Dite Gashi is the founder and CEO of Decissio, the blockchain powered investment management and smart-contracts platform that was accelerated at StartupYard this year. Dite has called Decissio the “Jarvis” of investment decision making. The company is working to build a data platform that helps venture investors and professional portfolio managers to actively manage their investments, based on blockchain verified and real-time data.
Dite has been a leading voice in the blockchain movement for years, and represented the first startup at StartupYard to focus on the technology. I caught up with Dite this week to talk about the future of Blockchain, and why startups in the space need accelerators like StartupYard now more than ever. Here’s what he had to say:
Hi Dite, you’ve been working with Blockchain technology for almost as long as it has been around. Tell us how you got into Blockchain, and why it still fascinates you.
Blockchain has been an obsession of mine from when it came out as a research paper, all the way up to Bitcoin and Ethereum. My background is in computer science, business management and economics. This knowledge base, fueled by curiosity, allowed me to dive deeper into blockchain concepts first and then into their applications in the world of business quicker than the mainstream world, which to this day I believe has a superficial understanding of blockchain as an innovation.
What doesn’t the mainstream business world understand about Blockchain?
Most of the mainstream business world seems to be in a state of needing to get a piece of the action when it comes to this technology. I’ve literally heard phrases like – we are talking to you because our CEO said “we need blockchain.”Why 'we need Blockchain' isn't a good reason to work with most Blockchain #startups - Dite Gashi speaks out. Click To Tweet
The fear of missing out is big. I’d go as far as to say that’s the money that keeps most blockchain startups running. Wanting to be part of the new revolution is totally fine, however the way that they go about it tends to be sub-optimal. Investors sometimes invest in shady schemes and promising ICO’s (Initial Coin Offering) without proper tech due diligence and auditing, just to find out a few months down the line that the tokens they got are suddenly worthless.
I think the greatest misconception lies in not understanding the basic utility that blockchain provides, which in most cases boils down to somehow cutting out the middle man. Only after understanding it, can you think of an investment opportunity through the filter of whether a blockchain application would be the best for that particular purpose. There are many applications out there who would do fine without blockchain.
You attended StartupYard as part of Batch 7 earlier this year. What do you think that other founders with Blockchain ideas can get out of StartupYard?
Having been present in the blockchain sphere for a while I can attest that most blockchain people tend to be technologically inclined, or as the world likes to call them, nerds. They have strong technical skills that they apply or a great ability to understand and aim to solve important problems. I believe that is great for building technology blocks, innovating and bringing about thought provoking questions of alternate models of functioning.
Where the blockchain community does fall short though is the ability to reach out to people. I believe blockchain founders can learn about marketing, how to sell and how to communicate with masses. They can better refine their offerings to match the needs of the market – something that many startups miss.
Right now we are seeing a sort of valley between the promise of Blockchain innovation and the realities. Right now, the technology is too geeky and complex for ordinary people to use, and too fringy and speculative for corporations to really get behind it. A team I put together last month took 2nd place in the KB Fintech Hackathon in Prague, working on a blockchain contract verification system, so it’s obvious that banks are starting to see real potential in the technology.
Still, we are in the very early days, and blockchain founders are going to need a lot of exposure to the perceptions and expectations of existing industries, in order to come up with solutions that have a chance of being adopted widely. StartupYard is an ideal environment for a really speculative technology to come face to face with the hard reality of the market. I think Decissio is a perfect example of that: all the traction we’ve gained has been thanks to the feedback we got directly from potential customers at StartupYard.
What do you see as the biggest barriers for Blockchain founders right now?
Probably more than any area in tech in recent history, blockchain does have a credibility problem. A big part of that has been the ongoing saga of Bitcoin, which has unfortunately attracted a lot of negative attention. Rightly so, I think, because Bitcoin brought some of the worst elements to the blockchain community, and became an attractor for the get-rich-quick schemers and for cyber-criminals and extreme political ideologues.
Actually this is nothing new: the internet itself did basically the same thing in the 1990s especially, and it suffered its own credibility gap, until serious, in-depth businesses started to make the web safer and more usable for regular people and business. Any really disruptive area of technology has this cycle built in. Now we need serious, sober thinkers to apply themselves to making blockchain useful in real life, and not just in fringe communities. That is a blocker for good people to take Blockchain technology seriously, and a blocker for them to pitch new blockchain ideas in the business and consumer worlds.
This is also a reason why I see StartupYard as a great platform for serious Blockchain innovators. Working with an accelerator like StartupYard brings much needed credibility to ideas that many would-be customers and partners might not take seriously. But with StartupYard, you have a chance to be heard by the right people, and given a chance to convince them you’re doing something interesting.
What was your biggest surprise attending StartupYard? What were you not expecting to change?
The biggest shock for me was to figure out how mainstream customers (in my case, investors) think in relation to products and services they purchase. We tend to turn it into a complex equation, however it boils down to really simple factors when facing a buying decision.'At Sy I learned that mainstream customers don't buy technology. They buy solutions.' -Dite Gashi Click To Tweet
I believed that I could relate to customers and if we had a great technological products sales would soar. That is the case sometimes, however if you can’t really explain how it relates to people you are selling to, the product is a lost cause. I thought I was good at that, but being faced with mentors, customers and advisors it is obvious that I had a lot of catching up to do – which has lead to tremendous growth of knowledge on my end.
