ideas

Your Ideas are Worthless. You Should be Glad.

Yesterday we received an email that I can only describe as an “hysterical screed” from a disappointed startup founder who felt that his ideas had been “stolen” by the likes of Y-Combinator some years ago. The email included links to an elaborate set of documentation including YouTube videos that compared two products that sort of, kind of do similar things.

Note, neither the message nor the documentation ever contended that any actual intellectual property, such as code or wireframes, had been stolen. Only the ideas behind them.

What was more arresting was the content of the email, which verged into conspiracy theorism and fantasy.

We get our fair share of weird mail. Investors seem to attract people who combine sad desperation with megalomania. Some just want money. Still when Cedric sent me this email saying: “Maybe a blog post?” I responded: “Hell yes.”

I am not posting this to defend the good name of startup accelerators worldwide, nor to defend StartupYard against such an accusation. I’m also not posting it to ridicule this person, because I am sure their problems are deeper than professional disappointment.

Rather I’m hoping to show startup founders how insidious and destructive the concept of “Idea Ownership,” really is, and why they ought to think very hard before making accusations of IP theft. Again, not because these accusations are particularly damaging to those who are accused, but because they are quite damaging to those who make the accusations, and to the many people out there who have great ideas to share.

You’ve Got an Idea? That’s Nice Dear.

The general gist of the supposed conspiracy was summed up in a few bullet points I will paraphrase (though I won’t give free publicity to the author):

Step 1: Accelerators Collect Startup Ideas (via F6s)

Step 2: We “Steal those Ideas” and Give Them to “Our” Startups

Step 3: We Exit Companies 5 Years Later for $300m

Please understand, I am not exaggerating. It was taken as a given that finding the best ideas out of thousands of applications would lead to multi-hundred million dollar exits.

If only that were the case! How easy life would be for accelerators like StartupYard. Not to mention those lucky startups we would give the stolen ideas to.

But sadly no, it just does not work that way. Your ideas are pretty much worthless. Let me explain why that is:

  1. Your Ideas Aren’t New, and We Don’t Care

The central plank of this theory is that investors and VCs are out digging through your garbage and listening to your phone calls trying to steal your ideas.

We’re not. You know why? Because we’ve heard them already. Yes, even that one. A typical VC is pitched a couple of hundred ideas a year. I see around 400-500 a year. Every year. It gets so that when I hear a pitch these days, I sometimes struggle to remember whether I have already met the founder who is pitching, because I know about the idea already.

What was funny to me about this particular email was that the idea the author purported to own was not only not a new idea, it was a problem already being solved by existing enterprise software. The pitch was for turning existing functionalities into an SME level product. That’s what we call “an execution play,” in investor lingo. It means the idea is the market, not the product.

You should know this if you’ve ever been to a pitching event with a Q/A. There’s always a smarty-pants judge who points out he’s heard every idea before. Most of them have, it’s just that lazy judges say that instead of something more useful. We’ve all heard the ideas before. There’s nothing new under the sun.

That’s ok because we don’t care much about ideas. We care about finding big problems to solve, because that is going to determine how successful your company is. The thing about big problems is that everyone knows about them. If they didn’t know about them, they wouldn’t be problems to begin with.

So our biggest problems with picking startups is finding the right team to solve that problem, and doing it at the right time.

Just think about this logically for a minute: you have an idea, and it’s a pretty good one. Genius in fact. What industry is it in? How big of a problem does it address? How many people work in that industry? How many people are customers or users of the products of that industry?

ideas, startupyard, accelerator

Even if we’ve never heard an idea before, it usually takes about 30 seconds of googling to figure out it isn’t a new idea. Even if we can’t figure that out, one of our alumni or mentors can, and frequently do. The question is not whether an idea is new, but whether the problem being solved is real.

The bigger the problem you’re solving is, the higher the likelihood that somebody, somewhere (and more likely many people, everywhere), have had the same exact thought. Their description of it might be different, and their way of fixing it might be different, but the idea is effectively the same.

2. Ideas are Easy to Copy. Vision cannot be copied.

We choose startups based on their vision, and how that vision makes sense for that team, that technology, and the problem they want to solve. It is mostly about people.

To someone not familiar with our thinking, it might look like we hear ideas, then “give them” to our startups. But, thats pretty misleading.  It would be like accusing a filmmaker of watching other films, or being inspired by literature. Ideas are wonderful and sometimes very clever. They are just never really entirely new. If they were, they wouldn’t make sense when you heard them.

Of course the iPhone would have been a truly new idea before the invention of electronics. But then, nobody ever had any reason to imagine such a thing before the discovery of electricity, let alone computing and the million other nested inventions in a smartphone. Inventions are always a blend of established knowledge with new approaches.

This popular phenomenon of “idea theft” is more pronounced today in the tech industry than in almost any other- and it’s particularly true in products that rely on a simple central value proposition that is easy to copy. Many products can “do the same thing,” but very few can do it in just the right way.

Look at Facebook, and the endless accusations of their “stealing,” the Stories idea from Snapchat. It’s true that Facebook recognized an opportunity when it presented itself, but the idea of using media to create a narrative was invented in the past few years is ludicrous. Do we accuse Uber of stealing the idea of a livery service?

One of my favorite ever blog posts about this topic is from the creator of the game 3s. When I first read this piece when it was published, I was a fan of their copycat competitor, 2048. Since then, I’ve adopted 3s and actually played it on a near-daily basis for the past 3+ years. Today I understand the piece very differently. What I saw then as mostly whining about competition, today I see as a powerful argument in favor of vision:

“We wanted players to be able to play Threes over many months, if not years (…)The branching of all these ideas can happen so fast nowadays that it seems tiny games like Threes are destined to be lost in the underbrush of copycats, me-toos and iterators. This fast, speed-up of technological and creative advances is the lay of the land here. That’s life! That’s how we get to where we’re going. Standing on each others shoulders.

We want to celebrate iteration on our ideas and ideas in general. It’s great. 2048 is a simpler, easier form of Threes that is worth investigation, but piling on top of us right when the majority of Threes players haven’t had time to understand all we’ve done with our game’s system and why we took 14 months to make it, well… that makes us sad.”

What this really is, is a startup founder talking about how simple his idea was, and how important his dedication to his craft was to the delivery of a special product. He was absolutely right to point out that comparisons between his product and the copycats were unjust, and would eventually be judged premature.

He may not have ended up with the most popular game, but he did end up with the best game, and customers paid for that game, not for the copycats (which were free). They “lost” in terms of being a market leader, but they succeeded in their vision for their users and product.

When you actually stop to think about it, it’s hard to name a lot of first movers in tech who managed to dominate their industries, or even survived. As CBinsights has pointed out using data supplied by failed startups themselves, “late to market” doesn’t even qualify in the top 20 reasons for failure.

  1. First to Market Isn’t a Predictor of Success

Shockingly, being first on the market is not a powerful predictor of success. In fact, study has shown that it may be associated with a higher risk of failure. MIT Sloan Management Review noted over 20 years ago that claims of first-mover advantage among successful businesses across a broad base of industries was caused by an effect known as “Survivorship Bias.”

