6 Entrepreneurs’ Blogs We Keep Coming Back To

We read a lot at StartupYard. In fact, if you were to visit our offices at the co-working space Node5 (and here we are defining offices in the loosest sense possible, as we don’t even have chairs that swivel), you’d likely find Cedric or me reading something or other.

When the accelerator program is running, we’re usually too busy to do more than browse headlines, or steal a moment to tweet something, but when our startups aren’t here, we’re busy reading. Occasionally, one of us might remove his headphones and say: “hey, did you see this thing about…” at which the other will interrupt to say that of course he had.

Given how much is available, it can be difficult to tell what’s really worth reading. With blogs especially, so much of the attraction is not in what content or news is covered, but rather in the personal appeal of the author- the way the person thinks, as much as what they say. Reading a strong personality can be a brilliant way of resetting and challenging your own thinking. Could I be more like this person? What would this person say about my situation? These are helpful thoughts to have as an entrepreneur and a startuper.

We read more than just these blogs, but one of our rules in narrowing this list down was to provide a list of bloggers who are dependable, experienced, post fairly regularly, and are not as interested in news as in deep thinking about technology, business, and the future. In short, these bloggers write out of a passion for their subjects, and not a need for attention.

So here then is our list of 6 entrepreneurs’ blogs that we come back to week after week: 

@AndrewChen

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Andrew Chen is probably most famous as a blogger, but his blog, which features nearly 700 essays, many with original research on the topics of mobile products, user growth, and retention, is one of a kind. It’s probably the best blog I read on a regular basis, and certainly the most quotable. If there’s an issue that one of our startups is encountering when it comes to marketing, there’s probably a relevant post on @AndrewChen.

Chen has a habit of creating and defining very sticky and useful terms, which he self-references within his essays. Over time, as you read his work, you become familiar with the way he thinks, and can follow his logic from one topic to the next, gaining context with each click. This also allows you to get lost in his little universe of ideas- which is not a bad place to spend some of your time.

It’s hard to pin down a few favorites when it comes to Chen’s blog, but I’ll name a few essays I refer to often:

Why Are We So Bad at Predicting Startup Success?

Anyone Can Start A Groupon: And Other Startup Myths

After the Techcrunch bump: Life in the “Trough of Sorrow”

The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs

Minimum Desirable Product

Paul Graham

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You probably know the name. But do you read his essays? Paul Graham is the infamous founder of Y-Combinator, who had his first high-profile success with the sale of his web-store creator ViaWeb to Yahoo! (later to become Yahoo! Store) for 455,000 shares of Yahoo! stock.

Graham is now best known for his work with Y-Combinator, and for his writing, which includes 3 books, and a handful of essays every year, any one of which would make the common blogger jealous for their popularity and influence.

Over the years, Graham has honed his blogging craft over time to reflect his work. These days, his essays usually hover around a central thesis which he elaborates on from personal experience. Unlike Chen, Graham focuses less on data, and more on ways of thinking and behaving which he believes to be ethical, fair, and workable for his readers.

His advice is mostly practical and day-to-day, rather than technical or proscriptive. Rather than lists of “dos and don’ts,” he presents simple maxims like “mean people fail,” and “The Island Test,” which prompt the reader to consider a few basic principles of doing business or leading one’s life, and reflect on whether those principles matter to them.

Again, almost every single one of Graham’s essays have been influential in some way, so it’s hard to pick favorites, however, here is a list of some really good ones:

Why Nerds are Unpopular

How to Start a Startup

What You Can’t Say

Before Startups

Unicorn Free

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Written by Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman, founders of Freckle, a service that allows you to track your billable work, individually or as part of a group, such as a digital agency, and bill clients using the same system, Unicorn Free is a little bit of everything. Mostly, it’s a practical look at the real-life problems associated with running a small startup that has become a moderately successful business.

Unicorn Free calls itself a guide to Bootstrapping- running a startup without outside funding, but in practice it covers a big range of topics, from product development, to marketing, to copywriting. There’s a little something for everyone, and Hoy and Hillman both have an infectious energy and enthusiasm that makes them easy to read. Often, what they write is not as much practical as it is motivational. They constantly exhort their readers to recalibrate their expectations, and question their ways of doing things.

Some of Unicorn Free’s better known posts:

Why you should do a tiny product first

How do you create a product people want to buy?

Don’t Fave This Post: How to REALLY Launch in 2014

Why Blacksmiths are Better at Startups than You

NirandFar

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Nir Eyal, the author and creator of NirandFar, calls his subject “behavioral design.” His essays usually center around aspects of UX/Ui, economics, human behavior, and neuroscience. He wrote a popular book companion called Hooked, which promoted the popular “hook model,” for user behavior, and which has been lauded by Andrew Chen, among many others. Eyal also writes for TechCrunch, Forbes, and Psychology Today, among others.

Many of Eyal’s posts center around user acquisition, retention, and what he called “behavioral economics,” or the study of what people are willing to do with technology, and what they’re not willing to do. But they’re a little more “newsy” than similar pieces by Andrew Chen and others, offering more background reading, and often less of an insider view on the subjects they cover.