What do you think are the biggest weaknesses in the Blockchain community, when it comes to turning new ideas into businesses?
Blockchain is a maturing technology that has tremendous potential. I like to make comparisons with the early days of cloud computing – companies like Dropbox, Amazon Web Services, Azure capitalized on new technology breakthroughs, and built great products. Blockchain has the potential to be as transformative as cloud computing in the near future.
When you really look at it, Blockchain can form the backbone for a whole new way of looking at the web. There are really not many areas of commerce or government, or even interpersonal relationships, that Blockchain won’t touch. Imagine things like credit card fraud or political corruption being impossible, because at every level, monetary transactions and activities can be audited by powerful AIs. Imagine democratic processes that are un-hackable, or messaging systems that are impossible to hack into. Scary ideas for some people, I’m sure, but an amazing vision of the future for most of us.
The internet has created unprecedented prosperity, but also unprecedented opportunities for fraud and abuse. Blockchain technology, or something very much like it, may be the answer as to how we move forward into a trust based society, where everyone has really powerful tools for protecting themselves and being treated fairly.'Blockchain is like cloud-computing. It can change everything.' - Dite Gashi on #Blockchain #startups Click To Tweet
I believe there are many disruptive blockchain applications and companies waiting to be built by ambitious founders. The weaknesses that community faces is monetization. Many blockchain ideas sound good on paper, however for an idea to work and thrive it has to benefit all stakeholders involved, including founders and investors. With the cloud, there was also a learning curve around how it would be monetized: there was uncertainty about where the defensible value of new products was, be it in hardware or software. Blockchain has the same issue, only more so: it is about distribution and de-centralization, which makes it more complicated to create a business model around it.
It doesn’t help that blockchain people seem to be a part of a bubble and are often isolated from actual customer needs. Disruptive technology needs to have people behind it that really understand the customers whose industries they are disrupting. As became very clear to me working with the mentors at StartupYard, just because we see ourselves as creating new technologies, doesn’t actually mean that customers see us that way: people rarely buy technologies, they buy solutions to their problems, in whatever form that takes.
What would you say to a Blockchain startup founder who is thinking about applying to StartupYard?
Having blockchain experience I receive loads of requests for consultation ranging from technology architecture to cryptocurrency trading. It has led me to grow a bit reluctant to provide strong advice, just because the field is changing so often and I would like to be accurate with my proposals.
However in the case of StartupYard I am 100% convinced that it would benefit a blockchain founder tremendously. Trust me on this one, do it and then thank me later.
While at StartupYard I would encourage them to go in with an open mind towards receiving all sorts of feedback and then incorporate what they believe applies to them. In the same time be ready to handle the frustration of “people not getting it”. Just because you have been breathing, living and working blockchain it does not mean the rest of the world stopped. People have their own jobs and industries they work in. Focus on learning as much as you can and apply the lessons to refine your product. Good luck!
You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.
- Artificial Intelligence
We’re pleased to announce that StartupYard will take part in Startup Safary Budapest, April 20th and 21st, 2017.
What is Startup Safary?
Budapest turns into a startup exhibition for 2 days
20/04/2017 17:30 – 18:00 – thehub.hu, 1061 Budapest, Paulay Ede utca 65.
21/04/2017 TBA Mosaik, 1136 Budapest, Pannónia utca 32.
StartupYard helps technically sophisticated developers and makers turn their ideas into real, growing businesses. In recent years, we have helped launch a series of high tech startups including TeskaLabs, Neuron Soundware, Cryptelo, and Rossum.ai. Find out how these startups went from a brilliant idea, to companies serving clients all over the world with cutting edge technologies.
20.04.2017: 13:00 – 16:00 – thehub.hu, 1061 Budapest, Paulay Ede utca 65
21.04.2017: TBA – Mosaik, 1136 Budapest, Pannónia utca 32.
This is your chance to meet the management team of Central Europe’s leading seed accelerator for tech startups, and find out how we can help you turn your experience and knowledge of AI, Machine Learning, IoT, Blockchain, or Cryptology into a globally scaleable business. Come to find out about our program, pitch us an idea, or make a connection.
How do I meet the StartupYard team in Budapest?
There will be a few opportunities. First, we warmly invite you to join our workshops at TheHub and Mosaik, where you can hear about real-life examples of startups that have been through our program, and what they have accomplished as a result.
You can also sign up for our office hours. Because this event is happening under the umbrella of Startup Safary, you should sign up directly on their platform, and you will need to purchase a ticket on their website (tickets are just 8 Euros, and go toward organizing the events).
We will update this post when we have times for our appearances at Mosaic on April 21st.
We look forward to seeing you!
It’s our great pleasure to introduce the newest member of the StartupYard team (there are now 5 of us), Gustavo Vizcardo.
Gustavo joins us as Head of Partnerships. He brings over 15 years of corporate experience, most notably as procurement manager for CEE at Coca Cola. Gustavo is also an experienced entrepreneur, and has been a valued mentor at StartupYard since 2015.