Survivorship Bias, a form of selection bias, occurs when we attempt to judge the relevant qualities of a group, such as a group of startups, after they have become successful, while ignoring the qualities of those who don’t make it. This can lead us to misjudge the importance of some qualities in survival, because we are not looking at all the data.

The logical error is easy to spot when you know how. If I told you that a study of billionaires shows that 75% of them wear white shirts, but only 25% wear other colors, you could conclude that having a white shirt improves your own odds of success. But you would likely be in error. The population as a whole might be 90% white shirts, meaning that in fact another color is even more correlated with success when looking at all the data.

Think about that the next time you dress a certain way because Steve Jobs did. That would be aggressively missing the point.

Survivorship bias arises when we don’t have good data on failures, obviously because they have failed. However, there are ways of determining that survivorship bias is at work. For example, the inconvenient truth that the failure rate for Silicon Valley based startups is actually *higher* than in many other regions. As the Guardian suggests in the above article, this is precisely because so many successful companies are based there. The local standards for success are higher, so failure rates rise.

Does that mean you should or shouldn’t move to Silicon Valley? I don’t know. I know it does mean that moving to Silicon Valley is not guaranteed to help you.

Want even more proof of why first to market is overrated? Of the top 10 startups according to StartupRanking.com, not a single one of them was first to market. Some, like Slack, were not even the first multi-billion dollar companies in their own category. Booking.com offered private flat rentals in the 90s, a decade before Airbnb, and Couchsurfing was founded in 2003, a full 5 years before.

4. Most Ideas Don’t Come from Startups Anyway

A dark and terrible secret of the tech industry -just kidding, it’s obvious- is that most of the ideas that end up getting made don’t come from the founders themselves anyway. The core idea is there, but the final product with market fit is usually a distant cousin of the prototype- the work of many minds.

Where do most actionable ideas come from? Users, customers, advisors, investors, partners, friends, family, and hatemail. I’m only sort of kidding on that last one. The point is that startup founders generally start with wanting to solve a somewhat unclear problem in a somewhat unclear way. They attend accelerators and get early users, investors, and corporate partners on-board to help them make the problem and the solution more clear and actionable.

The really successful founders are not idea machines, they are execution machines. They know how to listen, recognize a good idea when they hear one, make it work, observe the results, and adapt further. There is great creativity and invention in this process, but it is not about ideas, it is about empathy, passion, and skill.

You Should be Glad Ideas Are Worthless

Now that I’ve ruined your beautiful vision of the perfect idea that will make you rich, I will give you a moment to thank me.

You should be happy after all: now you can get on to the stuff that really matters, like building a company you can be proud of, that provides something your customers really value.

Here’s another reason you should be celebrating: you can work on anything you want to. Somebody else already tried it? Not like you will. The problem is already solved by somebody else? I bet some of their customers aren’t happy.

Oh and nobody can credibly accuse you of “stealing their idea,” since ideas are not automatically intellectual property. Intellectual property is the work product of an idea, not the idea itself. Copyright applies to words and images and code. Patents require you to actually design an invention and describe how it works in detail; even then, it’s not automatic. A patent is for the bread slicer, not the sliced bread.

ideas,

Call the lawyers. We’ve got a live one.

If someone has already done what you want to do, thank God somebody has already proven you can make money in this field- that makes your job a lot easier. Or thank goodness somebody else tried this and failed. Now you know not to make those same mistakes. See? Now that ideas don’t matter, the world is truly your oyster. Go forth and start up.

Startups Fail

Our Top 3 Reasons Startups Fail: Featuring CB Insights Data

This is going to be a post about what makes startups fail. But first of all, if you don’t regularly read CBinsights and receive their newsletters, then stop reading this post and go sign up. There’s a reason most newsletters don’t have 400,000 weekly readers.

If you do, then you may have seen a bit of content that CB insights has been updating consistently since 2014: The Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail. This is a list compiled from a sample of over 100 “Post-mortems,” written by founders and employees of high profile startups that failed.

The list is ranked by the number of times a specific reason for failure is cited – each post-mortem contains some combination of these reasons:

StartupYard’s Top 3 Startups Fail, and How to Avoid Them

We won’t detract from this piece by hashing out every reason startups might fail. Instead, we’re going to focus on 3 of these reasons, and how to avoid letting them kill your startup before it starts.

Some of these reasons also explain why we choose not to work with some startups that apply to our program. If you’re thinking about applying to an accelerator or talking to early-stage investors, then these are important questions to ask about yourself and your business.

  1. Ignoring Customers

Oh boy. This is a big one. For me, this is the big one. The mistake that kills a startup dead like a beautiful rose in a dry vase. Ignoring your customers, refusing to think about them and to be driven by their needs, is the kiss of death.

It all starts so innocently: a humble coder working nights and weekends on a passion project. That’s the way a startup should start, but the nature of a startup is to grow – not just in size but in mentality.

Every startup investor and mentor has had this conversation:

Mentor: who are your customers.
Founder: Well we are our own customers.
Mentor: Yeah… but who is going to be your customer? What do they need?
Founder: They need our product.
Mentor: Why?
Founder: Because it’s awesome. They’ll love it.
Mentor: Yeah but… why your product? What not a competitor?
Founder: Because we are newer/smarter/cheaper/better UX, etc.
Mentor: How do you know that’s what they’re looking for?
Founder: Because we are the customer.

Points to you if you can spot the tautology in this reasoning. I strongly agree that a problem you are passionate about solving has to be one that affects you. In that sense, you should be your first user, you just need to remember that the customer is somebody you can also learn from.

A good way of remembering that is this: you didn’t buy your product. You built it. Your customer will buy it. Even if you both have the same problem, you are not the same person.

Again, it’s essential to create something you would use yourself. It just isn’t enough. Great products involve a deep insight into the motivations of customers; even when that insight is a very simple one, or an instinctual one, it does not come about by chance, but by observation and curiosity about people.

Thinking About Your Customers:

How to avoid this one? It happens that we’ve shared a lot of content on this theme. Positioning for Startups, Bulding a Killer Customer Persona, and The “We” Problem, are good places to start.

In short, it comes down to having a process. Here is one you can try:

  1. Develop customer focused product/messaging frameworks (aka: Positioning)
  2. Make educated guesses about your customers in that framework (aka: Personas)
  3. Test these frameworks with real people and an early product or mockup.
  4. Redevelop your product and business strategy based on what you’ve learned

There’s not one way to do this, but there are plenty of ways to do it poorly. Not having a clear idea of what you know and don’t know about customers is a mistake that’s easy to avoid. Paul Graham put it this way in one seminal blog post:

When designing for other people you have to be empirical. You can no longer guess what will work; you have to find users and measure their responses.” -Paul Graham

2. Lacking Passion

“You need passion,” we are so often told. Less often are we told what that means.

I think this is why some founders confuse “having passion,” with “being energetic,” or “assertive,” or “dominant.” These are not the same things.

Passion comes from within – it’s not a performance art; it guides what you say but also how you think, what you are willing to do, and what setbacks you are willing to accept. In short, it’s not about how you behave, but about who you really are.

Everyone has some passion. It’s the thing that keeps you up at night, and bothers you throughout the day. A little voice in your head telling you something needs to be done.

