socialist model of savings banks. Banks should just hold money. They shouldn’t function as “financial product” providers or investors. Those tasks should be taken up by someone who does not have your money in hand. The combination is a dangerous one, as we have seen in recent history. Centralized power and vertical integration doesn’t lead to broad social benefits. We seek horizontal integration instead: the services of a bank but with lower overhead and higher security.

Yanda is an ambitious project that aims to offer other services that includes wallets for Bitcoin and other cryptos, a wealth management system, and a debit card for traders. Currently, one of our main focus is regulation. We still don’t know how all governments will react on the long run, but after the latest report from the FCA we foresee opportunities we would like to catch. Regarding the inclusion of traditional stocks within Yanda’s services, we are open to it but our current focus is on cryptocurrencies and is going be like this until we will obtain the necessary licenses to operate with other assets.

What do you think the cryptocurrency market has to accomplish before it can become a really reliable and stable part of the financial system?

The forces that might influence the future of cryptocurrencies are various and hostile, but the recent trend of issuing so-called “stable coins” (cryptocurrencies backed by fiat currencies) such as the USDC is an encouraging measure of success of the blockchain technology. Whether Bitcoin is going to succeed as a global currency or not, the worldwide adoption of the blockchain as a distributed ledger will follow a separate path that seems more realistic and feasible to me (especially in the short term).

How can people get involved with Yanda and start using the services today?

The steps are very easy, actually. Traders can register for free on Yanda.io and start trading immediately after they connect their account with exchanges via API keys. We are now working on improving the usability of the platform and on the production of video tutorials that will help users with their journey on Yanda.

You’re among the first startups that have joined StartupYard from the cryptocurrency world. Have there been any big surprises coming through the mentoring process at SY?

It is an honor to me and to all the members of the team at Yanda to be part of SY. The biggest surprise is to see so many top managers with a more traditional financial background getting closer to our world. Having the opportunity to share our vision with them and receive their feedback is definitely a major opportunity for understanding how we might fit in this evolving industry.  

For you, which of the StartupYard mentors have been the most influential, and why?

It is very difficult to determine that because every mentor brought her/his own point of view and are all very different and valuable. If I need to choose, Gustavo Vizcardo, Yann Bouvier and Philip Staehelin have been sharing their expertise with us since we met and helped us drawing a solid plan of expansion and growth.

Meet Printsyst: The Only AI 3D Printing Expert You’ll Ever Need

Printsyst co-founders Itamar and Eitan Yona are brothers, and they represent our first startup from Israel as members of Batch X. They are also the 3rd generation in a family of a printers, carrying their family tradition into the realm of 3d printing. Their startup, Printsyst, is for companies that use 3D printing, but don’t have internal expertise. PrintSYSt is an AI-powered management solution that provides a complete automated 3D printing workflow. Unlike standard existing solutions, PrintSYSt requires no expertise, allowing users to focus on design instead of production.

Itamar, the older brother at 34, plays the role of CEO, and  has a degree in Electrical Engineering. He provides professional engineering advice, lectures, and workshops about additive manufacturing worldwide. His articles being published on well-known industry magazines and blogs. Eitan on the other hand focuses his attention on marketing and communication, and can be found frequently on the team’s YouTube channel, connecting with experts and educating his audience on 3D manufacturing.

 

Printsyst, StartupYard

Printsyst Co-Founders Itamar (left) and Eitan Yona (right), with StartupYard CEO Cedric Maloux

 

Hi Eitan and Itamar. You are not actually our first pair of siblings at StartupYard, but I think people will be interested to know how it is you both came to make 3d printing your focus in life. What’s it like to do this together?

We will answer these questions in one voice, because that’s really the way we are as a team. We know each other so well, it’s like one hand working with the other. It’s muscle memory.

Working with family is unlike anything else. You can have colleagues, and you can have people whom you rely on and you trust, but these are not your family. We are a 3rd generation family in this business. Our grandfather was a printer, our father is a printer. We are carrying that tradition forward, and in that sense we see ourselves as a part of that tradition, just bringing it forward.

Our father taught us growing up that individually, we would never have the strength that we have together. Perhaps you can tie this in with the history of our country and people as well. We have to cooperate as one to get things done. As brothers we are able to learn collectively, and to multiply our strengths.

That is the secret sauce in a family business, which is that you are building upon a foundation that is rock solid. In most tech startups, we think this is missing. That sense of belonging to the industry and the sense that you are born to do what you do is very appealing. Our family is not just in the printing business, but rather we are in the technology business, and always have been. The technology just changes. The business part is not so different.

It’s fun as well. We can laugh at and scream at each other, and change directions in 10 seconds. We don’t have to forgive each other for every mistake. We can be angry, and we can share our feelings with each other. One can rely on the other.

Is there a downside to the family dynamic?

Sure. We are very monomaniacal about our work. It can be hard to stop talking about work and switch to other topics. How are your kids? What did you do this weekend? We get very comfortable talking about work topics, to the point where the separation of work and life is a bit blurry.

But again, this is in the family for generations. Our parents worked together all our lives, with our grandparents too. Life and family is business. There is no distinction sometimes. I don’t know if you consider that healthy. Maybe it’s good for some people and not good for others. We make it work. We are happy with what we do now.

Do you think that family background, being a 3rd generation printing family, gives you an advantage over others who come into this business from a different background, such as in computer science or manufacturing? What are the intangibles of a printer’s life experience?

So, it’s important to emphasize that we are technologists, by tradition. Printing is just the technology we know. A family business is not something that should stay the same for all time. That is not progress. Instead, a family business gives you the roots you need and the stable base you need to grow with much higher confidence and the right connections from the beginning.

It may seem like we are departing from tradition. Our father and grandfather were in 2D printing (Printing Press). We are in 3D. It’s a different world. However, our father made the switch from offset to digital printing. That was equally difficult, and equally transformative in its own time. The needs of customers change continually, and having a deep empathy and respect for people is something that takes a lot of life experience.

In that sense, what you do in 3D printing is no different at all from any other kind of printing. People always have the same flaws and the same needs from you. You are the person helping them to take advantage of the technology and see what is possible for them. If 50 years ago it was that they could print a photo or a book, today it’s that they can print something like a pair of glasses. Still, you serve a human need: to start a small business, to realize a creative dream.

That human level is where everything important is happening. The business that can get down to really sharing a bond with the customer and understanding and appreciating them for what they are, is going to be successful. The money will follow. That’s our view.

It seems rare to me in technology to see people follow their parents as role models and mentors

Yes, it is more rare than it used to be. Technology is no longer seen as a trade, but rather as a skillset. So you are not a craftsman or a journeyman, but an engineer. That brings the focus out of customer-minded, traditional practices, and toward institutional ideas and practices. The engineer thinks as the university teaches him to think. Not as his father teaches him to think.

That is not always bad of course, but there is a reason that trades have been passed down from

parent to child for all of time. In the formalization of some knowledge, you will lose that which cannot be written down. I can teach you to code out of a book. I cannot teach you to run a business out of a book. I cannot tell you what use that code will be once you know how to do it. That is experiential, and it is something people can get from their parents, and should get from them.

So in a sense you would like to see the tech business be more conservative?

Maybe. What does this mean, conservative? There is simply a great deal of value in growing up in an industry, just as there is value in coming into an industry fresh with a new perspective. Both approaches must always be considered.

In the “entrepreneur industry” today, ego is heavily monetized. Right? It is all about the founder and the singularity of them and their vision, and how no one else is the same as they are. No one can do what they do. But this is nonsense. This is not how knowledge is gained in the real world or passed on for our shared benefit. We are not islands to ourselves. If you build to last, then what you build is more than you are.

When you look to the great fortunes of the 21st century, it is sad in a way that they belong to people who are in many ways isolated in time and place. They have no sense of their past or future. Disruption in the sense that the technology industry means is often just an ego trip. Technology always changes. It is a question of whether we are better as people, or worse. Do we do good for people, or not?

What attracts you to working on 3d printing in Europe? Why not somewhere else?

Well, of course we were attracted to StartupYard! But also the fact that Europe is a really fertile ground for change and innovation in 3D printing. We see it as somewhere that we can bring a lot of value, and where businesses and people are ready to take advantage of our technology.

We love Israel as well, so we will always be home there. However, 3D printing is not like the old printing business. It is language independent. It is global and digital. So we must be where other companies are doing this work. The business may be global, but being physically present is still very important. We have to make ourselves unavoidable and inescapable for the future of 3d printing.

Let’s talk about the technology because I think most people see 3d printing in a really simplistic way. What is the current state of 3d printing, if you can provide some analogy to traditional printing technology? Are we in the Gutenberg days? The Franklin era?  

Yeah, that’s a good question. So decades  ago, when our father was taking over the family business, there was no really good software drivers available for professional, quality printing. People who were going digital were doing this stuff on their own. You had to have a very good reason to do that, because the change was very drastic. It was essentially taking everything that you know about printing, and changing all of it.

You want to print digitally? Ok. You need a team of developers, hardware engineers, you need a lot of money to research and test. You basically have to start from zero. People cannot imagine this now, because today you don’t think about PostScript and print drivers, and these things that were hell on people in the printing business for many years.