Gustavo’s role, which is a new one at StartupYard, is to facilitate bringing innovation thinking from our startups to corporations. The goal is to help corporations to stir innovation while being engaged and learning from our startups, while looking for opportunities and new technologies that will help them to serve their clients, customers and employees in a smarter way.
StartupYard aims to establish long-term collaborative relationships between corporations and startups.
If you’d like to contact Gustavo about his work with StartupYard, you can reach him at Gustavo@startupyard.cz.
I caught up with Gustavo this week to talk about his new role, and his plans for making StartupYard a key connector between enterprise and startups:
Hi Gustavo! You’ve been with the StartupYard team over a month now. Tell our community a bit about what you’re doing here.
First of all, I consider myself very lucky and privileged to work at StartupYard. My role is to connect startups working on exciting technology, with corporations in a mutually beneficial way. New services and new business models are being born constantly, and corporations are seeking cooperation with agile startups more and more. We’re seeing this across the spectrum, from Fintech to Automotive, to Retail – technological advances are playing a central role in the direction of large companies, and they need the infusion of new ideas and new methodologies from startup companies to move forward.
Part of my job is also to mentor corporations, in the same way that corporates help mentor StartupYard’s startups, on how to get the most out of their relationships with early stage, high tech companies. Corporates need to move at a faster pace, but they are constantly looking for sure footing when it comes to new ideas. StartupYard is a bridge between emerging tech and established business in that respect; we can help show big corporations what they need to focus on and who they should be talking to.
You come originally from Peru, and you’re a UK citizen as well. How did you end up here in Prague?
Well, that’s a combination of a professional and personal reasons. At the beginning of 2013, I was in London working for Coca-Cola, responsible for marketing procurement in 23 countries in CEE and Southern Europe. Due to my role, the company asked me to relocate to the region.
On the personal side, in the same year I got married to a beautiful Slovak woman, and together we were thinking where will be the best place for us to live. Prague was a natural decision for both of us, and we love it here. At Coke and J&J Consumer, I got an in-depth view of the corporate mindset in a number of countries, and that has really helped me to understand how startups and corporations can begin to work together – even if this is sometimes easier said than done.
I worked with Coca-Cola for a number of years, before leaving to pursue some of my own business ideas, and now to work with StartupYard.
You’re also an entrepreneur. Can you tell us a bit about your previous ventures?
In 2014 I founded ValensGen, a doctor-supervised weight loss program, based on the professional and detailed genetic study of each client. Our ambition was/is to support people to live healthier by using the most advanced technology available.
However, the road has been very, very tough, much more than what we initially anticipated. We’ve made many mistakes which we learned from. Today, the business is somewhat dormant. As we say at StartupYard: the default scenario is failure, so I’m not afraid to admit when things haven’t gone as planned, but learnt from our mistakes and keep working hard.
I still believe that genetics will transform the way how people approach health and healthcare, but the market is really still in the early stages. Consumers are just not aware yet of what genetics tech can do for them, and companies also need to work on ways of using this technology to really deeply benefit people; to make understanding genetics more than a “nice to have” part of a healthy lifestyle. I still want to be part of that.
You spent many years in corporations. Why did you decide to leave corporate life behind and work in startups instead? How does your experience help you in reaching out to corporations now?
Doing business for myself, entrepreneurism, has always been at my core. My father and grandfather were entrepreneurs, and I’ve heard about business since I was a very young. My family ran a successful bakery in Peru. However, by the time I graduated from high school, the economic situation in Peru had become very tough. We had customers, but we had nothing to sell to them. We were experiencing hyper-inflation, and there were shortages of all the raw materials and commodities. People queued up at our door at 6 in the morning to buy bread, but we didn’t even have enough to sell to everyone. It was a very sad time for us, and the country. In the end, the family business closed because the underlying economy couldn’t support it.
Hence, the corporate world was the ONLY option when I first left school. In the last 13 years, I probably had 3 attempts to set-up something for myself, however, I always found reasons to procrastinate. Being in a corporation can give you a safe kind of feeling, and that can make you complacent.
As per the second part of your question, after 15+ years working at large corporations, I understand their complexity and problems, but at the same time, their strengths and opportunities. We have to be empathetic with large enterprises; it doesn’t pay to bash them and see everything they do as inept. If it were, they wouldn’t be around, some of them for a century or more. On the other hand, having gone over my own entrepreneurial experience and as SY mentor, I also have good idea of what the ‘startup’ community can bring in terms of innovation for new/better services.
The fact is that corporations will find ways to survive into the future, and that is not an inherently bad thing. Many people need security, and consumers need some basic consistency in the services they use, and the products they buy. I would not have had a good chance in my life and in my career without the opportunities that an international corporation gave me. They can bring large-scale discipline and efficient processes to people and places who lack them, and need them the most. I still owe much of my thinking to the way I was trained, and I am thankful. Startups are a big part of the future, but not the only part.
What has surprised you so far about working with StartupYard? What have been some of your biggest challenges?
In terms of surprises, I will say there are two fronts: Startups and Investors. I’ve been in contact with our startups from the last cohort since December and I’m impressed about the speed at which they have evolved and improved. This is something I couldn’t imagine before.
As per investors, I’m also surprised about the caliber, experience and expertise of investors in the Czech Republic. They really know their stuff, and work very hard.