Understanding their own passion is pretty hard for some people. We’ve seen that a lot. We spend a lot of time with founders trying to find out what gets them really engaged and excited about their work. What gets you out of bed in the morning is what’s most important in your work.

One of the first thing we ask applicants to StartupYard is: “Why are you doing this?” The answer says a lot about your passion.

A lack of passion is easy to spot, if you know what to look for. Here’s an overview of the qualities that typically tell us a founder lacks the passion they need to move forward:

  • Risk Avoidance: Founders who are unwilling to take risks, such as leaving a job, moving to a new place, or bringing on a co-founder.
  • Waiting: The founder who bases their decisions on the actions of others; who waits rather than acts with intention. “I will leave my job if you give me funding.” “I will decide what to do based on what investors say.”
  • Focused on Money/Valuation: Some founders who are overly focused on “getting the best deal,” do so because they value control and personal gain more than achieving their stated goals.
  • Motivated by Opportunity: I sometimes say: “don’t pitch me an opportunity, pitch me a company.” A founder who talks about getting a piece of a huge market might not be doing what they do out of a love for the work.
  • “Win At All Costs” Attitude: In my opinion, this happens when founders confuse passion for ambition. Ambition isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t passion for what you do- it’s a passion for winning. Your passion for helping customers has to ultimately outweigh your personal ambitions, or else you won’t make decisions based on what’s right for them (and thus your business), but rather what fulfills your ambition.

Seeking your Passion: How do you know you’re doing things for the right reasons?

In my view, this is a simpler question than people often make it. We are taught from an early age that we should emulate those who are successful, but education systems often don’t help us to really understand why successful people are special to begin with: because they have a passion for what they do.

For all the tactics, tricks, and habits of the rich and famous, passion underlies everything. People succeed when they do what they are good at, enjoy it, and are willing to work harder at it than anyone else.

Just consider the following questions if you want to get in touch with your true passion:

  • If I were rich, would I stop doing this?
  • Are there better uses of my talent?
  • Am I waiting to enjoy what I am doing?
  • Am I doing this in order to be able to do something else?

If your answer to any of these is “yes,” then you ought to think hard about what you’re doing. You haven’t yet found your passion.

3. Missing Product-Market Fit (PMF)

“When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins. When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins. When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.” – Andy Rachleff, CEO, Wealthfront

Even if you’re doing something you really care about and you’re doing it for customers you understand really well, you can still fail to make the right product for the right market.

Andreessen-Horowitzs  has a fascinating post on product market fit, in which they quote Andy Rachleff who developed the PMF framework, starting with what he calls a “Value Hypothesis:”

A value hypothesis identifies the features you need to build, the audience that’s likely to care, and the business model required to entice a customer to buy your product. “

There are two sides to the PMF equation. Market, and Product. Missing PMF means failing to address a specific market with exactly the right product, at the right price.

Right Market

Andreessen-Horowitz heavily emphasizes finding the right market first, which is another way of saying that you must identify the right problem to solve. If you pick the wrong market, you can end up building a product that people love, but won’t pay for.

This happens more than you’d suspect: plenty of popular products have never gained good PMF. Even mega-popular products like Twitter can teeter on the edge of failure, and take over a decade to achieve PMF (which Twitter seemed to do only in 2017, with their advertising business and focus on media and news).

Other orphans of bad PMF are products like Tumblr, Vine, Soundcloud, and BetaMax tapes. Each of these has either failed, or is now on life-support. The latter example of BetaMax is included in this extensive list from Business Insider. In fact, virtually all the products in this list failed because of lack of PMF. Not because the products were bad, but because the business model didn’t work: the market didn’t sustain them.

The Right Product

“First to market seldom matters. Rather, first to product/market fit is almost always the long-term winner.” – Andy Rachleff

So picking a problem you can solve, for a market that wants a solution critical. Still, you can manage this and still fail. The product that solves that problem also has to appeal to the customer enough for them to use it.

A great example of this also comes from BI’s list: The Apple Newton line, which lived from 1993 to 1997, and which Wired later called a “Prophetic Failure.” What most people don’t know about the Apple Newton line was that they very accurately predicted three distinct product categories, which would emerge in the following 15 years: the smartphone, the tablet computer, and the modern consumer laptop.

In many ways, looking at a Newton from 1995 feels like looking at a cyberpunk version of a modern device, made to look like a 90’s product.

 

The Newton failed in three categories that would go on to be the fastest growing market categories in history for computing, but still failed because the technology wasn’t ready. As the project lead Steve Capps said later: ““We were just way ahead of the technology. We barely got it functioning by ’93 when we started shipping it.”

The series failed at least partly because the market was not ready for such devices, but also because of its infamously bad character recognition feature. Even though later editions of the devices improved on the original, it was too late for Apple, which would spend the next 20 years rebuilding itself and slowly reintroducing all of these concepts in the form of the iPhone, iPad, and Macbook.

Testing the Value Hypothesis:

Like listening to your customers, PMF is all about trial and error. Make certain assumptions, test them with a minimum viable product, make more assumptions, and test them. The clearest milestones for PMF come from customer feedback about the Value Hypothesis.

You can begin to test this hypothesis right away, even with just an idea- with no product to show. It’s pretty simple: if you get confusion, lack of enthusiasm, or even hostility, either it’s the wrong product or the wrong market. Find out what the person you are talking to does want, and also look for others who do want the product you’re pitching. Chances are the answer is somewhere in the middle.

This is a bit like fishing. Either change the location or change the bait. It just takes time and consistency. Fish long enough, and you can get lucky.

For example, I was attending a tech conference a few months ago, when I got the chance to meet the former Senior Vice-President of a major electronics company. He mentioned that he helps early stage hardware companies find PMF, and I mentioned we had just such a company seeking PMF: Steel Mountain.

He asked me what the company did, so I gave him the 90 second water-cooler pitch. Within a few moments he was nodding. When I got into some of the features, he was saying: “yes… yes.” When I finished, he exclaimed: “I can’t believe no one has done this! When can I buy one?”

This, I must repeat, was the former Senior VP of a major electronics company, whose products you probably own. Nobody had ever pitched him this particular idea in just the right way before. That is a powerful indication of PMF.  You don’t have to convince the customer they need the product, because they know they need it.  

Still I may lack some important information. Is this customer representative of a distinct market segment? Is the business model workable for the target market? Does the product work the way they want and expect?

You still have to explore all those details, but enthusiasm for the product’s core value proposition is a great milestone. It was then the Steel Mountain team’s job to continue testing the product with the same customer and others like him.

 

Startup Skills: How to Create a Killer Talk

The Killer Talk: TL;DR: A Long Complicated Post

Creating a killer talk is complicated. Therefore this post is complicated, and because I want to go into detail on some of the points, I’m going to start with a quick TL;DR summary table. If you’re like me, and enjoy a nice wall of text, skip down and start reading!