You have to consider that digital transformation is not a new phenomenon in 2018. It has been going on for decades already. The journey from an offset press, with physical plates printing pages, to a digital laser printer is an enormous change. It is like going from steam power to electric. Everything must change.

Now we face the same level of challenges in 3D printing. To digitize the making of 3D objects. If you will, I think we are in the offset printing era right now of 3D objects. You have injection molds. You have industrial processes that take huge investment and planning to work. You do have 3D printing happening on a small scale, but you lack all the hardware and the essential drivers between the finished object, and the technology itself. And if you are lucky enough and have access to 3D printing, you still need to follow a long learning curve.

That is the problem we are solving at the end of the day. The ease with which you print a page of paper today should be, maybe 15years from now, the same ease you experience printing a pair of glasses or a new doorknob. Whatever you need. Remember printing evolved from handwriting to the printing press, to the digital laser printer in more than 500 years. Manufacturing also is taking a journey from the handmade to the ubiquitously available object in a similar space of time.

Obviously there have been some hype bubbles surrounding 3D printing in the last few years. Do you think we are poised for a major step in the adoption of these technologies now?

It’s true, particularly maybe 10 years ago, that there have been some hype and disappointment around 3D printing. This is necessary to the process, And predictable in a way.

This is a normal thing for new technologies on the adoption curve.

There were lots of ideas, and people doing very cool things with 3D printers, but the technology has not jumped to mainstream adoption for a few specific reasons.

One of them is the materials being used, and that is changing very quickly. People found pretty quickly that the variety of objects and functionalities was limited by the material. Color, strength, consistently, etc. There are many new approaches coming to the physical printing process that will make this much easier.

On the side of software, this is what we are trying to solve. One of the problems that emerged very quickly was that there are many physical parameters to consider when you are printing an object of any size.

Unlike on a piece of paper, you have an object in 3 axis, and you must consider the 4th dimension as well: in which orientation should parts be printed, and even more, what should the internal structure of the parts be?

So that is where AI comes in?

Yes, precisely. AI is needed to run through all these potential variations in the way a thing can be printed, and select the best one for the purpose at hand. That can save a very lengthy process of having to manually determine these factors, or just guess and check to see if it works, which is what people are doing today.

Many hobbyists quickly found out that they could not move from imagining a new object to simply printing it, because the technology required more detail than the imagination supplies. You need hundreds or more parameters to print a 3D object. You must know the thickness of each component. You need to choose internal structures (honeycomb, swiss cheese?) you must know in what orientation to print, and where the piece will be separated from the printer. How fast will it be printed?

So the process of iterating these tiny details in a physical printer is very expensive and time consuming. There were many cases in which people just couldn’t produce prototypes because they couldn’t get the printer to follow a process that created a stable object. That’s a big problem in 3D printing. That’s not a physical obstacle, it’s a software obstacle.

We are using AI to sort that problem out. You have to virtually simulate the infinite combinations of possible approaches to printing an object, and find that ideal process, which is going to be absolutely unique for every single thing you print. One small change to the thickness or the length of something, and a 3D printer must be completely reconfigured to allow for printing a stable version of this new design.

That really destroys your ability to iterate, unless you can be sure that each time you print, you are getting the best version of the object you are trying to make. You can make quite complex parts in 3D printers, and in some cases these parts can serve to replace dozens of other components that were formerly separate pieces in a machine or a piece of furniture. But if you can’t figure out how to stabily print that object, then the 3D rendering is useless. It’s just an idea.

Printsyst is taking that rendering, and making it printable and stable, and useful from the first try. That’s the objective. Break the expertise barrier that stops people from using 3D printing for whatever reason. Democratize manufacturing and make it something accessible to small businesses, entrepreneurs, and individuals.

We know that 3D printing has huge applications for manufacturing and design (such as being able to rapidly build custom parts and eliminate assembly steps). But what kind of impact do you see on consumer lives in the next decade or so?

Much of the impact may go unseen for the near future, to the end user. Many things that were formerly very complex to assemble may begin to be 3D printed, such as electronic components and even parts for cars, furniture, and things like that. But you may not know the difference if you don’t know how to look for it. It will simply allow businesses to deliver these goods cheaper, faster, and in more variety.

Later on, as this technology is further democratized, it can have the same effect that widespread printing had on the spread of literature and businesses around the world. The ability to create something fast, cheap and in good quality with minimal equipment also means you can take a lot of creative risks, and many microbusinesses may be born. Already you see this among some designers, using 3d printing as a bit of a gimmick. It will not be a gimmick forever.

Ultimately, we probably get to the point where an individual is able to order or print parts and object themselves that are customized to their exact needs or the needs of a situation. You know what size shoe you wear, but I bet you don’t know the distance between your temples. So why don’t you? Because knowing that, you can create a pair of glasses that fit you perfectly.

3D printing will mean “mass customization.” This means less waste of energy and materials, less cost to transportation, and ultimately we believe a better environment in which fewer resources are ultimately wasted by overproduction and under-customization.

How can companies who are employing 3D printing start to take advantage of your technology? Where do they get started?

Right now, we are working with small and medium sized enterprises who are using 3D printing to develop and produce new products. These companies don’t have a lot of internal 3d printing expertise, but can bridge that gap with Printsyst.

We also are interested in working with designers, and other entrepreneurs or engineers who want to use 3D printing, but again, don’t want to lose a lot of time learning how to get the most out of a printer or a particular design. We would love to support efforts to build low cost housing, and there are currently many needs from many different types of printers to get them to run more efficiently, and to optimize designs on the go, making each printed part perfect for its exact position and purpose.

Some industries we see getting interested are especially interior designers, architects, and automotive repair as well. 3D printing is great for refurbishing cars or making customized components, so we should see a lot more interest in that direction. Replacement parts, particularly, can be made much faster and exactly to fit.

In the long term, we really believe this technology is going to penetrate everywhere. Eitan spent his military service on a submarine in the Israeli Navy, working mostly on repairs. Imagine having a 3D printer in a submarine so print the exact parts you need. Stock becomes a much easier logistical issue.

 

Meet Urbigo: Your First Smart Home Garden from StartupYard Batch X

With each new batch of startups at StartupYard, we run a series of detailed interviews with the founders to give our community a sense of who they are, and how they see the world they’re trying to change. Last week we announced 7 new companies in StartupYard Batch X. Today, we jump in with an interview of Anja Varnicic, CEO and Co-founder of Urbigo, the urban smart garden company that promises to “Bring nature closer to you.”

Urbigo is a system including a small modular garden with grow lights, and cylinders for plants containing nutrients and water. The garden is controlled via an interactive mobile app, and users can get the latest advice on how to tend to their mini gardens, as well as order new plants, nutrients, and soil packs from Urbigo.

CEO Co-founder Anja Varnicic, shows off Urbigo’s Smart Garden with company CTO and Co-founder Aleksandar Varnicic

 

Hi Anja, coming from a plant biology background, what made you want to turn your passion for the science into a business, helping people grow plants at home?

So, as an environmental scientist, I have long asked the question: “what role do plants really play in our lives?” The truth is that we are entirely dependant on them. For oxygen. For nutrients. For flavor, and for our wellbeing. Yet modern society has moved off the farm, and now treats plants and spices as commodities that are easily fungible between one brand and another. If not from Spain, then from Brazil. If not from Turkey, then from California.

We don’t understand where our food and our air comes from anymore, and I think that is a problem for people living in cities. Of course, we can’t expect people all to live in hydroponic greenhouses in their flats, but we should get ourselves closer to the foods that we eat and the flavors that we taste.

The way of doing that for us at UrbiGo has been to bring just a little bit of green into people’s lives, and to show them the immediate benefits of tending to plants that we depend on for everything. We came up with a focus on spices that can be grown in the urban kitchen, because not only do fresh coriander or mint taste better than dried and packaged versions, but also getting something to eat directly from a plant in your home reminds you of the life behind the things that you eat, and the natural world you depend on.


As with any other true love story, the startup idea happened unexpectedly and accidentally. I wanted to make these ideas into a real business. Luckily enough, I had a chance to share my business idea with Alex, our now CTO, who had previous startup experiences. We shared our thoughts, he loved it, and boom – UrbiGo was born!

How do you think incorporating gardening into one’s everyday life can affect positive change for somebody living in a city?

CEO Anja Varnicic is an environmental scientist and an engineer.


They say plants are the friends that always listen. And they really do. Indoor plants and urban gardening has become madly popular in the past few years because it reduces stress, make our air cleaner and our bodies healthier. And those are the thing we usually forget about or take for granted.

Having and growing fresh ingredients from your own garden is a creative activity. It brings us the same feelings we have as in making a sculpture or a painting, or writing a song. Gardening is viewed in Eastern cultures as almost poetic in nature.

For the millenial generation, we want to feel that connection to the Earth, and doing so makes us feel more responsible and more connected to nature. It makes us feel like grownups to be able to make life in an urban area where nature has seemingly little control.

I also believe that the millennial generation regrets the excessive commoditization of food. We yearn for the experience of knowing how our food is made, what it is, and how it makes its journey to our plates. So you see many different ways this is expressed in the modern consumer culture. Farm to kitchen restaurants. Farmer’s markets. Home gardens, and smart mini-gardens like Urbigo, that will help people to get back some of the control that we have lost over our diets and our environment.