My biggest challenge is about how to materialize innovation and technology from our startups toward the corporate world on the sustainable basis.
What can people in corporations do to work with you? What kinds of people would you like to connect with, and how can you help them?
C-Level executives of Czech and International corporations (with operations in Czech Republic), can talk to me about the pain points they are experiencing with technology, and find out how we can align them with startups we invest in and accelerate. I can work with corporations to identify what these pain points are, and begin to show them how working with startups can offer exciting solutions and opportunities.
While we want to work with top management, we also recognize that some corporations are developing internal “Innovation Leads” and other teams which are tasked with bringing more outside tech innovation into the company, and we are happy to support and work with them as well on that mission. Our aim is to help empower these people, by finding ways for them to deliver on their mandate for the company, and break through the typical firewall between a corporation’s internal activities and the outside world.
Komercni Banka, for example, came to us about helping them to shift their internal culture and their strategy towards tech innovation. As part of that effort, we are co-organizing a Fintech Hackathon with them for this month, which promotes their focus on new customer solutions and a better user experience and helping their customers (and their own team) to leverage more emerging technologies. In some ways, we can call that effort a proof of concept for KB – one step in a larger process that involves people at every level of the company.
Big corporations are duly concerned that younger people don’t favor their products, don’t want to work for them, and don’t feel they can be depended on in the way they could as employers and service providers for previous generations. In short, corporations are experiencing many strong challenges ahead, and the only solution is an honest and open approach to innovation, and to the way their employees, the tech world, and their customers are really living and working in today’s world. In a sense this has been a continuous feature of corporate life, but technological progress has accelerated the need for new approaches in recent years.
Out of 7 startups that joined us just a few weeks ago for StartupYard Batch 7, only 2 are currently selling a product to real customers. Those 2 have just a handful of customers each. Most of our startups are very early stage; you have to have something to sell, before you can sell. But it surprises many of them how early it pays to think pricing.
While we expend days and weeks and months of effort discussing features and USP, design and everything else, it’s surprising to me how difficult it really can be to talk to startups about pricing. Talking about pricing is kind of hard. People don’t want to think about it. They panic at the thought of raising prices, and they cower in fear of having prices too low. It can be a rollercoaster.
Of course, pricing is a sensitive subject. As Tom Whitwell writes in his insightful medium piece on pricing psychology, “Prices are a shortcut to our most sensitive emotional responses.” Pricing is a deeply primal part of consumer psychology, and as Whitwell shows, leaves consumers surprisingly, sometimes shockingly, susceptible to manipulation or suggestion.
I suggest you go and read that piece: The First Rule of Pricing, to find out why. I’ll wait.
Hello! Now that you’re back, this piece is going to build on Whitwall’s, to talk about what all that means for early stage startups, and how they should actually approach pricing their products for the first time, or through the first few iterations.
Your Customers Don’t Know What They Want (Or How Much They Would Pay)
As Malcolm Gladwell explored in his best-seller Blink, and associated Ted Talk “On Spaghetti Sauce,” it has been known in retail since the early 1980s that optimum sales results could not be achieved by finding the ideal single product and price point. For decades, product companies had been simplifying their offerings in the hopes of reducing costs while optimizing their sales around best-selling lines of products.
The logic was simple. The attractiveness of products could be graded on a bell curve. An ideal point was where most customers would be willing to buy, whether or not any of them were completely satisfied. Simple product lines also made advertising easier, reducing the need to target advertising to specific audiences, because increasingly, products were targeted at the vast middle of the market.
As he explains, beginning in the early 80s, big food companies, and later other product companies, discovered that this tendency to optimize around single products was hurting their profitability. Instead of selling one popular product that was a mix of the qualities most customers wanted, producers began to develop products that catered to “clusters” of customers who had distinct preferences.
Importantly, research showed that customers were not well equipped to predict what they would enjoy or what they would buy. As Gladwell notes, “For years and years, the standard practice when you wanted to find out what customers would want to buy… was to ask them.”
But customers routinely used experience as a reference point for future behavior. People are bad at imagining a future that isn’t similar to the present. Likewise, they are not good at predicting their future behaviors, because they assume their behaviors will remain consistent.
Experimental field research discovered that “hidden preferences” in consumer behavior were powerful, and almost completely unknown. By testing products with “value added” features, researchers found that price tolerance was much more flexible than previously believed.
For example, about ⅓ of US consumers enjoyed “Extra Chunky” spaghetti sauce. And yet no major brand offered such a product. Customers failed to state, when asked, that they wanted “chunky spaghetti sauce,” but experiments showed that when given the choice, they readily bought it and paid more for it.
The post 80s flourishing of product segmentation was slow to be adopted for the digital economy. Driven by the technical difficulty of offering and maintaining more diverse product offerings at different pricing points, and the difficulty of marketing each individually in the online space, software and online companies often adopted the old model.
But today, tiered pricing has seen a major comeback. Customers are again comfortable with the concept applied to digital products. Thus instead of we have “9.99 for Standard, 14.99 for HD,” or the “Good, Better, Best” pricing model, in which features and functionalities are limited or exclusive to different products.
