Demo Day Batch 9: Full Video and Snapshots

On Wednesday June 13th, the StartupYard Batch 9 companies pitched for a sold-out crowd of over 250 investors, mentors, media, and StartupYard community members. We can’t express our gratitude to the audience and our pride in the startups who worked so hard to get there, and did so well under a lot of pressure.

If you couldn’t make it, or if you’d like to take another look at your favorite team from the evening, we live-streamed and recorded the whole show, available right now.   

Replay the Live event on Facebook: The StartupYard Batch 9 Startups Pitch Live at Demo Day
 

 

Snapshots of the Event

Meet Deaf Travel: Building a Better Internet for Deaf People

Deaf Travel, the last of the StartupYard Batch 9 startups to be interviewed, is our first non-hearing team in the program. They are a team of Deaf entrepreneurs who have dedicated their careers to building up the Deaf community, both online and offline. Their mission today is to create an online platform and community focused on helping Deaf people to enjoy travel and adventures with the same depth that hearing people enjoy.

They are doing this by bringing together public attractions and organizations, with the worldwide Deaf community, and offering them a space where the needs of Deaf tourists can be met with Deaf-friendly video content, interactive maps, and other features that make foreign travel enjoyable and interesting. I sat down with CoFounder and CEO Jan (Honza) Wirth to talk about his team’s vision for the future of Deaf tourism and the internet. Here is what he had to say:

Hi Honza, first of all we should acknowledge that there is someone else in this conversation, Tim, your interpreter. As a deaf person, what do you find most challenging about communicating with hearing people?

Most hearing people have many misconceptions about the Deaf. They think we have less intelligence or skills and feel we can’t do many things, such as drive a car, work, etc.

These misunderstandings stem from the communication barrier we have between hearing and Deaf people. If we had a common language, then many of these false ideas would solve themselves. Hearing people can learn sign language, but a Deaf person cannot learn to hear! As a Deaf person, I deal with these barriers every day.

Jan Wirth, DeafTravel, StartupYard

Jan Wirth, CEO and CoFounder of DeafTravel

One of the ways we can solve this is through interpretation. In fact, what many hearing people don’t realize is that interpretation in our own sign language is far superior for Deaf people than simply reading. Written and spoken languages, such as English or Czech, are native for hearing people, but they are always second and third languages for Deaf. I can write and read in English and Czech, but for me that is a very different experience than it would be for a native speaker. Writing is the same: we must translate our thoughts into a foreign language in order to write. Thus even in writing, an interpreter is very helpful.

I use different methods to try to break through the communication barrier. If I have to communicate about something very important like a mortgage, legal issue or a job interview, then I use an interpreter for clear understanding for all. In common interactions like a restaurant, ticket office or a shop, I can use gestures and writing back and forth. It is for deeper discussions that an interpreter becomes essential to bridge the divide.

How did you come to found DeafTravel, and why is a for-Deaf, by-Deaf travel platform so important to the Deaf community?

I have been dedicated to improving the Deaf community my whole life. I am the founder of our first community center in Prague, called Znakovarna. This is a place where Deaf and the hearing can gather to discuss new ideas and learn from each other, and support each other and the community. We host seminars, talks, and other Deaf-oriented events. Deaf Travel is one idea that comes from seeing what Deaf people talk about and what they really miss in the market, which is a way of getting this Deaf-friendly experience wherever they go.

The Deaf Travel Team. The majority of the founders are deaf or hard of hearing.

Nowadays, smartphones are common within the Deaf community and they have a huge positive affect for us. Such technology and the ecosystem of apps allow us an equal footing for chatting and staying in touch with our friends and family via video, or text. We can use our native sign language to make quick interactive video chats. We can even use some interpreting services via our mobile phones, which opens doors that have been shut to Deaf people until now. It is a great time to be alive.

But mobiles haven’t solved all the everyday barriers for us. Yes, the tech is amazing, but they aren’t the ultimate answer for the barriers we have, especially when we travel. In the USA, the benefits for the Deaf there have skyrocketed, but these don’t spread worldwide for various reasons.

One of those reasons is that European and worldwide Deaf communities have many sign languages, just as hearing people have many languages and cultures, and so there are always added challenges for smaller Deaf populations to find content in the sign language which they use every day. Those of us who travel, especially in Europe, learn International Sign System (IS), which is not an actual language but follows the rules of most sign languages and uses signs from various sign languages.

Let us not forget, even when a Deaf person does understand multiple sign languages and written languages, this does not change the fact that other Deaf may not have those skills. Hearing and sighted people take the internet for granted today. You can Google anything, and find whatever you are looking for. But how does one “Google” content which is in a sign language? How does one tell Google the signs they want to search? Of course these functionalities are not available.

Think of it like this: imagine the internet was only in Chinese, and to use Google, you had to learn how to read and write in Chinese. Not impossible! But very hard, and very unnatural. You would not find the internet so useful if the only way you could communicate and consume content was in a language that is not your own. Thus, Deaf people are discouraged from creating and sharing content, because other Deaf people cannot find and use that content very easily. It means that for many purposes, the internet as you understand it is beyond our reach.

On the close horizon, we have newer tech, virtual reality (VR) and artificial reality (AR), that has great potential for us all. For the Deaf it could mean even better access to information, because we are such visually-oriented people. VR/AR means more access to interpretation and visual information displayed in a Deaf-focused way.

Still these technologies are yet to become reality. We want to begin to change that, and we understand that the way to do it is to begin using what we have to solve the problems of Deaf travelers. Deaf Tourism is on the rise, and we can feed and encourage this with content and a community in the format that Deaf people will really be able to use, and ultimately contribute to themselves.

Our platform can give deaf travellers access to information equal to hearing travellers, just by using the smartphones or other devices that Deaf people already have. It’s a visual platform, using maps and images to help Deaf travelers find content focused on the sites they are visiting. Eventually, we will be able to provide a forum for the Deaf to create and share relevant content, based on real world landmarks, much in the way that Yelp, Google, or Facebook function for hearing communities today.

Many of our mentors and investors have been surprised to learn about the difficulties that deaf people have with getting information in a format they can use. Can you talk about why reading and writing are such a challenge for the deaf? 

There are two main problems that are caused by many forces, socially, economically and politically. In addition, these problems are worldwide in varying degrees.

The first is that education for the Deaf has been historically lacking, sometimes pathetic, and often downright horrible. For most of history, we have been treated as mentally disabled by society, because people did not understand that we can learn and think just as hearing people do if we are educated in a way that makes sense for us.

Read more about Jan’s life working with the deaf community in Prague

The curriculum in most Deaf schools is not the equal to the what is taught in hearing schools. As well, the Deaf students who are sent to the hearing schools do not always have a quality interpreter. These same students also have less socialization with their hearing peers, since the language of the hearing school is spoken.

The second problem in both of these types of schools is that the teachers usually don’t know the students’ native sign language. Which means the student is using an interpreter, or even nothing in many cases. The student is simply expected somehow to adapt. Most deaf schools in the world focus on making the students learn to speak, and the actual education is dismissed as less important. This is sad, since teaching speaking to Deaf is rarely successful or needed.

This is treating the Deaf as if their goal in life should be to compensate for their lack of hearing. I think that’s just silly. I wish to live in a world where the Deaf are treated as different, and not as disabled. We can teach and learn from each other, and we have rich cultures and languages to draw from.

As I think the StartupYard team have learned from us during our time together, we can share our ideas and our dreams with a little shared effort. The Deaf have much to offer and indeed to teach the hearing, just as we have much to learn.

Let’s talk more about Deaf Travel: what does the solution look like today, and how can people use it?

Our first focus is on proving the value of Deaf content for travelers. We are doing this by focusing on getting landmarks and tourist locations and attractions interested and involved with the platform. This means creating content focused on these locations, that the Deaf can use in place of guided or audio tours, and also content that the Deaf can use to do their travel research, such as deciding what monuments to visit, and even finding Deaf-friendly services in the destination city or country.

This means a Deaf tourist can experience the story of the site in his own native language without being dependent on others. The Deaf tourist today has little freedom of action or choice in making travel decisions. If we do not depend directly on others to help us plan and navigate a trip, then we still must face a lack of depth and context in what we see and experience. Tell me how many times you would go to the cinema if the sound was always turned off? That is the experience we face almost everywhere, and the worst outcome is simply that we choose not to go somewhere new.

DeafTravel

We want to create a way for Deaf people to enjoy traveling, and also a reason for Deaf people to travel and experience more. If more content and services exist and are accessible for Deaf people, then more of us will travel, and so even more demand will arise for these services. We want to prove now that such a demand does exist and that it will grow when attractions and cities invest in building up their ecosystem of Deaf resources.

What do you want Deaf Travel to be a few years from now? How will Deaf people use it in their daily lives? (note: talk about tripadvisor, Yelp, deaf reporting, etc)

It’s simple really. We envision individual Deaf travellers accessing our platform of videos via our Deaf Travel App. Similar to the services of Tripadvisor or Yelp, our app will be a community of amateur and professional deaf video “reporters”. Each reporter will upload their videos to our server and the community can search for, watch and review individual videos and locations, based on visual maps instead of text search. They will be able to use it in their daily travels at locations around the world.

The key is to create this connection between the “local heroes,” and the travelers. You can be a local hero in your home town, who makes videos and helps visitors, and you can benefit from the work of your fellow heroes around the world when you travel. You can also create content as a traveler, aimed at your own community, who may also travel to the same places in the future. This new online community platform will also be a place for promoting Deaf-owned or Deaf-friendly companies, Deaf events, interpreting and other services.

Deaf Travel will be supporting the community so that the community will support itself. What do you think happens when one restaurant in Prague becomes known internationally as the place to be for deaf visitors? I can tell you: it will be very successful, and this will allow entrepreneurs from the deaf community and from outside it, to explore new opportunities. It is a big, untapped market that is still invisible to most people.

How will Deaf Travel deal with the complication of having many different native sign languages that travelers know?

Yes, many people think that there is one universal sign language, as I mentioned. I’m not sure why! I mean how would you get people in every country to agree on one language when each culture is different? Yet people think we Deaf could do this ourselves.

Karlův most, Praha (ČZJ) from Deaf Travel on Vimeo.

 

Each community in each country has its own natural sign language which is connected to that culture, as all languages are. After all I am a Czech man in addition to being Deaf. I need a language that fits with this identity, and it is the Czech sign language. Each sign language has different dialects as well, just as spoken languages do.

How do we solve this situation of such diversity?Deaf Travel will use video reporters in each country to have that local sign language in the videos there, in addition these videos will have a second communication mode called International Sign System (IS). This fills the function that English fills for many international travelers.

