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

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

It seemed cool, but it was pretty awful.

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

 

Why are VR/AR Startups Applying to StartupYard Now?

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

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

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

 

1. The Smartphone Has Peaked

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

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

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

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

And…

2. We’ve Hit Peak Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

And…

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. People Aren’t Happy with the Status Quo

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

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

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

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

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

And…

 

This is What Big Data Was Always Supposed to Do

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

And…

 

VR Was Inevitable, But Not Always Obvious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Applications are open for StartupYard Batch 9!

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

 

Startups Talk Press

How Should Startups Talk to the Press?

How should startups talk to the press? So you’ve launched your startup. Now the hard work starts. This week, we happily announced 7 new startups at StartupYard, and they all got a chance to meet the press. Over the past 2 days, numerous articles have appeared about them in the Czech press.

Here are the top hits for StartupYard in Google News (they are only a few of the articles published)- note the variety of headlines

How Smart Startups Talk to the Press: Be Prepared

So how did they do it? Despite the way movies make press conferences appear spontaneous and easy, they are actually carefully staged events. The press pitch, or the act of approaching the press with an idea for a story, is also a staged process.

Particularly when it comes to startups, it’s usually the founders who need to generate interest in the story. Journalists aren’t knocking down our doors, and few small companies get press they don’t earn.

Old fashioned preparation works today, just as it did 50 years ago. Take heart though: today, being prepared is easier than ever.

How to Prepare

We use a kind of refrain at StartupYard when it comes to press. It is: “make the press’s job as easy as possible.”

While no good journalist is lazy, all good journalists have too much to do. Making life easier doesn’t mean spoonfeeding them PR, but it does mean doing the boring stuff yourself.

A journalist has a reputation to protect (hopefully a good one). So you need to help them feel at ease. Certainly, if you don’t appear prepared, a journalist isn’t going to take a risk writing about you.

Here’s what you can prepare for a journalist before bugging them to write a story about you or what you are doing:

  • A Press Packet (PDF, Dropbox Folder, etc)
    • Photos of the team
    • Screenshots or shots of the product in use
    • Company one sheet, with Company history
    • Financial and user data if needed
    • Testimonials if you have them
    • Contact details and bio of team members
  • A Press Release with the Story
    • Properly formatted
    • Well written and objective (not a sales pitch)
  • The product: Website URL and credentials if needed to test a product
  • Pick the right target
    • Someone who has written about you or your industry.
    • Someone you have a personal/professional connection to
    • Someone whose writing you like
    • Someone at a publication that matters to your audience

It’s possible a journalist won’t need all this stuff to write about you. They might also write about something slightly different than what you pitched them.

Still, it’s helpful for the sake of your own clarity and confidence to have all these items ready to deploy. You never know when someone will ask for them. And if they do, it might be because they want to write about you.

Know Your Audience

Remember, you’re trying to get a journalist to write about you. So it pays to research exactly what that journalist is interested in, and what info they usually like to cover.

Some famous tech journalists have even published explicit guides on how to pitch them a story.

Mike Butcher is one example of this. While I find his approach a bit extreme, and also very much focused on tech-industry journalism, many of his points are universal. If you can’t answer every question he mentions, you might not be ready to talk to the press.

Solve a Problem for the Journalist

In that same infamous cheat sheet, Butcher writes:

“The most solid pitches come when the startup relates what they do to a CURRENT news story of the day. For instance, say Apple just came out with a new kind of headphone, and your startup has a product relevant to music or headphones. THAT is when you should jump all over the media – while your story is current and you can get into the tail-wind of a hot story. Not 6 months later when we’ve all moved on and forgotten about headphones.”

There’s a reason this is right out in front.  Remember that the journalist has a job, and it involves generating content their readers want. If they don’t get read, they lose their jobs.

In addition, if they don’t “break” stories, and become a trusted source of news, then their reputation never grows, and they don’t advance professionally.

So you need to approach members of the press as people who have their own needs. As such, how can you help them fulfill those needs?

Here are a few easy ways to do that:

Become a trusted source: Journalists from several publications regularly ping me for my opinion on various topics. Often I am not quoted or mentioned, but when I have a story I want the journalist to tell, then it’s likely he or she will at least listen to me. To be a trusted source, you have to give more than you get.

Give them Real News: Remember, the journalist’s reputation is built on their ability to be first, to be right, and to be read. So help them do that. If you have a tip, and it is ethical to share it, then choose a favorite journalist to talk to about it.

Remember Your Friends: The other day, I was on Twitter when I spotted this:

Steve O’Hear happens to be the journalist who wrote the “big story” about our alum Gjirafa, and its founder Mergim Cahani. Since I worked with Mergim to craft the press pitch that got Steve interested in the story, I immediately thought of him.

The good news is, Gjirafa didn’t forget Steve. But when some big news happens for them, they have to remember who was there from the beginning. Journalists take risks on startups all the time. Make it worth their while, and show some loyalty.

Plus, what’s better than Steve O’Hear getting to boast that he broke the story about Gjirafa 2 years before they “made it big,” and he gets to report that he was right all along? That’s a win win. Your best press is the press that loves you.

Make It About the Story. Not About You.

Remember, you are not entitled to a story just because you are a startup. My mother can start a startup. Anyone can. Tech journalists hear about new startups all day, every day.

If you want a journalist to take you seriously, then you need to have a real story. Real news.

Hint: you being a startup isn’t news. You launching a product is *probably* not news. Because who are you anyway?