So what does this mean for your own pricing? First, there is no optimum pricing strategy- at least not in the sense that most startups tend to think. There is no perfect price, but rather a continuum of price and feature combinations, into which most customers fall somewhere. The work of a product company is to identify where pricing and feature expectations align for different categories of customers– what Gladwell calls “clustering.”
If you aren’t consistently testing the limits of your pricing and the feature expectations of your customers, then you will likely leave money on the table. Whitwell uses the example of The Times of London. Beginning in 2014, The Times began asking customers whether they would pay X amount for different combinations of features. They produced a range of prices and feature sets, to test different “flavors,” of plan to sell to their customers.
What they found shocked them. Although a minority of their customers would choose to pay more for certain features, the actual revenue to be gained from offering those features at a different price point far outweighed the lower number of paying users. They found that customers would gladly pay up to 3 times more than they currently did to retain only a portion of the same features they enjoyed at the old price. By throwing in features that customers had not needed at lower price points, The Times had co-opted its ability to upsell those features later.
The Freemium Trap
“Freemium” is generally taken to mean a product which can be used free of charge indefinitely, but which is limited in comparison with a premium version, either in offered features, or capacity (such as storage), or in other ways.
It’s not always a bad idea to have a Freemium model. Particularly, products that provide a long-tail value that is hard to see at the beginning may have to be freemium. Most casual games use freemium these days. Dropbox is also a freemium service, which makes sense, because customers typically don’t have a need to buy up to 1TB of storage in one go- instead, they collect data slowly. Slack is another example: a small team doesn’t always need unlimited message history, storage, and all the bells and whistles on day one.
It’s hard to get someone to pay for something of uncertain value. It’s even harder to get someone to pay for something for which a ready and free replacement already exists.
But on the other hand, many, many startups who use a freemium model shouldn’t. When you provide a product aimed at customers who easily understand the value, and who moreover really need what you offer, then offering them a Freemium experience may simply be giving them a handout. And addicting your customers to the free product can make it even harder to sell the Premium version.
One of our startups, 2016’s Satismeter, experienced exactly this problem. As Co-Founder and CEO Ondrej Sedlacek told me recently:
“Switching from a freemium model to free trial and ditching cheaper plans was a big improvement for us. The truth was that people who needed our product were ready to pay for it.
Freemium ended up being a barrier to selling to some customers, because they would get used to just making do with the free version. When we eliminated our free plan, we saw only a slight reduction in signups, and we increased sales overnight. Plus, free users were ironically the most demanding for support. Paying customers invest their time to understand the product and set up the whole process to get the most value out of it”
Customers who understand your product’s value are inherently better customers in the long run. Attracting people who don’t believe in your product might be necessary at the beginning, but it should be viewed as a means to an end.
Price is about Positioning
In his piece, Whitwell calls attention to this with reference to Apple (itself discussed in another piece: Why You Should Never Ask Customers about Price). When unveiling the iPad, for example, Steve Jobs had basically two options, assuming that he couldn’t actually change the price of the product significantly.
First, he could sell the iPad as an expensive version of the iPhone (something many internet trolls did anyway), or second, he could sell the iPad as a cheaper and better version of a netbook computer. He chose the latter- making a point to talk about the features of a netbook in comparison with those of an iPad, before revealing the iPad’s original price point- at $999.
Voila: the Ipad wasn’t a very expensive phone. It was instead a cheaper and better netbook- one with all the features of an Iphone, and the power of a real computer.
In pricing psychology, this is called “anchoring,” and it’s hard not to notice once you know what it is. Retailers will routinely display their best selling items next to items which are significantly more expensive, and items that are significantly cheaper, in order to give the customer the feeling that she is getting the best deal.
Often products are offered that are far more expensive than is actually justified by features. The logic is plain enough: a few customers might buy the Deluxe Collector Edition, but it’s really just there to make the more popular product look cheap in comparison. That’s how you get a $10,000 Apple Watch, or a fully loaded Mustang Cobra. Buying the next best thing is almost aspirational- the customer is invested in a product category where prices run very high, giving them a sense that they are in the “big game.”
By the same token, restaurants may list the most profitable wine on the menu in second place, just above the cheapest wine, and just below a significant jump in prices. This plays off of a human tendency to “reality check” prices based on other available evidence. $25 for a bottle of wine seems like a lot if the options are $5, $15 and $25, but it seems reasonable if the prices start at $15, and reach over $100.
In sum, pricing can function as a way of positioning a product in the market. Too cheap, and the product may not be taken seriously enough. Too expensive, and it may flash a warning to a potential customer that the product is simply not for them.
Think About Pricing: Cost and Value
There is no formula for pricing. One of the hardest lessons that many startups learn is that the value of a product as they understand it, can be very different from its value to a paying customer.
Thus, cost and value are only loosely correlated. This is why it costs $10 to use the Wifi in an airport. The cost is negligible, but the value to a traveler is worth the price. Most commonly, startups should learn much more about their own customers, in order to understand the value of their products to those customers.
That doesn’t necessarily mean doing what your customers want. But it does mean understanding what your customer’s needs and priorities really are. Anyone who has angrily paid an obscene price for a bottle of water on a train, or for a dongle they simply must have for their Mac, knows that pricing is correlated with need.