 A killer talk

  • Preface
    • Practice is everything
    • Gifted speakers give bad talks too
    • Bad speakers can become great presenters 
  • Understanding Story Structure
    • Clear structure makes things memorable and easier to understand
    • Stories are present in all forms of expression, like architecture
    • Proper story structure helps us to manage attention and not be boring 
  • Picking the Story
    • 3 Key factors
      • What the audience expects
      • What the audience wants
      • What the audience needs
  • Complicating the Story
    • Subvert the 3 key factors and introduce conflicting ideas
    • Bring your story to an unexpected solution
    • If it’s not arguable, it’s not interesting 
  • Telling a True Story
    • Make yourself or someone else the hero of your story
    • Create an interest villain too
    • Have your hero’s story be a framing device for your views on the topic
  • Pro Tips: Establishing Authority
    • Always frame your talk in the context of your expertise and experience
    • Embrace your limitations as your advantage (unique perspective)
    • Make your authority clear by your words, not by declaration

 

People ask me sometimes how I prepare for the talks I frequently give at tech conferences and universities around Central Europe.

They say preparation is everything, and I agree. At StartupYard, we’ve been able to turn seemingly hopeless public speakers into real stars. It just takes dedication and time.

The truth is though, certain people are just good at public speaking. I have always been one of them, and that has made me slightly lazy when it comes to preparation. However, as expectations have risen over time, I’ve taken my speech prep more seriously.

This, by the way, is another common problem. Those who *are* naturally gifted public speakers tend to under-prepare. We’ve all had the experience of listening to a great speaker give a mediocre presentation for that reason.

The opportunity to change minds through public speaking is in many ways more powerful than in almost any other medium. It is an art our species has practiced for longer than any other. Standing in front of other people, and challenging and influencing their sense of truth, of justice, and of reason, is as good as it gets in the marketplace of ideas.

Public speaking is the Cadillac of communication.

So then, as a reformed lazy person, how do I prepare for public remarks? How can you learn from my experience?

Understanding Story Structure

“My mother always said: whatever you do in life, don’t be boring.” – Christopher Hitchens

The greatest sin in public speaking is to bore or confuse your audience.

I have covered the storytelling topic in detail in other blog posts. Still, I’ll provide a short primer here:

To be truly interesting is to be memorable. And memorability requires some structure- something the memory can attach itself to. The structure of a talk, just like that of a building or a piece of music, or a book, gives the listener/viewer/reader the shape of the idea, and helps them to remember it.

We call this structure “story.”

Think of it like architecture: the visible elements of a building help us to understand how that building works. Where are the entrances? What is the building for? These clues help you understand what is an office building, rather than a hospital, or what is a grocery store versus a warehouse.

An architect tells a story with the design of a building. In this analogy, we can see that it is possible to fail at speaking the same way you can fail at architecture. There are entire genres of architectural criticism that focus on this problem (and that particular blog is a hilarious example).

Is your talk a maze, or is the layout clear? Do people recognize the entrances and exits? Does it appear to be what it actually is? Does it make sense in the context of its time and space? Is it balanced?

Story structure is about answering these questions.

Note that not all of them have to be answered in the same way! Sometimes you want a maze. Sometimes you want the exits to be hard to find (like in a casino), and sometimes you want a building to stick out, and not fit in. But just like in architecture, we cannot simply ignore structure if we want to be different and memorable in the way we speak in public. We have to master story first.

Picking the Story

My strategy for creating a story for a talk is to understand 3 basic things very clearly. Again, this approach could be applied to any creative medium, even things like music (in fact, studying music theory and composition is where I learned this approach).

The three elements I start with are: what the audience expects to hear, what the audience wants to hear, and what the audience needs to hear.

So let’s take a practical example like Blockchain – the latest hot topic everyone wants to tell everyone else about. If I were to give a talk, I would follow these steps:

  • Think about what the audience expects you to say. Blockchain is the future? It’s a revolution? It’s safe? It’s better than alternatives?
    Pro Tip: Try to find something (which you also believe), that the audience doesn’t expect you to say. Blockchain will solve world hunger? Blockchain will cause a worldwide crisis?
  • Think about what the audience wants to hear. That blockchain is working out the way they hoped? That decisions made in the past were good? That the future is bright? Maybe the audience wants you to be negative about it as well. This is specific to the context of the talk, and who will hear it.
    Pro Tip: Acknowledge what the audience wants to hear, but don’t say it. “I know what you’re probably expecting to hear from me, but I’ll have to disappoint you.”
  • Think about what the audience needs to hear. What are the inconvenient truths about blockchain? What are the things people are ignoring? How are most people wrong about it? What is hard to grasp for this specific group?
    Pro tip: Avoid saying things the audience doesn’t need to hear or already knows. Blockchain is a popular subject? Yes. Only say this if it has a rhetorical purpose: “Of course blockchain is a popular topic but… (insert something the audience needs to know).

Complicating the Story

“Learn the rules as an artisan, so you can break them as an artist.” – Attributed to Pablo Picasso

So we’ve seen in essence, that a great talk is one that doesn’t say what people expect, that contradicts what people want to hear, and which says what people need to hear.

The art of public speaking is the way in which you complicate this process.

Complicating the story means introducing information or ideas that are in conflict with each other. One narrative appears to emerge, but is then challenged by a new narrative. A good public talk examines a story from more than one perspective, and shows how these narratives intersect and diverge.

So then an uncomplicated story begins with the three elements above, but stops there. It tells a narrative in conflict with previous narratives. A really complex and interesting story goes further, and challenges its own ideas in the same way, to arrive at still different conclusions. Often we do this by making the story about our personal journey of discovery: how we started by seeing things one way, and ended up seeing them another way entirely.

You will understand this concept quite instinctively, even if you have never noticed it before. Think of a classic story like The Lord of the Rings, or Casa Blanca. We are at first presented with two opposing ideas: a battle between the good guys, and the bad guys. But inevitably, the interesting part of these stories is what the good guys do that is bad, and what the bad guys do that is good.

You can’t have Frodo without Smigel. Casablanca’s Rick Blaine would never do anything interesting without his antagonist and rival Louis Renaultm to provoke him to action.

Remember: If it’s not arguable, it’s not interesting. Nothing worth your audience’s time is obvious. If everyone agrees with you all the time, then you’re probably not going deep enough. If you agree with yourself all the time, you’re probably not talking about anything that matters.

I know a talk has been a success when people come up to me afterwards to challenge my ideas. “Haven’t you considered this?” “I don’t agree with your conclusion about that.” These are positive outcomes for a public talk: that it inspires more people to think and talk about what you’ve said.

If nobody wants to give you their view, it may be because you haven’t really challenged them.

If it's not arguable, it's not interesting. @lloydwaldo on Creating a Killer Talk Click To Tweet

Telling a True Story

You may recognize the patterns i’ve talked about as similar to that of a classic TED talk, and with good reason. TED is masterful at helping presenters to illuminate a topic from a very specific point of view, and build a story around it.

Ted talks are most often shaped around the “Hero’s Journey,” narrative device. This is a common storytelling practice in which a character (often the speaker themselves), goes through a series of experiences which change their view of the world, and leave them better off than when they started.

A story that can seem flat and uninteresting if told without this device, can come alive for the audience when the hero is included. Take, for example, this classic talk from Will Wright, creator of SimCity, on Spore, birth of a game, from 2007.