NirandFar is frequently just fascination to read. Here are a few examples of great articles that will get you thinking in a new way:

The Limits of Loyalty

People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently

Your Fitness App is Making You Fat

Habits Are The New Viral: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts

ViperChill

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ViperChill is a little different from the other blogs we usually read. Glen, ViperChill’s author and creator, has a biography that reads a bit like a get rich quick scheme. He claims to have started making “thousands per month,” at the age of 17 offering online marketing services. His posts are sometimes rambling, disjointed, or lacking in context for the casual reader.

More importantly, a lot of the activities that ViperChill advocates to its readers are, well, not always tasteful. There is much info on building link networks, building websites to cash in on consumer interest in specific subjects, and generally scheming about ways to make money online without really contributing anything terribly unique or new.

If you’ve rolled your eyes at the unavoidable noise of SEO driven websites that appear high in search returns, but read like they were written by a sleep deprived university student who was skimming a Wikipedia article, then you’ve probably run into something that ViperChill, or somebody a lot like him, has created or funded. While his more recent work has hedged towards calling an end to the SEO madness of the past, his work often reads as somewhat nihilistic in its view of the internet as a money machine, rather than something slightly more humanistic.  

Still, ViperChill offers some fascinatingly geeky looks at hardcore online marketing techniques and strategies that few marketers have time to think about. In the weird hidden world of SEO aficionados and affiliate marketers, ViperChill is a strong presence.

While most of our readers are not looking, as ViperChill advocates, to become totally immersed in the world of link-building, SEO, and affiliate marketing, ViperChill presents an insider’s perspective on that business- one many of us have to dabble in to draw attention to our real world projects. If you think you’re being clever with your Facebook pages, your adwords, and your homepage SEO, he’s being downright devious.

Some of ViperChill’s more fascinating pieces:

How to Build a Billion Dollar SEO Empire

How 3 Guys Made Over $10,000,000 Last Year Without a Single Backlink

Why Google Pushed Me to Build a (Bigger) Link Network

BothSides of the Table

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Mark Suster has sold two companies to SaleForce.com, and has since become a VC and prolific blogger. Much of the advice he offers on his blog is focused on relationships between investors and startups. Having been on “both sides of the table,” Suster offers a great deal of advice from his own experiences, particularly for startup founders who don’t know much, and are naive, about finance and investment.

Suster’s hallmark is explaining complex and dry topics in really human terms; breaking down the complex nuances of investment rounds, seed funds, A-rounds, and convertible notes into more practical exercises in figuring out what an entrepreneur wants, and whether that is aligned with what investors might want, and if not, how to pick an investor with similar priorities. You can learn more from one of Suster’s posts about any flavor of startup investment, and how it really works in practice, rather than just in theory, than you can from reading a handful of articles elsewhere.

The blog also contains some great advice in sales and marketing, but the real gold is in Suster’s practical experience with investments and the enormous amount of time he’s spent working on both sides of the table. It’s a must read if you’re thinking about raising money.

Some great advice from BothSides:

VC Seagulls

Finding and Investor Who is in Love with You

What I Would Look for in a VC, Knowing What I Know Now

Ondrej Krajicek: Y Softer and StartupYard Mentor, Part 1: “Make Failing Legal in the Czech Republic”

(This is a two part series. Click here for Part 2: “Density Doesn’t Equal Cooperation”)

Ondrej Krajicek, one of StartupYard’s most popular mentors, serves as Chief Research Officer at Y Soft Corporation and Y Soft Ventures. Y Soft is a global leader in print management systems, and has also branched out into 3D printing. In addition, through Y Soft Ventures, the company has begun to support and invest in startups in its field as well, investing in Czech startups Comprimato, and OrganizeTube, among others.

Ondrej, when he visits StartupYard at Node5, can often be seen animately drawing on a flipchart. He’s the sort of person who can find passion for almost any subject, and when he’s talking with startups, there are few who can match his skills as a mentor.

Ondrej and I talked several times, about mentoring, investing, and the Czech tech ecosystem, in what became an increasingly long interview (our longest ever). Still, we think it’s really worth reading, so we have decided to split this behemoth into two parts. Part 2 will be posted by Friday. For today, please enjoy part one of this interview:

Hi Ondrej, tell us a bit about yourself first. What is your background, and how did you get involved with Y Soft Corporation, and Y Soft Ventures?

Pretty straightforward. I am Czech, I was born here and grew up here. Studied and worked at the Faculty of Informatics and Institute of Computer Science of Masaryk University in Brno. That is also where I had my first teaching experience, tutoring students on Object Oriented Programming and found out that I like to teach.

Later, I joined the team teaching Functional Programming at Haskell and also started two courses, which are being taught at the Faculty of Informatics to this day. Both are related to C# and Microsoft.Net platform. By the way, I have recently returned to teaching, having the opportunity to teach Software Quality at Faculty of Informatics, Masaryk University. It always feels nice to return.

I had some experiences with big companies like Microsoft, HP, but I left the university for Y Soft in 2007, never finishing my PhD (and that’s still on my TO DO list!). My background is applied Computer Science, Software Engineering and Software Architecture.