So what is news?

Real news has a narrative. It connects with what’s going on in the world and where you are. There are other ways to describe it, but It’s simple to think of it like this:

  • Controversy: What about the story is controversial or unexpected? What is challenging or new, or possibly unexplored or counter-intuitive?
  • Trends: How does the story reinforce a trend that the journalist can describe and the audience can recognize? How does it “fit in” with other things that are in the news?
  • Data: What are the facts? Why are those facts significant?

A press pitch that isn’t developing one of those things isn’t doing its job. Why tell your company history? Because it is part of a trend, or a controversial approach or point of view. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Because data shows that it matters. Everything is connected with advancing a controversial idea, a broader trend, and real data.

Keep in mind: You are not the story. You are *part* of the story. An important part, but not the only one.

Your Press Release

How do you deliver that story? There are many methods, but one of the most straightforward is with a classic press release.

We won’t dive into that here, but I will refer you to my authority on this topic: Colette Ballou from Ballou PR, a friend of StartupYard.

Her presentation on PR for Startups gives detailed instructions on how to craft and format a press release. It’s worth studying closely.

What is News?

Because this point is where many startups fail, I’m going to pay special attention to talking about what *is* and *isn’t* news.

I’ve prepared a handy list:

Not News:

  • We launched a Startup!
  • We pivoted our Startup!
  • Our startup is better than another Startup!
  • We have a (generic) opinion on something!
  • We have a (vanilla) mission statement!

Is News:

  • A famous person endorsed our product! (Proximity)
  • A famous company uses our product! (Credibility)
  • Our product solves a problem everyone is talking about! (Timeliness)
  • We are experts on a hot topic and have an opinion! (Authority)
  • We raised Money! (Relevance)
  • We have a controversial mission statement! (Controversy, Sensationalism)

Get Professional Help

I know. You’re a rockstar. Everyone will want a piece of you.

I’ll let you in on a little secret though: rockstars have PR reps too.

You’re a small company, and your authenticity is vital. Still, using a PR pro can really help you develop your approach to press and connections you’ll need to get your story heard.

People see PR as a dirty word. It’s fake, or insincere. But that’s not necessarily the case. A good PR rep that understands and cares about what you do can be magic.

Think of it like this: you help your customers the way you know how. A PR rep helps the press the way they know how. The best marketing and PR isn’t dishonest, it’s mutually beneficial. It helps good stories get told by the right people. You don’t pay PR reps to lie. You pay them to find someone who cares.

StartupYard uses a PR agency. That’s how we get our startups covered in the press. Not because we can’t tell our story, but because we can’t spend all our time on relationships in the press. If you have a good agency, the press will trust them, and work with them. They can bring you credibility, and hopefully help you tell your story better.

With all that said: go forth and tell your story. Just do the footwork too.

Stortelling

What is Good Stortelling? (Part 2)

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

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

Starting with Characters and Plot

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

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

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

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

Building an Appropriate Setting

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

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

Your Story Seems a Bit Off

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

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

Identifying Conflicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Your Conflict Into Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking A Conflict You Can Win

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

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

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

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

Identifying Arcs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Your Story on Paper

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

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

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

What is Good Storytelling? (Part 1)

First: What is Storytelling?

There’s no single compact definition that can cover every modern use of the word “story.” You may think of news articles, or children’s fairy tales. You may think of “user stories,” that product designers use to figure out what to build. You may think of a novel. In fact, most stories have common characteristics: characters, settings, plot, conflict, and an ending.

But in talking about a “brand story,” or a “cultural story,” or a “life story,” we are really discussing a specific kind of story: the “Mono-myth,” also commonly known as a “Hero’s Journey.” At the heart of what we call “storytelling” in the modern world, you find this core structure:

The world’s oldest documented story is The Epic of Gilgamesh, written 4000 years ago on clay tabletsIt’s the story of Gilgamesh, a God King of the Sumerian state of Uruk. He begins as a restless and foolish young man, who leaves his city behind to explore the world, faces many challenges, becomes wise, and returns home a hero, ready to lead his people.

That ought to sound familiar. It’s the basis of every epic story from the Odyssey to Star Wars.

The Hero’s Journey works incredibly well at persuading audiences because it is a simple and flexible vehicle for conveying the human experience. It speaks to us about our experiences in life, by recreating those experiences, only with more flair, more danger, and bigger stakes.

The Hero’s Journey

Pick a big successful brand at random. Recall what you can about their “story.”

Chances are excellent that it is a “Hero’s Journey,” following the same pattern laid out 4 millennia ago in Gilgamesh. McDonalds has its Ray Krok, Apple has its Steve Jobs, and Microsoft its Bill Gates.

Not coincidentally, there are movies about all these characters, and they are all Hero’s Journey movies. The appeal of this story is so great that it is virtually synonymous with storytelling in film.

Within each of these stories is a familiar narrative: a misfit, naive and ambitious, confronts a cruel world, fails, grows, and finally succeeds. That is the simple core of every human story, and thus, every company story as well.

Qualities of a Great Story

Now we know what a story looks like. So which are the specific qualities of a really strong story? What makes this overall structure work best? Here are a few things I think are essential in a good story:

Great Stories Have Human (imperfect) Characters

Great stories appeal to the listener by being, essentially, about human nature. Great heroes are appealing because of their humanity, and not because of their power.

 

The 2010’s Most Popular Hero

Think about why people love Batman, or Iron Man: it’s because they are flawed human beings. It is the human experience to face moral tests and temptation. Thus, a story in which good and evil are too easy to separate is a story without any moral tension.