On the surface, this could be a very dry discussion of game design in the 21st century. But because Wright makes himself the hero of his own story, we are taken on a journey from his early experiences with game design, through his personal discoveries about science and the theories of the universe, and arrive at the present day, understanding much more about why Wright has created this new game.

This strategy also works when you are not the subject of the story. We routinely see this in political speeches, for example: stories of average working people whose experiences are used to explain a political position or a decision. Investors often use this device to talk about the companies they invest in.

Pro Tips: Establishing Authority

Any time you’re being asked to speak as an authority on a given topic, it’s your job to help your audience understand not only what you think about that topic, but also how you came to have that position in the first place.

A poor way of establishing your authority is simply to state that you are an authority. “I am an expert in this topic,” is the lazy presenter’s mode of persuasion. Better is to list your accomplishments, and even better still, is to actively demonstrate your knowledge and experience in what you say.

A speaker’s authority is as important as what they say. This does not mean that one must be the highest authority on a topic in order to be persuasive, but it does mean that the speaker must frame their arguments in context with their authority to make those arguments.

For example, if I’m being asked to give a talk on Blockchain, I cannot give a persuasive presentation based on my knowledge of the technology. I just don’t know enough about it. There are others who should be listened to on that.

I don’t have to avoid talking about blockchain though. Instead, I would need to pick a point at which my authority intersects with the topic, and examine it from that perspective. Speaking outside my area of authority diminishes my arguments, but sticking to what I do know can bring up important points about the topic that another type of expert might miss.

Everyone is an expert if you look deep enough. @lloydwaldo on Creating a Killer Talk Click To Tweet

Can a marketing expert and an experienced startup investor tell you something meaningful about the blockchain? Absolutely. However, it should be something only a person with those qualifications would know or be able to argue effectively. I could talk about how the technology is marketed, for example, or what the technology’s implications are for marketing in general. I could talk about how the technology interacts with my discipline and my areas of experience.

Inside your area of authority, there will always be perspectives that can be valuable to others. So don’t ask “who am I to address this topic?” but rather “what does my expertise and experience tell me that others need to hear?”

Shareholder, Claimair, StartupYard, Central Europe, Accelerator

How to Write an Outstanding Shareholder Update

Shareholder updates can be hard, particularly if you have bad news. 

There are basically three ways founders tend to approach this: they can pretend everything is fine (a lie by omission), they can rationalize their past decisions and find a way to shift the blame off of themselves (aka: “our timing just wasn’t right”), or finally they can own the situation and focus on the future.

So it always makes us feel good when we see an update of the third kind, like the one we got recently from Jakub Havej, Founder and CEO at StartupYard Batch 5 Alum ClaimAir. With his permission, we are sharing the bulk of his end-of-2017 shareholder letter.

As you can tell, ClaimAir had a tough year. Things didn’t go the way Jakub hoped, but on the other hand, his team and the business both matured remarkably in that time, and today they are on a stable footing, looking to grow again.

It takes a lot of courage to admit when things aren’t working, and Jakub showed that courage to his shareholders. The feedback he got was incredibly positive, and his letter is something any young startup can learn from.By the way: You can help ClaimAir by using them to get compensation for flight delays, lost baggage, and other flight issues.

Visit ClaimAir and See How Easy it Is. 

At the bottom, we’ll talk about what makes this letter special. Now, here it is:

 

Dear Lloyd,

Last time I wrote you, ClaimAir was in the middle of fundraising. And it seemed very good, around €100k was hard-committed at that time.

And you know what?

It didn’t end up working out. It turned out that one of the interested investors faced credibility issues. The other one revoked his commitment without stating any reason.

And then, hard times began.

The company was running out of money. I continued with the fundraising, but after a while I realized that it needed time… time we didn’t have. I felt I couldn’t control the fundraising process. I was just sending out emails and was eagerly waiting for any replies that often never came.

I felt desperate.

“ClaimAir seems very interesting. Please keep us posted about the progress, so we may consider the investment in several months.” – the most common response.

Fortunately, it didn’t last long until I changed my mindset.

Instead of only pursuing investment for the sake of faster growth, I primarily started focusing on the profitability of the company. My inner engine has become fueled by motivation to make ClaimAir independent of external financing.

It was a pure instinct of survival, supported by opinions of people like Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp. It shortly happened that I liked that approach.

“If a restaurant served more food than everybody else but lost money on every diner, would it be successful? No. But on the Internet, for some reason, if you have more users than everyone else, you’re successful. No, you’re not.” – Jason Fried

Businesses must generate profit

A growth of acquired cases, our most important metric until that moment, had become irrelevant overnight. I didn’t care about new cases, because they didn’t bring immediate revenue. It wasn’t the case with more than a thousand existing claims, whose total sum of requested compensation exceeded €700k.

As a result, my team refocused on the management of legal cases, those that were handled by our legal partners. We needed the enforcement to be done much faster and we needed our lawyers to understand that.

We started playing a tougher game with airlines.

Just in a matter of few months, our activities have started bearing fruits. In summer, our monthly net revenue was averaging to €6,500. Three months later, we’ve doubled that!

 

Keep costs under control

Claimair, Shareholder, Startupyard

We’ve been increasing revenue while cutting costs significantly.

“When running a startup, costs are the only thing you can effectively control” – Cedric Maloux

Reducing costs was necessary. Even though it was hard for me to dismiss some people, it was inevitable. Being always transparent about the company made this much easier.

This step also forced us to optimize our activities even more, avoiding the reductions of having a devastating impact on our daily operations. This approach needs to be sustainable.

Finally, by the end of November, we made it.

For the first time in our short history, we ended a month with a positive cash flow. We generated €3,300 net profit, which completed our short-term mission.

Claimair, Shareholder

It’s not easy to enter this market

I remember my discussions with investors. Many of them claimed that it’s easy to copy our business and enter the market. Well, it’s not true at all.

Not only do you have to find smart team members, develop an automated platform, put all operational processes in place, but you must be also successful with enforcement of the rights of air passengers. To achieve this, you must establish a network of legal partners all around the world. Last but not least, it’s a matter of fact that lawyers won’t take you seriously and won’t accept favorable conditions until you’re big enough and deliver a tangible volume.

Our industry is so specific and you need to combine a lot of aspects to get the ball rolling. As long as we’re motivated and innovative, I’m not afraid of newcomers.

We’re still raising funds

It’s interesting to realize that “profit first” approach, which is much closer to my personal attitude, almost naturally attracted both our existing and new investors. Thanks to our results, we were able to raise money for a cash-flow cushion at a very fair valuation from new and existing investors in the past few months.

What’s next?

For a few upcoming months, I’m going to insist on generating profit together with securing a slight organic growth. We’re going to take on only as much work as is comfortable for the team.

As it has been planned for quite a long time, we’re going to prioritize the baggage segment. It’s still our unique value and the acquisition is much cheaper due to the missing direct competition.

Last but not least, we’re going to improve the product for travelers. B2whatever… we’ll design the service that works for the person on the other end. I’ll share more details in my next update.

Next reading

In November, we’ve been awarded a “Scaleup of the month” by EBAN (European Business Angel Network) – read more.

I was interviewed by Roklen24. I spoke about startups, aviation trends, and our recent product updates – read more.