Not everyone knows IS, but most Deaf tourists have learned it by travelling and meeting other Deaf in their travels. IS was developed by Deaf in the European region where many languages and cultures converge. It uses the basic visual grammar, syntax and structure that almost all sign languages have. It then adds clear vocabulary from various sign languages. It is not a pure language, but a good method for everyday communication.


Today you’re looking for tourist attractions to join you as partners to create quality content for their deaf visitors. That is hard to scale. Over the long run, how do you see the platform being monetized and growing as a business?

 

As I just mentioned, the community of travel vloggers and reporters all over the world will add to our video library quickly.

A traveler in Peru and a traveler in Germany could upload their videos during the same week, but from different trips, and thus we’ve increased our library by several short videos in two different countries in the same week. Those videos will be catalogued and tagged on the appropriate map for that region. The map with these pinpointed videos will be the growing visually searchable platform for other Deaf travellers.

Understand that the Deaf community is small and news always travels fast within our network. Awareness of Deaf Travel’s platform will equally spread like wildfire, because Deaf travellers will be eager to add their own amateur travel vlogs to the database alongside our professional ones to share their experiences, good or bad, with the community. Everyone has a need to communicate and to help each other. You just need a way to do it.

These videos will be accessible for free or for a monthly subscription price for our full-length professional travel vlogs. In the world, there are approximately 466 million Deaf and Hard of Hearing. 70 million of those use a native sign language, for those who do not, we will offer subtitles as well. So, the market potential is great and will sustain our mission of supporting the community by tearing down the travel communication barrier.

You’ve been our very first Deaf founding team at StartupYard. How has the experienced matched up with your expectations? What have been the biggest surprises?

Overall, the experience has been amazing. There were a few moments when things did not click with us, but I’d say 99% of the people we met and worked with were great.

At first, I was truly shocked that we were picked for StartupYard. I didn’t think there would be much interest in our project. Then after meeting so many mentors and EVERY one of them showed interest in our vision, our motivation increased exponentially. We now feel like we really have something that will make this dream of barrier-free travel a reality.

Perhaps I did not have enough faith in hearing people to see the potential that we see in this idea. However I have seen that this is a problem anyone can understand, and it has been wonderful to see that others who have not experienced these same problems can deeply empathize with it.

As the StartupYard team have told us many times, what we do must become somehow obvious on first sight to people with no experience of the problem. That is something I think we have accomplished and it is really exciting to be able to open people’s eyes to it.

What kinds of partners and potential clients are you looking to talk to right now, and what’s the best way for them to start cooperating with Deaf Travel?

That’s a great question. We’re looking for well-known tourist destinations that attract thousands of tourists every year. The kind of places that are famous and have a very interesting story to tell, like cities such as Prague, castles, zoos, museums, and other such attractions.

Lesser known sites are also of interest to us, because our mission is about equal access to information for our community. It is our way of supporting the social and civil rights laws in place now. We don’t want to be dependent on others to provide these services. We know what we want and need. The world has provided us with the political backing, and we want to partner with those who support this vision too.

We don’t need people to see this necessarily as a charitable or humanitarian activity. It is an opportunity for Deaf and hearing people to fill a great need that exists and to build new businesses and provide all-new services. Invest in serving the Deaf community and we will vote with our money just as everyone does.

Thus if you are a forward-looking institution or a business, that can see a great opportunity to lead the pack and be a magnet for Deaf tourism, then we want to talk to you. If you are an adventurous Deaf person who wants to serve the Deaf community, or an entrepreneur who wants to explore a new market, then we want to talk to you.

Meet Behavee: The Future of Recommendations is Open Source

StartupYard Batch 9, has been defined by “tech with a soul.” That trend continues even when the focus of the startup is on what people traditionally think of as a dry and boring topic: big data, behavior analysis and product recommendation.

That’s because Tomas Pluharik, CEO and Co-Founder of Behavee, believes strongly that the future of recommendations is at once more personal, and more private. Behavee is focused on providing e-commerce and content companies with the tools to truly understand their customers, but without breaching their privacy or mining their personal data and shopping history. They do this by training their machine learning systems to understand how customers behave, and use that knowledge to create instantaneous micro-segmentation of customers based on what they are interested, and what they really want – not just what a company wants to sell them, or what they’ve bought in the past.

To do this, Tomas has arrayed a team of experts in big data, marketing, machine learning, and software engineering with a strong corporate background, who are tired of the way big data is being used for marketing, and believe there is a better way. Behavee is an open-source recommendation engine that learns from its experiences, but doesn’t violate your privacy.

I sat down with Tomas to talk about his vision for the future of marketing in an age of privacy and a post-GDPR world. Here is what he had to say:

Hi Tomas, tell us a little about yourself and your team. How did you all end up together founding Behavee?

We’re a team of corporate refugees who have all worked many years at the Big 4, banks, telcos, and pretty much every big corporations you can imagine in Central Europe.

Behavee, Tomas Pluharik, StartupYard

Without getting into too many of the messy details, I originally hoped to form a spinnoff from one of the Big 4 consultancy firms, to pursue what I found most interesting about big data, which I’m sure we’ll talk about here. Anyway, that experience showed me that my colleagues and I were living on a different planet from our superiors, and we needed to escape to startupland as soon as possible so that we could really do something that big companies don’t have the appetite for.

We teamed up, David, Jan, Richard and myself (team bios are here), and banded together with Michal and Juraj from the banking sector, and Marketa from Microsoft, and we formed what started as a kind of big data agency. I have really enjoyed the fact that the team has been very dynamic, and a harsh selection process outside the cushy corporate environment, which has molded us into a team of hardened individuals who can stay lean and scrappy.

Behavee focuses on user behavior and micro-segmentation for recommendations. What is the unique approach you’re using, compared with other recommendation services?

Ok, how much time do you have? Just kidding, I’ve learned now to make this as clear and straightforward as possible, although in the background it’s tremendously complex.

First of all, we must understand how content and product recommendations currently work online. Or rather, how they don’t really work. What happens mostly today is that e-commerce companies and content companies hoover up a huge mountain of personal data about their users through the use of memberships, cookies, browsing history, purchase history, and data collection services.

With all that data in one hand, and with a pile of products or content to promote in the other hand, they do what you might expect anyone to do in this situation: they figure out the best way to get the most people they can to buy the products they have or look at the content they own.

Now, in this process, they like to think that what they are doing is helping their customers to find products that they need and want. That is sometimes true. However, as you may imagine, it also produces a huge number of recommendations for things customers not only don’t want, but which are actively annoying or nonsensical for them.

A good example of this approach is if say, I bought a phone on an e-commerce platform. The e-shop can recommend me a case for the phone while I am shopping, or even after I purchase the phone. So far so good. Now say I bought the case. Great! Now what does the recommendation system for that e-shop do? It spends the next 6 months advertising that same case to me, over and over again. That’s a true story by the way. Many people, if not most people know it well. 

Why does it do this? Because it is not looking at *me* and thinking: “Tom already bought that case… let’s find something else Tom would like based on what he is actively doing on our platform.” No, instead the e-commerce platform is saying: “We have a couple hundred of these phone cases lying around… we need to sell them to anyone who bought the phone.” That includes me, even if I bought the case already. Who knows- maybe they get lucky and I buy it again? 

I know that sounds pretty dumb actually, but even the most advanced e-commerce companies are still doing this. Even Amazon does that. They can’t stop.

Wait… why can’t they stop doing this?

Because, as I said they have this pile of user data, and this pile of products. They have to move the products using the data. So these little annoyances like seeing the same promotion 50 times after you bought something are not their cheif concern. Their chief concern is to sell the products they need to sell.

What do you do differently?

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. Behavee is different because we don’t need this giant pile of customer data. We don’t need to know the history of any single individual and what they have bought, or what they are like. We instead anonymously study the behavior of many people, and from this we derive an understanding of how people really work, and what really motivates them. What we do instead of focusing on the past of someone’s shopping activities, is to focus on how a customer behaves, what she or he does when they are visiting the e-commerce or content site, and use that behavior to understand what they are looking for right now. Not a month ago, but right now today.

In order to do that, you must break this addiction to looking at a customer’s past, and focus on a customer’s present. The fact that I bought a phone 6 months ago is irrelevant, if I am in no way motivated to buy a case. So don’t show me something I am not ready to buy. Instead understand me by the way I behave, and show me something I really want. That is what Behavee is doing. Behind this is machine learning technology, analytical tools and automation software to help e-commerce and content platforms make better recommendations automatically, based on dynamic micro-segmentation, which basically means making offers that work for a customer based on what they do, and not who they are.

How can you understand what a person wants by how they are browsing a site?

Let me give you a nice analogy. My grandfather ran two pharmacies during the second world war and before the period of socialism. He said that after many years, he could tell what a customer was looking for in his shop, just based on how they looked, what they did in the shop, and generally how they behaved. Actually it’s very intuitive, because in-person sales is all about reading body language and judging a person on how they are behaving and how they present themselves to you. Are they confident? Unsure? What items are they interested in? You get that all by observing.

In fact my grandfather said this is the trick to serving people is not to judge based on the past: you pay attention to how they act right now, and not always to what they say about themselves. Very often a customer does not know how to get what they really want. You must understand them and help them to understand and see the products that they really need. Maybe a person who has bought the same thing every week for years doesn’t actually want that same thing again. If you presume too much, you will miss an opportunity to sell them something else.

So this is what we do at Behavee. Our recommendation engine first of all observes how many thousands of people behave on a website, and then just like grandpa in the 50s, we train our machine learning systems to recognize what people need by how they behave: what they look at, where they go, how much attention they pay to something, etc. Then we can actively micro-segment and offer a customer something specifically for them, that we know with a high degree of certainty that they will want.

The best way to give an amazing customer experience is to make it feel like the person magically found exactly that thing they wanted. It feels as if that thing is there waiting just for them. That is the experience we want for customers of e-commerce. Less flashing lights, and more understanding of the individual, but without being creepy and pushing against their privacy.

Our solution looks on the whole customer journey from beginning to the end. We do not ask how we can sell a pile of products we must sell; instead we ask “what does this person need, right now, and can we offer that?”

To do this we are an open-source, open platform company. The more our recommendation engine learns from customer behavior (all without keeping any personal data about individuals), the better we can be at helping e-commerce and even content companies to recommend the “next best thing,” for any individual, based on what they themselves do.

So this is ethical big data?

Of course, privacy and anonymity I believe are fundamental rights that we ignore at our peril.

However, I want to stress that even if I didn’t feel that way, this approach to recommendations just works better than looking deep into someone’s past and trying to predict their future that way. If we keep doing that, using a person’s history to define their future, then we will always miss on the best opportunities, and we will never recognize when our customers have changed and are not interested in the same things anymore.

Using someone’s history all the time is like never letting them grow up. You show you don’t understand or even care about someone by doing that. You bought jeans? You are the jeans guy forever. That is somehow both deeply personal and dehumanizing at the same time. It doesn’t work. It will never work.