For Example:

You may have at some point spotted this meme making the rounds on Facebook. It’s got enormous viral potential, which is why it has been shared so widely (by both those who find it hilarious, and those who take it seriously)

It’s also a great example of bad storytelling.

In this story, we are presented with two characters in conflict: one entirely sympathetic and brave, the other entirely unsympathetic and cowardly. Thus, the point of the story, or the moral, is never in doubt. While the story creates suspense by making it unclear exactly what will happen, it creates no suspense over what the story thinks should happen.

No one in the story learns anything. No one changes as a person. One wins, and the other loses, but nothing is different at the end.

Great Stories Are About Change

I attended a panel on startups by the renowned actor Kevin Spacey this past weekend. One phrase above all stuck out to me as an example of how he sees storytelling. When asking a founder a question about his motivations in business, the founder responded: “Well, that’s complex.” To which Spacey responded: “Go ahead. Be complex.”

People are complex. So stories must also deal in moral complexity. They must give the heros and the villains an “arc.” As in Gilgamesh (or any epic story), the hero must fail to become wise. A villain must experience pride before the fall. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

Take, for example, this highly compelling commercial from none other than Budweiser, simultaneously America’s best selling, and worst tasting beer:

This is practically the definition of a Hero’s Journey. A young man with a romantic vision leaves home, only to find that the world is harsher than he expected. Enduring many trials, he finds help in unexpected places (the black man on the river boat). Having grown through his experience, he reaches his new home ready to accomplish great works: in this case, brewing beer.

This ad was seen as shockingly political (released weeks after the 2016 US Presidential Election), but it was also very successful. And that is because it is a real story, not just an ad.

It seeks to reframe the story of Budweiser, “America’s Beer,” into the story of Americans themselves, where they come from, and what they should believe in.

It also presents a coherent moral argument: that adversity makes us stronger, and that perseverance leads to success.

Importantly, neither of the two main characters in the story (America, and Budweiser himself), are either purely good or evil. Budweiser shows hints of arrogance from the beginning, before becoming wiser, and America shows signs of openness, even after initially seeming a cruel place indeed.

The story is about these characters changing together.

Great Stories Are About Conflict

As we’ve now seen, conflict is essential to a powerful story.

Conflicts in stories boil down to need. Human beings and societies have competing needs. How those needs are addressed, and which needs win out over others, are key elements of a story.

Convincing an audience that one need is greater than another is vital. Otherwise, why should a person pay attention to your story? It involves no consequences.

This is a video I often use to talk about bad storytelling. It’s a coca-cola ad from the early 1980s, when Coke was getting its ass kicked by Pepsi’s brilliant marketing.

But what’s not to love? Sunny day, happy people, soccer for some reason, and everyone having a “Coke and a smile.”

This ad was a failure, along with much of Coca-Cola’s marketing at the time. There is zero conflict in this story. And because there is no conflict, there is no identification of any urgent need. Do I need to have a coke on a nice day? It seems these people are having fun, regardless of what they’re drinking.

Brands routinely fail to introduce real conflict into their product and brand stories. Here’s a more recent example:

 

There’s a lot wrong with this ad, but the most important problem is that the conflict it presents is false. We see trials and struggles for the hero, but we are told at the end that there is no solution. And instead we should just buy a car. It’s insulting.

Cowardly marketing and bad storytelling happen when we refuse to acknowledge that our customers are people with their own problems. They aren’t just people out in a park having a perfect day, ready to jump at the chance to buy a coke.

They won’t automatically feel better about themselves just because someone tells them it’s ok to buy a car. Even if that car is the best car ever. They have other needs as well- more important ones.

Coke actually learned that lesson. Here is a typical ad from more recent years:

Here is conflict. Suspense! Competing needs and wants. And the brand in the story is associated with wisdom, with the setting aside of personal enmities in favor of love.

That’s a great story to tell. It appeals to people as they are: always in conflict with themselves, and always unsure of what is right.

Creating and Resolving Conflict

How do you make your story real to other people? You do it by making the conflict real to them. By showing them how the conflict in your story should matter to them.

This is also where a lot of startup stories fall apart. They make the mistake of thinking that making a good argument is the same as actually persuading someone. But it is never enough to just be right. The person has to believe you’re right.

In the next post in this series, I’m going to talk about how to identify parts of your story, as a founder, as a company, or as a person, and bring out the hidden conflicts that will help you relate that story, and make it matter to other people.

ICO

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

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

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

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

First, a bit of history:

First There Was Blockchain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blockchain and ICOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Why is this So Crazy Popular?

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

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

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

What an ICO is Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Art by Mirek Sultz Copyright 2017, StartupYard 

Are ICOs Legal?

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

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

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

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

Are ICO’s Safe?

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

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

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

Ok, but Should I Buy Into an ICO?

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

Here are the highlights of Decissio’s checklist:

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

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

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

Should I Raise an ICO as a Startup?

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

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

ICOs are a Threat to Traditional Investors

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

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

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

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

What can we do about it?

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

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

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

The Positioning Statement: Finding a Window Into the Mind

Originally published on our blog way back in 2014, this post has been one of our most enduringly popular. According to Google Analytics, the average reader has spent over 20 minutes studying it. It is also our most popular piece on Medium. Since that time, we’ve shared this post with scores of startups, and used the methodology detailed here over and over again. This post is updated to reflect all that we’ve learned in the past 3+ years.

