Michal Kratochvil, StartupYard, BudgetBakers, Startups, Accelerator

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

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

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

Posted by StartupYard on Monday, 15 January 2018

 

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

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

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

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

 

Accelerator, StartupYard

Choosing an Accelerator: 11 Questions to Ask

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

To Accelerate or Not?

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

Accelerator, Startup, StartupYard,

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

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

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

So here they are:

1. Why Is the Accelerator Interested in My Startup?

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

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

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

2. Are You Convinced by My Pitch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Does the Accelerator Management Team Have A Stake?

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

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

5. Why Are Your Terms What They Are?

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

Accelerator, StartupYard

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

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

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

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

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

Accelerator, StartupYard

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

7. What Do You Expect from Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Does the Accelerator Pay The Mentors?

Accelerator, StartupYard

Hopefully the answer is “No.”

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

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

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

That should be enough.

10. What Entrepreneurial Experience Does the Management Team Have?

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

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

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

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

11. Do You Have Partnerships with Potential Customers?

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

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

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

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

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

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

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

Why Should VR-AR Startups Apply to Accelerators in 2018?

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

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

 

 

Why Should VR-AR Startups Apply to Accelerators in 2018?

VR/AR (Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality), have been around as concepts for a long time. What we might recognize as VR in its modern form dates back, surprisingly, to the 1950s, when the inventor Morton Heilig developed the “Sensorama,” a machine that combined stereoscopic images, binaural sound, and even smell into 5 short films.

 

Augmented Reality, or AR, has in fact found broader applications in the past few decades. It is common in military applications, and in aviation, where it is used to enhance HUD (Heads Up Displays) with flight data. Today, even some production cars include HUD displays as a safety and ergonomic feature.

 

 

Since the 50s, VR has periodically captured the public imagination — notably in the 1990s, when both Sega and Nintendo developed headsets (though Sega’s never reached the market). Even photorealistic 3d simulations were possible by the late 1990s — I tried one myself at the Kennedy Space center nearly 20 years ago. But despite the hype, VR has never taken the mass market by storm.

This post will dive into some of the reasons why not, and why now is probably different.

For the past few years, familiar signs of a resurgence in VR popularity have been growing. What has changed?

It seemed cool, but it was pretty awful.

Obviously something. StartupYard has received more inquiries from AR/VR and so called “mixed reality” startups during our current open call than in any previous year. In fact, I’ve personally met more VR startup founders in the past 6 months than I had in the past 4 years combined.

 

Why are VR/AR Startups Applying to StartupYard Now?

This year, we got an influx of applications from startups, all working on AR/VR technologies and applications. We shortlisted several, and eventually accelerated two: Mixed Reality Cloud, and Mindbox. In this post, I’m going to outline a few reasons why I think the AR/VR train is suddenly coming into the station in 2017.

As with any technology, there is not always a perfect correlation between being able to do something, and having a good reason to do it. As we will find in this piece, technologies tend to really explode only when both those conditions are fulfilled.

Thus, here are a few reasons AR/VR is a legitimately big deal for early stage startups in going into 2018:

 

1. The Smartphone Has Peaked

As Gizmodo noted over a year ago, the massive adoption of smartphone technology has peaked, and is now slowing down as consumers cycle more slowly through technologies that bring fewer noticeable improvements, at a lower rate over time. The release of the iPhone X, for all its technical achievements, underlined the basic premise: the smartphone concept has been fully articulated, and is now undergoing continual refinement.

Smartphones and tablets have ceased to double and redouble their abilities every year, and have begun to be refined into replacements for the traditional desktop computer for many consumers. Already, tablets and phablets have replaced home computers for many consumers. In business, the same trend will likely follow.

This has had a few consequences. First, the core benefits of a smartphone have more or less been fully realized. A typical smartphone can do almost anything you’d want it to do. There is no longer a huge demand for performance improvements, given that even a low-end phone can do so much. The market has become highly differentiated, and every niche has been filled.

Second, as smartphones have become ubiquitous, the businesses built on leveraging them have also achieved scale and begun to saturate the market. As room runs out for smartphone makers to stand out against competitors and justify their higher prices, new use cases must be found or invented. And VR, particularly recently, has been the beneficiary of that pressure.

And…

2. We’ve Hit Peak Mobile

Related but distinct is the peak of the “mobile revolution.” It may be hard to believe, but it was only in 2016 that mobile web browsing overtook desktop browsing for the first time. Today, a majority of human interaction with the internet is done using mobile devices.

Facebook, at the center of that revolution, has grown to over 2 billion active users, but its unprecedented growth of the late 2000s and early 2010s (which was around the time Facebook transformed itself into a mobile-first company) has slowed to a crawl. Not because people are using it less, but because it isrunning out of new people to add to the platform.

As a sign of how mature the mobile market has become, Facebook indicated in 2016 that it would soon run out of space to show people ads on their newsfeeds, prompting the company to begin delving into new experiences in which customers can see and interact with advertisers (such as messaging, and soon, VR).

The mobile revolution brought the age of apps from the Apple App store, Updates from Facebook, Google Maps and the Play Store, and mobile gaming. Mobile gaming alone became more profitable than traditional gaming in 2016.

Again, as with peak smartphone: peak mobile means that mobile software and content developers, along with advertisers, face higher competition and a more saturated market than ever before. Differentiation on mobile has become harder, and so they are actively seeking new media that can provide fertile ground for new content, and new marketing.

And…

3. We Still Need Immersive Experiences — and We Aren’t Getting Them

Gartner noted in their predictions for consumer digital technology in 2017, two very interesting trends. First, that the key upcoming innovations in mobile mostly have to do with AI, IoT (Internet of Things) and ubiquitous computing. Not with consumer applications, but with intelligence and data layers that enrich our lives without necessarily meaning we need to actively engage with them.

And this is backed up by recent hardware developments. Amazon is promoting home computing systems with no physical inputs at all. Apple has just announced the HomePod, which again, proposes to eliminate some use cases for smartphones and televisions, and free up our eyes for looking at, I suppose, other people. I have been told that is what people used to do.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Amazon Echo and other home audio devices are a new medium for advertising, but I’m sceptical of how important that will be in the future. In a technology landscape where more and more of our contact with computers and information is self-directed, and two-way, the nature of advertising and marketing will have to change as well. Perhaps in 5 years a display ad will be a dying relic, and new “marketing AIs” will instead engage directly with individuals to find products that best suit their needs.

At the same time, Gartner predicts that VR, not television, and not tablets or smartphones, will be the leading area of innovation for digital media. So as home computing trends toward becoming less obtrusive, and less all-consuming, at the same time, VR promises to offer a deeper content experience than any medium ever has before.

If smartphones and home computers are going to be less attention-consuming than ever, then where will content creators and marketers go? A good bet is that many will see AR/VR as fertile ground for development. What better medium than somewhere people choose to go to become totally absorbed?

3. People Aren’t Happy with the Status Quo

As smartphones and mobile-first applications have become the core of our experience of media in general, our experience of online content and storytelling has, in some ways, become less impactful. Everything is noise, and nothing is substantial- a feeling you’ve no doubt detected on your Facebook News Feed more than once. Technology has progressed, but it’s failed to deliver experiences people engage with ever more deeply. We may check our phones hundreds of times a day, but do we watch whole movies, read a whole magazine, or play through entire games? Not so much.

And in fact, consumers are not happy with these changes. The ASCI found in its most recent consumer studies, that consumer satisfaction with computer software, smartphones, and social media platforms declined overall in 2017, or failed to make any gains – breaking a decade long trend of increasing satisfaction in these areas.

So we’re getting sick of the status quo. VR can be seen as literally the antidote to checking a smartphone 150+ times a day: a medium that requires your full attention as no other digital media does. And that’s a super attractive prospect, not only to a content creator, but to an advertiser as well.

As the smartphone has evolved, it has at times tried to fill very contradictory roles. It wants to be, by turns, invisible, and very visible: innocuous, and attention getting. We’ve cycled rapidly between smartphones technologies that virtually disappear into the background (like smartwatches), and those that dominate our field of view, like phablets, and even mobile VR headsets. Very often the same companies, like Apple and Samsung, try to sell us both ideas at the same time.