]What would you say are the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to designing urban homes, and thinking about our living environment?

]Today, a larger share of younger urban residents live in rented flats or flatshares than have ever done in the past. What we see happening in cities is interior spaces being divided into smaller and smaller parts, and unless the presence of plants is part of the planning for those spaces, it ends up as a kind of afterthought.

Take a walk for example through an Ikea, which is where a lot of young people are going to get a sense of how to use their personal space… the plants are the last thing you see there. They are the afterthought. They are what you add when you have everything done.

This is backwards, I think. We need to plan more around plants, and plan to live with more plants in our personal spaces. That can affect the placement of windows, or the whole design of a building. The use of light must be reconsidered. In some cities such as Paris or Berlin now, whole buildings are being constructed with plants on their walls and rooftops. This is a good start.

Do not treat plants as a pleasant addition to your home. If you do, you will not have room for them when you decide they are the thing missing for you.

Let’s talk more about Urbigo’s products. What would you say distinguishes you from other indoor gardening solutions? What is your “killer app?”


UrbiGo isn’t just a fancy smart garden that grows fresh herbs for you – it is a community of plant lovers and enthusiasts that are changing urban gardening as we know it.

UrbiGo gardeners get to control their UrbiGo mini smart garden from their phones and learn how to grow their own fresh and nutritious ingredients in a fun and simple way through a gamified app. By completing daily challenges in the app we want to motivate and empower people to become successful urban gardeners and live more sustainably.

We take some cues from products such as FitBit, or Calm, an App for managing stress and relaxation. The way they engage millions of users into doing something good for their body and mind is something we  can learn from. Tending to your garden should be a small but integral part of your daily ritual, and with UrbiGo app we want to make the process learning and enjoyable even for those who could kill a cactus.

The Urbigo App

Now is an interesting time for home gardening, because today urban millennials are becoming used to healthy lifestyle daily rituals using technologies like smartphones and watches. We don’t want to suck people into paying attention to their phones, but rather to use the medium of the smartphone to help people live a healthier and more satisfying life, and live in a better environment.

Suppose that urban gardening becomes the norm for people living in cities 10 or 20 years from now. How else would you like to change the way we design our lives around food, cooking, and living spaces in the future?


Since we tend to spend most of our days in offices and indoor spaces,  I believe it will be essential to stay connected with things that matter most like family, friends and nature. Plants and greenery have this power to gather people, especially in urban areas where those are scarce.  And we wanted to make this values approachable and simple for our users which inspired us to create product and a network of like minded plant lovers and untaped enthusiasts.

Many people living in cities rarely if ever buy fresh spices and ingredients for cooking. What are they missing out on? What are some of the concrete benefits of growing at home?Besides improving your overall health, growing and consuming your own fresh ingredients makes you connected with nature and origin of your food, that obviously doesn’t grow on market shelves and from plastic packaging.

We’ve heard lots of complaints from our customers, that store-bought herbs dry out in a matter of a few days and don’t have the fresh and intense tastes they’ve come to expect. Once you have something fresh, it can be very striking to taste the difference between that, and something not fresh. So I think people should have more choice about what to consume and when to consume it – this is why the UrbiGo app educates consumers about the benefits of “growing your own ingredients” so you can make proper decisions about your health and wellbeing. Be better informed, and make more informed decisions.

Food gardening is most of all a local and sustainable way of producing fresh ingredients and educating your family on where your food comes from. As cities transform into concrete jungles, this kind of relationship with nature will become crucial for us future generations’ well-being.

As a business, where would you like Urbigo to be 5 years from now? What will be your metric for having accomplished your mission?

We go where our customers needs are, and thus we are experimenting with the ways to include smart indoor gardening into every future home. The next logical long term step would be to incorporate UrbiGo into the smart home device network because there is a space and interest in companies for the next gen “plant device” that would improve urban health and connect with their low-friction lifestyles.

For now our goal is to get a smart garden into every home, and turn that into a network of people who are thinking much more about their well-being, health and importance of food gardening.

Imagine, using smart home technology to, in a way, bring us back to an earlier age when you would ask your neighbors for an egg or a cup of sugar. Maybe in 5 years you will be able to use UrbiGo to compete in urban gardening skills with your neighbor, grow chillies in your office desk or have a “green pet” for your kids. Maybe it will lead to people sharing much more of their domestic lives and spaces with each other, and helping each other to live better.

I think these very locally focused changes will be a very important part of the smart-home of the future. Not that you are one home connected to the whole planet, but that you are one home connected to the homes around you as well. We all share one environment, and the best way to improve it is to connect and learn together.

You’re employing a number of new technologies in Urbigo’s gardens already, like 3d printing, and LED lighting. How do you see technology making urban gardening even easier in the future?


New technologies have allowed urban gardening become more “smart” and resilient to climate change effects we are experiencing. So you don’t have to be dependent 100% on sunlight, ever changing weather conditions or your personal skills and knowledge .

But, still, people don’t want technology to do everything for them, because growing and tending plants can be part of a soothing ritual as well. I see technology as a tool to make your everyday life greener, easier but also to empower you to learn and share your urban gardening experience with others. We cannot stop urbanization, but with technology we can help people stay connected with nature.

Has there been a major surprise for you since joining the StartupYard program? Did you learn something you weren’t expecting to?

I’m not sure if it was a surprise, but we have certainly noted that the interest in smart gardening in the corporate and business spheres are also growing very fast. I think as millennials begin to move higher in large organizations, this is going to become an area where we can have a big impact with our product.

Urbigo, StartupYard Accelerator

The Urbigo Founders brought some life into StartupYard this round

People spend up to half their time in offices, and in many cases, these spaces are poorly adapted to keeping people healthy and happy. Companies are understanding more and more that the total wellbeing of their employees is a vital consideration, and that if they cannot provide a better environment for people, then workers will go to those who can. I think this is very positive, and I hope to continue to raise people’s standards for their immediate environment, and inspire people to demand greener workplaces.

What have been your team’s biggest personal or professional challenges in making this project a reality?  

We’ve been able to grow the waitlist for UrbiGo to over 500 people and we got major interest not just from individuals but also corporates. One of the challenges for us, as we are engineers, was to let go of some of our ideas about what people should like, and really listen to what our customers are saying about what they want.

You can come up with great ideas, but if you can’t get your ego out of the way, you will miss the experiences and stories that really define who your customers are, and how they see your products fitting into their lives. Learning this at the beginning of our startup journey was crucial to get first sales, traction and investments.

We cannot stop the technology and urbanization, but we have to design a product that accommodates our customer’s fast paced life and needs and also engages them into doing something little everyday that is good for themselves. This is an ongoing process but we are happy that so many people help us do that and share our vision.

What do people need to get started with their own urban gardens? How can they get their hands on an UrbiGo smart garden?

Since UrbiGo does not require big space, plant knowledge or time but accommodates to your lifestyle, you are basically one click away from starting to grow your mini indoor garden.

We have had testers out in the field for a whole, and we’re ready to go live. Right now, we are taking signups for a special, limited first batch of Urbigo gardens for those real enthusiasts who are ready to join our smart urban gardening community. This exclusive run will start delivery in December 2018, and the wider public will be able to order from Urbigo during the next year.

Intelligent Trading Foundation Team, STartupyard

Meet Intelligent Trading Foundation, Your Wealthfront for Cryptocurrencies

This week we were proud to announce the names of the 7 Batch X startups with Startupyard for our 10th round of acceleration. Traditionally this reveal is followed by a series of in-depth discussions with the founders of each company. 

We begin the series with Intelligent Trading Foundation or ITF, helmed by a team of three: Head of Engineering and Innovation Thomas Counsell, Head of Finance and Strategy Ben Lakoff CFA, and John Venport, the Head of Marketing. The team prefer not to refer to themselves as “co-founders,” and don’t assume traditional C-level roles that many startup companies assign their members. 

ITF will pitch for the first time to the public, along with the rest of the Batch X companies on November 29th, 2018, at our next Demo Day in Prague.

I caught up with the team this week to talk about their journey so far, and to get some insight into where the blockchain and cryptocurrency world is headed next. Here’s what they had to say:

Hi Ben. I think we should jump right into this conversation by first acknowledging, you’re the first startup we’ve ever taken post-token sale (or ICO). Can you tell us what that process was like for you?

Absolutely. Running a token sale turned out to be a LOT of work. Turns out the “easy way” of raising funds for a crypto project is far from easy if you want to do it right. We were terrified of being hacked, or having something go wrong with the process.

Both Tom and I were still working full time jobs at the time, so this was something we were doing (mostly) outside work hours. We thought running the token sale was hard, but the real work starts after that. You face the fact that crypto or no crypto, you’re building a real company and dealing with real company issues.

Intelligent Trading Foundation Team, StartupYard

Tom left, Ben Right

I think successfully raising funds via a token sale helped to validate our idea in our minds, but that did not eliminate the struggle to find product market fit. Like any startup, building up our tech stack does reveal potential directions and products that might work even better (not straying from the original intention of helping bring sophisticated tools to investors in cryptocurrency to make better decisions).