What is Positioning?

“Positioning” has often been described as “the organized system for finding a window in the mind.” That’s how Al Ries and Jack Trout described it in their book: Positioning, a Battle for Your Mind, a groundbreaking work from 1981.

Al Ries is often credited with coming up with the term “positioning,” and he describes it as a way of using a customer’s own experience of the world (including with other brands and products) as a way of communicating with that customer. Rather than communicate in a vacuum, companies that use effective positioning target customers who are already familiar with competing products and brands, and use that familiarity to differentiate themselves.

In the book, Ries highlights perhaps the most famous example of brand positioning in the 20th century: that of Avis, which in 1962 premiered the tagline: “At No. 2, We Try Harder.” Avis was at the time the market runner up in rental cars, and the company used that fact to imply that they were more accountable than their competitors, because they had to be.

 

In an early case of position-focused advertising, Avis used their status as 2nd in the market to imply that they were more attentive to their customers, because they had to be.

Positioning is Everywhere

When we stop to think about positioning as a promotional tool, we begin to see that it is everywhere.

Brands use their competitors as foils for their own messaging constantly. Remember those “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” adverts.

 

Apple portrayed PC users as unstylish and bumbling in a popular series of TV spots.

                                                          

Brands for the the past half century have often focused less on defining what their products are, and chosen rather to define what they are not. Another striking example comes from 7-up, which in the 1970’s sought to gain market share by telling customers that their clear soda was “the un-cola,” explicitly defining themselves as essentially “Not Coke.”

Whereas in the past, consumers may have seen their range of choice as: “drink Coke or don’t drink Coke,” 7-up presented a different scenario: “drink 7-up when you don’t want Coke.”

In presenting consumers with a new choice: either drink Coke or drink 7-up, the brand found a window into consumers’ minds. It suggested that there were many people who would prefer an alternative to Coke that was not available.

By framing 7-up as an alternative to a popular drink, the brand convinced retailers and consumers alike to buy 7-up along with Coke, in order to fill the demand implied by the advert. In 7-up’s ideal scenario, customers would not stop buying Coke, but would buy 7-up in addition to Coke.

In the 1970s, 7-Up promoted the idea of a citrus-flavored soda as an “un-cola,” to break down consumer expectations that carbonated sodas are dark in color.

The product itself also emphasized its differences from traditional sodas. It was not caffeinated, it was sour, and it mixed well with the more popular alcoholic drinks of the time, including gin and vodka, which were gaining market share in the 1970s. “7 and 7″ was a popular drink choice by 1970, a mix of Seagram’s 7 Crown Gin, and 7-up.

The brand thus further differentiated itself from Coke, which had traditionally focused its brand on taste and tradition, using the tagline “It’s the Real Thing.” Whereas Coke was a conservative choice, enjoyed by families and older generations, 7-up was a young brand- enjoyed at night in bars and in cocktails, rather than on sunny afternoons at baseball stadiums or at restaurants.

Thanks to these ads, 7-up rose in the 1970s to 3rd place among sodas, only losing its market share with the rise of diet sodas in the 1980s and 90s, and the decline in popularity of mixed drinks in favor of bottled drinks and beer.

What a Product Positioning Statement Looks Like

Here we’ll focus on a sub-discipline of positioning as a whole: Product Positioning. It’s the same general philosophy, but with its own specific methodology.

When a startup team joins StartupYard, one of the first things we ask them to do is to sit down and write our a “positioning statement.” The format is deceptively simple, and it looks like this:

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):

Why A Positioning Statement Is Important

The positioning statement contains the core elements not only of a product, but also of its marketing and sales strategy. And while most of our teams have worked primarily on ways of describing their ideas, a positioning statement does more than this: it also justifies the notion of that idea becoming a business.

It’s important for a startup to have the concepts of saleability and market differentiation baked into the essence of the product. Writing a positioning statement, like writing a SWOT analysis, can reveal basic strengths and weaknesses in a product while it is still in the “idea” phase.

A Starting Point

Even more importantly, a positioning statement can serve as the basis for validation of a product. If you can’t describe what your company does in this compact format, it’s possible that you aren’t sure yet what your company actually does. You may be sure of what you are doing on a technical level, but what that means in business terms might not yet be clear.

The positioning statement is a conversation starter, particularly with early mentors and core team members, to facilitate early discussions about core strategy, and how the team sees itself in the bigger picture, what market it is really addressing, and what its real competition is in that market.

And a positioning statement, well-executed, can be transformed virtually complete into the core marketing message for a product, once it is developed. Take this copy from Nest’s webpage:

“Our mission is to keep people comfortable in their homes while helping them save energy, and with the next-generation Nest Learning Thermostat, we’re able to spread that comfort and savings to even more homes — and to help higher-efficiency systems perform the way they were meant to.”

Here are all the elements of a positioning statement. If the Nest founders filled in our form, it would look something like this:

Our Product is

For: Upper-middle class and wealthy people

Who: Own homes and spend a lot of money on energy costs and heating/cooling systems

Our product is a: Smart Thermostat and related products

That provides: Savings and increased comfort by improving efficiency of existing systems.

Unlike: manufacturer provided systems

Our product/solution: Learns and intelligently adapts to the inhabitants to increase comfort at all times, while saving money

A Positioning Statement Tells the Truth

The above “translation” of the Nest positioning statement doesn’t say exactly what their marketing copy says of course. They don’t mention wealthy clientele for one thing. But at $130 for a smoke detector, and $250 for a thermostat, that is surely the market they are targeting.