But I am betting that the age of “in-between” experiences is not going to last forever. Ultimately, people want rich content experiences. People still go to cinemas, even though they can download thousands of titles on demand. People still read paper books, even though it rarely makes economic or practical sense anymore. I would bet that VR will join staples of media like the book and the cinema- a technology people use not for convenience, but for the value and depth of the experience.

And…

 

This is What Big Data Was Always Supposed to Do

StartupYard has been involved with data focused companies from the beginning. But for years, up until just very recently, one of the only ways of turning big data into a business was the same way people had been doing it for generations: selling it to somebody.

Of course, that generated many user-facing applications that enhance people’s lives and make things easier, but at the end of the value chain for most data, there is an advertiser waiting. Facebook, Amazon, and Google have built empires on that assumption, and Apple and Microsoft have made the infrastructure and devices that generate the data, and make it possible to distribute the resulting content, with ads embedded.

Data may still be “the new oil,” as it has become popular to say, but we must remember that as with oil, it took many years, and many fits and starts, to discover its ultimate potential.

Consider the evolution of oil in the modern world. First we burned it, and when that trick got old, we figured out ways of distilling it to make it burn even hotter. Then we figured out that you could use it to make things: chemicals, plastics, synthetic rubber, and other materials.

The innovation with oil wasn’t setting it on fire (we have known oil burns for thousands of years). The innovation was in making novel things out of the oil: fuel, but also tires and even whole cars, smartphones, microchips, and everything in between.

 

So if Data is the New Oil, then VR may be the new Plastic

VR promises at least one way in which big data will actually translate into novel products that ordinary people can use. Creating artificial environments, or enhancing existing environments with information and interactive elements takes a lot of data. As sensors and data processing platforms have grown in complexity and scale, we are approaching a point at which we can use that scale to be creatively free to make new things.

I have met recently with more than one startup who are counting on that very assumption: that now, unlike ever before, we have enough data about places, objects, physics, and people, to make artificial environments that will be fulfilling to use, and add detail to real environments that will be really useful.

I believe that a century from now, we will view VR as the child of big data — just as we now view the automobile as the child of big oil.

And…

 

VR Was Inevitable, But Not Always Obvious

There are some technologies that have been so easy to describe, that we’ve known we wanted them since long before they were possible. Powered flight, for example. For centuries, humans understood the benefits of flying, but still, we didn’t have the knowledge or skill to make flight a reality.

And yet other technologies are strangely elusive in that way. The telephone was patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, who, according to legend, was unable to sell the technology to Western Union for $100,000 because they thought it was a toy.

Despite what we know now about the transformative power of the telephone, it’s surprising to learn that despite the fact that transatlantic telegraph cables existed before the telephone was invented, the first transatlantic telephone call took place over 50 years later, in 1927. And that first phone call from England to the United States happened the same year as Lindberg’s first flight from New York to Paris, only 24 years after the first working airplane was built.

Airplanes were never underestimated, but it took a lot of imagination to picture the way the telephone would transform life as we knew it. Western Union had been right at the beginning: without a dense network of connections to make it truly useful, the telephone was only a novelty. You needed dense telephone networks on both sides of the Atlantic to make a transatlantic call economically viable. Yet when it became commercially viable, the benefits were so obvious that in another 25 years, there was a telephone in literally every house in the developed world.

So while international telephony was inevitable due to its technical advantages, it was not obvious, due to its network dependency.

VR is a lot like that. It’s been not much more than a toy for decades, because the network needed to support its most promising functions hasn’t really existed until recently. How do you generate content? How do you distribute it? These solutions have been long coming, but they have only just begun to make VR an obvious area of growth in the future.

And today, startups are seeing opportunities in the same way that businesses first began to realize the potential of the telephone decades after its invention. A network has been needed, and today, with a world full of smartphones, connected by social networks, and filled with content creators and eager marketers, that time has finally arrived for VR.

 

 

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

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

 

Stortelling

What is Good Stortelling? (Part 2)

In our last post, we talked about the “Hero’s Journey,” the basic premise of most modern storytelling.  We looked at some examples of this story in action, and some examples of it done badly.

Now we’re going to talk about your story as a Startup. 

Starting with Characters and Plot

We start every round at StartupYard with Product Positioning Statements. The structure of a positioning statement has a useful clarity. In essence it’s this:

  • Who it’s for
  • What problem they have
  • What the solution is
  • What the competition is
  • What makes this solution unique

This is the plot of the story, and it introduces key characters.

But it isn’t enough. The key to a great story about what you and your company does is conflict. What are you fighting against? What is wrong with the world?

Building an Appropriate Setting

All stories take place against a backdrop. A time and place, or a certain part of the world or of society, or business. And that setting is a part of the story. The setting changes along with the characters. The characters are affected by the setting.

Your setting is a key part of your story because it helps to define the stakes of the story. Putting a story in the wrong setting can damage its impact. For example, telling the story of your Groupon-clone startup against the backdrop of the mobile revolution might be a bit too grandiose. Likewise, for a company doing something ambitious and far reaching, a setting that is too confining limits the story’s impact.

Your Story Seems a Bit Off

Thus, bad storytelling happens when there is a mismatch between the setting and the actual scope of the story. Increasing the efficiency of a complicated accounting process by 10% is not “making the world a better place,” just as altering the way that people travel and view hotels (such as with Airbnb), is not “increasing the availability of lodging by 15%.”

The stakes you are playing for are important. Don’t go too big, and don’t go too small. More importantly, particularly for early-stage startups: bigger is not necessarily better. We can’t all change the world right away.

Identifying Conflicts

Conflicts don’t always occur between competitors. Your conflict is what makes you, as a startup, different from everyone else.

Your conflict is what makes you unique. They are your reason for existing.

If I’m, say, a home security company, then what is the central conflict of my story? It might be that another security company rips off their customers, and I don’t. That’s a conflict with a villain. It might be that people need to be more concerned about their security. That’s a conflict with the status quo. Or it might be something else entirely.

Here are some examples of central conflicts companies use to define company stories:

  • Sustainability: Being more environmentally conscious than competitors
  • Affordability: Sticking up for the little guy and providing a better service
  • Accessibility: Being available to more customers, or to customers with more specific needs
  • The Underdog: A small company fighting the evils of a large corporation
  • Patriotism: Emphasizing a patriotic or locally-focused attitude
  • Exclusivity: Offering something with limited availability, for discerning customers
  • Charity: Using your profits, business model, or market position to do good for others
  • Design Focus: Emphasizing a high attention to material or visual design
  • The EveryMan: Portraying a company as representative of the average person, or lacking in pretension (often the opposite of design focus).

Why do we call these conflicts? Because in every case, the central conflict is put into contrast with an opposing force. Your company is sustainable, but others are not. Your company is charitable, while others are greedy. Your company is focused on normal people, while the competitors are for specialists or geeks, etc.

There is always an opposing viewpoint in brand positioning: there is always someone on the other side of the fence.

Putting Your Conflict Into Words

In Part 1, we talked about how all great stories are human stories. And so the conflict at the heart of a startup’s story has to be a human conflict.

Very often, startups get bogged down in talking about how they see themselves. They’re smart. They’re design-focused. They’re “fun.”

But what is smart? What is design-focused? How do we define fun? Why do we want a company to even be fun? We want those things because of how they make us, the customers, feel about ourselves. People don’t buy products from a company because the company is cool, they buy them because the products themselves are cool, and because owning them makes us feel cool too.

Your central conflict has to drive your story: it has to be what customers think of when they think of you.

Try a creative exercise: Pick a list of negative adjectives to describe how your customers feel about the problem you are solving for them. That list might be something like this:

  • Annoyed
  • Angry
  • Tired
  • Frustrated
  • Trapped
  • Unhappy
  • Hopeless

Do that step first. Now go back and supply a list of roughly opposite adjectives:

  • Relieved
  • Joyful
  • Energized
  • Pleased
  • Free
  • Happy
  • Hopeful

These are the words with which you will describe your customer’s feelings. The feelings your products give to customers are the opposite of the bad feelings they have now.