Just imagine in my story about my grandfather if he had, instead of looking at his customers as people, just looked at them in some spreadsheet with all their past purchasing activities. That is ridiculous. Maybe he could sell them something that way, but could he tell from this if the person in front of him has a cold right now? No. You can see how this approach can be taken to such extremes that we end up not being able to help people anymore. Ultimately people are looking to be understood, not to be treated as pieces of data.

We work with pseudonymized and anonymized data. We don’t keep data of individuals after using it to train our algorithms. If someone came to me and asked for data deletion (as is anyone’s right now with GDPR), I would have no trouble because I don’t even have it, and I don’t want to keep it. Behavee has no knowledge of individuals, and that makes us better at recommendations than if we did.

As for our partners and clients, this will be an adjustment, but a much needed one.

So you see GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), as an opportunity to change the way online marketing works?

GDPR will clear the marketing space of the random advert calls for a while and will partially reset some marketing functions (like loyalty programs). The opportunity is in the approach to lead generation. It will be hard to generate direct leads from endless databases anymore. Now you must be smarter and more proactive in thinking about the customer journey.

Though anyone who knows me can say that I am not a big fan of too much regulation, I believe GDPR for the most part did a necessary amount of damage to the current system. It made it so that these ways of using big databases to sell are less attractive, and that is ultimately better for consumers and businesses.

You’ve already launched the service with some pilot customers. Can you talk about that process? What surprised you, both about the client’s needs and their reactions to Behavee’s capabilities?

Yes we started and we expected to collect the data for a month to make something beneficial for our clients. We still do need a lot of data, to be clear, but we don’t need to keep that data for very long at all to train the algorithms, and that data does not need to be linked to any specific person.

To our surprise, in only a week, we were able to generate interesting reports for the client that had an impact on their sales right away. I did not believe we could provide such a benefit so quickly, so that is a very welcome shock. Actually one of our clients is now calling for more help after he just saw the data we are providing. We are becoming very busy!

On which kinds of projects or in which industries do you see Behavee having the biggest impact in the near term, say 1-2 years?

What we can do right now, and for the near future is to provide a much better insight for our clients into how their visitors behave, and how to work with them. On top of that, we can provide, after some time of monitoring customer behavior, a way of automating recommendations of content and products, and also offering customers relevant products from other sellers, with revenue sharing for the lead originating site (referral marketing), if that is desired.

In short our focus is mostly on e-commerce and media. However we see great potential in interconnecting verticals and businesses over the whole internet. Realtime behavioral analysis of users can be used even in industrial segments, but as I said our main focus is now on e-commerce and media.

Tell us about your decision to join StartupYard. You’ve got many years of corporate experience on your team, so what was the biggest motivator for joining the accelerator?

To be frank, we were initially not sure if we should join. But I knew the product is too fat and unfocused, communication too complicated and clumsy and our sales cycle too long 🙂 . So at the end of the day we give it a shot.

I must say that it surpassed my expectations. The network we have through StartupYard is very strong, even stronger than before, and there is a level of trust that we bring with us into meetings and new potential partners and clients because they know we are an “SY Company,” so it means we are serious and have backup on our side.

The StartupYard management team has been great. It can be very helpful to have someone always with an outside perspective, bringing past experience and knowledge of the network to help us stay realistic but also to be more open to new possibilities too. I can only say I recommend it, even if you have lots of previous experience. This is not about someone telling you what to do, but rather having a support system that you couldn’t buy otherwise.

What kinds of partners and customers are you looking for in the near future?

Ok, so I could tell you that we are looking for the most forward-looking and most progressive e-commerce companies, financial institutions, media, etc. That is the startup thing to say!

Actually these businesses are generally very conservative, and the most conservative players can use our help the most. Some of these companies are trying to build their own closed solutions, and that is ultimately not going to be enough, or is frankly just a bad idea. Smaller startups and younger companies are already set up to use data more wisely, but bigger institutions are big machines that have only a few speeds.

Thus we are looking to work with companies that deal with lots of customers in a pretty conservative, by the book big data approach. That is where we can do the most good, because generally these companies have a lot of tools and a lot of data (and with this they do make a lot of sales) but not much in the way of connecting all those tools to the data to actually improve their customer experiences. Behavee isn’t about “press this button and user your data to sell more.” It’s about collecting the right data, and using it the right way to ultimately grow your business stronger, with better customer experiences. That will generate more sales, and not only in the long run.

What we have learned recently is that being open-source is not a deal breaker for big companies and conservative institutions if they understand what is actually being shared, which is not their own operational data or the data of their customers, but the deeper understanding of how customers behave in general. In this way a bank that is using Behavee can benefit from our understanding of an e-commerce company, and vice-versa. Everyone can become stronger this way.

So if you have a lot of data and you somehow feel that you aren’t quite giving your customers what they are really looking for, then we are open to a discussion with you. Let me convince you that open-source is the future, and that understanding customer behavior, not just mining your data, is the key to being competitive today and in the future.

Meet Adiquit: Your Clinically Proven Quit-Smoking Pocket Therapist

Adiquit, a member of StartupYard Batch 9, has a singular mission. To help smokers quit, and stay cigarette free. Unlike most apps or quit-smoking programs that smokers may have experienced, AdiQuit is unique in that it is the product of a team of industry leading tobacco addiction researchers and clinical therapists.

Together they’ve pooled their combined experience into a smoking cessation app and online platform that acts as an interactive therapist for smokers. The Adiquit app, which will premiere in Czechia in September 2018, will guide smokers through the quitting process, with constant communication between the app and the smoker, based on clinically proven smoking cessation techniques.

I sat down with Adiquit Co-Founder, psychotherapist and addiction scientist Roman Gabrhelik to talk about the team of academics behind the project, about addiction, and about their program. Here’s what we talked about:

Adiquit, StartupYard

 

Hi Roman, first tell us a bit about the team, and how you ended up founding AdiQuit together.

Today we’re 3 co-founders, but the whole thing started many years ago- not as a startup. Daniel Novak and I were trying to get funding for an academic research project. We were planning to evaluate the efficacy of smoking cessation programs with our Norwegian partner Håvar. Adam Kulhanek joined us about 2 years ago.

Anyway, we were until recently a really typical “academic team.” We wrote lots of grant proposals, and secured just enough funding to allow us to keep the therapeutic program for smoking cessation running.

 

We have written many grant proposals to get enough funding that would allow us to develop the smoking cessation therapeutic program further. A couple of months ago we got sick and tired of writing grant applications over and over again, and were offered to take part in the Laborator Nadace Vodafone.

They connected us with you guys and we joined Batch 9 at StartupYard. Daniel, Adam and I are the founders, and we have a team of 9, focused on creating a smart assistant to help smokers quit for good, using our depth of experience and clinical research, along with data we can only get from daily interaction with our users via our app and online platform.

Your team is mainly academic in background. How has it been transitioning into a technology startup, for better or worse?

Yes, it is a different world. The academic background, I guess, is something that makes us different from some of the projects in SY, though not all. This may be our advantage to some degree that we somehow are sticking out. Many startups have to learn their market first, whereas we come with a base of knowledge about smoking cessation therapy.

At the same time many things are new to us and we must learn quickly along the way. For example: how to talk about the product and make it attractive to users, how to do financial projections, how to convince someone to support us, etc.

The stakeholders involved in a venture backed tech company are very different in mentality and experience. That is a challenge for us, because research and learning alone can’t justify our activities as in academia. On the other hand it’s a welcome change, because it forces us to prioritize getting a solution to our customers and getting results quickly.

In an academic project, you take much more time to analyze and think about the data. Here we are learning to make assumptions more quickly, and move in the direction where we gain traction, not necessarily always where we imagined ourselves.

There are seemingly thousands of smoking and tobacco use reduction methods and programs. What makes AdiQuit unique among all of them? Where do most of these systems fail?

Smoking Cessation is a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Tobacco dependence is one of the strongest and most pervasive addictions. Most people know this, and it’s evident just walking down the street in any city. It is a major public health issue, with enormous costs to society and the economy. So of course there are many competing solutions to that problem, coming from many angles, such as self-help books, support groups, nicotine replacement, and even hypnosis.

What makes AdiQuit special is our ability to truly personalize treatment; to go beyond a motivational or organizational tool (as many apps and books are), and work to modify a smoker’s actual behavior on a daily basis. AdiQuit has the knowledge of a clinically experienced therapist, but with 24/7 availability, and is focused on preventing relapses in smoking.

Just as a therapist would be able to observe a patient and intervene when they spot behaviors or triggers that will cause the patient to relapse, AdiQuit can do this by maintaining constant communication with the user. In future, we can extend AdiQuit’s reach to smart devices that track user’s physical symptoms, so that we can predict and thus prevent triggers from even happening, using clinically proven diversion techniques.

For any smoker out there who has quit before, you will know exactly what this means. Imagine that your smartphone could tell you, before you even got a chance to smoke, that you were in danger of relapsing, and give you the tools to stop it ever happening.

As we say, quitting smoking is not that hard, which is why many smokers have quit many times, for months or even years. What is hard is actually never to smoke again. Smoke one cigarrete, and many smokers feel that they have already failed to quit. Many approaches to quitting focus on the stopping part, but the “holding on” part is where most quitters fail. For that you need a constant support mechanism, that stops “just one cigarette,” from causing a complete relapse.

In a bit more detail, what will a smoker’s experience be with using AdiQuit, from the first day of using the app, to whenever they have successfully quit?

The smoker can view AdiQuit as a therapist in their pocket, a quitting mate, or an ally that guides her/him through the most difficult period of time without cigarettes.

AdiQuit and the smoker are in dialogue-like contact on a daily basis, throughout the day. In the first phase, the AdiQuit helps the smoker to get ready for his/her first day without a cigarette. From the first day of not smoking AdiQuit makes constant checks and provides all kinds of information and skills in the right time and settings.

Your personal therapist knows that you are most tempted in the morning after a coffee, or after lunch, or maybe in the hour after you leave work, or when you are waiting for the bus. Having already gathered this data from the user during the pre-quitting process, AdiQuit now has the knowledge about you to know when you are vulnerable, and help you in that moment.

Smoking is ritualistic. When Europeans first encountered tobacco in use by Native Americans, it was a ritualistic herb said to contain special powers. Since then, it has maintained this ritualistic place in the lives of those who smoke it. Smokers who quit can feel a sense of loss, as if losing a friend, because the ritual of smoking is a big part of their self-identity.

The good thing about this is that once we understand how smoking fits into someone’s life, we can begin to separate it out and eliminate it. A person’s identity can be changed, just a little at a time, until they are free from cigarettes.

The consumer facing app that AdiQuit will sell on app stores will be quite expensive – up to €100 or more. What is the reasoning behind this approach?