Most importantly: think about your pricing more. It rarely fails that, when asked about their pricing, startups lack key insights that would potentially allow them to make the difference between a profit and a loss. Absent a clear picture of the value of their products to customers, startups simply guess at what people will be willing to pay- and more often than not, they guess wrong.
I attended a pitching competition this weekend, as I do many times each year. This one was not unlike many others.
Most of the pitches were very interesting, and I liked many of the ideas. But I noticed something I didn’t like. Aside from the usual little foibles like “we’re the Uber of X” (probably not), and “$400 Billion Market!” (kind of not really), I heard, several times, detailed digressions into exit strategies.
Ok, there’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking about an exit strategy. But I do find something offputting about a company that is trying to raise seed-level investment, talking about selling out within a couple of years. Exit strategy is not part of our program at StartupYard, because an exit is a natural extension of success- it doesn’t need to be the focus.
An Exit is Not a Vision
We like to ask people what they hope their company will be doing in five years. That’s not because we think they really know what will happen in that time (they never do), but because we want to know the scope of their vision for the future.
You should know where you want to be in five years, because if the answer is “doing something else,” then building a startup might not be the best path. This isn’t Wall Street- there are no golden parachutes at early-stage startups.
Which would you rather hear? “I need $300K to build a great company that’s going to be changing the way people do X in five years–” or, “I need it to build a company that’s going to be bought by Google 18 months from now?”
One of those two is a vision. The other is at best a strategy (and at worst a delusion). Again, I’m sure it would be great if a startup could promise it definitely would sell to Google in 18 months, but if that’s your vision, and it doesn’t work (because it probably won’t), what then? If your greatest hope is to cash in a lottery ticket, then what kind of a sales pitch is that?
As Frédéric Mazzella, founder of BlaBlaCar, recently said in his comments for The State of European Tech, by Atomic Ventures, “Growth isn’t like an elevator, it’s like building a set of stairs.” Meaning, every step on the path towards growing a large company has to be taken individually. There is no straight line to the top.
Founders Focusing on Ambition, Not Passion
This is indeed something I’ve been taking more note of recently. It seems to me that I am hearing more about startup founders’ ambitions, and less about their actual passions. I’m getting a pitch about a person, instead of about the idea they care about. The cliche of “make the world a better place,” is at least a nod to social responsibility and building a sustainable business.
But this focus on exits, which I’m sure some startups do in their pitches, seems to me to be crass and opportunistic. Even more perversely, I’ve actually heard this phrase more than once: “I have a passion for growth.” Which uses the words that founders know we want to hear, but is pretty twisted when you think about it.
Maybe this will sound incredibly touchy-feely, but I don’t think the best and brightest would be in the tech business if it was just about the money. Why we have to tell ourselves that it is, in fact, all about money is a mystery to me.
The sad part, at least for me, about such pitches is that they completely alienate me, and I suspect many other investors, and betray a focus on money that is unhealthy for an early stage company, still trying to find product/market fit.
As we say, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” And yet I notice founders trying to make their paths toward profitability seem easy. A breezy growth spurt, followed by an acquisition, champagne raining from the sky. I suspect though, that this is a combination of self-deception and poseur behavior. Sound like you believe it, the reasoning goes, and the audience will think you have it covered.
But at the end of the day, if it’s something Google is going to buy for a cool $100 Million, they’ll be buying it because doing it themselves is hard. The value is in the difficulty of the work, along with the opportunity it represents. And yet I hear “$100 Billion market,” far more often than I hear: “here’s how we can do what nobody else can do.”
As I sometimes say to startups: “Do you want to be something- or do you want to do something?” Being a hyper-growth startup in a huge market is an ambition. Doing the best work you can, no matter what business you’re in, is a passion.
Ambition Isn’t Enough
Of course, at StartupYard we talk to a lot of startup founders, and many, even most, will never realize their ambitions. That’s not a bad thing. Ambition is important, but it can’t be everything. Sometimes people fail because they aren’t smart enough, or don’t care enough, or don’t have the timing right. But sometimes it’s because their ambitions are far too great for their actual passion.
We’ve seen that first hand, and the end is always the same. The founder who is all ambition does just enough to satisfy the ego, and never enough to really drive the company forward in a meaningful way. Progress, according to ambition, is to be seen as a winner. Passion is for winning- for being the best, even if no one knows it yet.
Ambition is important. You must have it if you want to try to do things no one else has tried. Ambition drives people to succeed. But naked ambition leads nowhere. It must be paired with a strong passion to do good work.
These are hard lessons that must be learned. Still, I wish that as accelerators, incubators, investors, and mentors, we would be more clear on what we value most- which is passionate founders who are ambitious in a healthy way.
We like ambition. But ambition is not ever enough. Ambition doesn’t drive you to do the right thing for your fellow man. It doesn’t make you unique, or creative, or better than anyone else.
Passion is the thing that can’t be taught. You can develop someone’s ambition, and we often do just that. But we cannot develop their passion. As investors, it’s always tempting for us to be sold on a founder’s ambition. But in the end, passion always wins, and our best startups are the ones doing things that only they can do best. Why? Because they love it. Because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
And if they make boatloads of money from it, I can virtually guarantee, it will be a side effect of that passion, not a result of their ambitions.