At Y Soft, I am member of company management and I have always been involved with R&D. Recently, I became Y Soft CTO. At Y Soft, I also became acquainted with Y Soft Ventures and the startup community, roughly 3 years ago.

When I work with startups, I simply sell what I know, what I have learned at Y Soft and whatever insight I might have. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sell the Y Soft way of doing things, trying to shape every challenge to whatever Y Soft went through. Every company is unique and that starts with culture and ends with products, technology and know how. But I try to use my insight and perspective which I have thanks to this experience and I am open about it.

I enjoy building products (focusing on combination of HW and SW) which have value. I enjoy challenging myself with customer needs (fighting with my engineering inner self which knows best what the users need) and bringing developers and customers together (which is anyhow seen as very dangerous thing to do). I love diversity and working in multicultural, global environment with all the lessons it brings. And I like matching business with technology and vice versa.

And I am a YSofter.

YSoft doesn’t seem the sort of company that one would normally expect to invest in startups and entrepreneurs. What drove your decision to give back to startups in Central Europe?

I look at this as a healthy mixture of pragmatism and patriotism. Patriotism is about wanting to give back something to our country and our region and support others to live up to challenges and establish companies, turn their ideas into products and products into business. I always shared the vision of Vasek (Muchna, Y Soft founder) to give positive examples that you can build successful companies here in CEE… or die trying!

From the business point of view, we want to utilize our experience with building Y Soft, delivering HW / SW products (which the world now calls Internet of Things, IOT) and accompanying services and also leverage our global sales and support network. Y Soft is only now changing from a single to multiple product company and our affiliates cover global business worldwide, and have the capacity to cover more than just SafeQ and potential to further grow their operation if necessary. We are utilizing this internally, such as with be3D printers, a recent Y Soft acquisition. 

What are some of your favorite investments from YSoft Ventures so far, and what makes them special to you?

A: The Y Soft Ventures operation is small so far, so I can say that I enjoy working with all our portfolio companies. However, the closest to me is Comprimato, the provider of GPU accelerated JPEG2000 codecs for professional use. I like the technology and I share some background with the founders. I strongly believe in their product, but most importantly in their technology and the team.

For me, every startup can be viewed and evaluated on three levels: (current or upcoming) products, technology / know how and the team and its culture. For instance, Comprimato is very strong on all three levels and they have very sound technology and team. Besides high performance video codecs, they can deliver value in parallelization on GPUs in many different fields. 

All our portfolio companies have their unique trait. Take OrganizeTube, for example: they managed to develop a second product just by trying to solve one of the problems they had with their web portal. That is another reminder of how flexible the startup can be and that new products and services can really start as “accidents”. 

What do you see as the unique advantages and disadvantages that startups have in the Czech Republic and in Central Europe generally?

The ecosystem, or I should say the lack of it. I recently had very interesting conversation with one of my colleagues about the cost of failures in entrepreneurship here. On one hand, you have the illegal chains of companies relying on surrogates (which we refer to as white horses) and on the other, we have lots of people with bright ideas facing the big risks associated with trying and failing.

We need to support trial and failure cycle on the system level. Not only will this make startups more accessible to everybody, but also this will give a strong message to the society, where we as a nation want to go.

 I understand the protective measures which are built in our legal system, but we need to be aware that this might also hinder the creation of new companies. Startup culture is one of the strong drivers for innovation and creation of products and services with high added value. This (and I am not a macroeconomist) translates to more qualified jobs and the push for more educated people. When we combine this with the strong tradition the Czech Republic has in some fields, this might really change our economic outlook for the next 20 – 30 years.

We just need to “legalize” trying and failing.

And this is not just a legal thing. Establishing a company and going bankrupt still has a lot of negative social connotation. We as a society need to learn to distinguish whether we are looking at somebody who really broke the law or if we are looking at an entrepreneur for whom his current idea failed, but who can succeed with a new one.

As a StartupYard mentor, what were your impressions of some of our most recent Startups? Did you have any favorites? What are some of their biggest challenges, in your view?

 First of all, thanks for this opportunity. I learned a lot! My first impression, when I came for my mentoring day was “How can you do this without a whiteboard or a flipchart?” So you gave me that flipchart :-).

I spend approximately 40 – 60 minutes with each company, which is how StartupYard works and I am still in touch with some of them. Every company is completely different and I enjoy talking to every single one of them. What’s even better is that I am staying in touch with some and as far as I know, this is one of the positives that StartupYard brings. Many contacts persist and lead to long term cooperations with the mentors.

All the products and ideas I saw were interesting. I really appreciated their depth and the technology behind them. But I believe that it’s the team that’s most important and I have met great people at StartupYard this year. A lot of positive things and also much to improve and learn, but that holds for all of us. Let’s discuss some particular topics which I met with.

I believe that there were some common traits to all of the teams I have met. They were mostly in the stage of technical obsession, still trying to think about how to sell how great their technology is. Some of them were undergoing the paradigm shift from thinking inwards to outwards thinking, i.e. instead of focusing on how they solve problems to what problems of their customers they are trying to solve and why. It sounds obvious, but this is one of the most difficult changes you need to undergo in our approach.