Great question. I think it will be easy for some to say that we are being greedy, charging so much for a way to quit smoking.

However, there’s a deeper motivation here, and it has to do with user psychology. In order to really work as intended, AdiQuit needs to be taken very seriously by its users. They must interact with the app, they must be consistent, and responsive when the app tells them to do something or read something.

We know from our experience as practicing psychologists and researchers that if a person takes a decision in which they invest a significant amount of money, they are much more likely to value and to try and gain from that investment. If your pen costs €1, you may lose it within a day, and not be disturbed. But if your pen costs €100 euros, you’re going to be much more careful with it, and probably you won’t lose it.

The same logic applies to quitting. The truth is that therapeutic treatments and other literature can also be equally or even more expensive. In private practice, a patient would pay me much more to help them through the quitting process. However the act of paying is part of the therapy in this case: it is a sign of commitment, and it is a kind of barrier between those who are not serious enough, and those who are truly motivated to quit.

There will also be an enterprise version of the app that can be used by large organizations as a health benefit to their employees. In this case, employees may not invest money directly in the program, but again, there will be strong reward mechanisms for continuing to do the treatment and sticking with the whole process. That may also include monetary motivation, either as cash or as gift cards, coupons, and other cash-like rewards.

This topic remains an open question for our team. We will evolve according to experience of what ends up working best for our users. The object is to successful help as many people as we can to quit smoking permanently. How we balance that with our business model will be something we have to learn over the coming months.

Smoking rates are falling in Western countries. How do you plan to grow the business into the future? WIll you focus on new markets with more smokers, or transition to treating other types of addiction?

It is a great thing if we run out of opportunities to help smokers quit. We will have won!

This is why we actually started this – to help people quit smoking, which has literally no health benefits to smokers. Unfortunately we are far from having no smokers to use AdiQuit. And if we are overly successful in helping people quit, there are way too many addictions and health problems we can focus on instead.

Our mid-term vision also includes alcohol abuse treatment. The truth is that human beings are prone to addictions, and this fact is not going to change just because of cultural shifts. One or another drug or addictive behavior has cycles of popularity or widespread acceptance, and then may recede, only to rise again later on somewhere else. We see this also with smoking: the West may be smoking less, but Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are smoking more.

I’m afraid despite our efforts, it will be generations before smoking ceases to be a public health crisis.

You joined StartupYard after taking part in the Vodafone Foundation startup program. How has the experience met up with your expectations? What have been the biggest challenges for your team so far?

It is like a ride on a roller coaster. I guess we are in the middle of it. It is full of adrenalin, the speed is tremendous, and it`s hard to predict if the next curve is going left or right (e.g., from where and when new opportunities occur). But speaking on behalf of the team: we enjoy it very much. Even though it is quite demanding.

If there is a smoker reading this, would there be one thing you’d want them to know? How and when can people get their hands on AdiQuit and start using it?

Yes, there are actually two things:

1) Every day of not smoking matters – we want to help smokers to quit but even taking a break from smoking for some time (even weeks) makes the smoker experience something new. For us the important message to smokers is that accidents often happen, but the trip can still be finished.

2) You are not alone if you are ready to quit smoking – AdiQuit is here to provide help and support. We can do this together.

The official release of AdiQuit for ordinary smokers is planned for September 2018. Those interested can go to the website now, and sign up to become our first users.

 

Also Check out AdiQuit in the Press: 

Hospodarske Noviny

Ceske Televize

Lidovky.cz

Tyden.cz

 

Chris Cowles, Blocknify, Startupyard

Meet Blocknify: E-Signatures Without the Cloud

Blocknify, one of the 6 Batch 9 startups at StartupYard, actually began life at StartupYard, long before now CEO and Co-founder Chris Cowles came onboard. It was originally the brainchild of StartupYard alum Dite Gashi, and a team of developers from Budgetbakers he worked with at the KB Hackathon, cohosted by StartupYard last year.

Though the initial pitch for Blocknify was not much more than a QR code connected with the Ethereum blockchain to verify the authenticity of contracts, the idea clicked, and StartupYard along with Decissio started looking for a real Founder/CEO for the project. We found him this year, and since he arrived, he’s made Blocknify his own. I sat down this week with Chris Cowles to talk about Blocknify, and how he came from working for Amazon in Seattle, to running his own company in Prague.

Hi Chris, you joined StartupYard after meeting one of our alumni, Decissio. How did you end up taking charge of Blocknify?

That’s a classic Prague story! It started before I came here actually. StartupYard investor Philip Staehlin sort of came up with the idea when he was having issues signing sensitive documents with a big group of people.
A bank VP told Philip stories of how he had signed confidential documents in the past. They used to take the multiple copies of the contract and tape them up to the windows of a conference room. That way, they could compare the multiple copies and ensure that they were identical and there were no differences, just based on the line-endings and paragraph sizes.

Obviously that’s crazy in this technological age, but it still happens. Anyway, Phillip shared that idea with Dite Gashi, who is a StartupYard Alum (Decissio), and Dite worked on it with a few friends from BudgetBakers (another SY alum), at a KB hackathon organized by StartupYard. The idea the team came up with to verify contracts was to attach QR codes, and allow people to basically scan the contract with a smartphone and confirm there haven’t been any changes. It would use the Ethereum blockchain to make it transparent and also secure, because none of the data in the contract needed to be shared in order to verify that a new copy is authentic.

Chris, Dite, and the Blocknify team

The team did really well at the KB hackathon, but they were all working on other projects, so the idea didn’t really have an owner. Since Startupyard was interested in the idea, you guys encouraged Dite to find someone (eventually me), to take it over and become CEO for the project. I had just moved here from Seattle, and was looking to get into blockchain development somehow. I found the project by chance on LinkedIn. I actually read Dite’s interview on this very blog, which convinced me I had to check out the project and StartupYard. It just clicked for me.

A few months later here I was, attending startupyard as CEO of Blocknify. We have a development team in Kosovo thanks to Dite, and we’ve simplified and clarified the original idea to something really amazing. I’m excited to talk about it.


Blocknify aims to allow professionals to safely and securely sign documents anywhere, without ever hosting them on cloud servers. How does this technology work, and why is it so different from competing solutons like DocuSign?

Contracts are inherently sensitive. Of course you might not worry too much if certain documents were intercepted or stored improperly, because usually a contract by itself isn’t very compromising (unless you are Donald Trump). However, for businesses as well as for individuals, the sum of all your contracts is kind of the blueprint to your business or your life. It’s a roadmap to your strategy that, if someone had access to all of it, they could gain a serious advantage over you.

As we know from recent experience, centralized databases are prone to theft and hacking. It is innevitable as long as the incentives are there to misuse that data.

Despite this known issue, Europe is not adapting quickly to e-signatures, with many corporations having policies against the use of any software for contracts. Of course it doesn’t help that the regulatory system in Europe is very complex, which is a big part of the challenge of driving adoption of e-signatures.

What is particularly good about Blocknify is that it gets past many of these barriers by not acting like a cloud service. We do not need to store contracts in any reconstructible way, and no part of anyone’s sensitive data needs to touch a server.

Yet we are still able to ensure for multiple parties in different places that the contracts they are signing are the same. That’s because when any user has the contract in front of them on their computer and signs it, that signature is irrevocably recorded in the Ethereum blockchain, and it is attached only to that exact version of the contract. Because we use a unique fingerprint of the document to apply signatures, if someone were to change the document in any way, the unique ID would be different therefore the signature would not match.

In essence what Blocknify allows companies and individuals to do is have the same level of security and verification as if all the signatories were sitting and signing the same exact piece of paper. No chance to hide anything or make unauthorized changes. All documents stay local, without touching the cloud, just like with paper.

Your solution uses the Ethereum blockchain. Many people aren’t deeply familiar with how that works, and what the advantages of distributed ledgers are. Why is Ethereum so important for your solution?

The most important thing to know about why we use the Ethereum blockchain is that in order for Blocknify to work, signatures must be totally immutable. There is just no reason to sign something if someone can modify or destroy the signature later. That’s like signing a contract and then not keeping a copy with the countersignatures. Ethereum is a distributed database of all those countersignatures that can’t be changed, only added to.

Startupyard, Blocknify

On Blocknify, once you sign something, it’s signed. That version of the document is signed, but no other version. The thing about databases in the traditional sense, like a cloud storage platform or an on-premise server, is that it is taking something inherently mutable and making it immutable using software. The problem is that the more functionalities and permissions you add on top of a database, the more possibilities there are for a security flaw, and thus for data to be corrupted or changed. A database can be built very secure, but it is mutable by nature.

Blockchain doesn’t have to be like that. Because it is distributed across many, many nodes, no attacker can change the history of transactions without the permission and agreement of a majority of the nodes. As long as there are many actors in the system, the vulnerabilities in any one particular node are minimized by the whole. Ethereum is designed to be very inflexible: it does not focus on speed and ease of use, but on absolute certainty that a change to it is legitimate. Then on top of that, we can build an application layer that is easy to use, like Blocknify.

The great thing about that is that as long as the Ethereum blockchain is used, the records it creates cannot be destroyed or altered. It is safe from disaster in a way. You can’t lose the records in a fire, like you could with paper. You can’t misplace them. If they are destroyed locally, you can still get them back.

So if you imagine a world where all contracts are smart contracts on blockchain, and some disaster happens like a Tsunami, and wipes out all the local databases of a particular company, then every one of their agreements and contracts could still be recovered from their counterparties, and would also still be in effect.

All that being said, as our customer, you don’t need to think about the blockchain or know how Ethereum even works. It is just a way of having a database that is fully transparent and safe in the way it stores and collects data. The way our technology works, we have no access to data from our customers, so no one else does either. Unlike any other e-signature service, there is no risk of a data breach with us because we don’t have any of your data.

This is not only secure in a way that cloud platforms aren’t, but it also makes auditing and verification of authenticity much easier. Because there is no centralized database that can be corrupted, there is also no way to fake, undo, or override previous changes. Anything signed is signed, and the only possible way the signature data is useful is if you have the document it relates to.

To you, what does the future of contracts and signed agreements look like 5 years from now? How will most people be signing and handling confidential documents?

It’s too obvious to say that contracts and the signing process will be paperless. There will be die-hard businesses that still use paper, but changes in regulations such as GDPR will also accelerate the need for everything to be digital, auditable, and in the control of the owners of the data.

I am not going to predict with certainty that you will be using the blockchain to sign everything. You might. Either way, laws and regulations will be focused more on immutable workflows, one way or another. We will have an ever increasing need for systems and databases that cannot be faked, back-dated, or overwritten without some sort of trail. As all things go digital, the danger is the same as with paper: you can destroy documentation and you can create false documentation.