Sincerely,
CEO – ClaimAir
Jakub Havej

What We love About this Shareholder Update:

A great shareholder update hits a lot of bases. Here are the ones this letter covers very well:

  • It tells a human story, covering past, present and future.
  • It admits problems, and offers solutions.
  • It acknowledges and answers shareholder concerns.
  • It asks for help.
  • It argues in favor of the business and the team.
  • It provides solid data.

Honesty Matters.

Really, in the world of speculative businesses, we see only one viable way of dealing with the inevitable challenges you face. That is to be frank and honest, first with yourself, and second with the people who put their trust in you. What is most important about this note is that it is part of a consistent pattern of behavior. If you make a habit of telling the truth, your life ends up significantly easier to manage. In the short term, a lie or even an omission might be convenient, but in the end, it will create more pain than it is meant to avoid.

So if you’re a founder who is facing similar challenges (and you probably will at some point), do yourself a favor, and take a page from Jakub’s experiences.

An exit is not a vision

5 Surprising B2C Growth Strategies Founders Rarely Try

I’m not a fan of so-called “growth guruism,” or a believer that so called “Growth Hacking,” is what separates successful startups from failures. Solving problems that matter, taking pains to understand your customers and your market deeply, and doing truly unique and challenging things set the best tech startups apart- not the tricks they use, but how they use them.

Still, a growth strategy doesn’t hurt. Netflix wouldn’t be Netflix if it didn’t have clever marketing back when it launched. But it might not be Netflix the global dominant SVOD platform if it hadn’t sent its early-days DVDs to customers by mail in bright, flashy red envelopes, making customers proud to evangelize a sexy new product.

Even absent a full-blown growth strategy, it often surprises me that more founders don’t do relatively simple things that can help them grow much faster, and fine tune their marketing and sales efforts much more quickly.

So that’s what this is, a list of simple growth ideas that most people don’t bother to try, but which may just work for you. As a bonus, I’ll be adding real world examples that you can study on your own more closely.

1. Tame Your Mavens

There are lots of ways to launch a B2C online product. There is no right way, but there are plenty of wrong ways.

Something pretty much every B2C company I’ve worked with has struggled at some point to gain traction for the launch of a new product. It gets a lot easier once you have a following and a track record with loyal customers, but your first product is like your first date. If it starts off badly, things usually don’t get very far.

Bad Version: The “I Hope This Works” Strategy

To ensure your launch will get the traction they need, many startups will “soft-launch” – an intermediate step between a beta version and a market-ready product. A soft-launch may be just a stealth launch with no marketing attached to it. That relies on friends and your personal networks to begin creating buzz about the launch.

It might work, but then it might not. No way to know.

Better Version: The “Connoisseur” Strategy

growth strategy

You can and should think about putting a bit more punch into a soft-launch pitch. Instead of just meekly offering your product, and seeing what happens, identify and close a group of customers who will be ready to use it from Day 1.

Use your customer personas (I hope you’ve done them), to identify a group of people who are in your key demographic, and are influencers in your market, and among your customers. What does an influencer look like? Somebody with a strong social media presence, plenty of mentions in news articles, or a following for a product of their own.

This group is what marketers call the “Mavens.” They are the ones whose social capital is invested in spotting new trends and talking about them. They’re the self appointed taste-makers, and you need them to like you.

Once you have a list, do whatever you can to get these mavens onboard with your launch. Give them free stuff, promise them visibility, praise their god-like skills of discernment. Whatever you have to do to be their best friends, do that.

Ever wonder how those startups with cool ideas end up in the gadget section of the New York Times, or the front page of Wired? That’s a process that starts long before the launch. In fact the launch depends on that process succeeding. Startups with a great PR strategy pre-launch will time their launch around the PR, not the other way around.

Real World Examples:

Netflix targeted avid film buffs on early-internet chatrooms and indy film reviewers in the 1990s before launching their DVD delivery service.

IndieGogo and other crowdfunding platforms turned this strategy into their core businesses: getting product enthusiasts to pledge purchases and hype products in exchange for special access and perks.

2. Be Controversial, Asshole

Growth Strategies

Startup founders can spend a lot of time (maybe too much time) studying the every move of a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. We all learn that you need to act successful in order to be successful.

That’s fine and good, but don’t be fooled: you are not successful yet. Why do we talk about these people now? Because of how diplomatic and strategically minded they are? I think not. The things those entrepreneurs had to do to grow their reputations and businesses would look much different to us if they did and said the same things now.

I’m not telling you to be an asshole. There are plenty of very successful entrepreneurs who aren’t. But I am saying to speak your mind when you can, because later, you won’t get that chance. Consider Mark Zuckerberg ranting in the Harvard Crimson that he was smarter than the entire IT department of the university in 2003. Consider Steve Jobs frankly insulting his future boss John Scully by calling him a sugar-water salesman.

Or just consider any successful entrepreneur who made people question what they really believed about how things should work. Feelings get hurt in that process, and a small company looking for an edge can’t afford to worry too much about hurting people’s feelings, particularly people a lot more powerful than they are.

Real World Examples:

Bitcoin was launched by the anonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto” in 2009 via a controversial white-paper. Regarded by some as revolutionary and prescient, and seen by others as problematic in its economic theories, the paper continues to enforce the Nakamoto brand even years after its author receded into silence.

Google began its campaign to expand beyond its beginnings as a search engine and launch Gmail. The company adopted the motto “Don’t Be Evil,” which at the time was interpreted as a hard swipe at competitors (like Microsoft and Yahoo) that Google was positioning itself against as a new Big Tech player.

3. Have a Gimmick

There are a few kinds of gimmicks. There are physical gimmicks, like a piece of swag or a clever trinket related to the product, and there are software gimmicks, which are a kind of game or a tool your target customers will like. Let’s take this premise in 2 parts.

  • The Physical Gimmick

A physical gimmick isn’t going to work for every company, because not everything lends itself to a physical hardware product. Then again, a lot of things really do.

growth strategy

Physical products, even very simple or decorative ones, offer an opportunity for your brand to reach customers in a new way. We are much more likely, as social creatures, to demonstrate new products we’ve brought to our friends and family if it has a physical component. This type of thing is sometimes referred to as “swag,” but a proper gimmick rises above the level of swag to become a part of the product experience.

Consider Google Cardboard – it’s a gimmick that advertises Google’s VR technology. Instead of a t-shirt or a coffee mug, customers get something that is contextual to the product itself. Because the product is also probably rare or unknown, it appeals to the human need for discovery and for “being first.”

How do you turn your product into a physical gimmick? There’s no one answer, but think about the ways in which your product is going to be used. What kind of physical tasks are involved? In what context will it be used? In the office? At home? On the toilet? In the car?

Not long ago one of our startups Beeem, the physical web company that helps retailers or venues broadcast webapps to nearby mobile devices, sent us a gift. They were standard sized “Business Cards,” enabled with Beeem’s beacon technology, that would broadcast a website where our LinkedIn profiles and emails would be accessible.

This is not really the business Beeem is in, but it’s a very clever growth idea. Now, whenever I talk about Beeem at a conference, I can whip out my business card and tell everyone how to get to my special, on-the-spot website from their mobile phones. It makes me seem geeky but cool, and it gets lots of people to try the service at once. Win, Win.