We raised funds by selling what’s called a “utility token,” which means that essentially the buyers of the token are buying access to the product itself, where the token can be used to transact with us and access the premium products we offer. There turned out to be a pretty big catch raising funds in this approach, and that is that many of the people who buy the token are not actually your end users, but people who want to speculate on the price of the token going up. As has happened with many, even most other utility token sales, the value of our tokens post-dropped dramatically, and suffered from low liquidity. This meanshat those who hold it are unwilling to sell it, and those who want it are unwilling to buy it at current prices.

This is predictable in a way. Although we had a working product at the time of our token sale, it was really only for early adopters and needed to be improved before reaching more users. It’s sort of like selling tokens to play in an arcade that hasn’t been built yet. There is not much reason yet for the buyers of the token to sell, and there is not much compelling others to buy it, so the market price dropped. However, there is one way to increase the demand for the token, and make the investment potentially worth it to those who have already bought in, and that is to make relevant products available, using the token as a way to access them. .

In a sense, I think one of the hardest things about a token sale is that in the end it doesn’t change the economics of human behavior in the least bit. People still behave the same way, whether a market is distributed or centralized. As a group, it is hard for people to make long term decisions about the value of things, which is what causes so much volatility in markets, including crypto markets.

The legal and ethical responsibilities for those startups who do token sales do not go away. They consume an inordinate amount of time if you approach them with the intent to do the right thing. That’s just the way it is. As much as we’d like to make it easier, our system is complex because there are many stakeholders to be considered and protected. Decentralizing technologies do not change the need to balance the interests of many players at once.

What led to the two of you working together? How did this end up as Intelligent Trading Foundation?

Tom, John, and I all met in late 2016 in Thailand through different tech conferences. It’s funny that we all met in Thailand, because we’re all from the midwest in the USA and we had all been living in Thailand for different reasons (Ben with RMA Group, John with entrepreneurial projects, and Tom consulting for startups and working at Agoda).

We immediately clicked and decided to work together in some way. What started as a “Young VC Club” – we eventually tested a couple of different business ideas that didn’t get much traction. Midway through 2017, John’s eLearning project took off and ended up being a lot larger than expected, so he was pulled away to focus exclusively on that.

In the meantime, Tom and I had been trading cryptocurrencies and were looking for a solution to make trading easier and more efficient. Classic scratching your own itch thinking. Since Tom is highly technical, he started building out a tool to help. Once people found out about the tool, we decided to do a token sale and raise money to further develop a suite a products to help investors in the cryptocurrency markets.

In September’17, we completed our token sale, raising $2 million dollars, and started building out the team. It was at this time that we opened our incubator in Prague, Blockchain Hub, to help ITF synergize with other Blockchain Startups. In February’18, John finished his eLearning project and was able to join the team as a co-founder.

Intelligent Trading Foundation Team, STartupyard

A part of the team assembled at Node5, StartupYard’s headquarters in Prague

Since then, we’ve been steadily developing our product and growing the team. Currently we have 12 members on the team, and are looking to hire more.

About Ben:

  • Head of Finance
  • Developed strong global finance experience through 10 years of international assignments in the US, Brazil, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Czech Republic and through the award of his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certification.
  • Broad and diverse experience across various finance roles including corporate finance, mergers & acquisitions, equity markets, and banking.

About John:

  • Head of Marketing
  • Owned and sold marketing agency
  • Sold various types of digital products and software online for the past 3 years
  • eLearning project in Thailand in 2017.

About Tom:

  • Head of Technology
  • Developed commercial payment software for small business owners in Morocco while he was living there in the Peace Corps
  • Owned software development consultancy
  • Served as CTO for startups in Morocco, Thailand, and Czech Republic

How does your utility token work, and what does the product do?

ITT, our native token, is a utility token used to access premium subscriptions on the ITF platform. We’ll continue to add new products and tiers to utilize the ITT token.

The flagship product of today is a predictive alert system that keeps a trader informed about potential movements in the crypto market, and points out opportunities that the trader is likely to find interesting throughout the day. This product is targeted more for active traders. Our next product, ready later this year, will be more targeted toward retail investors, offering a simple way for everyday investors to get more involved with investing in cryptocurrencies.

ITF’s mission is to provide sophisticated tools for cryptocurrency investors, and we’re doing everything we can to simplify their investment decisions. Eventually we want to be able to offer a suite of tools that rivals platforms like Betterment or Wealthfront, but in the crypto space, where traders are able to leverage sophisticated technologies and easily get involved in the cryptocurrency markets.

Intelligent Trading Foundation Team

By having our own token we’re also enabled to do some neat things, like staking, where HODL’ers will get access to premium features just by proving that they have the tokens in their account (they keep them). We also credit any payment for our premium products toward a user’s ‘staked’ amount, which is somewhat of a ‘rent-to-own’ model.  That’s something that cryptocurrencies allow that traditional software platforms generally do not.

The ITT token is essential to access our platform, but since it suffers from low liquidity and is traded on rather difficult / non-intuitive exchanges, we’re doing our best to make it easier. We’re currently testing many assumptions with our ITT token. We’ve recently attempted to make it easier to access our services by allowing users to pay in ETH and other cryptocurrencies, and in the background we’re buying the ITT token ourselves on the user’s behalf.

This I see as one of the core problems for the whole crypto market, which is to say that low adoption rates and trading volume of many tokens creates a poor environment for actually utilizing the advantages of the token. A classic tragedy of the commons.

What would you tell another company that is thinking about going the ICO route? Would you do it again yourself?

We definitely don’t have any regrets. Raising money via a token sale allowed us to build ITF into what it is today, and dream up what we think it can be in the future. It’s a fundamentally different thing to build a product for people who have already bought into the platform, as opposed to equity investors who are buying into the business. That’s a very different kind of relationship.

If we were to do it again knowing what we know now, I would say we would work on validating the product and achieving more of a product market fit prior to doing a token sale. We had an alpha, with some early users, but hadn’t proven that there was sufficient demand to build a successful company from our original product yet. That led to the situation of low liquidity we are in now.

Let’s get deeper into what ITF is doing on the market right now. How does the technology work?

In broad strokes, we’re attempting to provide sophisticated tools for cryptocurrency investors, and we’re doing everything we can to simplify their investment decisions.

We’re moving toward two products: A Telegram bot – targeted toward crypto traders, and a Portfolio Management App – targeted toward retail investors. These two products enhance each other, allowing us to reach crypto traders where they are already communicating with others, and build our own proprietary platform where investors can access the crypto market using our technology.

Intelligent Trading Foundation Team

We have developed quite a few sophisticated technologies, including AI and Genetic Programming that we’re currently working to incorporate into trading strategies and the portfolio optimization tools we will offer. Karla, our chief PHD data scientist, has made 4 discoveries that we could potentially publish in a scientific journal.

Our Portfolio Management App can automatically execute trades on users’ behalf and rebalance their portfolio to their desired allocations or apply our machine learning algorithms to trade and optimize their returns. We already have a beta version in testing and will release a version for the public in early 2019.

Think of this as similar to Wealthfront, but for the cryptocurrency markets.

We have a clear roadmap of where we are going, and we are testing many assumptions along the way.

How do you see this evolving as a business, including monetization?

SaaS is the current business model that we are targeting.

Currently, we have over 3000 free users, and a handful of paying users for our first product’s premium plan which costs $20 per month. Our payment and checkout process has proven to be too difficult for most users because they need to use our utility token. We are reworking everything so that users can pay with more easily with different currencies. We will launch additional products later this year that will follow the SaaS model as well.

How does the fact that you’re also dealing with your own token, either compliment or complicate the development of your products?

We raised funds via a token sale by issuing a utility token, ITT. Thus, any of the funds used will be to used with the goal of increasing the value of the ITT ecosystem. You can’t do a token sale and then not have a token, in other words. That’s what the token sale contributors bought.

Currently, the token complicates things due to liquidity issues, but we’re actively working on some solutions to that and thinking about additional ways we can further incorporate the ITT token with ITF’s future products. The truth is that you just have to have a clear offering of valuable products to justify the existence and use of the coin.

Where would you like to be with ITF in 5 years? What kind of a position in the market would be most desirable?

Many may argue that the cryptocurrency industry might not be around in 5 years, we don’t agree with that opinion.

We’re bullish on cryptocurrencies, and are taking the longer approach with all of our product development. We’re committed to provide sophisticated tools for cryptocurrency investors, and we’re doing everything we can to simplify their investment decisions. Our current best-guess is with the two products we’re working on, but we will be making things incrementally better over time and keep trying out new helpful products until we find something that works.

We are here for the long term. This is something we want to build for the future.

I know you’ve explored a lot of options with StartupYard mentors over the past few months. What have been some of the most surprising insights or ideas you’ve come across? How do you think the mentoring process has shaped the company so far?

Although we have worked very hard to build a great team and culture, our number one takeaway from all of these sessions/workshops is that we need to spend more time thinking critically about the business model and strategy for the product itself – many smart startups fail as they’re married to a product idea/features.

If the features don’t sell, you don’t have a business, right? If the product isn’t compelling to your target market, then either the product or the market is wrong. That takes a toll on your ego if you’re proud of what you’ve already built. It’s hard to see good work go to “waste”, but that is the nature of early stage startups.