Thus, a story about a company helping its customers might go something like this:

“So many ordinary people are tired, and frustrated by X. They feel trapped and hopeless because there’s no way to stop X from happening. That’s why we worked long and hard to create [our product], it frees you from X, so you can enjoy relief, feel energized, and be hopeful for a happy future.”

That’s an extremely blunt story (and it sounds like an advert for hemorrhoid medication), but it is a story of conflict. There is evil, human suffering, sacrifice, and triumph. It’s everything a story needs to be.

Picking A Conflict You Can Win

It doesn’t matter how big your competition is, or how big the problem is that you’re solving. A startup story is about how you are different: how you see things differently from others.

In 2000, Google’s startup story was based on the words: “Don’t be Evil.” For a company positioning itself against competitors like Microsoft and Yahoo, both of which already had a reputation for being sort of evil, this story worked well. Google wasn’t bigger. It wasn’t more powerful. But it was *not* evil.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that 17 years later, this is no longer Google’s story. Yahoo is gone. Microsoft isn’t a member of the “Big 4” any longer. There’s no one for Google to be less evil than anymore.

Your conflict has to be something you can win at, though. Otherwise it’s just ridiculous. Better logistics than Amazon? Probably not. Better natural language processing than Google? Doubtful. You have to be able to win at something a competitor doesn’t do well. What is that thing?

Identifying Arcs

The way that a character in a story changes is called an “arc.” A character begins as one thing, and ends as another. Foolish to wise. Arrogant to humble.

The arc of a character is best seen as a change in what motivates that character- how what they want changes over time. As in the Hero’s Journey, a character with an arc not only becomes wiser, but also wants different things at the end of the story. He or she learns to see the world differently, and thus change their priorities.

When we talk about character arc, it’s convenient to view it in a binary way. Characters are either “rising” (becoming better), or “falling” (become worse). In this way, almost any character arc in a story can be described:

  • Rags to Riches (rise)
  • Riches to Rags (fall)
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  • Icarus (rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Thus, archetypal characters have arcs that are some combination of rising and falling. But this trope is not contained in just literature. It is all around us. A person’s life story and the story of a startup are a series of these arcs. Telling a story is about showing how a person has changed. Likewise, a startup story is about how the startup, or the founder, or any other character has experienced an arc.

Bill Gates is a Rags to Riches story (not just in the sense of money). He rose from a solitary geek to the king of a software empire. Steve Jobs is a Cinderella story: he rose to the heights of fame, then was drummed out of Apple, but returned to become one of history’s most impactful CEOs.

These arcs are all around us: they play out in every life and in every startup. Which is your arc?

Putting Your Story on Paper

One of the hardest things about my job is getting founders to sit down and commit their stories to words. The anxiety it provokes is very real. Does this story mean anything? Do I sound stupid?

There is a natural tendency for people to avoid exposing themselves for possible shame and ridicule. However, telling your story is a risk: if it doesn’t feel risky, it isn’t a compelling story.

Try to keep in mind the elements we’ve covered here: Your setting, your conflict, your characters, and their arcs. If you’re doing that, you’re probably not doing it wrong.

ICO

ICOs: 2017’s Biggest, Most Misunderstood Trend in Tech

It seems like the tech investment market hasn’t been this excited about anything since 1999. The ICO, or “Initial Coin Offering,” is on the lips of every investor, and floats to the top of every startup discussion around fundraising and new business models.

Depending on who you ask, it’s a revolutionary shift in the investment paradigm that will help tech companies and investors alike become wildly rich, or it’s a scary bubble-creating, fraud enabling monster the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the dot-com bubble.

So what’s going on? What’s an ICO? What do you need to know about them? Why should I be wary or excited? This post will jump into the circumstances that created the phenomenon of ICOs, and try to dispel or confirm some of the most important common beliefs about them.

First, a bit of history:

First There Was Blockchain

In the distant technological past, around 2009, an idea emerged from a mysterious coder with the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto. In a now-legendary whitepaper, he produced a theoretical model for a new kind of digital currency: what he called Bitcoin.  

Without getting too deep into the technology, the key to Nakamoto’s innovation was the idea of a distributed digital currency that relied on a network of computers to process and authenticate transactions for its users. This network would create many copies of a “blockchain ledger,” and would copy transactions written to the ledger based on consensus with the network.

The ledger would contain many “coins,” or unique pieces of code that could be “traded” from one user to another only with the use of a private key. Over time, the system itself was designed to create more coins as a reward for those who processed transactions- a process called “mining.”

In this system, transactions would be theoretically tamper-proof. The system would keep what amounts to a never-ending record of everything it does, impossible for one person to alter alone.

Though Bitcoin’s exact origins and Nakamoto himself are mysterious, what is true today is that millions of people around the world have traded bitcoins, and used them for a variety of purposes, including making payments, transferring money abroad, and in some cases, illegal activities such as extortion, money laundering, and black market sales. There is such ongoing demand for bitcoins, that they have been valued by some exchanges at up to $5000 dollars recently.

The popularity of Bitcoin has spawned many follow-ups, including and especially Ethereum, which has presented a number of technical advancements to solve limitations in the original Bitcoin technology, particularly Bitcoin’s lack of speed and extensibility.

Today, the Ethereum blockchain functions as a platform upon which applications that need a distributed blockchain can be built. The Ethereum coin called “ether,” can be “spent” as a way of leveraging the network on which it runs to accomplish new tasks in a secure way.

Blockchain and ICOs

While Bitcoin popularized shared ledgers, new platforms like Ethereum promise to put that technology to much broader use, such as in authenticating contracts, securing communications, and enabling new forms of crowdfunding. Proponents see Ethereum and similar technologies as a way to decentralize many functions of the web, and eventually the whole economy.

TechCrunch has a good introductory article on some of those ideas. I suggest you read that as well.

An ICO is one of those new uses of a shared ledger. As simply as possible, it is the process of offering a new set of coins for purchase, either for cash, or more commonly, in exchange for cryptocurrencies that the seller of the coin can then exchange for cash, or something else. The coins being sold by the company raising the IO should be tied to some external financial instrument or physical asset, such as a loan, a share of common stock, a security, or in some cases, “credit” towards the use of the products a company offers.

You may recognize this kind of transaction as essentially similar to the sale of a security or a debt. The main difference is that the sale is accomplished using a blockchain ledger, and the “coin” sits in place of a typical security instrument, such as a bond, or a note.

Thus, an ICO could be used to facilitate many existing business activities. It could be used to enable a group of lenders to pool their money, or it could be used by a startup to sell equity in itself. An ICO can also be used by an existing company to offer a way of buying its services (the same way mobile gaming companies sell tokens, gems or other items to their players to make in-game purchases).

The advantages of employing blockchain technology in these circumstances are the same as ever: increased security, transparency, and auditability. In short, ICOs can potentially offer a better or fairer way of doing things people mostly already do.

So Why is this So Crazy Popular?

Because it’s so easy to setup, and easy to use. The wild popularity of ICOs in the past 6 months or so is largely driven by the general investor hype around cryptocurrencies. As the prevalence of shared ledgers grows, it becomes ever easier to leverage them for novel purposes like an ICO.

And that cutting-edgness can make the ICO market a bit frothy and potentially bubble prone. People who have invested in cryptocurrencies, and more importantly those who missed the huge easy gains that early Bitcoin and Ethereum investors made, now are seeking more opportunities to make returns of a similar scope. At least a part of this is mania and greed, as evidenced by the wacky valuations and amounts raised in some ICOs.

On the other hand, ICOs carry undeniably attractive advantages. They can be bought into from anywhere, by anyone, and are instantaneous- a powerful antidote to the slow and restricted nature of traditional investments and bank transactions for end-consumers. In a sense, an ICO lets individuals do what big investment banks have been able to do for decades: to be the first movers in new and exciting markets.

What an ICO is Not

Of course, that freedom and opportunity comes with its own cost.