Their products are priced high enough to be clearly exclusive, but low enough not to seem extravagant or make a money-wise customer feel foolish for purchasing. And anyway, that messaging is not only found in the price, but in mention of “homeowners,” and of “higher-efficiency systems.” These subtle cues indicate to customers that the product is made for people who value performance, and are willing to pay to get it.

Features ≠ Differentiation

Notice too that none of the positioning statement deals with the exact features of the product. It’s all about the outcomes the product promises.

This is key: their competitive differentiation is not on a feature-by-feature basis, but holistic. They frame their competition as not only out of date, but barely worth mentioning at all. They indicate that their competitors (the providers of the systems), are not even in the same business as they are, and that therefore competing products are not even worth comparing in a more granular way.

These are all elements of Nest’s marketing that are informed by the market segment they have chosen to address, from the quality of the products, to the design, to the sales language and the pricing. And so the marketing message that says: “this product is for you,” when speaking to its target client, is backed up by a product that is built with that person in mind. The mission is clear: this is not a product for anyone, but for someone very specific, so that when the customer comes across the product and thinks about buying it, he or she can immediately see that it is made for them.

Who, Not What

There’s a reason the positioning statement starts with “who.” Over the years, we’ve consistently observed that the first thing most startup founders do is try to talk about the product before talking about the customer.

But here’s why that’s a mistake, and why the positioning statement doesn’t do that: understanding the target market is the first hurdle in actually validating a new product. Features are a distant second consideration to clearly articulating who the customer is, and what their problem is.

A laundry list of features doesn’t really address the problem of “who” the product is for, but only “what” it is for. And that “what” that a feature describes doesn’t necessarily give any indication of what problem is being solved. Startups that are dealing with complex technologies can easily skip over the core user benefits of the technology, in favor of describing the technology itself.

Common is the startup that pitches “a revolutionary new method of transforming leavened wheat products into crispy squares by employing concentrated on-demand heat conduction derived from electrical coil technology,” instead of pitching: “toast whenever you need it,” or even “a less boring version of bread.”

People Buy Outcomes, Not Features

Customers ultimately buy solutions to their problems, not technical specifications. And those problems are not always the same as the ones that the feature list actually addresses.

Consider this, when thinking about buying a car, what are the first things you’re likely to check?

Probably it isn’t technical specifications. Most people will answer one of two ways: they will check either prices, or reviews.

That indicates that the customer is very aware of what their problem is. They need a car, and they need it at a certain price, or at a certain minimum level of comfort and safety, or both. Car companies rarely list their prices up front on their websites precisely because they know that this is what customers are looking for, and so they are able to ask for customer information in exchange for information on their pricing.

Cars rely heavily on marketing to differentiate themselves, but the marketing is typically not focused on what the cars actually do. And that’s because cars all pretty much do the same things. So the problem being solved for the customer is not “I need a car,” but “I need a car that fits my personality/lifestyle/class/status and/or specific needs.”

Look carefully at a car commercial, and you’ll be assaulted with subtle and unsubtle cues about price, lifestyle, class, education, and culture, but not much about fuel injection, or anti-lock brakes, or all-wheel drive. These things may get a mention, but the whole object is to present the car as being a great value, in consideration of all that it offers for the price being asked.

 

Lincoln’s famously ponderous commercials for town cars are definitely not focused on features.

The goal of a typical car commercial is to convince a customer that they are buying the status and the culture that is associated with the car; that their decision is not motivated by price, even when it usually is.

That is how powerful positioning is. By showing a very clear understanding of who their customers are, car companies can turn a price-motivated decision into a statement about who the customer is, and about their place in society as a whole.

Try this: go and ask someone why they bought the phone they own, or the car they drive, or the computer they use. Whatever it is, ask them why they chose it.

The majority of people you speak to will probably not say: “it’s the best I can afford.” Instead they were answer the question in terms of what the phone or car or computer represents to them; what it says about them and their values.

For example, if the person has a cheap phone, they’ll say something like: “I just use the one that came with the plan. I don’t need anything fancy.”

That’s often code for: “I’m too cheap to buy a nicer one.”

On the flip side, ask a latest model, hi-tech phone owner why they bought their tech toy, and they’ll say it’s because they value the design, the features, or the amazing convenience of using it. They won’t say: “I bought this because I want to signal that I am wealthy and can afford luxuries.”

This dedication to explaining our motivations in personal terms doesn’t extend only from a marketing strategy for high end consumer products – it derives from the way those products are made as well. The design and build of a product must subtly betray its role in social signaling for the owner. Cheap cars are “humble,” while super-expensive cars are “subtle.” It is the cars in between that are most ostentatious.

When you see a fancy paint job on a cheap little economy car, you cringe because it is a confused communication of values by the owner. It’s pig dressed as a lady.

Consumer products can also be designed to signal their utilitarian nature, in order to make customers more comfortable with their purchase. For every €20 bottle of wine, there is a €5 bottle of wine that looks somehow less pretentious, and more sensible.

The Position and the Pitch

The main difference between a positioning statement and a full blown pitch is that the positioning statement says in plain words, what is really true about who your product is for, and what you believe its market fit to be.

This will help you to stay away from visions of (and talk about) your product changing the world, even if it doesn’t really have the capacity or the capability to be a real world changing idea. Not all products have to be for everyone, and many of the best products aren’t.