Startupyard, Blocknify

In analogue technology, there have always been ways of using one-of-a-kind aspects of documents to make them resistant to fakery. Watermarks, stamps, holograms, even the grain of paper. The Romans used wood chips that could be matched to each other to verify agreements, for example. They could cut the woodchip in half and only the two pieces matched each other because the wood grains were unique and impossible to fake.

The blockchain replicates that effect. It’s like the blockchain is half of the woodchip, and a private key is the other half. Both unchangeable, both permanent, both only working with the other. That kind of inherent incorruptibility is going to be vital for making digital agreements work in the future.

Of course, blockchain technology also means that we can go beyond the analogue functionalities of a wood chip or a notarized signature. We can construct smart contracts that will only execute when other contracts and agreements have already been fulfilled on the blockchain.

For example, suppose you want to do factoring of your invoices, which means borrowing money against money owed to you as a company, which is a common process in business. Today in order to do factoring, the bank or lender loaning you the money must trust your clients and their agreements with you. If those clients don’t pay, it is your company that is responsible for that. In addition, the lender has to trust that you will pay them back when you get the income you’ve invoiced for.

With a smart contract, you could create a factoring system where that is all automatic. The lender can see the status of the contracts, and can be paid directly from the source. In addition, a smart contract can even put safeguards in place so that a lender knows that the companies which owe money will be able to pay the invoices when they are due. This would also give a lender a way to very safely lend the money, and a company that needs factoring of its invoices a very easy way to get liquidity when it is needed.

In fact, we have built a system just like this for a major bank already. I can’t share more details yet, but this is a really exciting possibility for banks, and for their client companies that face liquidity issues. I believe that solutions like the one we are providing will be the standard in a few years.

What is your go-to-market strategy today, who are you targeting, and where do you see that leading in the next few years?

We were lucky to find our first paid customer early on (Raiffeisenbank) and were able to deliver an API version within a month. Our main go-to-market strategy is B2B as this is business productivity software. Still, because organizations require more significant features, we realize that Blocknify can bring value in a simpler form. With that understanding, we decided first to produce a version meant for freelancers, contractors, and small businesses. We will be launching this version within this quarter (Q2 2018). Then we plan to release an enterprise version in late Q3 2018.   

Startupyard, Blocknify

Today our platform allows us to build processes into our smart contracts.  For example, you have a contract but it is only valid for a certain amount of time. If the contract is self-executing, there’s no need to actively monitor it. Also, we can do something similar for approval processes, and we see these self-executing smart contracts involving more processes over time. We believe this change will happen and we want to provide simple solutions to help companies realize the benefits of smart contracts.

You joined StartupYard in March. What did you expect from the experience, and how has that compared to reality? What has been your biggest challenge in the program?

Coming from consulting, I knew the value of getting an outside opinion for creative inspiration or challenging assumptions. I was expecting StartupYard with the mentors to be the outside consultant to challenge and inspire new ideas. This did happen, and we have benefited greatly from this.

What I didn’t expect was to find partners to help us avoid the common pitfalls, but also going beyond that and helping us grow a business that is self-sustaining and with a strong long term vision. From the outside the acceleration process looks like a carwash, but from the inside, you’re rebuilding the whole engine. When you’re starting a startup, you don’t know how to match your vision with what’s real. At StartupYard you integrate the vision and reality and make it real.

I believe you’re the first American to join the accelerator as a founder. Tell us a bit about your history, and how you ended up in Prague. What was surprising, either pleasant or not, about the transition?

Actually I am Czech on my Mom’s side of the family, but going back to her grandparents. She grew up in a Czech neighborhood in Chicago, with church services in Czech and Slovak. She taught me a lot about the Czech culture, and it ended up being a hobby for me. I used Czechoslovakia and Czechia as topics for a lot of school projects, and things like that.

I started out my career in Seattle, have traveled and lived in South East Asia as a management consultant, eventually living in Seattle again and working for Amazon. I didn’t really want to stay there, and I wanted to run my own company. That’s also a family thing, because my dad also founded and sold his own startup in the past. So I booked a ticket to Europe just to sort of look around. I ended up in Prague, and instantly fell in love. And of course, while I was visiting I met a girl as well. So I was hooked, as many people have been before.

To me Prague is the perfect size for what I want to do. It’s not in the spotlight like San Francisco or London, but it’s smart, there’s lots of local talent, and it still retains this unique atmosphere that my Mom loved about her “Bohemian” neighborhood in Chicago.

Introducing Elifinty: Hope for the Financially At Risk

Over 25 million people in the UK alone are classified as “financially vulnerable,” often crushed with debt and in fear and confusion over their options. Elifinty is for people who see no way out: a financial AI that offers custom, pre-approved financial solutions for your unique situation, including charitable options and debt consolidation services.

Maysam Rizvi is CEO and Co-Founder of Elifinty. Coming originally from the UAE, he was raised in the UK, where he began his career in banking. Maysam realized following the financial crisis of 2008, that his true passion wasn’t banking, but helping those who banks were unable to help. He founded Elifinty to help the financially vulnerable become a functioning part of the financial economy again.

Hi Maysam, first tell us a little about yourself and how you came up with the idea for Elifinty?

I’m an ex-banker with about 15 years experience in various institutions doing Risk, Investment Banking etc. with senior positions in United Overseas Bank and JP Morgan. 

If we want to say “when it all started,” then it was when I was in Iceland in 2007/2008, recovering funds for my banking institution during the financial crisis. I saw first hand the impact of the financial crisis on individuals and businesses. The financial contagion that spread from Iceland and other countries around the world consumed institutions, weakened governments, and shook the foundation of our society at the time.

Maysam Rizvi, CEO and Co-Founder at Elifinty

There I was trying to collect on these debts we knew the debtors couldn’t pay back. It was mad. We had irresponsibly loaned this money, and they had irresponsibly spent it, but somehow our responsibility was overlooked, and we were the victims. Meanwhile these people ended up with less than they started with, and the banks ended up getting even richer.

It was a really painful time for me. It didn’t feel good to do that work. We protected our balance sheets, we blamed others, but I couldn’t sleep. I had a suspicion that if we should blame anyone, it might be ourselves.

I spent years researching and understanding the challenges faced by individuals in debt, and how the banking system as a whole was part of the problem. I started to feel I couldn’t go on doing what I was doing, and ignore the damage the system was causing.

Currently, 50% of people in the UK are classed as “financially vulnerable.” That is about 25 million individuals and there are similar statistics across Europe and in the United States. And I’ll note, that this vulnerability across half the population has persisted despite basically 80+ years of barely interrupted growth in economic productivity and overall societal wealth.

I realized as I got to know the banking world that debt had played a key role in making the economic miracle that the world now enjoys. But there is a dark side, and it is found in that half of population that many of us would rather ignore. Still, debt breeds instability and ultimately suffering, when it is not managed responsibly, and when debtors are not treated humanely.

The idea for a solution in the form of an app came together with me and my co-founders just sitting around a table talking about these problems. Our experiences and expertise along with the learning we’ve had about the financial crisis and the banks role in that crisis, led us to realize that if anyone was going to try and solve this, it should be us.

For those of us who have never had subprime debts, can you describe the kinds of people who have these debts, and what some of the conditions are?

In our research we’ve seen a number of factors that can put you on the path to financial vulnerability. One major misunderstanding is that a financially vulnerable person is a poor person. While this may be true, a financially vulnerable person is someone who might be impacted by a small event that can, for example, increase their expenses by £100 and they have no mechanism to deal with it.

Being financially vulnerable means not being resilient: not being able to keep going in the face of even a minor difficulty. Many people have their finances like a house of cards. One blow, and it all comes down fast. Debt makes that process even worse. Perversely of course, lenders punish those who have difficulties paying their debts by giving them higher rates of interest, creating an incentive for some lenders to create more bad debts, and keeping bad debtors from becoming good debtors.

Some of the reasons for becoming financially vulnerable are:

  • Lack of financial understanding. Financial education is the number one factor. People generally get stuck in difficult situations because they are choosing the wrong financial products for the wrong financial situations. Consider the person who bought a car using a credit card, credit card interest is typically over 20% compared to a car loan of 5-9% per annum. Worse yet, credit card companies actively encourage this type of behavior by offering rewards for taking on this kind of debt.
  • That leads to having high cost credit. These range from 20% APR credit cards to your payday loans that typically have interest rates over 1000% per annum. Individuals having high cost credit are stuck in a downward spiral, constantly losing the battle to financial survival.

The simple fact is that many people are financially vulnerable simply because they lack sufficient “social capital,” to ask for and receive the appropriate kind of help. These are people who feel intimidated by walking into a bank, and who may lack the self-confidence to assert themselves over multiple interactions.

If you walk into a bank and ask for a loan, you must answer questions. You must then gather certain documents which you may not understand. You must then return and get a decision. Many people don’t have the nerve for this, and fear a negative outcome.

Meanwhile, a short-term lender or even a loan-shark can makes the process of getting a payday loan very easy indeed. Walk in with a paycheck, walk out with a loan. The customer sees an immediate response, and feels immediate relief.

Payday lenders know this. They listen to a customer’s problems and offer real solutions. Their customers don’t feel judged or shamed for being bad with their money. Though the customer may not be taking a deal that is good for them in the long run, they really are solving a short term emotional pain and crisis. That is powerful competition for a traditional bank.

You’re targeting people at risk of default and bankruptcy. How do you work with that type of consumer? What are some of their unique problems?

 

Most importantly, we need to work with these types of customers in as humane a way as possible.

Banks and subprime lenders both have motivations which are fundamentally misaligned with their customers when it comes to debts. It’s this: to a bank or a payday lender, a person is a number. A big bank wants to get an “underperforming” customer off their balance sheet, and a payday lender wants to get a cash-cow at high interest onto theirs. Getting people out of debt is not really in either’s interests. Banks want people who can comfortably pay, and short term lenders want people who have no choice but to pay them.

This is where we stand: between two industries who either don’t want to work with at-risk customers, or do want to work with them, if only to take advantage. Our aim is to turn these at-risk individuals into healthy members of the economy who have healthy levels of debt, and the ability to pay it back.

We’ll do that by bringing a hybrid and gamified approach to each individual at-risk consumer. Do they need cash flow management? Debt forgiveness? Restructuring? We can use open banking data and a network of charitable public organizations to catch these people who are grinded between the gears of banks and payday loans.

Banks will tell you, and with justification, that they do test many tools to help their customers become better credit risks. But a bank is a big organization, and it’s primarily focused on its bottom line, at the end of the day. They would like for their customers to be more financially healthy, but they are not able to focus on these customers. Rather, they are incentivized to get rid of them.

Elifinty aims to work with both charities and banks to stabilize and improve the finances of “bad debtors.” How do you see your future relationship with these institutions?