Currently ICOs are mostly considered to be unregulated, and have thus been characterized as dangerous, risky for investors, and legally questionable by experts. Certainly those ICOs which mimic the characteristics of a classical IPO have been among the most concerning activity in the ICO market, and were the primary motivator for both the Chinese and US governments to intervene in the market recently.

An ICO can allow a company to bypass institutional investors who might normally help to diversify risk for consumers, or ensure that an investment is legally structured in a way that protects investors. In an ICO however, no central mediator such as a stock exchange or investment bank exists, and thus, in some cases, due diligence on behalf of investors is poor or non-existent.

Whatever the legal or ethical dangers, ICOs have quickly ballooned in value to what is estimated to be billions of U.S. dollars in the past year. Companies have used ICOs to raise eye-popping amounts of money, sometimes with little reliable information about where that money is going, and often with little legal protections in place for buyers.

ICOs have also been the tools of purely criminal enterprises, with a fraudster reportedly caught attempting to move $350 million of ICO investments offshore from India, after a fake ICO for a company calling itself OneCoin.

Massive speculation in cryptocurrencies has fueled plenty of fraud and abuse from bad actors looking to make easy money. And the distributed nature of a shared ledger makes it correspondingly difficult for investors to organize in response to problems. Collective shareholder action becomes difficult when many shareholders remain anonymous.

As to whether we are in a crypto bubble, as many commentators fear, it is inherently difficult to recognize a bubble when you are in it. But according to the economic historian Michael Lewis (author of The Big Short), a defining feature of the investor mania that leads to bubbles is “ an exponential increase in the volume and complexity of fraud.” And fraud today in crypto-currencies is both voluminous and increasingly complex.

Original Art by Mirek Sultz Copyright 2017, StartupYard 

Are ICOs Legal?

At least right now, they’re not illegal in most places. But the question of their legality is part of an evolving situation. They have recently been banned in China, as the government grew concerned over the disruption they were causing in the country’s traditional financial markets. In addition, the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission of the US), has also issued new guidance suggesting that ICOs that are similar to a classical IPO must register with the SEC, and adhere to existing regulations.

The ESMA (the European SEC), has yet to issue coherent regulatory guidance for European investors and companies. European regulators are typically slower to act than either the US or China.

In addition to this, while an ICO might not be illegal, it may in some cases be technically illegal to participate in it. For example, investors who are American citizens, and the companies they buy coins from, may be at risk of violating US laws including FATCA and FBAR – laws that require many financial transactions to be reported to the US Government when they involve American citizens.

In most countries, ignorance of such laws is not a defense for breaking them.

Are ICO’s Safe?

They can be. An ICO is not inherently safe as an investment. One unique risk in blockchain transactions, as opposed to traditional commerce, is that nothing is reversible. “No backsies,” meaning that you can’t appeal to anyone to recall a transaction once you make it.

And a coin alone does not guarantee shareholder rights or ownership of something. However, if the proper legal framework is used to tie coins to real assets or give their holders certain rights, then an ICO investment or a coin purchase is not fundamentally different from the purchase of any other type of security or medium of exchange.

So while an ICO is not by definition “safe,” it is not necessarily any more dangerous than any other type of transaction. And in some ways, it can be considered more secure against certain threats.

Ok, but Should I Buy Into an ICO?

According to our in-house blockchain expert, Decissio founder Dite Gashi, you should not consider investing in any debt or equity ICO unless it meets some essential criteria (many of it the same as for any traditional investment).

Here are the highlights of Decissio’s checklist:

  1. The ICO’s Focus – The focus should be on the business, and not on providing investor returns, particular fast investor returns. If it looks like a pyramid scheme, assume it is.
  2. Meeting Technical Due Diligence – either you or someone you trust has examined the technical specifications of the offering, and are satisfied that it is sound from a technical point of view.
  3. Complete Company Documentation – Just as with any investment, the company launching an ICO should be on a sound legal footing, and should be represented by qualified board-members, free of legal trouble, compliant with regulations, and have its finances in proper order. If documentation that establishes this is not provided, then the investment may not be as safe as you think.
  4. An Exit Plan – A company raising money through an equity or debt ICO should have a clear idea of how and when investors can be paid back, what triggers a liquidity event, what events or milestones call for a reorganization of the company, and so forth. This should all be provided in writing and vetted by your own legal counsel.
  5. Legal Framework – Purchase of a coin in a debt or equity swap absolutely must have legal documentation tying the coin to a real asset, or to the right to collect payment on a debt. Sufficient collateral for such a transaction should be in place, and all standard legal documentation must be provided. The blockchain technology does not replace any of this, or make any of it less necessary.

To be clear: we are not offering financial advice. But our opinion is that an investor should make a habit of looking for the same kinds of things in any investment they make. The way that an investment is offered doesn’t change the fundamentals of wise investing.

As the renowned VC Fred Wilson says: “Don’t be greedy.”

Should I Raise an ICO as a Startup?

In answer to this, we would pose a different question: what are the specific advantages of doing an ICO?

  1. It’s Faster: ICO might be easier to manage in the long term. Because it’s handled using a shared ledger, there’s no need to deal with many investors all trying to give you money at the same time- no problems with exchange rates, transfer fees, bank delays, and other annoyances.
  2. It’s more Scalable: Unlike a typical early-stage investment, an ICO can in theory be easily extended or replicated in the future without any changes to existing agreements. Traditional equity investing involves complex time-intensive processes to transfer shares, convert notes, gather signatures, and the rest.
  3. It’s Auditable: A nice thing about an ICO is that it can all be audited. Investors can feel more secure because a company cannot easily lie about how much money it has raised, or at what value. It’s all in the ledger.
  4. It’s Flexible: an ICO can be used by a small group of investors, just as it can a large one. This means that you can theoretically offer early investors the advantages of using a shared ledger, without sacrificing the personal touch that is so important with early stage investments. Startups rarely just need money: they usually need investors who can help them. It’s still possible to do that with an ICO.

ICOs are a Threat to Traditional Investors

It should be obvious by now that blockchain technology and ICOs are perceived as a threat by many traditional investors. And with good reason. Traditional startup investors may offer more than just money, but money is certainly a huge part of what they offer. ICOs can be a way to get around large institutional investors and deal with people on a peer-to-peer basis, meaning that traditional investors will have to compete harder for investments, and offer more to companies they invest in.

Early stage investors like StartupYard also face challenges from this technology. As it becomes easier to get capital from anywhere, startups are perhaps less likely to think of an accelerator as a starting point for their business. They may find that raising money in an ICO is easier – maybe even too easy.

Investors down the line may also find that investing through traditional institutions doesn’t give them the access to deal flow that they want, and they could be attracted to ICOs as a way of getting “closer to the action,” and giving money directly to exciting startups.

Tech Business Angels and VCs may also find that startups are not as keen to cooperate with them because of the alternatives available. That may be good for some startups, and very bad for others. Small companies that raise money too quickly often make big, costly mistakes, rather than little, cheap ones. Institutional investors don’t make you immune to that problem either, but they can enforce much needed discipline on founders who are playing with lots of funds for the first time.

What can we do about it?

As the famous line from newspaperman Horace Greeley says: “Go West, young man, go West.” In other words: we must adapt to our times. The reality is that this technology is gaining popularity because it promises something that people want: a new level of transparency and immediacy, for investors and for startups, that the old investment world can’t match.

While we have to continue to advocate for the processes that have made us successful at what we do (which have less to do with money) we also have to recognize that the modes of technology change whether we want them to or not. Our model must adapt, which is one of the reasons that StartupYard has made itself available to smaller investors through private equity placements over the past two years. We see that small investors want more access to early stage investments, so we must provide it in a way that makes sense for us, and for them.

Still, and it bears repeating: startups don’t really need money as much as they need help. Really effective startup investors provide enough money, in order to offer the level of help a startup really needs. A day may soon come when StartupYard will adopt blockchain technology in our own fundraising efforts. But when the winds of change blow, you shouldn’t be blown away by them. At the end of the day: the tech business has to be about more than money.