It will also keep you honest and focused; force you to make clear the needs of the market you are targeting, and force you to live in their shoes instead of your own.

4 Ways to Never Fail a StartupYard Interview

The 17th century French poet Boileau famously said: Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément. Or: “An idea well conceived presents itself clearly, and words to express it come readily.”

Or to put it bluntly: An idea isn’t any good unless it can be explained to someone else. If there were one piece of advice I could drill into the head of every brilliant startup founder I’ve met in my career, it would probably be just that.

But since we have some time, I’m going to go deeper. Here is:

How to Never Fail at A StartupYard Interview 

StartupYard will begin interviews for Batch 8 next week, and in the meantime, we thought we would share with them (and you), 4 key strategies that any startup can use in an interview with us, or any investor, that will help them never to fail.

Now, this advice is not going to win you an investment 100% of the time.

Investments are complicated, and they involve the needs and priorities of multiple parties. A perfect meeting might not produce an investment for a million valid reasons. But I can guarantee that if you follow this advice well, you will not fail to give your best possible impression to an investor.

Follow this advice, and you will not fail for stupid reasons.

1. Answer Questions As They are Asked

Simple and yet incredibly difficult for many people. Answer a question as it is asked, not as you would like it to be asked.

Did someone ask you a question to which you can say Yes or No? Then say Yes, or No. Then explain your answer. If you’ve never interviewed someone, I can let you in on a secret: it is very obvious when someone does not want to answer your question.

It is also very annoying.

And this produces the world’s most frustrating non-answers to simple questions. The below example is not fiction:

    • Are you making any revenue?
    • Well, we only launched about 6 months ago, and we have been focusing on making partnerships with relevant partners who are going to help us scale to our target market, and define the right sales strategy while getting early feedback from customers.
    • But are you making any revenue now?
    • Currently we are in beta and we are talking with a few clients who are ready to become paying customers once the features they need are fully implemented.
    • Are. You. Making. Any. Revenue?
    • No.
    • Thank you.

We don’t ask trick questions. What would be the point? And yet this behavior is widespread among startup founders. It is a learned behavior that must be slowly and painfully unlearned.

We want to know about what we’re asking about. So don’t try to give us the “right” answer. Just give us the real answer. What do you think is worse, us hearing that you aren’t making any revenue, or us leaving the meeting thinking you’re not even capable of answering simple questions?

And the real answer can contain the same information. Just in a slightly different format:

  • Are you making any revenue?
  • No. But we have a few customers who want to pay us as soon as we have the right features implemented. We only launched 6 months ago, and we’ve been focusing on partnerships.
  • Ok, who are these customers, and what features do they want?

Now we’re getting somewhere. And it was so easy! Now we can move to more important questions. This is a real conversation.

If the purpose of an interview is to exchange information and to assess a relationship, we would much rather spend our time doing that, than trying to decode cryptic phrases and hints.

So answer the question.

2. Win the Argument: Lose the Interview

It might be in school where people learn that an impressive, intelligent answer to a question is necessarily the longest and the most complicated one. It might also be in school where we learn that the one who speaks last has won the argument. We probably learn that from watching our teachers. But are these really good lessons?

Among the worst qualities we observe in some founders is the need to triumph, rather than to persuade. But winning an argument is different from convincing someone you may be right, or that you at least know what you’re talking about. Winning is not the goal here.

Trust your interviewers to see you as a human being, and they will like you for it. Treat them as human beings, and they will love you. But make the interview into some sort of contest for control of the subject matter and the upper ground, and they will end up wanting to get rid of you.

So communicate. Don’t argue.

What’s the best answer to a question you don’t know how to answer? Try: “I don’t know.”

You might be surprised how much investors will respect a founder who is not afraid to admit they don’t know everything. In a room full of smart people, there are always going to be things you don’t know that others do.

When answering a question, watch the interviewers, and if they seem ready to speak or unsure what you’re saying, ask them: “is this answering your question?”

So much of what we do at StartupYard involves unlearning and deconstructing the behaviors and impulses that stop founders from being great communicators and effective leaders. Most of that boils down to their motivations in any given situation. What do you want to accomplish here? Do you want to win, or do you want to be understood?

So start with this simple goal in mind: you want the investors to know you. You want to get to know them. If in the course of an interview, you can achieve this basic understanding, on a human level, then you will have succeeded.

3. Look Like You Belong Here: Because You Do

My father wore a suit and tie to work for 30 years. When I got a bit older and started working, I told him I’d never wear a suit and tie to work.

What he said sort of took me by surprise. He said: “we dress according to social customs, not just to show respect for others, but also to show self-respect. We dress to show that we feel we belong.”

I still don’t wear a suit to work, because I work with startups, and nobody does. But still, I notice when a person is poorly or inappropriately dressed for any given situation.

And that can swing both ways: a guy in an immaculate 3-piece suit who wants to talk about his startup is as out of place as the guy in the bathrobe with sleep in his eyes. Neither belong in that situation. Failure to dress like you belong can show that you don’t respect the social customs of your surroundings, but also that you don’t see yourself as belonging to them.

So think just a bit about how you look. Do you look like a startup founder? If you’re not sure, you may need to think more about this. Not too much. But a little.

4. Plan Ahead: Most Questions are Obvious

Here are three things any startup investor should ask you about:

  1. What is the problem you’re solving?
  2. What is the solution?
  3. Who are your customers?

If you can’t answer these three questions clearly, and succinctly, then perhaps you don’t know the answers well enough yet.