Another important aspect is quantification. They yet have to learn how to quantify the qualities and benefits they are delivering and how to communicate this in a straightforward way. One specific example was a datasheet covering a great product with 4 pages of full text. Somewhere within, the text says that customer can integrate the technology in 10 minutes, because it is so easy to use. This is something which needs to shine on the first page, with calculated savings of TCO on a real or model example.

Forget words. Qualities, metrics and measurements, communicated in a simple, straightforward way is what works (as far as I know ;-). Your message needs to be strong and for that, it needs to be short. Even Martin Luther King’s Gettysburg address took mere 16 minutes!

 You were very popular as a mentor with our teams this year. What makes mentoring worthwhile to you? What makes it challenging?

 First of all, being 34 years old it is difficult for me to call myself a mentor or feel like one. My approach is simple, get to know them, get to understand them, be one of them and apply whatever I know or have experienced in the past.

 I always try to make things clear and be open about what I think I can help with and where I can’t. I usually do not act as filter, I rather try to generate ideas and insights and it is up to the startups to filter what they see as useful. It is difficult to explain, sometimes I fit seamlessly with the culture of a particular startup and our discussions and workshops just flow, sometimes it’s like a struggle. Being able to accommodate third party ideas into your startup is a good test of your culture.

So if I may say “mentoring”, what I really enjoy about mentoring are three things: getting to know new people / companies, the opportunity to use what I know and what I am good at to solve different problems in different domains (I have always been a big believer in diversity), and most importantly, the learning opportunity.

I have always learned a lot from any company I have met and as a mentor, I am humbled, because if I am contributing something to them, they always give something back to me – a new thing to learn, an opportunity to practice, a thinking experience a challenge to master.

 And now we are getting to what makes it challenging. Looking at it from the perspective of the startup, they do not have that much time and usually their problems are connected with a high sense of urgency, they are fighting for survival. Some of them have cash for just few more months, not more.

So the challenge is to accept the constraints they have and come up with ideas for improvement or solutions. I believe that they don’t need a mentor telling them what is right but more like a teammate who can share their story with them, even if only for a short time. Simply put, I try to treat the startups as my customers. I always ask myself, whether the time we spent together delivered some value to them and what value it was.

There are some things you need to learn as a mentor, most importantly saying “I don’t think I am the right person to help you with this.”. And if you are a great mentor, you add “and I know this person, who is great at that and I will connect you.” One thing which I admire about the Valley culture its Pay It Forward approach, meaning you help without expecting any return. Eventually, somebody else will help you in return. So I try to practice that. Not that it is easy, finding enough time.

Last but not least, everybody needs to bear in mind that mentoring has its limits. Robert Kaplan very nicely defines the quality of mentoring as being as good, as the story being told to the mentor. I completely second that.

 As a representative of an investment fund, how can entrepreneurs and startups better prepare to pitch you and other investors on their ideas, teams, and businesses? What do you look for, and what most often kills your interest in a particular startup?

 Be honest. Be specific. Tell us who your customers are. Tell us why they should care? Tell us how to monetize on it. Or tell us that you don’t know. And most importantly, be honest and specific.

 For example, this year at StartupYard, most if not all startups I have met with had nice products and sound technology and they were struggling with finding ways how to monetize on them- how to approach customers. This is fairly common. I learned the hard way that it is one thing to have sound technology, another to turn it into a sellable product, and yet another to generate ongoing business. So we mostly discussed how to turn the technology into products and how to leverage it.

 Strangely, we had just one really technical discussion. I am a software architect myself, so for me, this is very difficult. But I can share what I have learned so far.

 One last thing, very important. Please be honest and specific. Forget statements like: “My product brings new, unparalleled ways how to optimize your workflow, streamline your working process and make you much more productive.” Ask yourself: what our customer’s  specific problem? How do we want to solve it (what advantages you bring), and what benefits do we generate (specifically – numbers, figures), and why will they pay?

So be honest, short and specific.

This is a two part series. Click here for Part 2: “Density Doesn’t Equal Cooperation”

Czech Out the Tech Scene: Our SlideShare on Startups in the Czech Republic

More and more often these days, StartupYard gets similar questions. What’s going on in the Czech Republic? Why should startups move there? What’s unique about Prague, about the Czechs, and about the current ecosystem? What about investors? Can a startup get funded in the Czech Republic?

Well, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to answer those questions, and a few more. So here is our slideshare: “Czech Out the Tech Scene,” a brief guide to the Czech Startup Ecosystem.

This is a work in progress. Think we missed something? Got something terribly wrong? Great! Let us know by tweeting @startupyard, and we’ll make it right.

Meet the StartupYard 2015 Startups: Testomato, a watch dog for your website.

When Testomato joined our program, it was with the understanding that they would be hiring a CEO to lead their team. Over the past 3 months, as we’ve gotten to know the Testomato team, and their new CEO Marcel Valo, we’ve become even more excited about the potential of this idea, and confident in their ability to bring it to a larger audience.

Testomato actively monitors and tests websites for errors and other issues that may interfere with normal operation, letting the site owner know almost instantly when an issue occurs. Simple tests can be set up and run continuously, ensuring that mission critical sites and services never go down unexpectedly. Testomato aims to be the leading watchdog for websites- a must-have tool for any revenue generating site.