Now, we need to really spend some time on what the goal is. As the StartupYard team says: “how do we define success?” Who are our target customers and how do we want them to use our products?  What outcomes will they experience with us? Do we simplify their lives? Complicate them? These are questions you must have answers for.

Is it a tool that helps them make more informed decisions? How do they use it? Having a builder mindset is great for making cool things, but an explorer mindset is equally important to actually figuring out what people need and what they will respond to. That is something we have gotten from StartupYard in the past few months – that explorer mindset that says “question everything,” and then do it again, and question that too. Test all assumptions rigorously.

Then, obviously, when you’re sitting down with nearly a hundred highly experienced people from nearly any imaginable business, you are bound to find out things that you had no way of knowing.

What remains so important, I think, about the acceleration process is that it’s really the only way of getting this particular kind of feedback, and mentor-relationship with people who can really help you. You aren’t being criticized, or judged, you’re just being listened to, and being given the benefit of someone else’s experience.

There is no other medium where that can happen without any other ulterior motivations. Nobody is selling their advice. They are just giving it freely, because they want to, for their own individual fulfillment. That is so important to startups, and it’s the best part of StartupYard. The management team knows this, and they just sort of guide you through that process, and let the magic happen. It’s a great experience.

Guest Post by Ondrej Krajicek: What It Means to Be a Mentor

About Ondrej Krajicek

Ondrej Krajicek is Chief Technology Strategist for Y-Soft, and Y-Soft Ventures, a Brno-based printing and 3d manufacturing tech company where he has been a team member since almost the beginning. Ondrej is a dedicated startup mentor, and a longtime member of our community, where he has published his thoughts and unique perspectives on the technology business and other topics many times. Today Y-Soft is one of Czechia’s few technology “unicorns,” and serves large and small companies all over the world. At Y-Soft, Ondrej considers it his mission to grow the Czech economy by encouraging technologists to focus on crafting superior products and relying on their best skills, rather than focusing on cheap labor and manufacturing. 

What It Means to Be a Mentor

Thank you StartupYard for giving me the opportunity and looking forward to the next cohort.

I should have started writing this article after my mentoring day at StartupYard, which is November 21st. Having past experience with several cohorts, I just could not resist and started as soon as I got the idea. So it is rather sunny day in Texas and I am looking forward to working with StartupYard and the incubated startups once more. I am writing this to give myself more clarity on why am I doing this, what should I deliver to the startups I am going to talk to and what should be my take aways from the day. I also have a tiny ambition that this may change somebody’s perspective on mentoring and improve the experience for any mentors out there and those being mentored as well.

I have been working with StartupYard since 2014 and it has been a tremendous experience. They truly have a great team with three people who really stand out: Helena who handles all the scheduling, Lloyd who does a great job with no-nonsense PR (a true rarity in Europe) and Cedric, who leads it all.

You are not the smartest guy around…

I will never forget two immortal quotes from Bohumil Hrabal in Slavnosti sněženek: “Máte štěstí, že jedu kolem.” and “Říkají o mně, že jsem odborník.” Apologies for Czech, it really never gets old.

10 years ago, having been invited to be a mentor, I would probably feel honored and entitled. If repetition is the highest form of flattery, than asking someone to be your mentor is definitely the second highest. And after the thrill of being asked to mentor dissipates, the first thing I need to consider is my responsibility to the teams I am going to work with.

Being a startup team in a world class accelerator is an overwhelming experience. There is little time for everything and spending time with a mentor is an important investment on the team’s side. They are investing time, energy and money in that discussion, regardless of its length. And as a mentor I should never forget that.

I am not a mentor because I am the smartest guy around. I am not a mentor because I am successful. I am a mentor because I had to solve problems, perhaps similar problems in different contexts and I, my team and company survived to see another day.

So how can I make sure that the discussion is worth their while?

Be Useful

One of the best mentors I had the chance to meet, Ken Singer taught me one of the key principles of Silicon Valley: Pay it Forward. If someone seeks your help, help them — without expecting anything in return from them. Someone else, some other time, will help you too. Next time you are pondering how to replicate Silicon Valley success in the Czech Republic, think about this and the culture which is preventing this simple approach to take of here.

How does this apply to being a mentor? Do not expect any tangible benefit in return. You will not get shares or money just because you graced someone with your presence and shared your experience. Certainly not by answering few questions.

Being useful means adopting the mind set of freely sharing anything and everything which feels relevant to the situation. Connecting people with people.

Tell Stories

The real problem is that sharing is difficult. Robert Kaplan gave a great talk about mentoring which is available on YouTube.

If there is one principle I need to follow, one thing to take from Robert Kaplan, than it is that I should not tell them what to do. Kaplan claims that mentoring advice is only as good as the story, but what if it’s you telling them stories. Stories are about context, problem, solution and lesson — just like bedtime stories of our childhood. Just this time, it’s about business.

Instead of asking them to tell me their story and risking, that my advice would only be as good as their story, I should tell them mine and let them take what they feel they should.

I see mentoring as a form of leadership. This is the less obvious kind where I do not manage anyone, certainly not the team I am talking to. My biggest power over the team is listening.

That is easier said than done.

Ask the right questions

I usually start with three questions:

  • How can I help you today?
  • What can I help you with?
  • Can I have a whiteboard please?

But no, these are not the right questions. As Kaplan teaches, leadership is about finding the right questions and my “right” questions are about users, employees and customers.

  • Why is anyone going to pay you for your services or products?
  • Why should people work for you?
  • Why should your customers choose you and not your competitors?

The hard part is not asking these questions, but feeling the answers.

Own It

In 2015, Harvard Business Review published a nice article about how it is impossible to put yourself in the proverbial shoes of your customers. Cutting to the conclusion, I am not trying to put myself in the shoes of their customers.

I need to become one. This is where my stories help. May be, sometime in my past, I was in a situation which would require products or services of the team I am talking to today. My experience, if it is relevant, kicks in when we start debating the need, the constraints involved and how is their solution solving the problem. Which is now — for the time being — also my problem.

Mentoring is like acting. I love theatre: drama, comedy, opera, but I would be terrible actor. But here I can immerse, I just need to be authentic.

Share beliefs

Authentic means that I need to tell them the truth. Not that I expect to lie or think that some mentors lie, but if I am not authentic, they cannot trust me and probably won’t. This is not a place and time for rhetorical alchemy as I am not here to influence: no careful dosing of ethos, logos and pathos. I am a stand and a big bazaar and the mentored team shall pick only what they like. I am not a major stakeholder as I am not materially vested in the team’s success. I am here as a volunteer.

Acting, management and mentoring are alike at least in one more thing: filtering does not work. So how should I establish authenticity? I need to share my beliefs. How can I prove myself? By story telling again. After all, marketing is all about proof points, isn’t it?

When the team shares my beliefs and values, they understand my story and how is it relevant to their products and services, they are in the position to take some advice.

Teach? Share failures!

Merriam-Webster defines the noun “mentor” as a trusted counselor or guide. Having the right context from the team, being their customer at the moment and consistently with my beliefs and values, I am ready to share advice. What I did and how it worked. What I did and how it failed.

In my experience, the best way to share knowledge with others is to share your failures. When I succeed in something, I am seldom completely sure why I succeeded. When I fail, sooner or later I find out why exactly I failed. Failing gives me clarity and confidence. I am never giving up and I dare say that I learned to patiently and diligently study the failures I was part of, my failures or failures of my team.

That clarity and confidence also enables me to share it with the team. It is their choice whether they want to repeat mistakes of others or make their own mistakes.

Not that I agree with the failure worshipping, which seems to be a thing in the startup culture. As Tomas Sedlacek put it in his tweet, I strongly preffer trial-success than trial-error. I also believe in failing fast and measuring hard, which I will probably never fully learn.

And I am not as selfless as it may seem. There has to be something in this for me.

Why am I here today?

Mentoring is a learning experience, so first and foremost, I am hear to learn. Occasionally, I learn about new approach, business model or technology. I used to focus on that.

Today, I am here to train. To stretch my muscles in a different way than I am stretching them every day at work. If you ever exercised with a trainer, you know that your trainer is changing your exercise quite often. You are doing something else on Tuesday than you did on Monday.

Change is good as human body excels at adaptation and always finds equilibrium of achieving results with minimal energy. Human brain is no different and is actually great at building and making mental shortcuts. I am here to train active listening skills in extreme conditions (time is short), maintain an open mind and apply what I know on problems I do not have. I am here to push myself for patience, which is one of my biggest weaknesses.

And I am here to relax. Other teams and other people struggle with difficult issues too. Others are also trying to do what they believe in.

I am not alone in this.

Dot Glasses, Philip Staehlin

SY Investor Launches DOT Glasses: The $3 Glasses That Could Help the World See

Over 1 billion people in the world need glasses, but can’t afford them or don’t have access to them. That’s why StartupYard investor and mentor Philip Staehelin launched a Czech startup – DOT Glasses – to try to solve this massive problem 3 years ago.

Today he believes they finally have the solution, and are about to launch large-scale production of the world’s first, one-size-fits-all eyeglass frames (which were designed by a joint venture of Mercedes-Benz and AKKA Technologies), along with a transformative lens concept.   

Philip is the former CEO of CCS, the former Managing Partner of Roland Berger, and an alumnus of many other international companies like Accenture, T-Mobile and A.T. Kearney.