And when you sit down to answer these questions, try and imagine an investor hearing this for the first time. What is that person likely to ask you?

  • The problem we are solving is that X can’t Y when Z
  • Why does X want to Y when Z?
  • They just do…

Oops. Do you know why your problem is actually a problem? It might surprise you how frequently founders aren’t all that sure that the problem they’re solving is even a real problem at all.

Because “answering the question,” as in literally stating the problem, is not really answering the question. The object of the question is to get a useful answer: Why is it a problem? When is it a problem? How is it a problem? What is the result of the problem?

So be ready for a follow up. It will come.

Remember, a good investor, especially at an early stage, should be evaluating your ability to think clearly, as much as the idea you are describing to them. They can hate the idea, but be impressed with the clarity of your thinking. That happens to me all the time.

We have invested in companies whose ideas we didn’t fully agree with, because they showed they could think well and be receptive. That’s more valuable than an idea you love, and a founder who can’t answer simple questions about it. In assessing which of those two founders is likely to be a success, the one who can answer questions is the one we pick every time.

StartupYard is a GAN Accelerator. What Does that Get You?

You probably know that StartupYard is the oldest and leading Seed Accelerator for technology startups in Central Europe. What you might not know is that StartupYard is also a member of the exclusive GAN: The Global Accelerator Network.

GAN: The Global Accelerator Network

GAN is an invitation-only network of the leading technology accelerators in the world, including TechStars (all campuses), NUMA, StartupBootCamp, and MuckerLab.

GAN is more than just a network: it offers a package of perks and free services to member accelerators and their startups, that vastly reduce the early-stage costs of starting up. In the past, our startups have used GAN perks to do everything from cloud hosting, to email management, and much more. If you can think of it, there is probably a GAN perk that covers it. And all those services, our startups get for free.

What StartupYard Members Get from Gan

$34M in Perks – In the last year, GAN startups received $34M in free or reduced cost services they needed to get off the ground successfully. But more than just free credits, partners like Sendgrid offer credits as well as guidance for any GAN company in setting up and establishing an impact email strategy

$400K invested – GAN Ventures, the investment arm of GAN, provides seed stage funding and has made investments in four GAN alumni companies so far this year.

20+ Corporate Partners – GAN founders have exclusive opportunities to connect with large enterprises for business development opportunities.

Access to global locations – No matter where your startup is based, if you need a place to work or take meetings, the GAN Exchange gives you access to GAN program offices around the world.

Mentorship from the best minds in the industry – Mentors are a key part of a startup founder’s success. GAN startups benefit from more than 13,000 mentors throughout the GAN community.

A community of entrepreneurs – No matter where you or your company are based, you’re surrounded by a community of more than 5,000 startups who have launched their business in a GAN accelerator.

Make User Projections That Mean Something

(Update: May 2017) This post originally appeared in 2014. We’ve updated it with what we’ve learned since then. 

Startups often join StartupYard right at the beginning of their journey. For B2C companies, having a few hundred or a few thousand MAU (Monthly Active Users), can provide a wealth of insights about what in the product works, what doesn’t, and what the users want from it.

But how does a startup with essentially zero confirmed users make decent User Projections based on little or no evidence?

Context

One of the key mistakes that B2C companies make is to see trends in their user growth that don’t actually hold up. Every B2C startup wants hockey-stick growth, but the less data you actually have, the less precise your projections based on that data will be.

If my user numbers doubled last week from 1 to 2, I can claim that my userbase is doubling on a weekly basis. Then I should reasonably predict that by week 26, I will have nearly 68 Million users!

Depending on your sense of what’s reasonable. Or I could as easily predict that I will have just 26 users. Regardless, I can be very sure that the real number will probably fall somewhere in the middle.

Startups need to be both ambitious, and realistic about their growth projections. This is essential to creating a plan that will actually achieve those results. In this post, we’re going to go through the process of establishing reasonable and falsifiable assumptions, that will help you achieve your user growth goals.

Working Backwards

Noah Kagan of Mint.com, discusses this process in his informative blog. He points out that the only workable approach to gaining users is to work backwards from a clearly defined goal, breaking down the channels and methods of user acquisition, their costs and their timescales, into one simple to follow spreadsheet. And while his own projections of how Mint.com would reach 100,000 users in 6 months seem wildly optimistic (including a 25% conversion rate from sponsored adds on Digg.com, with a CTR of 10%), this type of planning actually brought Mint a million users in that same period.

 

All-Your-Base-Are-Belong-To-Us

World domination comes one user at a time.

 

The Assumption Spreadsheet

Before launching, it’s important to relate your marketing goals to your assumptions. If your goal is, say, 30,000 users within the first six months after launch, you’ll have to justify that growth with something more than hope. You’ll have to show how you assume it can be done. Catalogue and quantify your methods of getting this growth, in ways that can be tested quickly and definitively, including the costs of acquisition per user.

Your assumptions for marketing costs might look something like this:

Source Traffic CTR      % Conversion CPC Users
Organic Search 100000 10% 25% $1 2500
Native Ads 500000 10% 20% $2 10000
Google Ads 1000000 2% 20% $0.50 4000
Media 500000 5% 25% $2 6250
Direct Marketing 1000000 1% 25% $1 2500

Cost Total:  $39,500       User Total: 25,250

Projections are Not a Plan

Your assumption spreadsheet is more than just a plan for user acquisition, or a marketing plan.