SY Alum Decissio Uses AI to Accurately Predict StartupYard Investments

You may remember Decissio, a Batch 7 StartupYard alum that has been working on the “Jarvis for Investment Decision Making.” Earlier this year, the company announced its kick-off product, an intelligent dashboard for VC investors and Accelerators to evaluate and monitor companies they invest in.

Decissio aims to go beyond a typical investment dashboard by combining up-to-date company data with complex big-data based probability models and machine learning algorithms, helping investors to continuously evaluate their investment decisions.

As Decissio and founder Dite Gashi continues to gather data and build the company’s flagship SaaS product, they have focused on piloting their approach with small controlled experiments.

One such pilot has been in partnership with StartupYard. Decissio’s Mission: to process all of StartupYard’s applications for Batch 8, our latest batch starting next week, and deliver predictions on their success based on a variety of factors, including written applications, founder profiles, founder/market fit, and the current state of the company.  

Dite Gashi

Dite Gashi: Founder and CEO at Decissio

The numbers are in on this pilot, and they’re very promising. We’re not ready to stop reading applications or doing our own research just yet, but we’re now confident that Decissio can be a big part of making our application process better, fairer, and more efficient.

The following case-study is a co-production of Decissio and StartupYard, written by Dite Gashi, and Lloyd Waldo. A more detailed write up and analysis will appear shortly after publication at Decissio.com. For more info on the technology and related work, please visit Decissio.com.

Warning: This post is long and contains big words. Skip to the bottom for a bulleted Tl;Dr 

Good Small Decisions = Big Positive Outcomes

The StartupYard application process doesn’t happen all at once. It involves a long series of smaller decisions. Does a startup have a unique idea? Does it fit into our mentor group and experience? Do the founders have enough experience? Is there strong competition in the market?

Some decisions are even more granular: did the founder answer questions thoroughly and clearly? Were they responsive in detail?

Small details often reveal big trends. But a human mind isn’t set up to think in that direction. We aren’t programmed to carefully add up small decisions to make big ones. Enter Decissio, whose mission was to apply a machine-learning approach to small decisions we make in the application process, not to override the judgement and experience of our evaluators, but rather to augment it with important insights.

StartupYard Alum Decissio.com uses #AI to accurately predict future StartupYard startup… Click To Tweet

The Framework

An application to an accelerator consists of a relatively small data set. We have a written application, founder profiles (on LinkedIn), sometimes a website, and whatever has been written about the company online.

Rarely do we have hard financial data on the companies, in some cases because there is no company in existence, and so the founding team has no financial data to look at. Nor do we have much access to the IP teams are working on. We have to rely on what founders say, and what they have done in the past.

But a bunch of small data sets together make up a bigger data set. Decissio examined over 1300 previous applications to StartupYard, along with the rankings our evaluation committee has generated, and used that data as a benchmark for incoming applications.

They found a number of statistically significant trends in that data. Startups that were successful as applicants to StartupYard could be ranked point-by-point, according to the following framework:

  • A Completeness Score: how thoroughly the application is filled in, and with how much quality information.
  • Effort Score: The quality of the writing in the application, particularly the responsiveness of answers, and the scope and variety of detail provided.
  • Relatedness Score: how closely a founder’s profile and experience matches the content of the application
  • Founder Linkedin Score: The completeness and quality of a founder’s LinkedIn profile
  • Media Mentions: The number, quality, and sources of mentions of the company or product online, along with sentiment analysis
  • Money/Work/Revenue Generated: The ratio of previous investments and time spent on the project to real revenues (if any).
  • Spell Check

Believe it or not, Spell Check is powerfully predictive of application quality. Note to founders: always use Spell Check.

The Analysis

This is where the historical data from previous StartupYard applications comes in. While it’s not very useful to directly compare older applications to newer ones, because the topics and ideas in them are often so different, it is useful to weight the importance of the different factors in the framework according to their impact on previous decisions.

Furthermore, the final analysis includes proprietary algorithms by Decissio that can dynamically weight the outcomes for individual teams, based on cross-referencing between different data sets. For example: Decissio’s AI can adjust its expectations for the Effort Score, if the founders are experienced in marketing and sales, or have no such experience. Thus each team is examined according to its own merits, and not an evaluator’s less informed expectations.

As “calibration,” or maintaining consistency and fairness of scoring across a large number of applications is a significant problem with humans, Decissio can re-calibrate an evaluator’s judgement to keep them from penalizing teams for the wrong reasons. As the standardized testing field has long known, human scoring can be so inconsistent that a significant amount of scoring time (even up to half) must be devoted to calibration in some cases.

Since our evaluations involve multiple rounds with a Pass/Fail outcome, each examining more and more detailed information, highly predictive models can be built for an application that will make it through round 1. A less predictive but still strong model can be built for round 2, and a much less accurate, but still useful model can be built for round 3, and so on.

The chart below shows overall predictiveness of the approach over multiple rounds. StartupYard uses a “first past the post” system of ranking, where the ranking cutoff for each round is smaller. This means that in round one, 70-80% of applicants are rejected. In round two, just over 50% of the remaining applicants are rejected, and in round 3 (which are day-long in person interviews), only 20-30% are rejected.

Decissio False Negatives

None of Decissio’s bottom-ranked 63 startups were ultimately selected, meaning that virtually all of the first round of evaluations could be handed over to the AI, leaving a much smaller pool of applicants to evaluate, and allowing the human evaluators to use a much lower cutoff, in a smaller, better initial pool. In this scenario, only 20% of human evaluated startups would need to be rejected in the first round.

We would expect false negatives to rise, as Decissio gets only one pass at the data, and with each round, human evaluators gather more data, which causes their behavior to diverge from the model.

For example, if use of Spell Check is 90% predictive of the Pass/Fail rate for round 1, it may be only slightly predictive of the success rate of round 2, and by round 3, it may lose its predictive power altogether. By the time an application involves a detailed look at a founder’s CV, and personal interviews with that person, other factors can arise that vastly outweigh any minor inattention to detail, like spelling.

Or the predictiveness curve can go in the other direction as well, with certain data only gaining predictive power in later rounds. Media mentions may have a low predictive power in the earlier rounds, and become more powerful later on. This can be because a company with a low early round score for Relatedness or very high Money/Work/Revenue ratios, can have many mentions in the media, but also fatal problems in their business, team, or technology. Thus, hype is not strongly predictive in Round 1, but by Round 3, it becomes a major asset to an applicant. Once all other factors are examined, media exposure becomes an affirmation of market fit, demand, or interest.

How Well Does This Work?

Decissio’s Success rate in the first round of applications (the on-paper evaluations), was 73%, far exceeding random chance. The accuracy dropped as expected in subsequent rounds where evaluations focused on personal interviews, from 50% in the 2nd round, to 20% in the final round. Still, this means that exactly half the time, a startup that passed the first interview with our selection committee was predicted to do so by Decissio, based only on their written application and profile.

There are two ways in which this kind of analysis can be useful. Either it can be used to identify applications that have a high likelihood of success, or it can be used to filter out those with the lowest likelihood of success.

Decissio Picked the Top 2 Ranking Finalists

We don’t have enough data to be able to confidently say that an application will definitely fail. However, on the opposite side of the scale, the results from Decissio’s analysis did correctly identify StartupYard’s two highest human-ranked finalists, and placed both in its own independent top ten prediction.

Decissio Picked the 100 lowest-rated applications with 89% Accuracy.

Still, the most immediate benefit of Decissio’s approach is in the earliest rounds, where pass/fail decisions are by design based on less human-focused information than the pass/fail decisions in later rounds.

This theory holds up with Decissio’s results: their bottom 100 applicants in this pool of applications (out of around 130), was 89% accurate, meaning that only 11% of the time, we determined a startup to be worth advancing, while Decissio did not. Clearly, in terms of identifying a lack of potential, Decissio’s approach is already very effective.  

Further mining of the available data could produce a much more precise prediction. For example, by analysing co-founder and founder/investor fit according to the work histories and digital footprints of both can theoretically yield very reliable predictions of compatibility, which in turn raises the chances of success or failure for a startup.