Earlier this year, DOT Glasses received a “matching funds grant” from CzechAid (up to CZK 5m over 3 years), and they’ve recently won a place in the EU-funded Startup Europe’s Soft Landing program to India (called the “Ecosystem Discovery Mission”). They were one of the 24 European representatives selected for the program.

I sat down with Philip this week to talk about the launch of DOT Glasses, along with the crowdfunding campaign to support the company on hithit (you can check the link to contribute). Here’s what he had to say:

Lloyd: Why glasses?

Philip: There are a few parts to the story, of course. If you’re asking specifically why I decided to focus on providing glasses to people in developing regions, it’s just one of those weird coincidences that suddenly made me realize that a 700-year-old industry could still be disrupted.

If you mean, why glasses and why provide them to developing regions, it’s because I’ve long been focused on making an impact beyond my immediate “bubble”, and I was at a stage in my career where I wanted to use my time and resources to help those most in need of things we take for granted here in the developed world.

The idea specifically came to me while I was skiing, and it’s funny because at first it seemed like a pretty first world problem to have. I’m mildly nearsighted now (although I used to have very bad eyesight, and had laser surgery 15 years ago to correct my vision), so I wear glasses. I can do without them, but I like the world in sharp focus.

Philip Staehelin, Founder of DOT Glasses

When I ski, I don’t like to wear my glasses under my ski goggles, so I usually go without – which isn’t always good especially when skiing moguls. On the ski lift, I was daydreaming about buying some “off-the-shelf” lenses to pop into some specially-designed ski goggles, providing me improved (if not perfect) vision to make my skiing more comfortable. I didn’t want to spend money on prescription ski goggles – it wasn’t worth it, and it was a hassle – but I started thinking about what could be “good enough” vision and how I could stock some limited range of lenses on the shelf next to ski goggles, so people could just select what lens helped them enough.

The next ride up on the ski lift brought me a eureka moment. “Good enough” vision was all about smartly limiting the selection of lenses. It’s kind of like the 80/20 rule that’s prevalent in so many facets of life and business. 20% of the effort for 80% of the gain. 20% of the lenses to achieve 80% of the vision clarity. If it was true (and the implications came crashing down on me all at once)… it could transform an industry. But not the ski industry with a few million customers at best.

Rather, it could disrupt the eyeglasses industry for people in need. Actually, “disrupt” is the wrong word in this case, because more than 1 billion people need glasses but have no access to them or can’t afford them. So there is not a current player to disrupt. It’s more about tapping into a new, massive customer segment that has been unaddressable because of the challenges of costs, logistics, lack of optometrists, etc.    

When I got back home, I started researching the issue. You may think, living in Europe, that we are drowning in optometrists, because they are on every corner of every major city. Actually we have something like 1 optometrist for every 3000 people, and about 60% of those optometrists are usually based in the capital cities.

On the contrary, in many underdeveloped regions, such as in parts of Africa, there are not enough optometrists to go around. In some cases, there are only a handful in an entire country with millions of people. In Ghana, there are about 50 optometrists for a population of nearly 20 million, and the per capita income is less than a dollar a day. Getting glasses can take a week’s travel and several months’ wages.

Which means that for a vast swath of the world’s population – glasses are either an unaffordable luxury, or they’re simply not available. If you have +/-1 diopter (also known as 20/40 vision), you can absolutely live a normal life. In the UK for instance, 20/40 is the required driving standard. But once you start getting past +/-3 diopters (20/250), it starts to become difficult to lead a normal life. I have first-hand experience, as I used to have -6 diopters before my laser surgery, and as a kid, I literally couldn’t find my family at the beach if I didn’t have my glasses.  

That’s so interesting. Basically there is no existing market to help these people.

Exactly. Poor vision is the #1 health issue in the world, but almost no one talks about it. It causes roughly $230 billion dollars of economic loss every single year, but on an individual level, poor eyesight prevents people from learning in school, it prevents them from having a meaningful job (or any job), and it hurts families and communities. Poor vision literally traps people and families in poverty. But it’s been too challenging to treat poor vision in more remote parts of the world, even though the solution has been around for centuries.

So in the end I decided on a simple concept (I actually call it “maximum simplification”): a set of glasses that are both modular, and cheap, which can reach developing regions fairly easily, and don’t require a professional optometrist to be dispensed to the end user. All you need, to provide a pair of customized DOT Glasses is a very simple testing tool (that we developed), and the components of your individual set of glasses: the 6 pieces of the snap-together frames, and the right strength of lenses (which, by the way, are “left-right agnostic” – a concept we also developed, allowing for the same lens shape to be used as a right or left lens, which reduces lens stock requirements by half). The end result: robust, good-looking, glasses that are available to a buyer for about $3.

$3 is a lot to some people

Yes. If you live on $2 a day, then $3, comparatively speaking, is pretty close to what a person in the developed world would pay for their own glasses from an optometrist. We have worked very hard to make them as affordable as possible, and $3 is the lowest we’ve been able to get it. For those wanting to correct a less severe problem with their eyesight (e.g. -2 diopters), this price point may not be absolutely compelling, but for the more severe cases, it’s the best investment they will ever make. It will be completely life changing.

Why haven’t charities really attacked this problem before?

They have – there have been many projects targeting this problem, but none has been able to address all the issues needed to scale properly. Those that train optometrists are doing a great thing, but the world needs about 100,000 optometrists to bring the per capita ratio even close to a 1st world ratio… and they still wouldn’t be located in rural areas.

There are a lot of economic incentives against optometrists locating themselves in poorer areas. They go where people can pay more, especially if they are in high demand. That means you can train thousands of new optometrists and still have little impact in remote regions. They will go where the money is.

Others focus on delivering self-adjustable glasses with some fairly advanced technologies (two stand out: fluid-based lenses and Alvarez lenses). But in reality, these are over-engineered which keeps costs much too high. They deal with one shortage (optometrists), but they exacerbate another shortage (money). And they don’t look like normal glasses – they’re simply not fashionable enough.

Those that attempt to solve the problem by providing regular glasses as cheaply as possible still run into issues such as: huge stock of frames and lenses needed to address all of the combinations of faces (including pupil distance and ears distance from eyes) and eyesight requirements. This increases the cost of stock, and makes replenishing that stock much more complicated and costly, but it also requires a trained optometrist (or at least an optician) to measure the eyesight to a fairly granular level. All of this adds complexity and costs, which makes it impossible to propagate into more remote rural areas.

Also, I think one of the big problems with the all-charity approach is that they often fail to take the motivations of the people they are working with into account. If you develop real economic incentives for people to distribute the glasses as a product, for example, by supplying a few local people with the training and the equipment necessary to dispense them, then you are effectively creating a new market. That’s the reason we developed our own super easy testing kit as well, because at the end of the day, we want this to be a new viable small business opportunity for people in these remote areas, where previously providing glasses was not economically feasible.

That is why the glasses are not free to begin with. If we relied on charitable donations, we would also miss out on the opportunity to leverage the entrepreneurial energy of these local partners, who, let’s be honest, are going to understand their own local markets and customers a lot better than we do.

This is really the core failure of many NGO projects: they don’t really consider the long-term incentives of the participants and recipients of their help. Of course, not relying on donations also allows DOT Glasses to scale much faster than other organizations, as the business model is sustainable and the revenues are reinvested into growing the footprint to help more people. The more we can sell, the faster we’ll grow. We just need to “prime the pump” with donations and/or social impact investment in the early stages in order to build out our first networks.

So you’re not a charity.

No. We have charitable intentions (and we’re a true social enterprise), but I also believe that it’s in a way disrespectful to people in economically challenged regions to assume that they are not motivated in the same way that people are in developed regions, by the opportunity to pursue success and prosperity with hard work. That’s why we believe end-users of our glasses should be paying for them, and the profits from that activity should benefit the local economies as much as possible. Ultimately, that is the way to help these regions develop.

Also, in many cases, charitable activities can have a detrimental impact in the area they’re trying to help. They may end up hurting developing economies, even though they have the best intentions at heart. Think of food charities that end up displacing local farmers who can’t compete with free stuff. That’s a real problem with charities, and one that is rather insidious.

Even sending volunteers to teach in slums can have negative consequences, because the local government starts to depend on the free handout (in this case, education) and doesn’t develop a properly functioning, stable educational infrastructure of its own. Which means they don’t care about creating their own teachers, and those few teachers that there are may actually have lower salaries because they’re competing against “free”.

With our work, we hope to create microbusinesses, with the help of microloans if necessary. We want to have entrepreneurial people start up their own eye care businesses. In the process, they create a better life for themselves and their families, but they’re also selling a new lease on life to those who can’t see well. And it’s been proven, that there is a tremendous increase in productivity when someone gets their poor vision corrected, which means additional wealth creation for individuals, families and communities. It’s a true virtuous cycle.  

You spent a career as an executive in big corporations, as a consultant, and finally as an investor (including in StartupYard). What would you advise someone like yourself, who is thinking about a career shift toward charitable/entrepreneurial work?

It’s a great question. The road from the boardroom to developing DOT Glasses for remote regions of the world was a pretty long and winding one. But the fact that it was long and winding is important, as I learned new things from every role I ever had. Small things and big things. I became more well-rounded, and I could see the world from more angles.