The UK already has a well-developed network of private and public charities that do things like rent-support, utilities, income support, and debt forgiveness as well. There’s a big range of them, but because of the nature of their work, they are most often focused on particular localities and specific cities. Their reach is limited in that most of their funding does have to go to doing what the charity promises.

We absolutely need these charities, but they are not able on their own reach the people who need their help most, before the biggest financial and life damage has been done due to financial struggle. Often these charities step in when families are already splitting apart, when drug addictions may be involved, and when people are at a particularly low point. We want to help charitable money reach people before their lives are truly cracked open, and get them the right help before that happens.

For charities, we can digitize their services and get them to the right people earlier, when it has the maximum impact. This helps them help more people, and it helps them show their funders that they are making a difference, leading hopefully to  more funding.

Elifinty can streamline their enrollment  processes so they can access a self-managed portal that stays in the charity’s control, and not ours. Far from replacing charities, we’re going to give them the tools to make a bigger difference.

On the other hand, we will be working directly with banks too. As I said, a bank’s focus in getting bad debts off the balance sheet. We will be able to help them do that in a way that serves the customer’s interest as well. The truth is that such bad debts are typically bundled and sold off to debt collectors or debt investors, often for a small percentage of the total amount, with the bank taking a loss, often over 80%.

In the future, Elifinty could function as a marketplace for that debt which favors the organizations that have the most human practices in debt collection or reconsolidation. For example, a debt collector who runs as a non-profit organization, looking only to cover its own costs, or a charity that buys debt in order to forgive it.

Collectors and debt aggregators today can be incredibly aggressive, intimidating, and heartless. They rely on consumers not understanding their rights and feeling afraid of the consequences of non-compliance. We want to break that whole industry, and make this kind of abuse a thing of the past. We want to convince banks to work only with collectors who stick to an ethical and humane system.

That won’t be easy. Regulation in the US is practically non-existent, and almost totally uninforced in this market. In the UK, things are better, but abuse is rampant. Still, we believe that offering a better way can show the financial world that we don’t need to stoop to these evil tactics to have a fair and equitable society that takes personal responsibility seriously.

Why are there not more stringent controls on the types of debts that consumers can get themselves into? What would you advocate for in terms of regulatory or legal changes to the current system?

As I said, the market is not unregulated now. The problem with debt is that fair or unfair, there will always be those who have the skills and the knowledge and the luck to make it work no matter their financial situation. Then again, there will always be those who get into trouble, even if they are relatively lucky, and not necessarily dim or stupid either.

When the economy is growing, it just gets easier to get credit, and as a society we accept that this means that some of the money will find itself in the pockets of people who shouldn’t have it. It’s only when there’s an economic downturn that we turn the screws on these people, and make them pay for their mistakes. That’s something I learned in my years of banking: those who are blamed are often those who we should have considered more carefully to begin with.

One the great mistakes, I think, that occurred during the Great Recession of 2008 was that politicians got so focused on saving the banks, they didn’t think about what would happen to all those people who the banks had lent money to. Rather than forgive their debts and clear the bank’s toxic balance sheets that way (which is what I would have preferred), the governments instead injected even more money into the banks, and left the banks still to collect on the outstanding debt they had foolishly created themselves.

In that way, the banks got paid twice during the last crisis, and the debtors paid twice: first by losing their homes and their savings, and then again by having their tax money go to keeping the banks liquid. Many people from that period have never recovered- and this is not even to mention that nothing has fundamentally changed. We still have a massive pile of debt at the core of the world economy, and no real way of paying that back.

I do believe that initiatives like PSD2 and GDPR are causing some needed disruption to this cycle. Giving outsiders in the financial industry like us an ability to compete on a level with banks is going to bring more customer focused solutions to the debt problem, and I think that’s a great thing. I also think GDPR can go a long way to cutting down on the bad actors in debt collection, and it will force banks to be more transparent about what kinds of people they are contracting with to collect debts. This can’t happen in the shadows anymore.

We are a part of the Open Banking Consumer Forum, which advocates for a code of conduct for finance companies, to try and protect consumers from becoming essentially a source of funds for bad actors. I believe PSD2 and GDPR on the whole are going to help that mission.

How exactly does Elifinty’s technology help its users to make better decisions and stabilize their finances?

Two important aspects. First: predictions. We are able to use PSD2 Open Banking data and customer supplied data to predict the likelihood and the size of a potential financial disaster for an individual, and we are able to then put that person in contact with the right solution or service for dealing with that problem, even before it becomes really serious.

We’re able to see which customers are at risk of taking bad loans, or who are already beginning to follow the ‘death spiral” of unpayable debts, and arrest that spiral with a quick intervention. Customers may not even need drastic help if they come to us in time.

Beyond that, we are able to use our app to help change the customer’s behavior and thinking about their debts, offering strategies and even tricks to get them out of debt faster. This could be done with or without an outside partner- it would depend always on the persona and the nature of their problem.

We also have some exciting ideas about how we can use debt forgiveness as a kind of motivational tool. Imagine if a person’s debts could be reduced simply by that person meeting daily spending targets, or committing to certain changes in their financial lives? We could bring debt from 100% collectible to only 50%, or 30% or all the way down to zero. All it would take would be the customer committing to changes that make them a better financial consumer, and a charity or investor interested in helping people turn their finances around.

In this way, our hope is eventually to have an end-to-end turnaround process, taking a person who is unfit for the banking system, helping them alter their behavior and gain knowledge and wisdom about finance, and eventually getting them back into the financial world as a productive and contributing member.

Where do you see your features and your main customer base a few years from now? Who will be your key competitors then?

For the near future, we’re focusing on simple aspects of a person’s financial life, like grocery shopping, utilities, car loans, insurance, etc. We will allow our users to save money on these kinds of things in order to improve their financial health. Then slowly we will be rolling out cooperations with charities and other services to tackle the hardest-to-solve debt problems.

Elifinty, StartupYard

My wish is that in 10 years, there won’t be a need for us on the market, because banks and other lenders would have become ethical and human centric. I have hope that we can do that, but I am also a student of history. I sense that our work may not be done in my lifetime, but I want to get started now making finance fairer for all of us.

You joined StartupYard a few months ago. How has the experience stacked up against your expectations and preconceptions?

We thought StartupYard would be like any accelerator. However we were not quite prepared for what it really is. It’s an intensive experience, meetings with 120 mentors over 5 weeks, with a huge range of varying feedback and advice that we had to somehow bring together and reconcile.

That really forced us to stand up and work on our pitch and our value proposition in the face of so many possible objections and problems. At the same time, we got so much support in everything from developing our content and messaging to our design and our management and financial planning that we just didn’t expect to get.

What I love about it here is the sense of urgency you get to accelerate your business. You have to be on your toes and you have to always drive towards your goals. The bad part is missing my family as much as I have. I tell myself it’s for the greater good, but that’s a big challenge for me starting a business. My family is a source of strength.

Why is helping people to get out of financial trouble so important to you? What about the current situation keeps you up at night?

I’m from the UAE and despite what you may think about the country based on movies and TV, with the riches and excess, our family were always focused on helping people as part of everyday life. Our culture before the crazy economic changes in past decades was nomadic, and while we have been in fortunate positions our people were very dependent on the kindness of strangers. We still are in many ways.

I think this is why my Icelandic experience was so profound for me. I couldn’t reconcile how I could do my job, that I knew wasn’t helping people, but really hurting them. In those days I had trouble waking up in the morning and going to work.

Recent events have also convinced me that many of our problems as a global society come ultimately from us not being focused on the human beings who make society work. The UK is a rich place, by historical and current world standards, and yet so many of its people struggle so much day to day. That just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Whether your a socialist or a capitalist, you can’t argue, based on the available evidence,  that having half the population under constant pressure is conducive to real economic productivity.

I’m afraid that my children will grow up in an unjust society and despite their own position in society they will not be able to reconcile what I teach them with the harsh realities of life. That’s why I’m doing what I do.

What kinds of partners are you looking to connect with following the StartupYard program. Which existing players can most benefit from working with you to solve the subprime debt problem in the UK?

We’re looking for team members who want to go with us on this journey, and believe in the right of what we are doing. In terms of banks, the big 4 in the UK are Barclays, Lloyds, RBS, and Santander, and we will be looking to connect with all of them.

Credit unions and credit union associations like ABCUL will also make great partners, so we are looking for ways to connect with them.

Charities are a big part of our plans, so we are very open to partnerships across the UK financial charity ecosystem. Anyone can contact me directly at maysam@elifinty.com, or on twitter @elifinty, or visit our website: www.elifinty.com

Teskalabs, GDPR

StartupYard Alum TeskaLabs Tackles GDPR With New Enterprise Solution

Hi Ales, TeskaLabs has done really well post-StartupYard. What have been your biggest successes in the last 3 years?

Thanks, Lloyd. Very glad to hear that. There is a lot of work behind it. As you know, TeskaLabs launched with StartupYard with a focus on securing enterprise mobile applications and networks.  Originally this was with a single core “secure gateway” technology called SeaCat. Based on our cooperation with large corporations such as 02 in the Czech Republic, we have expanded the uses for this core technology into new product lines that support enterprises with large networks and sensitive data in the field.

It is a cruel request to name the most successful piece of work we’ve done. We play a synergic game: we aim to have any new product or feature enhance the whole. So in that sense we are moving on several fronts all at once.

But if I have to choose one, it will be Black Swan, which we first talked about in our annual report last year. Black Swan is originally a part of SeaCat – but today it is a standalone product. It’s a real-time stream analyzer designed to detect anomalies, trend changes, and things that should not be happening on a high-value network. It can be used to identify cybersecurity breaches, detection of malfunctioning IT technologies, but also as a business analytics and intelligence tool.

We deployed Black Swan last year on the national network of a large mobile operator (I won’t name them here), on LTE, 3G, 2G, voice, and data. That investment from their side, I’m happy to say, paid back for them in 5 days.

You also recently announced a new data-anonymization product for GDPR compliance: TurboCat.io. Who is it designed for, and why is it needed?

This is why I said our work is so synergistic. Every time you dive into the problems of securing big networks with lots of different things going on, you discover yet another way to provide more value with the same technology base. That is the case for TurboCat.io as well.

TurboCat.io originated as a part of Black Swan. Black Swan collects and processes billions of datapoints, and a great deal of them are sensitive personal information. Obviously this is a huge concern for telco operators and really anyone who is handling a lot of customer data. GDPR comes with very expensive consequences if data is mishandled or stored in a way that isn’t permitted, so corporations are all thinking now in terms of how GDPR will impact their operations and products.

Therefore, there was particular demand from customers to develop robust tools for anonymization, pseudonymization, encryption, and other tools to ensuring air-tight data privacy. We came up with TurboCat.io thanks to a review with a corporate data privacy officer. We discovered the urgent need for a broader solutions to these issues, so we decided to make it available for others too.