These factors would require a different kind of data to solve; a kind of data we don’t collect systematically right now. But this kind of approach, which treats people as nodes in a system that has its own features beyond those of individuals, has been deeply developed already, particularly on the level of enterprise management consulting involving things like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator Test.

It may prove true in the future that a set of personality tests of some kind are more predictive of success in a particular accelerator program or industry, than the content of an application, though we don’t know what that test would look like, or how it would be used.

SY Alum Decissio.com predicts first round StartupYard application decisions with 89% accuracy,… Click To Tweet

 

Potential Applications:

Time Saving

Decissio was able to predict with strong accuracy (73%), the likelihood that a startup would make it through the first round. This means that evaluator’s mental resources can be focused more on rounds in which more human-level data is being examined, particularly personal interviews and meetings.

An evaluator can spend relatively less time making early-round decisions, because Decissio can compare cursory evaluator consensus to its own scores, and “call out” the circumstances in which these do not match for further study. There is less of a chance that a good application will be “overlooked” in this way– a constant fear among startup investors dealing with many applications.

Bias Reduction

While a human with experience can “skim” an application and be able to tell it isn’t strong, that subjective evaluation is highly prone to error and internal biases. Very poor spelling could cause a human evaluator to give up on an application, whereas an algorithm might see past this issue and find more value in the startup than a person would look for.

This process could also serve as a check against more latent biases, such as gender, age, nationality, and sexual orientation. While it’s difficult for a human to differentiate between their instinctive reactions to people based on conditioning, and their objective evaluations of people in a professional context, an algorithm can demonstrate more consistency in that regard. Biases can’t be eliminated even this way, but they can be better controlled.

Thus, Decissio can be a check against the human decision making process, enhancing it without replacing it.

Fighting the “Best Horse” Problem

Decissio’s approach can also serve to fight the “best horse” problem, whereby a candidate with a strong outward appearance can advance well into the selection process without revealing sometimes severe deficiencies.

The best horse problem is one of reinforced selection bias. Imagine you have 10 horses, and you send them all running around a track. Then judging by the outcome of the test, you give special care and attention to the fastest horse, believing that it above the others has greater potential as a champion.

In this way we sometimes pick winners for all the wrong reasons. The horse to finish first can finish first for a number of reasons not having to do with potential as a racehorse. Cheating for example, or luck. Likewise, the last horse around the track can be the one with the most future potential.

In our application process, a very strong written application or interview performance can mask a basic weakness in the founding team’s experience or ability. It’s only much later that these weaknesses reveal themselves in a lack of tangible results from the company.

Startups can and do advance very far in accelerator programs while still lacking the core abilities and disposition needed to thrive. It can take a long time to recognize a fraud or a fish out of water.

Creating More Useful Feedback

Another thing this big data approach can solve is the information problem. What happens frequently with accelerator applications, as we suspect happens in many fields, is that successful written applications contain a near-perfect mix of description and data. Something like the “golden ratio” often described in mathematical analyses of artworks and natural proportionality.

The human mind likes a certain level of balance in the information it receives. When a person writes, they tend to favor either information or analysis, but only experienced writers know how to mix the two into pleasing and easy to read narratives. It’s a problem even good writers frequently struggle with. 

Too much writing about ideas, and the application seems too “light.” Too much data, and it seems too dense or too technical. In formal writing analysis, this formula is often used to describe balance between facts and ideas, where the value a is descriptive and creative writing, while b is supporting data and factual information. Those familiar with the classic “5 paragraph essay” often taught in schools, will recall the same proportionality. About 3 parts of persuasive writing, for every 1 part of factual basis. 

This type of training is not universal even among professionals, which sets up an arbitrary test of writing skill that may not be as relevant to the outcome as we tend to believe. If our job is to train people how to be better entrepreneurs, then we fail at that mission from the beginning if we can’t differentiate between someone who deserves our help, and someone who doesn’t.

By offering feedback on the strength of an application according to the above mentioned metrics (Completeness, Effort, Spelling, etc), Decissio could potentially improve the chances of failing applications where the main problem is poor writing.

An opportunity to improve an application is also an opportunity for us to see value where it is hard to spot. Telling an applicant that their application is failing because of style and substance can help those applicants to better express themselves, and thus deliver us more opportunities to find quality teams.

Conclusions

StartupYard and Decissio pilot project shows that AI assisted investing can improve results… Click To Tweet

The results of this pilot clearly show that there is great potential in enhancing our decision making process with machine learning and data analysis.

We are not at the point where we’re ready to let a machine determine our investment strategies on its own- the way machines already do some forms of investing without human inputs.

Unlike an investor in securities, or a high-frequency bond trader, an accelerator’s main advantages are as a first mover. We invest in companies that don’t exist yet, have limited information on their markets, and have a limited history, or no history. So we invest in people – and people are inherently hard to quantify.

Our anecdotal experience of meeting teams in person *before* evaluating their applications, consistently reveals that the application process cannot identify many important personality traits. For an accelerator, success comes only when we are right about a trend, and a particular person, at just the right time.

So employing an AI powered decision-making approach cannot mean abandoning the unique advantages we have: the ability to see things others don’t see. Expertise (and hard work) is still the core of sound early-stage investing, but AI can help us to focus that expertise on the “creme de la creme” of potential investments.

It can save us from becoming jaded by the junk applications that routinely swamp our inboxes.

A startup is not an individual, it’s a team. And it is not in our interest to arbitrarily eliminate applicants who are not good at writing applications, or have other deficiencies more visible on an application than in real life. However, it is in our interest to conserve and spend our resources (including our time and energy), where the potential for gain is highest. 

This approach can benefit higher-dollar investors too: later stage investors have many of the same problems accelerators have, but on a different scale. A Seed or Series A investor makes decisions involving 10-50x more money than any single investment from an accelerator, and they also receive more requests, on average, than a small accelerator does.

Currently the most obvious and most immediate advantage of using Decissio’s AI is for very early stage investors with many applicants, such as government innovation programs, and big accelerators like TechStars, Y-Combinator, and 500 Startups. 

Tl;dr:

  • StartupYard alum Decissio analyzed our past applications over a 6 year period.
  • Decissio used this data and their own AI to predict which applications to StartupYard would succeed.
  • Two of their top 10 picks were also StartupYard finalists
  • They accurately predicted the bottom ranked half of applicants.
  • This approach can be used by accelerators to:
    • Improve applications overall
    • Save time on the poorest applications
    • Reduce systemic biases
    • Get better information on applicants
  • Decissio’s AI could be applied to other early stage investors, such as Series A and Seed Investors, or to large accelerators, particularly Tech Stars, Y-C, and 500 Startups.
  • At the end of the day, AI will help early-stage investors to get better information, and spend more time focusing on the human-focused side of their work.
Startup Fail, StartupYard Accelerator

Will Your Startup Fail in the Next 6 Months?

Why Do Startups Fail?

For every reason you can think of, and many more you can’t. If you’re starting a startup, the deck is stacked against you. If you’re not too early, you’re too late. If you don’t grow too fast, you’re growing too slowly.

Some of the smartest, hardest working founders fail. Brains and work ethic can’t always save you.

Okay, Now Give me the Bad News

90% of startups fail. That’s a fact of life, but it’s not a law of nature. Startup death is unrelenting, but not random.

The truth is, after 51 startups at StartupYard, and 29 companies accelerated since we took on a global focus, we’ve seen that there is one thing that kills startups dead faster than anything else.

It’s the failure to answer one simple question:

Where am I going to be in Six Months?

That may seem like an easy question. But it isn’t.

Startups that ask themselves this question, in a searching and honest manner, tend to do better –much better- than those that don’t.

Startups that survive don’t always know the answer to the Six-Month Question. But they do ask it. And they ask it all the time.

The Six-Month question is so important because failing to think about the consequences of your short term decisions is the fastest and easiest way to make stupid mistakes. It is the best way to waste your own time and energy.

If I take this decision today, whatever it may be, where will I then be in six months?