Real World Examples:

Revolut, the recently launched “post-banking” fintech company that offers virtual bank accounts and ultrafast and cheap currency conversion, used a very similar technique to the one I described above. They created blank credit cards, which they then distributed at events for free. Users could “claim” their card by opening an account on Revolut and putting some money on them. Which many, many people promptly did.

growth strategy

Amazon, when launching the Amazon Dash service (which allows customers to order specific items with one click), distributed small “Dash Buttons” to consumers to place in areas of their homes where certain products are used, such as laundry soap or food. Today Amazon has hundreds of these devices available to buy.

  • The Software Gimmick

The other avenue for gimmicks is in software, either in a browser or via an app. A great example of a classic gimmick is The Calculator. Such as this Mortgage Calculator from NYT.

A software gimmick is something related to your product in some way, but appeals to your customers on its own, helping you to instill your brand in their minds. There are a number of classic gimmicks:

The Calculator: a tool to help your customers solve a specific problem related to the product (like the price of insurance, or the cost of owning something versus renting it).

The Map: A way for your customer to explore content or learn something with a geographical context. Examples: Airbnb, Kiwi.com

The Puzzle: A game to get your customer thinking about the problems that your product solves for them. Also a way to spread the world about the product. Example: Google Doodles

The Quiz: A questionnaire that gives the customer a feeling of accomplishment (and works well to qualify a customer for follow-up). Examples: commonly used on Facebook

The Secret: This is in the form of an easter-egg or a “lifehack,” that helps your customer accomplish something few other people know about. Examples: In&Out Burger, famous in the US for their “secret menu,” which contains a large list of items that are only available upon request. Google has famously introduced hundreds of easter egg functionalities, which fans share and explore regularly. By the way, if you haven’t already: Do a Barrel Roll.

4. Make it Rain – (Money, That Is)

The quickest route between two points is a straight line. This is as true in finding customers as in anything else.

StartupYard, growth strategy

One of the straightest lines to a customer is the offer of something for nothing. Pay your customers to be your customers.

While it doesn’t work for every startup, it has been proven over and over to work for a great many of them. In a B2C company, even a SaaS company, the classic marketing strategies still work fine. There are a lot of ways of getting people in the door to have a look around.

If you’re old enough, you might remember some of the classic tactics. Sending a potential customer a discount coupon with a specific cash value (only to be used for a purchase with the retailer). Promising every customer a cash rebate for signing up.

The classic rebate deal was essentially a way of giving a customer something for free, while also getting them to commit cash to the endeavor. That’s a classic foot-in-the-door tactic. Many younger entrepreneurs today are less familiar with these old-school techniques because they went out of fashion with the age of online ads. However, they are making a comeback today.

For example, the phenomenon of “pre-purchases,” particularly of products that are not actually constrained by distribution logistics. Yet companies like Apple and Amazon have brought back the practice in a big way, tapping into the same emotional experience that send-away catalogues relied on for a century before they were abolished in favor of websites and apps.

Even supposedly “crowdfunded” products are increasingly really just products in pre-sale. The shift toward a primarily marketing role among leading crowdfunding platforms has been noted for years. With good reason: the tantalizing appeal of something one cannot have is harder and harder to find in today’s online consumer world. Waiting can be a joyful experience, and it can make the product feel special and noteworthy.

Real Life Examples:

Damejidlo, our 2012 alum and now the dominant food delivery platform in Czechia, bought users by offering every new customer about €10 worth of free food. You could get more credits by bringing friends to the platform as well.

Uber and many other ride-hailing apps have also famously paid for customers, offering a free ride to newly registered users. Airbnb has offered similar deals to new customers, as well as hosts.

5. Become a Public Personality

Easier said than done, but it’s still worth a try. Becoming a known public face for your industry, or for the greater problem your company is solving, can open up an ocean of free publicity for what you make.

At StartupYard, for example, we operate on a loose rule that we don’t attend tech conferences unless we are allowed to speak at the event, such as on a panel, or a workshop or keynote. Once at the event, we apply our experience as presenters and coaches to try and be the most memorable and interesting speaker there.

By being controversial, being informative, and being most importantly fresh with our perspective, Cedric Maloux and I are both often identified as standout presenters. People frequently talk to us after speeches, and more importantly, they tell their friends about us. Being out there in public isn’t for everybody, but if you’re doing something that takes advocacy and education for people to understand and value, then you need to be a leader, and speak out.

Growth strategies

Here are some things that can really help you transform yourself into a public personality:

Join Reddit channels in your industry, and follow topics on Quora. Take the time to build your reputation as an expert in the field you engage with. This takes time, but it also keeps you informed about what interests people, what’s being talked about, and what most people are missing in the conversation.

Join Competitions (with a goal). Pitching competitions, speaking competitions, even pub quizzes are going to help you build your confidence and assert yourself in front of strangers. Make yourself a goal of first attending a minimum number of competitions every month. When you get better at pitching or speaking, aim to win all the competitions you enter. Approach them as a game, not an opportunity, and try to win. If you win, opportunities will come to you.

Get speaking gigs. This means volunteer yourself to talk in front of groups of people. Be it technical, or business focused, government, corporate, or open source, get yourself on the list of speakers at relevant events and go out and talk about things you know matter. Be controversial. Be informative. And say something people haven’t heard before.

Get a speaking agent: If you’re highly skilled in your area of expertise, it’s quite possible there are people looking for speakers just like you, and even better, are willing to pay you to advertise yourself.

 

Our next post: How to Create a Killer Talk

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.

Apply to StartupYard Accelerator, Prague

How to Apply to StartupYard in 1 Hour or Less

It’s amazing how difficult filling out forms and following instructions can be for startup founders. But why not? After all, startups aren’t supposed to follow the rules.

Still, this is one thing we strongly recommend applicants to any accelerator take the time to do properly. It only takes an hour or less to write an application that will place you within our top picks for an interview with the selection committee.

This is our strategy for finishing your application as soon as possible. But our application platform F6S, allows applicants to revise their applications continuously until the due date: January 31st, 2018.

Ready to Apply to StartupYard?

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.

Apply to StartupYard in < 60 Minutes

 

Phase One: Data Entry (5-10 Minutes)

Pro Tip : Don’t go in Order! Go through the whole application and fill in the data answers first. This should be easy, and it will help you better answer the other questions.

For example: When did you start your company? How much revenue have you made? What is the total amount of cash invested?

Also use this time to fill in your team information. You’re building a picture of the company basics here, you’re not telling the story just yet.

Also provide any links or documentation requested at this stage. Now the annoying part of the application is totally out of the way, and you can focus on the good stuff: the long form answers.

Phase Two: Positioning Work (20-30 Minutes)

Pro tip : Do this in a separate text file!

Go to our post on Positioning for Startups, and read it first. After reading it (not before), use the template provided to fill in your positioning statement:


Product Positioning Statement:

(Our Product) is for (target customers):

Who (have the following problem):

Our product is a (describe the product or solution):

That provides (cite the breakthrough capability):

Unlike (reference competition):

Our product/solution (describe the key point of competitive differentiation):

 

To be extra nice, I’m going to give you a concrete example you can compare your statement with in terms of length, specificity, and scope.