So we created TurboCat.io, a product focused on de-identification of personally identifiable information (PII) as defined by GDPR. You can find more on our blog, where we are publishing a whole series about data privacy for big companies with large databases.

For those who still haven’t brushed up on GDPR and its many new requirements for online businesses, can you tell us what is most important to understand about the new framework?

I think, perhaps a little controversially, that GDPR was needed. Many companies are still in shock and trying to come to grips with the complexities and the limitations on their old data-use practices, but on the whole I think this is a constructive process.

You know, we do cybersecurity, and what we sometimes saw, in the sense of how some companies worked with personal data, scared me frankly. It should scare more people.

GDPR can be viewed as a kind of “scared straight” moment for many companies dealing with a lot of sensitive data and with customer privacy. This was really needed, and it helps to get all of us on one page, dealing with security in a more thorough and complete way. This put everybody on notice that privacy is a right for customers, and must be respected and strictly upheld.

The way the EU bureaucracy has done this is, of course, another matter. It’s not perfect, and it’s not what I would have done, but we are here to deal with it and help companies to adjust.

I view it as essential to privacy and real security, that personal data such as names, emails, addresses, and the like be recognized as having value for their owners. If a business decides to store or process these data, it must also adequately protect them. Fundamentally what GDPR does is to strongly state that these data are our property, and that our property and our privacy are not to be sold or traded as someone else’s assets, beyond our knowledge or control.

GDPR is putting a lot of businesses into panic mode right now. What do you see as the biggest vulnerabilities, and in which industries will GDPR present the biggest challenges?

Yes, you are right. There is a lot of panic.

In general, B2C companies are more exposed than B2B. Obviously B2C companies are dealing with many individuals, and often have many different products and many overlapping data sets and uses for these data that need to be understood, not only by customers but by the companies themselves.

Up to today, large B2C companies such as retailers often did not know all of the data they were storing, who had access to the data, and what all of the data was being used for across the whole company. That can no longer be the case, because in order to do any of these things legally, the company must inform the customers and ask for their permission. They must offer a way of removing these data in many cases, and that requires real changes in the way they operate.

How do you expect that GDPR requirements will change company cultures, or require big shifts in the way some companies operate?

We are working  with several big companies to help them adopt GDPR requirements, and I have to say that it is not really a significant shift at the end of the day.

Staff needs to be well informed and instructed. Bad practices need to be changed, but here it usually correlates with cybersecurity issues, so it needs to be fixed anyway. That’s why I see it as overall positive, not just for society but also for business. These things needed attention, but now there is a strong incentive to make positive changes.

One typical example is a shared account for various online (SaaS) marketing and BI tools. It is very common, and it can do a lot of damage. Single sign-ons for large organizations present a single point of vulnerability that can be exploited. If there is only one way in, then all a company’s associated data is then at risk. GDPR is going to change the behavior of these SaaS providers *and* the companies who use them for the better.

And of course, you should consult your lawyer and review your user agreements. There are probably issues you need to fix. You can no longer hide your data practices behind a general user agreement.

Aside from challenges, what opportunities or positive long-term effects are you expecting from GDPR?

I suspect the landscape of personal data dealing will change significantly. So it is definitively an opportunity for new businesses and innovations. If I have to bet, blockchain technologies and crowd monetization of the access to personal data resonates a lot.

Blockchain allows the possibility of always being in control of what data is shared, and always having visibility on how it is being used. The opportunity to change or correct personal data is really important, and the blockchain allows these changes to be made based on consensus, and not just on the decisions of a particular company. Unfair and descriminatory practices can be defeated in this way, for example by giving individuals the opportunity to see how theirs data is being used in comparison with the data of others.

How should companies make sure they’re compliant with GDPR within the next month?

It is not even a whole month until GDPR become effective. If you haven’t started, I bet you are late already. But no worries, you can still prepare your business. I think that the EU is very much expecting this to be a learning curve, and they must be prepared to give some room to manuever. Then again they will also need to make examples.

Technically: Get a good understanding what personal information you are collecting. Who has access to what, and how you protect these data. Evaluate all data exports and implement de-identification of unneeded entries. And implement monitoring of your IT systems, which will give you an audit trail. That is important for any eventual dispute and will help you a lot.

 

Mindbox

The Sales Trainer’s New Best Friend: MindBoxVR Reveals Open Beta

Sales Trainers know the value of real world experience. But how can they provide it to large groups of trainees in a limited time? Mindbox VR, a StartupYard Alum, has the solution, and any sales trainer can use it today. Peter Tomasovic, CEO and Co-Founder of Mindbox VR,  is a StartupYard alum from Batch 8, focusing on a VR solution for sales and customer service training. Mindbox started out as a tool to help mental health professionals treat the symptoms of phobias, such as a fear of heights, or of insects, using VR simulations as a form of immersion therapy.

During the StartupYard program, the Mindbox team hit upon sales training as a novel use for their VR technology, which allows non-programmers to quickly and easily create scenarios for sales and customer service training sessions. The biggest advantage of using VR for these purposes is that it simulates a real-life experience, and can also be used to generate statistical data that sales trainers can work with to improve the performance of trainees with time. Plus, MindboxVR can be used to train many people at once, and even after the training for skill reinforcement.

You can check out MindBox’s open beta now by clicking here. 

I talked with Peter this week to find out how MindBox got to where they are. 

What have been your biggest challenges since the StartupYard program? How have you solved these?

Our biggest challenge has really been to find out what our customers really need from Mindbox. Separating the “nice to have,” from essential is super important to be able to deliver something that works on the first try. Our customers don’t always know exactly what will be the most necessary features, because most have never used this technology before, so it’s a process of discovery for all of us.

When we were at StartupYard, lots of companies wanted to work with us on the process of validation and experimentation, but in the end they want to have a useful delivered product, so you have to get it right.

Mindbox, StartupYard

Slovak entrepreneurs Peter Tomasovic (right), and Andrej Rybovic (left), Co-founders of Mindbox VR.

Another challenge was to hire new people versus do-it-yourself. When we counted costs for new people, onboarding, learning them technology, understanding product specification, we decided to develop the first version ourselves and use external experts only when solving specific problems or for feedback. This allowed us to move more quickly short term, but it will be a challenge then to scale up the team and delegate when demand is increasing.

How did you arrive at the set of features you have now, and what do you plan for the next iteration?

For the current set of features, two sources of information were most important:

  • companies and training agencies (customers)
  • our advisors

In the case of potential customers, the Pareto principle worked for us. We met with lot of companies, 80% of them gave us “standard feedback” and lot of brainstorming, which was mostly distracting. The other 20% gave us what we have now – a set of features, idea of the scenarios that could be interesting, company use cases. And what is important, is that we are still in touch with these companies and they are now strategic partners.

It is a learning process to understand which prospects are going to be your real customer, and which are going to distract from the development process. We are still learning this.

Our advisors gave us key support here. During StartupYard we met 3 great people, Serge Dupaux, Jana Zurkova, and Silvia Pánková – experts in the fields of HR, business development and sales. We have regular meetings, we had a one day workshop, where we defined a customer journey with the key product features, etc.

For the roadmap and next iterations, we have a set of features from meetings with companies or analysis of competition. But most important for us is to make pilot implementations and find out which features are really crucial. That is the reason we are right now focusing on selling and looking for partners.

What kind of people can most benefit from MindBox VR?

MindBox VR is like a swiss knife for every sales trainer in customer service, product training and sales training.

Unlike most training solutions, MindBox VR is about interaction and immersion. It allows a trainee to interact with voice and reply to a virtual customer. The physical act of doing the interactions repeatedly is many times more effective than just listening to a speaker or reading about the techniques.

Once a training program is created by a sales trainer in Mindbox VR, it can be started on any Android device, but also in a VR headset. Currently we are supporting mobile VR headsets like Gear VR or Google Daydream. This makes it really easy for a sales trainer to deliver their program with whatever equipment they or their clients can afford.

MindboxVR, StartupYard, Sales Training Virtual Reality

If you want to train customer service, you can prepare a training where virtual customer asks you typical questions. They can be standard, like questions about warranty, transport, returning product. Or the can be more “tricky”, like “This product is very cheap. Isn´t it a fake?”. The trainee has to reply to such questions. The mix of standard and non-scripted interactions helps employees to internalize the company policies and best practices, and to be more comfortable in unexpected situations.

So why should a sales trainer use VR instead of more traditional methods?

The key is repeatability and a systematic approach. We all “know” how we would act in some hypothetical situation. But in actual truth, we don’t really. When you are in a real life scenario, there are a million complicating factors to consider, so having the learned experience is the best way to help people be prepared. However, simulations using real people are often less realistic. Co-workers know each other and are often friends. Co-workers want to help each other, naturally. 

When you do play-acting in sales training, the situation is never the same for each participant. It might work for some, but not for all. VR allows us to replicate a specific situation very precisely, and apply systematic testing and feedback on performance. The human approach is still critical, as we are talking about soft human skills, but VR can support this with a data driven approach on top. We don’t want to replace trainers or in-person training, but to augment it with easy-to-use software tools. 

Moreover, sales trainers can set keywords in conversation – critical words that must be said by the trainee when replying. Practice makes perfect, is the saying.  Most important about training with MindBox, is that the trainee has to speak, and really answer questions. It’s not just a dumb script, but a simulation that feels real, and that can change according to what the sales trainer plans. 

This way, you are not developing only knowledge (like when he is reading or watching a slideshow) but also skill, because you have to think about the information in a sentence and actually come up with the right answer for that specific situation.

After the training, trainers will see statistics, reports and complete transcripts of communications with customers, so they can deeply understand what is working, and what needs more work.

Are you looking for funding or more partners? Who should contact you?

We are in touch with some VCs and investors, but for them it’s most relevant to have traction and signed contracts with customers. That’s especially true because this technology is so new to the market, and the market has to be proven.

Therefore most important for us right now is to acquire more early customers and partners who want to really improve their training processes and be among the best in the industry. We have an open beta version, and sales trainers can start training from day one.

We also have 2 example trainings, which a trainer can easily adjust for company needs and start training quickly to see the results. The most relevant first contacts are HR people responsible for corporate training, learning and development, as well as independent professional sales and customer service sales trainers. Heads of sales and those in charge of personal development programs will also find a lot of value in what is available today.

 

StartupYard is Looking for Founders!

Are you a startup founder ready to accelerate your business with CEE’s best network of top mentors? StartupYard’s Batch X Open Call has started.

Our focus this round will be on Automation, Blockchain, and the Future of Work. If you’re working on a hard problem involving Machine Learning, IoT, Identity, Payments, Security, or Decentralization, then we want to hear from you. Find out if StartupYard is your key to a big future.