This is just a part of a much larger set of assumptions. Other factors include your churn rate, your pricing, your internal growth costs, etc. But everything should relate back to basic assumptions that can be challenged and adjusted before launch.

Ask yourself: what will happen in 30 days, when I find that the CTR for one source is half what I expected? Alternatively, what if my CPC for one source is much lower than I predicted?

Going back to the table and adjusting the assumptions as data comes in, helps you to see where your time is best spent going forward. If CTR is low, maybe the message doesn’t match the medium, and you need to rethink your call to action. If conversion is super high somewhere, maybe you need to increase the spend there at the expense of other channels.

Be Reactive

Death to an early stage startup is a failure to react to data. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at early marketing data for a startup, and pointed out the above issues, only to be met with blank stares. You must incorporate changes in your data as often as possible, and iterate as often and as quickly as you can, in order to press advantages, and eliminate disadvantages.

“Wait and see” is death to a startup. You must react to every change in the data. Data must guide your planning.

Be Inquisitive

Sometimes you need to seek outside advice. Divorcing your assumptions from objective reality can be hard for anyone. That’s why mentors and advisors exist, so use them.

For example, my spreadsheet above has a few obvious problems. First, I’ve obviously fallen in love with the idea of “native advertising,” or the kinds of ads that fit in with the content of a given site. This makes sense, as I am personally a fan of this type of advertising. But by scrutinizing the spreadsheet, I can see that native advertising is predicted to cost me $40,000 out of a total marketing budget of $56,000, or 71% of my budget. Despite that, only 58% of my users will come from native ads. They will cost me a lot, and will not be as valuable as the users I gain from Google Ads, or even direct email marketing, according to my own assumptions.

Having your plan challenged can reveal your biases and hangups. Often, just sitting down and gaming out the plan for yourself can show you that you’re locked into the wrong thinking.

Have an Answer

It’s not necessarily wrong that I would spend 70% of my marketing budget on native ads, when they will only bring me 58% of my users. After all, users are not points of data in the end: they are people. Different kinds of users will behave in different ways. Maybe the CLV (Customer Lifetime Value), of a user acquired from a particular channel is higher than one from another. I can’t know that. The best I can do is assume, and test assumptions. 

These are the kinds of details that investors will pounce upon when they are shown your user projections. You need to have an answer for why you would pursue that avenue of user acquisition over another. The conversation has to be about your assumptions, not about what you don’t know. 

Perhaps these users are of a higher value (they buy more expensive products), or perhaps they are likely to stay with your product for longer. Perhaps the market for your product in Google ads won’t give you that same CPC if you spend twice as much on them. The size of the market may not justify a bigger focus on Google ads over native ads.

Don’t Fall in Love with Unknowns

Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, famously justified poor planning for the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 by saying: “There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” As many critics later pointed out, the Bush administration leaned heavily on the idea of “unknown unknowns,” to justify a lack of realistic long-term plans that matched their aims in the conflict. Anything that was inconvenient to think about or defend to the public became an “unknown unknown.”

The result was years of escalating conflict that have continued to plague the region to this day.

You can surely see the parallels between this kind of expensive, poorly planned and overly-optimistic strategy can be a cautionary tale in business as well. Refusal to undertake planning and spell out -and then recognize and react to- expected difficulties can lead you to do things that cannot be undone. You can undo a product change, but you can’t un-spend wasted advertising budget. You can’t un-launch a product that has failed to launch.

 

How Big is Your Mountain?

“How big is your mountain?” That’s the metaphor our StartupYard’s MD Cedric Maloux uses to describe this process of reconciling ambition with the need for some realism, even in the growth phase of a startup.

Ambitions to reach 1 billion users are great, if your product is the kind of thing 1 billion people can get some value from at the same time. Not many products are like that, which is why most don’t have the chance to grow that big.

But perhaps your mountain isn’t made of a massive user community. Perhaps it’s made of a smaller, quality user base, that pays a reasonable but significant amount to use your product, and gets a disproportionately large value out of it. In either case, your first six months or so should represent the first “summit” of your mountain.

Within that time, with the help of investors who understand and support your journey, you should reach a goal that is both ambitious and achievable, and you should gain valuable understanding of real users, and what it takes to make them happy.

Also no explanation for this man's success.

No fairy dust.

 

Justify the Impossible : Control the Conversation

While the assumption spreadsheet functions as a roadmap for growth, it also works as a roadmap of your thinking for investors and partners.

Blind ambition, particularly when you’re asking for money, is not an attractive quality. But qualified ambition, in which you set hard goals for yourself, but also show how achieving those goals can be possible, can be very enticing to investors.

To use the mountain analogy: you can ask investors to help get you to the first summit. A goal they can believe in. That moves the conversation about the ultimate goal to a more appropriate time; a time in which you have more data and more momentum.

Imagine two founders who have essentially identical products. Both will meet with investors. One does not prepare these predictions because, as he says, “you just can’t know what will happen.” The other makes predictions, each representing his ambitious plans to achieve benchmarks in user acquisition. One of these two has something real to talk about with the investors. The other doesn’t.

How do you think those two conversations differ? I can tell you from experience: the one who comes with predictions gets enormous value form investor feedback about those predictions. The one without them gets, at best, idle speculation. If you aren’t willing to do the mental heavy lifting of making predictions, investors aren’t going to do it for you.

To define the conversation and lead it, you have to make statements that you can back up. Instead of having investors question your ideas, have them question your predictions. They’ll be speaking in your terms, rather than theirs.

You can now apply for StartupYard Batch #8.

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