“MyFamilyApp is for parents of young children, who can’t afford to hire a babysitter and take a night off every few weeks. MyFamilyApp is a social platform that allows parents to share responsibilities with other parents, and get some time off for themselves. Unlike a paid babysitter, MyFamilyApp is free to use, and is restricted only to verified parents who pass a strict background check.”

(Note: This is just a fictional example. We would likely not be interested in this kind of product, though a good positioning statement would force us to at least consider it).

Another pro tip: The Positioning Statement is not a marketing document. It is a clear description of what your company does, how, and for whom.

Phase 3 : Answering The “Hard” Questions (10 Minutes)

Now that you’ve done the positioning statement, the remaining questions are relatively easy. What problem do you solve? Who is your target customer? These have become clear thanks to your prep work.

Also take a few minutes to come up with your answers to the Q&A at the bottom of the application. The more you tell us, and the more questions you ask, the better we will know what you’re looking for, and will be able to answer your concerns.

Phase 4 : Self-Review (10 Minutes)

Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself before clicking “Submit.”

  • Would a Non-Expert in my field understand basically what I am doing?
  • Have I answered all the questions completely (not just part of the question)?
  • Are my answers also about the company, and not just an advertisement for the product?
  • Am I being really clear and honest about our current status, and not exaggerating or distorting the truth?
  • Is my spelling and grammar reasonably good? Do I write in complete sentences and  thoughts?
  • Do I sound like someone that would be good to work with?
  • Have I clearly shown why my project is a good fit for the accelerator? Have my answers shown that I am aware of how acceleration works?

And there it is: you’ve just shot to the top of our list with a great looking application. We look forward to seeing you in the next selection round.

Ready to Apply to StartupYard?

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can check out the video podcast here:

A Problem That Isn’t a Problem

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

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

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

I apply this mental checklist:

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

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

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

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

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

A Case Study: Steel Mountain

Steel Mountain

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

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

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

The “You Need Us” Problem

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

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

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

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?

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

  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?

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

  • Does the customer active search for other solutions?

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

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

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

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

Making the Problem a Real Problem

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

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

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

The problem they identified was this:

 

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

Bingo.

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

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

How does it do with the checklist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applying it Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Video: StartupYard Alumni Founders Tell Their Stories

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

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9.

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

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

 

Accelerator, StartupYard

Choosing an Accelerator: 11 Questions to Ask

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

To Accelerate or Not?

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

Accelerator, Startup, StartupYard,

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

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

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

So here they are:

1. Why Is the Accelerator Interested in My Startup?

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

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

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

2. Are You Convinced by My Pitch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Does the Accelerator Management Team Have A Stake?

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

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

5. Why Are Your Terms What They Are?

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

Accelerator, StartupYard

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

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

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

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

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

Accelerator, StartupYard

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

7. What Do You Expect from Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Does the Accelerator Pay The Mentors?

Accelerator, StartupYard

Hopefully the answer is “No.”

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

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

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

That should be enough.

10. What Entrepreneurial Experience Does the Management Team Have?

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

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

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

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

11. Do You Have Partnerships with Potential Customers?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Build a Killer Customer Persona that Works in 5 Minutes

This week I’m in Kiev, talking to early stage startups in one of eastern Europe’s most interesting emerging tech markets. I’m mentoring at SeedStars, a leading international tech entrepreneurship platform that connects people and ecosystems together.

Ukrainians have a deserved reputation for cleverness and skill as engineers, but as in any very mathematically inclined culture, tech entrepreneurs here often struggle with customer oriented thinking. Because in the last few decades, most of ukraine’s tech industry has been based on outsourcing, product design thinking has not been a priority.

But that’s changing. One thing I’ve noted in my sessions so far is that local entrepreneurs are globally minded, and key to learn new tricks and mindsets in order to achieve their goals. Give me hunger over raw ambition any day: it’s clear these young tech people are looking to grow and to be part of a better future.

The Killer 5 Minute Customer Profile

The truth is, in Central Europe I have less and less occasion to talk to techies about positioning and problem oriented thinking, because the culture has become used to the ideas StartupYard has been promoting for many years.

But today I’ve pulled out an old favorite I personally love to use: the 5 minute customer persona. It’s quick, it’s dirty, but it’s a great way of challenging your thinking about what your company is really selling.

Why do a customer persona?

Most founders are used to the idea that a startup “solves problems.” The trouble is that often the “problem” as they view it is essentially “our customers don’t have our product.”

Take the case of a recruiting platform I met today. The problem they were solving, according to them, was “recruiters don’t have a single platform where they can gather all their leads.”

Maybe that is a problem, but it functions more as a description of the product. I asked the founders a simple question: would your target customer google the phrase “single platform for gathering recruiting leads?” And if so, what would they actually find there?

The answer is a ton of different products. Agencies, software, content, forums. A problem this generic has no one answer.

Enter the 5 minute Persona

Instead of defining the problem, I ask the founders to do a simple paper exercise. I write down the job title of the customer at the top of a piece of paper, and on the left margin I create three sections: Goals, Frustrstions, Fears. It looks like this:

Head of Recruitment Persona

Goals:

Frustrations:

Fears:

Fill in each section (in order!) with 2-3 key points. If you aren’t sure, bracket the point. This helps show what you know and don’t know about the customer, and to get you thinking in their shoes. It’s important to phrase the points as they would be seen by the *person* behind the persona, not the company, or just the position.

The persona we built took five minutes, consisting only of me asking questions about the customer:

Head of recruitment

Goals:

  • Increase Deal Flow (fees)
  • Train subordinates well
  • Improve Pipeline value

Frustrations:

  • Turnover in the team
  • High customer expectations
  • Lack of deal flow

Fears:

  • Automation (bots, AI)
  • Conflicts of interest with clients
  • Competition (Cheaper? Faster?)

Pretty simple, but here’s the clever bit: I then ask the founder to state the problem by describing the fears of the customer, describe the solution as solving the frustrations mentioned, and then describe the outcome as the goals you’ve identified.

Eg:

Problem: Competition and automation threaten recruiters. They need better deal flow and fewer errors to stay ahead.

Solution: a platform that helps you train your team and manage your deal flow, meeting high customer expectations faster.

Outcome: higher fees, a better team, and more business.

This pitch has been transformed into a winner in just minutes.

By starting at the “outcome” or goals, and working down to fears, you get away from your biased views of what customers need or want. First empathizing with the customer, then identifying the benefits your product offers (frustrations), and only then getting to the motivation to buy (fears), we short-circuit our biases about what’s important about the product.

Do This Often

This tool is so easy, I often feel bad for founders who don’t know it. Often they think me as if I’ve revealed some incredible secret, but this isn’t hard to put into practice at all.

In fact, you ought to do it every time you think about a customer, an investor, or even a new hire. Practicing empathy helps us to gain insight into what we know, and shows us what information and experience we lack. And practicing empathy is not rocket science.

It starts with a 5 minute routine.

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for our next round.

We’re looking for startup founders in Automation, Blockchain, IoT, AI, AR/VR and Security, or anything else hard to do and globally scalable.

Get started applying to StartupYard.