Everything You Do is a Choice

Acting is a choice. And failing to act is also a choice. When a door opens, you either go through it, or you close it. So ask yourself what will happen if you do either.

Consider someone who’s thinking about applying to StartupYard. This founder is faced with 3 possible answers to the six-month question.

  • Option One: Apply and Be Rejected

    • Total time invested: 2-3 hours (8 hours for finalists)
    • Potential risk: Minimal.

      1. Damage your ego
      2. Waste a day
    • Potential benefit: Meet and get feedback from the region’s leading investors, and top StartupYard mentors
    • Side benefits:

      1. spend 2-3 hours building a compelling application for any accelerator (not just StartupYard), and getting qualified feedback. Good for use with other investors as well.
      2. Learn how accelerators work. Make contacts with investors and mentors you can use later.
    • Where you’ll be: either on to your next venture, or continuing to use the feedback you gained by applying.
  • Option Two: Apply and Be Accepted

    • Total Time invested: 3 months
    • Potential risk: Minimal.

      1. Maybe launch slightly later than planned (but with a better strategy).
      2. Be forced to focus on the business instead of the product.
      3. Injured ego due to challenging feedback. A few unproductive mentor meetings (unavoidable).
    • Potential Benefits

      1. Make partnerships and sign customers you wouldn’t have access to otherwise (at least not this early).
      2. Get in-depth feedback from top industry mentors on your product before launching.
      3. Launch with the support of influential corporate partners.
      4. Gain investment faster than you could have on your own, with more founder-friendly terms and better positioned investors.
    • Side Benefits: Grow personally and professionally in a challenging environment, and force yourself to apply discipline to your business plan and product/market positioning.
    • Side Benefits

      1. A perk package worth over $1m, seed investment of €30K, and possibility of follow-on funding.
      2. Access to StartupYard’s mentor network for the life of your company.
      3. PR benefits of taking part in one of Europe’s best regarded accelerators
      4. A strong negotiating partner in StartupYard, that can help you get the best possible terms from future investors.
      5. A community of fellow founders who can become your support network for years to come.
    • Where you’ll be: Hopefully launched, funded, and growing. StartupYard startups who have raised funding since 2013 have secured, on average, €400K after the program. Over half of our alumni have been either funded, or acquired.
  • Option 3: Don’t Apply

    • Total Time Invested: 0 Hours
    • Potential Risk:

      1. Pass up all benefits of options 1 & 2.
      2. Increased risk of not closing investments and dying early
      3. Increased risk of launching the wrong product – or focusing on the wrong market.
      4. Increased costs of starting up (both in time and money).
      5. Be forced to deal with investors who are not a good fit for your vision; who don’t offer friendly terms.
    • Potential Benefits:

      1. Launch slightly earlier. Maybe.
      2. Nobody bothers you.
      3. You are in total control.
    • Side Benefits: None
    • Where you’ll be: Unknown. Statistically, likely dead.

And Then What?

Perhaps my breakdown is slightly skewed in our favor. But this comes from a depth of experience.

The six-month question is a vital part of what StartupYard does for our founders. The program focuses founders on achieving results that they can build upon. Constantly, they are challenged to answer: and then what?

You launch the beta: and then what? You close this investment: and then what?

Startups that have joined StartupYard after pondering option 3 have been some of StartupYard’s most successful to date. Companies like Rossum.ai, Neuron Soundware, and TeskaLabs all initially suspected that the program would be a waste of their collective time and energy.

Each has subsequently become a major proponent of StartupYard and of acceleration in general.

Where were they after 6 months?

TeskaLabs joined TechStars and raised a seed round for their IoT security platform within 6 months of attending StartupYard. They now have active customers like O2 and is a Cisco Solution Provider. The company is now based in London.

Neuron Soundware won Vodafone’s “Idea of the Year” within six months of attending StartupYard, and closed partnerships with Siemens and other major industry players. They raised seed investment less than a year later.

Rossum.ai raised investment on the final day of the StartupYard program, and were named (along with Neuron Soundware), among Forbes’ top 10 Czech startups in 2017- less than six months after joining StartupYard.

Do You Know Where You’ll be in Six Months?

If you know what you’re going to accomplish in the next six months, more power to you. I hope you do well.

But if you’re like most founders, you don’t know. You don’t know what your options are going to be; what opportunities you will have 6 months from now. You probably don’t have a reasonable, reliable way of checking to see if those plans are realistic.

And if you don’t, then ask yourself again: what can I do about that? What decision can I make today that will change that uncertainty?

I have one suggestion: apply to an accelerator. StartupYard closes our applications for Batch 8 on Friday night (June 30th), at Midnight.

Hurry up – it’s not too late.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

  • Robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: June 30th, 2017
Program starts: September 4th, 2017
Program ends: December 1st, 2017

6 Years and 59 Startups Later: Here’s Why StartupYard Works

This week our CEO Cedric Maloux and I sat down for a conversation about the struggles and the excitement of recruiting and working with amazing startups together for the past 4 years as MD, and his 6 years as a mentor.

 

StartupYard last year announced our largest fundraise so far, of about €1 million for up to 20 new startups in 2017-2018. How did we get here? What have we learned? Here are the most interesting exchanges that came out of our discussion:

Hi Cedric, every week during the StartupYard program management meetings, you ask founders one question: “What are you struggling with right now?” I think it’s fair to start with the same question here:

Sleep! [Laughs].

I have two sources of stress when it comes to every StartupYard round, and this is now going to be my 5th time going through it. The biggest stress is Demo Day. Like a parent or a teacher watching their kids take the next big step in life, our whole team works very hard to make sure our founders and startups look great, professional, in control, and ready. But when they go out on that stage, our hands are off the wheel, and they are on their own. That’s a big scary moment for me, and for the founders. I don’t want them to feel that they’ve failed themselves.

The other stress is right now. We are looking for startups, talking to startups, trying to get the right startup founders to apply for our next round at StartupYard. We will invest in up to 20 companies in the next 12 months. I am always slightly panicked at the idea that we’ll miss one, or that one won’t find us, and will miss an opportunity that can really help them to succeed in business, and hopefully in life. I get real joy from making a difference in people’s lives, so I have that fear that I won’t do all I can.

What specifically are you afraid will happen, or not happen?

We can make the wrong choices. We have in the past – though not often, thankfully. StartupYard takes a big risk in trusting people we barely know, to be strong and committed and honest and open enough to go through a really demanding experience. It is very humbling. And I know we aren’t always right about people. We invest in founders, but you don’t really know someone until you spend every day, all day, with that person. Sometimes we’re not sure, and they turn out to be just amazing. Other times we are sure, and it turns out we were off.

So I’m stressed right now about those decisions, and knowing that later is too late.

So what helps you sleep at night, knowing that you’ll never be able to perfectly predict who will apply, and how they’ll perform?

Luckily we surround ourselves with really great advisors and investors. We have a great selection committee, who really get what we’re trying to do. They serve as a check against our biases and assumptions. We have been very lucky, but we also work very hard to remain humble, knowing we will make some mistakes.

In some way, every investment decision we make at StartupYard is a bit crazy from a normal perspective. We invest our time and money into people we have met maybe twice or three times. It takes a lot of faith. Among investors, accelerators like StartupYard are the ones with the least actionable data, KPIs or traction to judge in a startup. We have to believe our hearts and our noses. We have to trust in our experience and instincts more than other investors, who can point to solid numbers to tell the story. We go on much less.

Hearts and noses?

Yes. If you’re investing in a later stage, it’s all about numbers and trends. We can see trends, but we have very little in terms of numbers. So we also have to really understand people to make the right choices. I say our hearts and our noses, because our hearts are for people, but our noses are for opportunity. If we believe in someone, and we believe that there is an opportunity in what they’re doing, then that is enough for us.

Central Europe Accelerator

What makes you particularly fitted for a role like this?

I think a person can’t imagine what it takes to go from an idea to a profitable company unless they’ve done it, and experienced it themselves. I have done that multiple times in my life.

And unless you’ve experienced the opposite, which is failure, you probably think somewhere in the back of your mind that it can’t happen to you. I’ve also failed, publically. The last time one of my ventures was mentioned in Wired, it was in the context of the company going out of business.