Hi guys, tell us a bit about Testomato. What does the service do? Who is it for?

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Marcel Valo, Ceo of Testomato

Marcel: In short, it’s a monitoring service for websites. It tells you when your website has a problem that may interrupt service or access for your visitors. It does a lot more than just monitor websites of course, but this is the core functionality: making sure your website is up and running properly at all times.

Testomato is for people like myself. In my corporate career, I have been responsible for marketing communications and for company websites, and I always had lots of problems to solve with those websites. Google analytics codes missing, time-outs, meta-tags just disappearing— there’s always something potentially wrong. And it took a lot of time to even notice a problem, much less correct it. Now with Testomato, I would be able to set up a simple automatic test, and know about any problem that arises within five minutes. That’s incredibly valuable when you have a mission critical website to maintain.

Where did the idea for Testomato first come from? How did the company get started?

Jan "Honza" Prachar, Co-Founder of Testomato

Jan “Honza” Prachar, Co-Founder of Testomato

Honza: It was originally an idea from one of the founders- Michal Illich [StartupYard investor and founder of Wikidi]. We were struggling with setting up Selenium to test a few projects. We wanted something that would quickly and easily verify that a site, and all its components, were online and working.

It took a lot of time to configure and maintain, and many false alerts were reported. The time invested was really not worth the problems we experienced. But we still needed this kind of monitoring, so we came up with a simple solution for monitoring and supervising our other projects.

Marcel: My business partner Michal Illich wanted a very easy to use, but also complex and in-depth tool for monitoring his company projects. Testomato was the result of that. While it ran as a sort of side project for Illich and Wikidi for about a year, it became moderately popular among a group of web developers. While a lot of people had signed up and were using the service, Testomato still struggled to find a paying audience or a way to monetize properly. I was brought on board quite recently- only after Testomato joined StartupYard, and together we’ve been working on shifting our business model towards e-commerce, helping online retailers to make sure they aren’t losing business due to site outages and other problems.

Is this a competitive space already? What are some alternatives to using Testomato for website monitoring and testing?

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Marcel: There are a number of alternatives on the market. But they’re all either too simple, making them useless for monitoring a high value site, or too complicated to use. Some of the existing solutons allow you to monitor and control whatever you want, but they’re so time consuming, that nobody buy an IT specialist or a developer would bother with them. We are developing a tool that many different stakeholders can use effectively, from marketing, to IT, to QA departments, to ensure that they aren’t missing major site failures.

You’ve made some significant changes to your business model since joining StartupYard, can you tell us more about your current direction?

The Testomato Team

Roman Ozana, Co-Founder of Testomato

 

Roman:  One of the realizations we’ve made is that business owners like to use Testomato as a quick and simple tool keep track of the work of their developers. There are so many things to potentially keep track of on a site, that it can be impossible to do it manually.

Marcel: Well, we’ve made a lot of changes, as I’ve mentioned. A lot of changes still lie ahead.

Our target group has shifted from developers, to people with online businesses, and e-commerce sites. Testomato could be used by a marketing head to track campaigns, for example, or by an IT department to alert them to failures in a high-value site, like an e-shop with hundreds of transactions an hour. When your business depends on your website being reliable, 24/7, and processing hundreds of transactions, a simple error can cost you thousands of euros.

A site like that can’t afford a lot of unscheduled downtime- nor can any high-traffic site or page that generates revenue. We had to shift our pricing accordingly, because this new target group has different needs and expectations. We find that this group needs more comprehensive testing on just a few sites, which means much more work on our end, coupled with a very straightforward and intuitive user interface.

What are some of the functionalities and services you plan to offer in the near future?

Marcel: Right now we are talking about locations. Because Testomato monitors, checks and tests your website from the outside, we can also play the role of a test user. How does a site work from a particular location? Is it fast enough? Is it properly localized or not? Do all the plugins work in all locations?

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We currently have two regions – Europe and the USA, and as a customer you cannot pick-up one, we still do it automatically.  But this is something we plan to change. Many more sites and services now have to be location aware, and they have to function differently according to how users access them. Many site owners aren’t aware of how their services are functioning in different regions, and if they need to do more localization work. So that’s a key functionality we’d like to expand on.

Honza: Also we want to make design changes to help bigger customers configure their checks and projects more quickly. There is room for a lot of improvement, and we have a lot of feedback to work with. Making Testomato work well with a big website is a new challenge.

Tell us a bit about the Testomato team.

Marcel: We are a pretty happy team. We’re pretty quiet, compared to some of the other teams at StartupYard, but we’re happy too. Not many people right now – 2 developers, Roman and Honza, Monika, our product lead, and our lovely copywriter and social media specialist Elle. We have Irena, the link-builder, and me, the new CEO.

I should be leading the whole team, but because I’ve been with Testomato for just a few weeks, sometimes they are leading me. Thank you guys!

Honza: Marcel joined us a month ago and he is doing really great. He has already made several big decisions, so we could start implementing them and move fast. Many impasses were eliminated thanks to his experience.