I’m a huge believer in cross-pollination of ideas between industries, between companies, between countries, etc. For example, I brought a lot of my mobile operator experience to my role as CEO of a large alternative payments company, because both had a lot of B2B and B2C customers, both needed customer care, both needed direct sales, both were concerned about customer churn… and in some cases the mobile operator approach could be adapted to create a better solution for the payments company.

This isn’t a unique experience obviously, but the corporate world is set up against this to some extent. They want to hire people with experience from their own industry. But I went through a few different industries, as well as through consulting (which teaches you a lot about how to structure problems, organize projects, analyze data, and find the core essence of the analysis), and I started using that breadth of experience to mentor startups.

Startups (especially with young founders) often know a lot about their technology, their market dynamics and perhaps a few other select bits of information – but they often lack the big picture. They also often lack some key skill sets that they will need, such as sales, finance, and strategy, not to mention, they have no idea how to talk to the corporate world (although I admit I’m hugely generalizing).

So I help them with that. But perhaps even more important than providing some insights into missing skills, is providing cross-pollination. It’s all about identifying new opportunities (even new tangents) that aren’t obvious. It’s about synthesizing new value by bringing together entirely new elements. Which is what I did with DOT Glasses.

Coming back to part of your question though, the answer is to strive to become a cross-pollinator. Constantly learn new things, challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone as often as possible, get out of your corporate bubble, and go out into the world and do things. Mentor startups, work in a charity, join a business club – but if you do it, do everything actively. Make an impact. Don’t be passive, because then it’s just a waste of time. I like to say that “life is too short to do just one thing”. I believe in side interests. I believe in planting lots of seeds and seeing what sprouts. And eventually one of those things can grow into something bigger and more beautiful than you could have imagined.

But don’t forget the lessons you learn in the corporate world about pursuing long-term economic interests, including your own?

Yeah, that’s right. Social impact work is not necessarily charity. We don’t just give, we also look for sustainable opportunities that can grow the overall economies we are focusing on. That in the end is a benefit to us, and to those regions. In my view, there are many, many activities that are currently approached with a “charity” mindset, that might be better served by a social impact, entrepreneurial mindset as well.

Hey, this isn’t rocket science here! We all know the saying: “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Well, it’s not just teaching is it? Make someone your business partner, no matter what it is they’re doing, and make it mutually beneficial, and that is going to create opportunities for you both.

How do you think corporate officers, like you were in the past, can better contribute to this kind of sustainable social impact?

Let’s say this: I think it comes down to really trying to understand, and develop a respect for the people you are trying to help. When I think about social impact, I think about not only looking at ways of improving someone’s life, but also improving my own, and the lives of those around that person. That comes back to you, in the end. There is a part of social impact that should be “selfish,” in a way. I am doing this because I want to live in a better world, for me as well as for you.

I think it is a danger among those of us who enjoy some material success, that we begin to imagine that we are giving and no longer taking anything. However in most charitable activities that just isn’t true. We are taking a lot, in terms of what matters to us: respect, reputation, the feeling of doing good works. That is something of value. You should always be aware of what motivates you to do what you do.

Again, nothing wrong with feeling good for giving back. But I would encourage people to go further than that, and to think about how their actions really tie back into their own lives. This is how we empathize with people in the real world.

If I am helping someone in a remote village in India to see better, then how is this affecting my own life? I can tell you, it does affect my life. Leaving aside that each individual with the proper tools in life has a chance to change the world, to be the next Einstein, I am also helping to make sure that this person is being economically productive.

If people are more economically productive, it is more likely that they will be prosperous, and so will need less support in other ways. Eventually, developing regions become developed, and I can enjoy the benefits of that development in my own life. That is a prosperous cycle, and if you don’t actively look to see it, I think you lose sight of why you’re doing what you do. You may end up not really respecting the people you’re trying to help.

What have you learned from this that you didn’t already know? What has surprised you?

 

I’m an inventor at heart. I have lots of ideas. But I have learned something really new in the process of moving this project past “idea” stage, and into realization.

What I discovered is that the true “innovations” that end up happening are not only around the idea itself, but rather the things you have to invent in order to get that idea to work. What I mean is, the “solutions around the solution,” are actually where a great deal of the creative work happens.

So I start out with the lightning strike about “good enough vision” which creates a transformative lens concept. But to realize the potential of the lens concept, I had to work very, very hard to develop one-size-fits-all modular glasses (only my 3rd industrial designer cracked the nut – the first two didn’t find a solution), because I realized that the combination of those two elements could be the magic bullet to solve a vexing problem that no one else had managed to solve.

But after I had the glasses, I realized I needed some tools to facilitate the streamlined process I was imagining, so I had to design a vision tester and a pupil distance measuring tool. And then to bundle all that together into one “kit”, and designing an end-to-end process around that kit in order to get the glasses to those people that needed them… it was one problem after another that had to be addressed.

Each step required an innovation, but the innovations built on each other. Would someone have designed my pupil distance measuring tool without my modular glasses? No. But they were required for the entirely new ecosystem that I was building. So building the entire ecosystem took much more time than I expected.

So in the end, the work is more creative than the ideation.

Yep. It is. That’s something you can’t know until you try. I’m happy to have found that out, because being really creative and solving real problems every day is how I like to live my life.

 

If you’re interested in contributing to the DOT Glasses project, you can do so today by clicking below and pledging to their crowdfunding campaign: 

Budgetbakers - StartupYard Alum

Michal Kratochvil: Budgetbakers CEO Talks Profitability and Pivots

Michal Kratochvil is a StartupYard investor, former head of Accenture Consulting for Central Europe, and currently the CEO of StartupYard Alum and popular personal finance management platform BudgetBakers (SY Batch 5), a role he took up in 2016.

BudgetBakers informed investors this month that they are now cash flow positive and, in fact, that monthly revenues had nearly doubled in just a few months, after 2 years of mostly steady growth. This news came just months after BudgetBakers nearly halved the size of its team, and pivoted to focus developing some the flagship app’s core features (like integrations with banks).

I sat down with Michal to talk about the last 6 months at the company, and what he’s learned from the ups and downs of running a tech startup for over 2 years. Here is what he had to say:

Hi Michal, so you’ve been with BudgetBakers for over 2 years now. What were the surprises? If you could go back to the beginning, what would you do differently?

Michal Kratochvil, CEO at BudgetBakers since 2016

I should say I did everything perfectly, and everything went according to our brilliant plan, right? :laughs: Ok, there are always going to be things you would want to change because you know the outcome, but this is cheating. If you’re asking how I would have changed our general approach, there are a few things I would do differently. I would try and make some of the “surprises” less surprising.

How would you do that?

Let’s be concrete. When I joined BudgetBakers, Founder Jan Muller and I explored many options as to where we could take the company. I spent a few months getting to know all the possibilities, and coming up with plans.

We decided to focus on a couple of core activities. One of them: continuing to develop our B2C product, which was already enjoying a lot of popularity, with tens of thousands of active users (it was then in Version 2, we are now up to Version 6). Today we have added tens of thousands more, and recurring revenues have grown from nearly zero, to tens of thousands of Euros per month.

The other activity was to explore the second pillar of our business, which I believed was going to be our partnerships with financial institutions, particularly banks. There are a lot of opportunities for personal finance management software companies to help banks and their customers. Banks are very much in need of new ideas and new ways to serve their customers, and we have a personal finance product that people choose to pay for. So I think we have a lot to offer, either as a white label, or in some other form of partnership.

Of course, working with a bank is a difficult process, and matching up and actually managing to make a deal at the end of the day is very tough. They have dozens of priorities, you have just a few.

What I think is interesting is that my advice about the former (B2C), and my advice about the latter (B2B) will slightly conflict. I believe now that we had to be more patient when it came to developing our B2C product, particularly in our release schedule, and I believe we should have been less patient in our B2B activities with partners.

Why more patient with the B2C product?

You know, I think it comes down to just human nature. We keep making the same mistakes, because we don’t really change that much as people. We are startup guys. We want action! Get the products out the door.

When I joined the company, I saw that our dependence on platforms like Google Playstore and iOS App store was a vulnerability. You are getting most of your business directly from these places as an app maker.

What I did not expect, which I found out quickly, was that your fortunes can really hinge on these platforms on a day to day basis. When we went from, I think v2.x to v3.0, it was a major shock to me how violent the reaction was from the user base. Instantly, your rating drops from average 4.5 stars, to under 4. Closer to 3. Then slowly, over months, it starts to go back up as you fix some of the things you got wrong, and customers sort of get used to some of the changes.

BudgetBakers provides a complete personal finance solution for individuals, families and small business.

Why does this happen?

Please, if I knew why, then it wouldn’t happen. :laughs: I think people just do not like change. When we make major changes to the apps, even when we have to make them and the long-term results will be better for the users, still nobody likes change. You moved that one button, you disrupted my flow in the app, so I’m pissed. One star. That’s what happens.

Not to mention, there are bugs that appear when you make major releases. This also provokes a harsh reaction, especially from your biggest fans.

So how would you try to be better at this?