Either you have passion for something, or you don’t. If you’re thinking of starting a business, I can only encourage you: do something you really care about, even if that something isn’t sexy, or isn’t going to make you very rich. If you’re really good at it, then it will make you rich enough.
Applications for StartupYard’s second round of acceleration in 2016 have closed. Now, we dig into applications, looking at ideas, founders, and how founders talk about and express their ideas.
What we find is always enlightening, but also always an evolving challenge to parse and process.
The Idea vs. The Team
As I’ve written about before, it’s very hard to tell a lot about the scope and clarity of an idea from a narrowly focused written application. An idea that seems obvious might not be; an idea that seems obscure might in fact be a game changer. On the other hand, it can be easy to tell a few specific things about a person.
The way people talk about their ideas can reveal things about them as people. Is the person funny? Are they self-aware? Do they project confidence? Do they display arrogance? These qualities can be recognized in the way a person writes, and in what they choose to say.
But ideas are different. They are open-ended. They bring up questions rather than answering them. Great ideas are not always obvious at first glance, but can become “obvious” over time, after deep reflection and interaction. There is always a danger that a mentor projects their own hopes onto startup founders; thinking they can shape the team around their enthusiasm for an idea. That can create a disconnect between the motivation of the mentor, and the motivation of the team itself. Success and successful mentorship really ends up being about the quality and (forgive the cliché), passion of the team.
So what is a Startup Tourist? Put simply, it’s a person who wants to have a startup more than they want to actually do whatever it is that startup does. Startups, if successful, grow into regular companies, with all the responsibilities and daily obligations that come with them. Tourists aren’t interested in that type of success. They’re more interested in the status that running a startup confers on them– the appearance of success, more than the substance behind it.
Experience has shown us that some amazing startups don’t seem that amazing on paper. The passion may be obvious, but the idea itself may not be. Having difficulty expressing what you do, doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing, though. And a big part of our job is to help square that circle, and make startup founders good at talking about their work. We always have to keep that in our minds when reading applications: lack of clarity is not a killer, but lack of passion and sincerity are.
Tourists Can Be Great Communicators
We’ve reviewed, collectively, around 800 applications for StartupYard within the last 3 years. The vast majority of those are clearly not a match for us. Most are poorly presented, and probably also not very well developed ideas.
That’s ok though. We accept around 3% of all applicants, so we expect most not to qualify. And the only way a startup founder can learn is by trying, so we laud those who do apply, no matter the outcome.
What we worry about most are the “tweeners:” the ones who appear to offer a lot of promise, because they are usually very good at talking about their ideas. They have the ability to project passion, but just enough self-awareness to avoid being seen as arrogant or full of bluster. These applications are more polish than substance, but they hide their lack of substance extremely well.
As Paul Graham of Y-Combinator famously said: these are the founders who live by “the rules.” They learn the system (such as it is), and how to talk and act, in order to appear to be what they wish they were- promising startup founders. These founders often know the “rules” better than we do, and well enough to convince almost anyone at first glance that they belong, even if they don’t actually have the passion they need to build a successful business.
And that works for a few meetings. Maybe a few weeks. But eventually, the results don’t match the apparent promise, and the Tourist becomes more obvious.
One of my favorite movie scenes is from a Martin Scorcese film called The Departed (Spoilers ahead).
In the film, a police Captain (played by Martin Sheen), asks a young police Cadet and misfit (played by Leonardo DiCaprio): “Do you wanna be a cop? Or do you wanna appear to be a cop?” This is a question I would love to ask many startup founders I meet. Of course, the irony in the film is that the Captain had, moments before, congratulated a new sergeant on his promotion in the department- and that sergeant (played by Matt Damon), is a mole working for organized crime. The best of us can always be fooled, especially when we are shown what we want to see.
The dream is of course to find a founder who is really good at communicating *and* has a lot of genuine passion for their ideas. The genuine article, in other words. That’s the stuff unicorns are made of, but it is rare stuff indeed. The ugly stepchild of the unicorn founder is the Tourist- the applicant who knows how to play the game, but doesn’t know how to win it.
Spotting A Tourist
There are certain things that tourists do to tip their hand, and reveal that their motivations are more complicated than a simple passion to be great at something nobody else can or has done before.
So, here’s my (totally unscientific), list of signs of Startup Tourism. In no particular order:
Knows the Lingo… a little too well
Startup Founders learn about seed funds, VCs, valuation, down rounds, convertible notes, equity dilution, and the rest of it as they go along. They have to. These are things you have to become familiar with if you want to succeed as a high growth startup, but it isn’t necessarily something you need to know much about before you actually start. At the beginning, an idea and a team that cares a lot about that idea can get a startup pretty far with minimal wisdom about the intricacies of fundraising and corporate structure.
Moreover, a team that isn’t focused on these “status metrics” is more likely to be focused on what’s really important- which is building enormous value for their customers.
Tourists tend to know the startup lingo a little too well for their own good. This can reveal a focus on the trappings of success, rather than the work involved in achieving it. That’s not always true, but sometimes it is. Good startup founders can always become good at this stuff because they have to. It’s a means to an end.