I would say, and feedback from StartupYard and the mentors also confirmed this, that our team was not really ready to make the big decisions on our own. As developers, we just weren’t used to that kind of thinking, and we needed some help with direction. Since Marcel joined us, he has pushed us to move forward, and that’s really helped.

How do you plan to grow in the next year? What markets will you focus on in the near-term? 

Marcel: We want to be  a world-wide service, with strong added value for online businesses. For example, e-shops, banks or insurance companies could deploy Testomato on an ongoing basis, and save money consistently by spotting site failures as they occur.

But we’re also interested in web services and media agencies, because we can help them with many issues. If a web agency or media company knows about an issue before the client, that’s a good thing! Growth in total users might be slow for the near term, as we’re changing our focus, but we expect to grow our paying user-base substantially within the next year, and focusing on adding value for that group will help us get there.

Long term, what do you see as Testomato’s vision for the next 5 years?

Honza: We want to be even more active in searching for critical issues on a website. This means that Testomato won’t just test and monitor according to user requests, but also notify the user about possible security issues, problems with site ranking, even things like design and speed of loading for different locations and devices. There are a lot of points of failure for big websites, and they’re too many for any one person to monitor consistently. We want Testomato to be a much smarter and more engaging tool as well. Site testing can be boring, so it’s important that users see the value they’re being given.

Roman: Our ultimate goal is let you know about harmful issues on your website before customers even notice. We want to be a website watchdog, something like a security guard or a babysitter for your website.

Marcel: Testomato should start to be a synonym for monitoring and testing websites. It should be a “must-have,” like health insurance for the web. Something everybody knows about, and anybody who cares about their website will naturally use. That is my vision for the next 5 years.

 

Give Testomato a Try Today: Test Your Site in Seconds

Follow Testomato on Twitter at @Testomatocom

Spotlight on Czech Startups: Hlidacky, Babysitting, Safe and on Demand.

As part of our ongoing series, we seek out and interview the founders of interesting Czech Startups. If you’d like your Startup to be reviewed on this blog, send me an email to “Lloyd” at the domain: startupyard, then add “dot com.”

Hlidacky, a StartupYard alum from 2012, is a service for finding verified local babysitters. The platform has also added cleaning to its list of services, and currently boasts nearly 6000 verified private contractors in the Czech Republic, and has been profiled on the popular tech blog CzechCrunch (link in Czech).

I caught up with Petr Sigut, one of Hlidacky’s co-founders, who runs

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Petr Sigut, Cofounder of Hlidacky.cz

Hi Petr, tell us a little bit about Hlidacky. What is it for?

Hlidacky is an online babysitting and cleaning service, where we connect people with babysitters and cleaning ladies.

How did Hlidacky end up at StartupYard?

We wanted to get as much as possible into startup ecosystem and get some real feedback. Seed money was also a motivation, because it enabled us to focus solely on Hlidacky for 6 months.

hlidacky-homepage

What were some of the challenges you faced in getting funding? How did you eventually get funded?

Since we are on Czech and Slovak markets only, our pool of investors is limited to these countries.

Also, it is extremely time-consuming – it takes one founder dedicated totally to this – calling investors, explaining the product, tuning the presentation, the pitch; leaving less time for growth and product.

So we’ve ended-up financing it with our own money for now.

How has the platform developed since you left StartupYard?

The most important thing was that we switched to a paid model of our service. To our customers the trust and reliability of babysitters is more important than a feature list, so that was our main focus. The other thing was to make communication faster, so we can help people who need babysitters and cleaners as soon as possible.

I think the main advantage [of StartupYard] was that the iterations were much faster – which is what matter the most at the end. Without StartupYard, it would have taken us much much longer and maybe our energy would’ve been drained by that time.

The Hlidacky Team

The Hlidacky Team

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in converting independent workers to your platform?

We need to put babysitters through as many verifications as possible, and yet have to keep the onboarding process simple at the same time. Right now, we approve about 40% of babysitters that sign up to our platform. We are fine with that number, and in the future we want to be even more strict. This month we launch a first aid course in cooperation with Regional Red Cross Society Prague 1 for babysitters, so babysitters will be listed much higher after having the course.

How have you seen the Czech technology ecosystem change in the past few years? What do you think still needs improvement?

I think Czech Republic was always strong in technology startups, because we have lots of great (and free) universities. Also, Czech Republic is not and never will be the US in terms of market size. You have to do sales there and technology development here.

Is there anything that The Czech Republic can do to improve its global reach?

We just need to work harder!

What’s the future for Hlidacky? What else have you been working on?

We launched the beta hlidacky.sk  a month ago and now we are working on an iPhone application. The main focus is on quality of babysitters. We want to focus on that and add first-aid courses and mandatory verification.

With Hlidacky co-founder David we also started the development company PrimeHammer because many startups with less-technological knowledge are asking to help them with development.

Male Founders: Make a Woman Your First Hire. But Don’t “Hire a Woman”

It’s now over two weeks into StartupYard’s 2015 cohort, and by now our startups have broached topics with our mentors ranging from their go-to-market strategies and branding, to their pricing models and customer acquisition costs, to the exact wordings of their positioning statements.

The real challenge, in fact, is that these conversations have to happen over and over again, in widening and tightening spirals of detail, until the startups can conduct pro/con arguments about every aspect of their short and medium term strategies in their sleep.