So I know what that’s like to be notable enough to be in Wired, but still to fail. I have a deep technical background (I studied AI at University in the 1990s, when it wasn’t cool), and I’ve had a long career in sales. If a founder can’t sell; to employees, to co-founders, to investors, and customers, then he can’t make his ideas a reality.

So sales is not just about closing deals?

No. It’s about everything. Selling is essential. I’ve sold customer-facing services. I’ve sold B2B products to big corporations. I’ve sold my own company. Selling is an art. As we say, “telling isn’t selling.” You have to be able to not just talk about your ideas, but sell them.

Also, I learned a lot from running online businesses during the 2000 Internet bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. These things taught me the hard way about discipline in the fundamentals of business.

What was your hardest lesson through those experiences?

Cost understanding and control is at the heart of your company. You can only control one thing: your costs. Revenue projections, cost control: these are the things that get you through a crisis. It’s all about planning. Not your revenue, or development time, or investors, or customers. Just costs. Knowing when the money will run out. So financial hygiene is a top priority.

You’ve run companies. You’ve sold one company. So from that background, if you were starting a tech startup today, would you apply to an accelerator, even knowing everything you know?

Short answer, yes I would.

Long answer, I do have a few tech businesses on the side that I have started with other people, and with one, I’ve been encouraging the CEO to apply to an accelerator (though not StartupYard because it’s not in our area of focus). That should tell you what I think about accelerators, and not just about StartupYard.

If I was starting a business, I would go to one tomorrow, because no matter how much experience I have, I am limited by my own capacity as a human being. One thing that I’ve learned over the years, is that success doesn’t come from what you know, but from who you know. Your network is a vital ingredient for success.

A great startup has these things:  a hard problem to solve, a great solution, a clear value-proposition, a strong sales/marketing team, perfect timing, and great connections. You cannot be in control of every one of those things at any one time. You can however always work on your network. An accelerator connects you with people who help you seize opportunities and move fast when the time is right. Your connections help you discover weaknesses, and also opportunities. Knowing you need help is a strength, not a weakness.

Speaking of networks, StartupYard has quite a few corporations on its mentor list. Why do you focus so much on corporates during mentorship?

It’s a good question, and one we are asked a lot. Startups even tell us they would like to meet more people who are more like them. Usually when you meet a mentor, like at a competition or in a conference or at an incubator, or many other accelerators, they tend to be investors, or entrepreneurs.

It’s actually relatively easy to get a meeting with an investor or an entreprepreneur, which is why it’s easy to convince them to mentor startups. But, if you’re a B2B startup looking for early traction, you need to go door to door, talking to customers. And most of the time doing that, you’ll meet low level people.

What we decided early on, was to incorporate high-level corporate decision-makers, not just a lot of people, but leaders and C-level executives. The people who aren’t so much in the internal politics of their corporations, but are in a position to make things happen for startups. And we have many concrete examples of that working really well.

If the Chairman of the Board at a bank invites one of our startups to talk to his executives, that’s a meeting where people will be paying attention. It will have results. Not long ago, our mentors at Microsoft brought one of our startups to meet Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft, in Redmond. You won’t be able to name many early-stage companies who can get that meeting.

Yes, I was genuinely surprised when that happened too. The engagement from Microsoft was extraordinary. What do you think the corporate people get out of being startup mentors?

As it happens, those heads of industry share many of the qualities of startup founders. Ambition, drive, vision. So they love to be exposed to young founders and interact with them, not just about ideas, but about ways of working and thinking. The CEO of a global corporation told me a while ago that it’s his job to know what’s going on outside his company, because they are under constant attack from startups. You have to know your adversary.

We sometimes call corporations “dumb and slow,” but it would be a mistake to think that the people running them are either dumb or slow. Often the people at the top are thinking very far ahead, and when a startup is looking for the right stakeholder, the top is often the best place to start. Outside of our program, our founders would just never get meetings with such people. Even if they did, it would take years to get them all, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

I feel very proud of our mentor group. One mentor told me recently, that it was an honor to be included. That just made me feel very proud. We have spent years developing StartupYard as a platform, but we can’t rest on our achievements. We have to keep improving and building that network ever round, or it dies.

You said you can’t rest. What is your biggest difficulty when it comes to talking to founders about acceleration?

I would say we see two types. There is the founder who really understands the value accelerators can bring, and is eager to join. The other is the one who is more defensive; defensive of their ideas, of their priorities, of their sense of control and sometimes pride as well.

They may see joining an accelerator as a risk rather than an opportunity: that they risk wasting time. But often I think it’s just that they risk giving up control. Startup founders can be control freaks, as everyone knows, and we ask people to give up some of that control in order to grow, and that is a hard thing to ask of people who have always performed at a high level in their lives. Even the tiny amount of control we want them to give up can seem like a big, big change.

But if you’re so concerned about making the wrong choices, that you don’t act, then you risk never making decisions at all. Our biggest challenge is to show skeptics that the accelerator is called an “accelerator” for a reason, and it is not to slow them down or take up their time. That interrupting their process and refocusing them can actually save them time, and not waste it.

All our alumni will confirm this to you and in fact, they often talk about the empty period after the program. Once a founder told me he wished the program never stopped. And this was a startup which already had some revenue, but had skyrocketed with us.

You have to be a bit smart and a bit arrogant to start a business, but you need to let your intelligence prevail, and admit when you need other people. We all start as fools in life, and the only people who are doomed to remain fools are the ones who refuse to admit this, and don’t let themselves be questioned.

Some founders will tell us that all they need is cash.

That’s true. But when you ask them: “If all you need is cash, then why don’t you already have it?” They start telling you about their real problems – the reasons investors aren’t giving them money. It’s usually because they haven’t earned it yet. They don’t have enough data, they don’t have enough traction, or they don’t know how to sell to the investors.

You are absolutely right, and in an environment where cash is king, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to these people that to deserve cash you need to go through some steps.

What we find is that the act of just applying to StartupYard, and answering very specific questions about their business can help founders to realize what they don’t know. Even just forcing yourself to really answer these questions, you can begin to see that there are a lot of areas where you can grow and learn more.

So you need to bring people down a bit to build them up?

Yes. The acceleration process is challenging not just intellectually, but also emotionally for some people. But if you want to really run a global business, and meet your potential as an entrepreneur, that is the kind of challenge you will have to face, one way or the other.

We aren’t here to judge people and their ideas. The projects we look at are very early stage, and the people running them have a lot of room for mistakes and wrong roads. Our job as an accelerator and the job of our mentors is to support people who are taking these creative risks, exposing them to dangers and opportunities. We prepare them for taking good risks, and being aware of the dangers they will face.

Over the past 5 years, I have repeated certain things over and over again through every program. One of them is: “be careful, about what might happen if…”

To you, what is the biggest misconception about what StartupYard does for founders?

What I think some founders don’t expect is that the mentorship process, and the whole acceleration program, is aimed not just at their business, but at them as people. It would be waste of their time, and ours, if we spent our energy trying to make people into something they don’t want to be. So we pay very careful attention to discovering, with our founders, what it is in their hearts that they really are passionate about and want to do and to become.

So it’s not just about business for you?

There is a saying: “just business, not personal.” But I think this is very misleading. Growing a global business is all about who you are as a person. If you do something that is true to who you are, and who you want to be, that is infinitely better, for everyone involved, than if you’re just trying to make money. You can make money in a lot of ways, if that’s what you want. We want to help people to become their best selves as founders, and that means finding in them that special energy they possess that no one else does, and helping them to tap into it.

The biggest successes in business don’t think “It’s just business.” They know it’s about more than themselves or this one goal. It’s about relationships and it’s about being true to who you are.

Any last words?

Apply to StartupYard! Applications close June 30th, so I hope anyone who recognizes themselves in what we’ve talked about will consider applying now.

I can’t wait to be impressed.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #9.

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • VR/AR
  • IoT
  • Cryptography
  • Blockchain
Applications Open: Now
Applications Close: January 31st, 2018