A Tourist is more likely to ask a lot of intricate questions about funding and corporate structure, but to do so well ahead of the time when knowing these things is particularly relevant. The tourist is fixated on valuation, instead of value. On “benchmarks” instead of forward progress. So focused on appearing to be in control, a Tourist reveals that they are not focused on doing what their startup actually promises to do.
Asks “How?” Instead of “Why?”
Mentoring startups often involves throwing a lot of things against the wall, and seeing what sticks. It’s the startup founder’s job to talk to mentors, and to then try and process what they’ve heard, and find out what’s really relevant for them. That means listening to people you might not completely agree with, and then checking what you’ve heard with others, to see what they have to say. It also means listening to people you agree with, and then digging into your own reasons for agreeing with them. It’s about jumping into a swamp of conflicting opinions, and trying to make sense of it all. It’s messy work. It’s frustrating, and it needs to be.
Mentorship is more valuable when the startup founders are asking searching questions. “Why do you think we should do this? Where can I learn more about that? Who should I ask about this?” These questions produce more work for the founders, who have to follow up on what they’ve heard.
When a founder more often asks: “how can I do that?” or “How would you do this?” These are not searching questions, but rather invitations to do the founder’s work for them. They don’t open up new avenues of thinking, and are not so open-ended. It’s like the student in university who asks the professor how many pages the term paper has to be. That’s not information that helps the student perform better and be creative, rather it’s information that helps the student do what is expected. It helps you get a grade, but it will not help you actually learn anything.
A favorite professor of mine once answered by saying: “as many as is necessary.” I took that to mean that the professor would know very well whether the actual ideas a paper contained were worth the number of pages actually consumed.
Searching my memory, I cannot recall a single instance in which a founder who has gone on from StartupYard to successfully raise seed financing and build a growing business asked me how to do anything. But I can recall many instances in which those same founders asked me why they should do one thing, or another. And many more instances when they asked for my feedback on something concrete. Opinions and feedback are generative. Building on ideas and being creative are what matter. There are no gold stars, and no grades in real life.
Figuring out how to do something can be easier than figuring out whether or not you should actually do it. Founders who ask why, are much more likely to get useful answers than the ones who ask how.
Talks about Opportunities Instead of Challenges
A few weeks ago, I heard a very funny story about one of our investors. He was a jury member at a startup competition, which is something startup investors end up doing a fair bit. A startup had stated something like: “the market is worth an estimated $100Bn, we aim to capture 5% of that, and if we do, we will be worth over 5Bn in recurring revenues.”
That’s a pretty prototypical tourist point of view. The investor in question had his own brilliant response: “why 5%? Why not 8%? Why not 15%” The implication should be clear enough- the size of the market can be impressive as hell, but the actual dirty work of building a business is not as sexy as talking about money. If you’re focused on getting a slice of the pie, then you’re probably not thinking about building a whole new market. You’re probably not interested in changing the way things work, but rather making the way things work, work for you.
And if the thing that matters most is the market opportunity, then what are you really passionate about? If you’re smart and you work hard, you can make money at a lot of things. You don’t have to found a startup to do that.
The founder that is fixated on market opportunity is less likely to be laser focused on creating value for the people who will actually pay for whatever they provide. That focus on creating inimitable value is everything to a successful and disruptive startup. It’s not about trying to grab a piece of an existing market, but about creating a new market nobody else is aware of yet.
Much more interesting are challenges. What does the market not yet provide, and why is that badly needed? Why couldn’t the market provide it before now? What problem is just waiting to be solved? Disruptive startups tackle the status quo, and change the way people and businesses and the world around them works on a more basic level. They make things that are not just faster and cheaper and prettier, but actually different.
I see this problem as one in which the startup founder is too focused on what they think investors want to hear. They will say their market is growing, and hope that the mere implication of opportunity is justification enough to get funding for themselves, regardless of what they’re actually doing.
When making a case for itself, a startup can be much better served by talking about what hasn’t been possible before, than about what has already been accomplished by others, or things that would happen whether the startup existed or not. Yes, for example, the mobile gaming market may grow by 40% in the next two years, but that’s an argument in favor of investing in that market, not necessarily for entering that market with a specific product. The product itself needs to make sense, and the fact that it’s an expanding market is, perhaps, a bonus.
Yet I hear this justification thrown out at virtually every pitching event I attend, over and over again. “The market is huge, and we’ll be a part of that huge market.” Yes, and?
- Puts Their Fate in the Hands of Others
It can be as simple as this- a Tourist is a startup founder who is waiting for something. Waiting to get into an accelerator. Waiting to attract a VC. Waiting to quit their job. Waiting to be noticed. Waiting for the magic bullet.
This is part of what makes selecting startups so hard for an accelerator. We want people who are ready, but not people who are waiting. We ask startups when we first interview them: “What will you do if you aren’t accepted here?” The Tourist will answer: “I’ll try again,” or “I’ll apply to another accelerator,” or, “I’ll stay at my job for now.”
A startup founder who is passionate about what their doing, and really believes in it, is more likely to say: “I’ll just keep going,” or “I’ll think about why I didn’t make it, and decide what to do next.” The genuine founder is already thinking ahead of the next failure, looking for the next challenge, and not waiting for success to strike them.