Hiring Ain’t Easy

One thing that I think doesn’t come up quite often enough at StartupYard, and probably at most accelerators, is hiring. We know from our own survey of startups at December’s LeWeb conference in Paris, that hiring ends up being the bane of most startups’ existence within the first two years, and certainly after a largish funding round is closed.

Most of our teams are composed of friends- people who worked or studied together, and see their relationships as organic and natural. They sometimes naively believe (or simply refuse to doubt) that this same cozy, non-confrontational arrangement will slowly snake its way out into their ever expanding network of collaborators, and that they’ll never really face tough hiring decisions.

The Happiest Team is Not Always the Best Team

But there are multiple points of failure in this approach, and we’ve seen them happen with our startups as well. While a team of friends is essential to starting your business, that doesn’t mean that this will translate into the perfect team to grow that same business.

Companies that get some funding, and already have a team of friends in place, are in danger of falling into the same patterns they developed as a scrappy startup. It worked before, so why not now? Well, in scrappy startups, everybody does everything, and productivity is assumed to measured by the creative output of the group.

That’s the “move fast and break things,” part of a startup’s life cycle. But once a capital injection has been received, there are going to be other metrics for success- and these new metrics are going to be measured in very different ways. In the same way that the old wisdom goes: “you have to move out to move up,” so it can be with hiring: you have to look outward to grow.

Challenge Your Assumptions

So why should hiring a woman be among your first priorities? Now, let’s all slow down for just a second, and I’ll explain what I mean by this. “Hiring a woman,” and hiring a woman, are two separate things. And while I don’t personally look as askance upon “hiring a woman,” as some very persuasive people do, hiring a woman just to have hired a woman shouldn’t be your goal in this endeavor.

We can get far ahead of ourselves, and decry the idea of hiring women in non-technical roles simply because we feel that they transform our work environments into more pleasant places to be. I don’t see why that’s a bad motivation to hire a woman, but it certainly shouldn’t be the sole, or even the primary motivation either.

Hire a Woman. Don’t “Hire a Woman.”

For every study showing that simply having a mix of men and women on your team and in your work environment makes you more productive, more friendly, more honest, and happier, there is a legion of female engineers who find those things incidental to the fact that talented people, including women, deserve to be hired on their merits alone.

And those who point out that focusing on the productivity benefits of hiring women tends to depersonalize and dehumanize the actual women who are hired because they fit that bill, are right to do so. That isn’t my personal experience, but my personal experience is limited, by necessity, to being a man who has had some very skilled and seemingly well adjusted and happy female co-workers in technical and non-technical roles.

I’m sure that if you asked them, they might very well feel differently than I imagine. I’m not a mind reader, after all. It’s all enough to inspire quite a bit of handwringing from first-time male founders who genuinely want to do the right thing, but are seemingly boxed in by devils on either shoulder.

Don’t Have an Existential Crisis Over It

Either you risk not being progressive by not being proactive, or you risk being condescending without even realizing it. Some may remember American Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and his “binders full of women” gaff. He was (rightly) lampooned for objectifying women, but he was also trying to do the right thing- in an admittedly half-assed  way.

It’s quite possible that as a male founder, you will simply be unable to avoid mistakes in this area. Being the boss isn’t easy. You could just keep your head down and hope for the best, or you can stick your neck out. I feel obligated to push for the latter move: hire a qualified woman to whatever role you first need to fill.

And by a qualified woman, I mean exactly that. Search for and find a woman who is qualified to fill the role you need filled- whatever it is. Don’t take the first woman who comes along, and make her your office manager, just to check the box. Although you may eventually hire a female office manager, that isn’t the point of the exercise.

Avoid Douchiness

At the same time, don’t hire a woman who isn’t qualified to fill the role you want to fill- and don’t then pay that woman less than you’d pay the person you wanted to hire. That’s just douchey. Pay this woman the amount you set aside for a qualified, valued candidate. Because that’s the only type of woman you’re going to hire.

Men who are hiring often feel that they understand other men more easily. I think few would argue that it’s easier for men to evaluate the skills and talents of other men, because men tend to think and act in ways that other men can easily recognize.

Plus, if you’re a newly-minted male founder who has never managed a team before, managing a bunch of guys might seem easier. It’s more like schoolyard football, and many of us men aren’t that far removed from a schoolyard mentality.

In our schoolyard mentality, we want girls around for us to show off to. We want lunchladies and moms. That’s not sexist, as much as it is infantile. But startups are not typically judged on the basis of their emotional maturity.

What we don’t understand is frightening to us. If you’re hiring a woman, seeing her for her true talent and value might be difficult for you. Embrace this difficulty, and try to do it anyway. You could make better decisions than you would by following your gut.

What This Accomplishes

First off, it’s no secret that women are chronically undervalued in the tech industry. Surveys collected by Quartz show that women make up only around 12% of the engineering workforce of large tech companies. They fare better in non-technical roles, and at smaller startups.

In part, this reflects the rate at which women graduate from engineering programs in the west. However, it may be the opposite of the trend one might expect: that in the meritocratic, and egalitarian environments of big tech, the best performing women might find more jobs than in bro-dominated Startupland.