What I would do differently, which frankly I have still not gotten 100% right, is to make us a bit more patient with the release of a big new version, and try and take the release in smaller steps. Try to create more of a transition in the product from one version to another, and game out more of the steps needed to get from here to there.

You need a bunch of things to work really well in order to push a major release. You need to migrate data and settings, you need to create a path for the users to move from the old UI to the new UI, and still be comfortable with the product.

We do testing, and we try to get everything working, but if I’m being honest, the temptation is always to push too fast, and to get the release out before it is really ready. I am saying this, knowing that we will still want to move too fast in this regard.

Do you think you will ever get the timing exactly right? This is a problem even for huge software companies.

I think it will never be totally right, but it can definitely be better. What you do not want is this sudden shock reaction from your userbase, who are suddenly giving you one-star reviews because of what is really a dumb mistake, or a series of small errors that can be avoided.

As you grow in maturity as a company, you have to get better at this, because your customer base is growing also. It is starting to include people who do not have patience for these kinds of issues. They don’t know the history of the product, and their level of engagement is not as deep. You can become really invested in big changes to the product, and then fail to explain these changes well or to justify them to the users. Then you have problems.

We are no longer in the land of early adopters at BudgetBakers. Our hardcore, long time users, while they are still really important to the way we think about the product, and test the product, are not the average user anymore. They become increasingly the edge case, and this means you need to be casting new hooks and talking to less engaged customers as well.

I would say our power users are 20% of our paying customer base. So the 80% are the silent majority, and these are the people who you need to aware can very quickly change their mind about you. These are also the people who will not tell you what they need. You have to really dig in to understand them. They won’t spell it out for you.

Your 20% might be very vocal about changes, but they will not walk away either. What they tell you is important to them, may be important, or it might not be. The more casual users, who are seeing you in a less personal way, can be less forgiving. If you don’t give what they need, they go elsewhere.

Part of growing your product maturity is to understand that your customers’ actions are more important than their words. If people complain, and yet we can see that they are using the product, maybe even using it more, then we should take this under consideration. Everyone likes to complain about changes.

[Author’s note: at the time of writing, the current rating for BudgetBakers’ flagship app, based on nearly 89,000 reviews, was 4.5 Stars on the Google Play Store]

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to deprecate a popular feature without a real replacement.

Yes! That is a huge danger. Worse if you really don’t appreciate how important something is until you take it away from your average users. That can be surprising. Every time we do a big change, it does surprise me, even though I know now to expect this.

Just spending a little more time on something and getting beyond “it works, get it out the door now,” is what we have to work on. Just sleep on it, and play with it for a little longer. 3 weeks more of testing. I keep saying this, but every time the temptation is the same, to rush the release. You want those new features to be out in people’s hands, and you want that feedback.

It’s a bit of an addiction, maybe. We can’t stop the cycle. It’s like the binge and the hangover. You load so many things into the big release, and then you deal with the hangover, which is negative feedback, complaints, etc. You feel that all the way down your funnel, for weeks and months.

In Node5 where we work, as you’ve seen yourself, there is a sign about “the better is the enemy of the good.” This is it. We always want to be better, but sometimes you just have to be good.

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, January 15, 2018

In 2017, Michal spoke on video about his experiences as a StartupYard investor, mentor, and CEO.

 

 So be more patient with your release schedule. What about being less patient with your partners?

Let’s say not “less patient,” because you have to be persistent in this business. Instead, let’s say: “more opportunistic,” or “less confident,” about the likelihood of any one deal working out.

A big danger for any small company, particularly just after raising a seed investment as we did, is that you commit too many of your resources to one deal. You can spend a lot of money and effort working on this one deal, and if it falls through, for whatever reason, this is money that is not coming back.

This can be just bad luck. A deal can fail to happen because somebody changes positions, or gets fired. That happened with us. The deal we hoped would happen just didn’t. It not in our control, nor in theirs. It just didn’t happen.

So if I had this to do again, I would remind myself that you need to be constantly building up your pipeline of opportunities. You can’t stop building a pipeline, because when you stop, you inevitably become increasingly dependant on what others decide to do. Basically, more dependent on chance and luck, because you aren’t making the opportunities actively.

When you are working towards one particular deal, you get focused on the value this deal can provide for the company. However, that deal is worth nothing until it is signed. Until it is signed, you need to be constantly working on alternatives in your pipeline. That is a best-case scenario, which is that you have to tell partners, “sorry, we made another deal.”

You know, going back to someone who you dropped 6 months ago means you start the process all over again. You can’t afford to do that. They can move on in that time. You are basically starting at zero, so you need to be building that pipeline until the moment you make a deal.

Do you have a new appreciation for the role of luck in this process?

Yes, in a way. Of course luck doesn’t matter if you don’t do the work. We did well by really investing in our technology and building up our products from the ground up. We did the work. At the same time, this work in the case of this particular partner, didn’t pay off. It was bad luck.

That being said, this same hard work can pay off in ways you don’t expect at first. When this deal fell through, for example, we had to make a really hard pivot to focusing on growing our B2C product faster, and adding more features that we were very sure would attract more customers.

As a result, we sat around really asking ourselves: what can we do in a matter of days or weeks to increase the sales of this product? That led to some big changes, and as we’ve seen, some dramatic results in the end. Our revenues basically doubled in a few months.

We absolutely could not have done this if we had not been investing well in the development of our backend. We would not have had this resiliency that we had, and the pivot would not have worked without that.

Still, and again, there was an element of luck here as well, in that in the moment we turned away from the B2B business, there was a new opportunity in the B2C space that was just opening up. I’m talking specifically about the ability to connect our user’s accounts directly with their banks, so that they can get a view of their finances without doing any manual data entries. This was the perfect moment to really focus on that functionality, and as a result we made a deal very quickly with a big data provider to connect with two or three times more banks than we had before.

What have been the hardest moments in the transition to a cash-positive operation?

When we had to make this particular pivot, we had built our team with the hope that we would make this B2B deal. When it didn’t happen, we had to change the team. Letting people go and shrinking the team has been very tough on us. No easy way to say it. It is not fun.

I have plenty of experience with this, but quite honestly, it is not something you want to get used to. It is not nice, and it does hurt.

You don’t have to talk about that…

Well, it is fresh, but also there are some things I think we can learn from it. We can do better, always. I want to be clear first of all that I still believe in each individual that we had to let go. This was not about them, but about where we needed to be as a company. That is important to emphasize for me: it was never a mistake to work with any of them. If I could keep them all, I would.

Have you learned something you didn’t know about building a team?

Yes, I always believed that you need to consider several things when hiring someone. First: you need to consider the immediate goals of the company, and the talent you need for those. Then you need to consider the long-term health of the company, and just as importantly, you must always consider the personal development of the people you hire.

I believe strongly in this, that you must invest in people when they join your team, and also in the case that they may choose to leave, or you are forced to let them go. Still, I believe we owe it to people who we hire to see that they land in the right place. I’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that these people have their next steps and are secure. That’s something I believe we promised them from the beginning, and you must keep your promises.

I’ve been managing people for 25 years. There are those managers who keep their promises and commitments, and those who don’t. If you do keep commitments, and if you are focused on the good of your employees during and after their time with you, then you are going to have a better time in life, and an easier time finding people to work with you.

But hiring for a startup is different than hiring for a big company…

Yeah, because the promise is a bit different. You are building this little family, and you’re asking people to be more flexible, and find their role in the company over time, instead of having that pre-defined by an HR department or something.

That means to me that I have asked people to have faith in me and the company, and I have put faith in them as individuals. I could not sleep at night if I did not believe I was doing all I can to help those who have helped us. That is a core commitment that you make to people as a leader. You must follow it through.

Now, as to keeping your promises, I think one thing I would do differently is to work harder not to overpromise on our ability to keep the team the way it is. I believe we did well in this, but there is room to do better. To make clear, also to ourselves, that certain people are being hired for a short period for their skills, and others are being hired for the long-term goals of the company. If you are clear about this with your hires, then you get the right level of commitment going both ways.

I wanted, because this is a startup and we are such a small group, to make everyone a part of the core team. The truth is, not everyone is in a position to be in that relationship with you, and in many cases, it would be better to treat them as more “true freelancers,” rather than to try and force a match with your internal culture. You need to have a clear idea of what kinds of people you will need when you go through a squeeze, and which ones will be the first to leave in that scenario.

You have to make clear the stakes involved with someone when you hire them. Let them know what you need to keep them around, and get a clear idea what they want to get from you as well.

It makes no sense to try and makes someone a part of your work family if they are never going to stay more than a few months. However it is also a waste to treat someone as a contractor for years, and not show some commitment from your side. This is a balance I always think we can do better.

Any last piece of advice for any other StartupYard alumni facing the same dilemmas?

As I said, better to oversell than to undersell. Always build your pipeline of partners and customers, even when it seems like a deal will happen. Always have an out, and a B-plan that is already underway. If you find yourself and the whole company depending on one event that is beyond your control, then you have already dismissed too many good options.

You will not fail if you can continue to add value to the company in some way. If what you do can be made to impact your bottom line, then you’re probably doing the right thing. Investing in your core technology, all the time, is one thing you can do. You should always see a few steps ahead: “ok, if this deal doesn’t happen, how do I make this investment pay off anyway?” I would say this has been key to us turning a profit this year.