Chatler Raises 330k to Help Brands Chat

Janos Szabó, along with his team at Chatler, are alumni of Startup Batch 7. They joined StartupYard along with 2 other Hungarian founded teams, Ouibring and Beeem.

Chatler Logo, StartupYard Accelerator

When I spoke with Janos about his company way back in early 2017, this is what I had to say:

“The past year has seen a boom in chatbots, which have become a buzzword in the tech industry, most particularly with retailers and big brands. StartupYard this year handled dozens of applications for chatbot startups, but despite the buzz, none of these seemed to us to have really discovered the inherent value of automating customer interaction on social media, and in customer care. Chatbots are not a new idea, after all, and much of the recent hype has come thanks to Facebook opening its platform for 3rd party developers, which has spurred renewed interest in new applications for chat.”

Today these words seem more true than before. Today, brands and marketers are facing the prospect of decreased access to their customers across social media channels, prompting them to rethink their social strategies, and put even more emphasis on chat and messaging.

Though we still get applications for chat-bot related startups (and we even took another in Batch 8: OptioAI, which has gone on to join TechStars), finding an immediate recognizable value for end-users remains a big challenge. So we’ve been very pleased with our choices so far, as both companies have been able to prove that the genre can be leveraged into compelling and useful products that people really value.

Chatler Team, StartupYard

The Chatler team during mentoring at Batch 7.

I sat down to catch up with Janos about his team’s experiences since leaving StartupYard nearly a year ago, and see what Chatler has accomplished in that time.

Here’s an overview of what I learned, and a look at how Chatler sees the near future for chat, and for itself:

Big Brands Love Chat (and Chatler)

Since finishing at StartupYard, Chatler has signed The Coca-Cola Company as a paying customer in 3 markets, Czechia, Hungary, and Serbia.

Chat via Facebook messenger is a growing category for major brands, who see chat volume increasing faster than any other channel. In addition, recent major changes in Facebook’s algorithm have left big brands scrambling to refocus on messenger as a prime channel for customer outreach. As Facebook decreases brand access to customers via the newsfeed, companies like Coca-Cola are looking to messenger as a bigger part of their future strategies.

That puts Chatler in the right place at just the right time to help big brands handle their social media presence, when content may become less important than personalization and two-way communication.

Chatler, Chat Automation, StartupYard

Many big brands currently use contact centers operating enterprise CRM software, so Chatler has responded by developing API integrations for software companies like vcc.live.  The company provides contact center CRM software for major brands and contact centers in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Romania. In turn, these larger software providers can offer their brand clients, and also their retail and finance clients, the option of adding Chatler’s AI layer into their current toolset for customer care communication.

That’s a win-win for Chatler, who can provide the core AI functionalities for large clients that already have enterprise solutions in place. With Chatler, enterprise CRM providers can focus on providing the full stack of services to clients. Chatler will be used in this context to monitor communications, and develop automated suggestions and responses that are shown to get the best responses from customers. Chatler can help contact centers use their collective expertise more effectively, and refine customer support techniques using AI.

Investors See the Potential

Chatler has now raised 330,000 Euros (100m Hungarian Forints), from seed investment program of Hiventures Venture Capital Fund Management Ltd.

The investment has helped Janos and his team to build and prepare the launch of their enterprise-ready API, and it has opened doors to high-profile events and demo days, such as those of KPMG, and MOL, Hungary’s largest energy company.

And of course, Chatler is hiring! They’re looking for everyone from developers to salespeople. If you’re in Budapest, or if you’d like to be, and you love what they’re doing, send them an email.

Corporates are Slow, but SME is Interesting Too

While the Chatler team has had to wait longer than they would have preferred to release their API for enterprise customers (which is one of our Startup Facts), the waiting has also reignited their interest in SMEs and social media influencers, who can get value out of Chatler right now.

The team has already recorded some traction by selling their solution to Startup Safari, a well attended city-wide event for tech people in Budapest and elsewhere. Safari will use Chatler to manage the high volume of messages they receive during the events. In some cases, Chatler will work in parallel with a chatbot to allow fully automatic responses to simple questions on schedule, location, and other details of individual events.

That’s why Chatler has created a browser plugin that allows individuals or companies to begin to create a knowledge base from their correspondence on Facebook. Over time, Chatler’s AI functions will begin to suggest answers to common and eventually even complex questions as well. The plugin is designed to enhance the normal chat experience via Facebook, not to redesign it or to fully automate it. Chatler calls this “Next Level Chat.”

We have tested the plugin, and it’s very simple to use. Give it a try!

Leading the Chat Conversation

Chat is a unique channel for customer communication. It isn’t email, it isn’t the phone; it’s something different.

Chatler Brand Marketing, Messaging

Chatler helps SMEs maximize their content strategy reach.

That’s why Chatler has also been developing content for SMEs and big brands to learn about this form of communication in the business context. They have started an active blog, where companies can learn about engaging with their customers, Chatiquette, and turning your chat channel into a content marketing channel as well.

Want to learn more about Chatler? Message them!

Chatler

A messenger code. Scan it to talk to Chatler.

The best way to interact with Chatler is through their own product. You can start a conversation with Chatler on Facebook Messenger by opening the app on your phone, selecting “People” at the bottom of the screen, and tapping “Scan Code.”

Welcome to the future.

 

Feedpresso, StartupYard

Feedpresso: Better News, One Reader at a Time

Tadas Subonis, CEO and founder of FeedPresso joined StartupYard during Batch 7, in early 2017.

At that time, the Feedpresso project was an android app with a small clutch of dedicated users, that helped a person organize and consume the news of the day. It was sort of like Flipboard, but it learned from your reading habits over time to provide a better mix of content you would hopefully find interesting.

Building a content product is a huge challenge, and Feedpresso was no exception. While they rolled out new features, brought feeds online and to iOS, they were bedeviled by the age-old problem of their business model. People who liked the free app didn’t want to pay for it.

So this year, Tadas sat down and wrote an update to shareholders. There would be a significant break in the pattern. Feedpresso would now focus on a very specific kind of customer: the kind that values news enough to pay for the tools to get it. All plans would be paid only.

Feedpresso will reset its strategy, focusing on people in the tech business, who are looking for high performance news aggregation.

I spoke with Tadas last week about the transition, and about his new goals for Feedpresso in 2018. As you’ll see in Tadas’s telling, this transition hasn’t been easy. But today his guiding metrics are not what they were a year ago:

Lloyd: Tell us a bit about your product pivot towards curation and the tech industry.

Tadas: After spending almost a year learning from our failures, we’ve learned (or at least I hope so) that we need to connect with our customers and really dig into their needs, and that’s not possible if we don’t have a very specific person in mind.

We took a look at our audience and ourselves and we realised that a clear audience that we can understand and communicate with is Technology Business professionals. These are people who know the worth of quality content, and are willing to pay to get more out of it.

People that are busy and are in a need of constant updates as the competitive landscape is constantly changing – new best practices, new MAs, and new technologies.

It’s not just about news either.

Another important aspect of the new Feedpresso is that it is a curation tool that helps our customers build their base of knowledge. Organizing and contextualizing timeless content that is important to you is something that’s surprisingly difficult to do with existing solutions.

The way content is presented to us, it has become difficult to give it our full attention, much less to remember it and review it given new information. Whatever is on your feed today is gone tomorrow (or in 5 minutes).

I think that many people feel overwhelmed in today’s culture of newsfeeds and tweets, and unable to really remind themselves of the things they find most important. So we are aiming to help customers contextualize what they read, and build up a record of their knowledge to better understand what they know, and how they know it.

You can see the need for this being met already in other ways, for instance by newsletter curators like Azeem Azhar, who work hard to create a context for modern events that readers can refer to into the future. My feeling is that everyone ought to be able to do that for themselves.

We need to bring back deep reading and reflection.

We’ve even started doing a Technology Business Review newsletter for our customers which turned out to be a success (it has a 70% open rate!). I think this is more evidence that people need more tools to contextualize the content they are consuming and keep track of it.

 

Lloyd: What’s led you to the decision to shift your focus onto power users?

Tadas: I’ve been made to realize, how true the advice by Paul Graham is: “Build something 100 people love, not something 1 million people kind of like.”

It doesn’t matter if you have a thousand customers if they do not care about your product. It is even worse when they all are so different that you can’t even talk to them, because there is nothing you can ask or say that would be relevant to all of them. Even more, the responses you do get are so diverse that the direction to go next is totally unclear. You end up trying to just get more users, any way you can.

Now I see that this is mostly what happens with freemium news products. They just become a machine for catching eyeballs, just like the content they are helping to spread. They don’t end up helping anyone. They just become another layer in a chain of distractors.

I think that serving the need to get more eyeballs on news feeds has really negatively impacted the people at the end of that process. We see more stuff, of lower quality, and it does have a measurable effect.

We are told that people won’t pay for news, which means news isn’t the product anymore, the readers are the product. I think that’s just not good enough.

I am not alone I think.

Last year while we were at StartupYard, Facebook was still denying that this problem existed. Today they are being much more open about it, and admitting that they’ve made some big mistakes. People are really negatively affected by the toxic environment of falsehood and anger on display now.

That is not saying it’s all terrible. Also in 2017, newspaper subscriptions grew faster than any year in modern history. People want to pay for news again. People want quality, and advertising is supporting quality less and less, so paid news is coming back. This can be a moment where people decide it’s worth it to get the right tools to read the news.

So that’s the environment we are in, and we’re targeting a very selective set of customers, who I think understand this problem well, and want it solved.

We’re pretty much back at square one as a business, and we’ve started rebuilding our audience around this new understanding of the problem we solve. Our advantage this time is that we know what the problem is, and we have the tools in place to build on, and try to solve it.

Lloyd: Are you close to a sustainable business model? How much more work do you need?

Tadas: That’s a good question. I have my eyes set on 1000 paying customers this year. That would make this a sustainable business. 1000 could be a lot, or it could be not very much, depending on how well we execute the next phase.

We have just a core handful of users who made the switch with us to a paid product. We’re learning from them every day.

Our customers have a lot of options to choose from, and even if the alternatives are inferior, it becomes really difficult to stand out in the crowd. This is why I believe a shift to focusing on a core set of customers who know the value of the product well is the only way forward.

Lloyd: What are your next steps for the product?

Tadas: The next step in the product is to fix myself  – I still think that there is so much space for improvement in the way we communicate with our customers. Before that is improved, we can’t have a clear direction in the product.

And here I don’t mean clear regarding what new features to add. I think that there is still a gap in the understanding of what fundamental problems our customers have. This news environment is evolving every day, and I don’t think anyone has the answers yet as to how to fix it. But we think we have the right approach, and we have to explore it with our customers.

Lloyd: How can people support the new Feedpresso?

Download us on the App store, or Android, or visit our website at Feedpresso.com to learn more. Get in on the ground floor with a new way of reading the news.