So, we can surmise, there should be *more* qualified women looking for jobs in startups, in proportion to men, because women are less likely to occupy technical roles at large companies, where the security of a steady paycheck draws many a coder. There are probably even more qualified women looking for work in non-technical roles.

And here’s a bonus: women are generally paid less than they deserve in these non-technical roles, so you have the opportunity to recruit women from jobs that they would otherwise be content to stay in, by offering a competitive salary. By holding out for the well qualified female candidate, you’re likely to find someone more talented than if you simply latched onto the first guy who came along.

Pitch StartupYard Investors and Mentors at the Accelerator Open House

Nearly 100 people have already signed up for our Accelerator Open House, Dec. 4, which celebrates our recent move to Node5, and the opening of StartupYard as a more public resource for local and regional startups, and features exiting Chairman of Microsoft Europe, Jan Muehlfeit, who will deliver keynote remarks.

In addition, we’re happy to announce that we will hold a “pitch-off,” inviting entrepreneurs who can attend the event to pitch their ideas in front of StartupYard mentors and investors, programmers and entrepreneurs. Pitches will be 90 seconds, and will not include demos or slides. It’s just you, your charm, and a microphone, in front of a full house.

 

Applications close this Friday, November 28th (Edit: Applications are now closed).

This isn’t a contest, and there’s nothing to win, but rather an opportunity for you to pitch an idea you may be thinking about, or a startup you’ve been working on, and see whether it peaks the interest of investors, mentors, or others at the Open House. Your pitch will hopefully be the start of a conversation that may see you joining the StartupYard accelerator, or having further talks with potential partners, advisors, or investors.


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StartupYard At Slush 2014, Helsinki

An exciting first day at Slush 2014! Here are a few of our pictures and tweets from the day:IMG_0908 IMG_0910

This was the view from 9am, which is 8am CET. It was a bit overwhelming for that time of morning.

The conference is hosting a record 15,000 people, from all over the world. Particularly on display were startups in the fields of gaming, and wellness.

Talks are going on at 4 large stages simultaneously, and are being given by luminaries from all corners of the industry. The lighting is quite aggressive, a combination of red and green lasers, white spot lights, and fog, lending the whole occasion the atmosphere of a rock concert, with people constantly cycling between the stages, the packed venue restaurants, and the product booths scattered throughout he venue.

We can attest to the fact that the badges are huge, and easy to read.

 

I cannot confirm or deny the existence of this sauna at a startup conference.

Linda Liukas gave a brilliant talk about her evolution from a young fan of American Vice President Al Gore, into a coder and an entrepreneur.

The Slush 100 competition, originally planned as a 250,000 prize, was doubled at the last minute.

The winner was Enbritrly, with their innovative bot-detecting ad-web analysis engine.

Jeanne Trojan: Present as Yourself

Over the past few weeks, the StartupYard teams worked hard on perfecting their pitches for Demo Day. There were a fair share of investors, corporate representatives, mentors, and industry members of all stripes in attendance. Needless to say, the pressure was on. But, every one of the teams pitched really well.

A week before the big day, we invited Jeanne Trojan, an Executive Presentation Trainer & Coach and long-time pitch mentor for StartupYard, to TechSquare to help the teams prepare for their Demo Day pitches. Here are a few of the tips that she shared with us.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Counter-intuitively, the best way to appear natural in front of a group of people is to meticulously plan your pitch and practice until it has a natural flow. You know how an athlete can make an amazingly difficult move look easy? That’s your goal when you present. You want the audience to get the impression that you’re just talking with them. That’s takes loads of practice.

IMG_0575

But, that’s not to say that Jeanne advocates memorizing your presentation. That can be dangerous and will not give a natural impression. You shouldn’t be concentrating on the words, but on the stories that make up your pitch. Every slide should represent a ‘story’ for you that you can remember.

However, you should memorize one part of your talk. Your opening. When you get up to speak, you’ll be nervous and you’ll have a bit of a ‘deer in the headlights’ moment. Make sure you know the first few sentences of your talk by heart so you can do it on ‘auto-pilot’.

 

Find Your Allies

Audience engagement in person is achieved in many ways. But Jeanne emphasized simple, easy, and repeatable tricks for connecting. For example, she advised us to look for ‘audience allies’. They are the people nodding, smiling and really engaged in your talk. Find these people in every part of the room so that when you’re feeling nervous, looking at them can help you to calm down and you can still give the impression that you’re looking at everyone. Instead of a sea of faces looking back at you, judging you, look at the few you feel you can trust, and talk to them.

Vaclav Formanek, getting passionate about education.

Vaclav Formanek, of MyPrepApp

Share Your Enthusiasm

This is your project. If you’re excited about it, you need to be able to share that energy with your audience. If you’re not, there’s a bigger problem than your pitch. There is no excuse for acting ‘cool’ or being stiff when you’re sharing your big idea. Your pitch should appear important and urgent. Your audience should be thinking – ‘Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? This is something that needs to happen!’ Constructing your pitch to give this impression is vital to your success.

Stop Dancing

Even some of the best presenters still have nervous habits to break. For example, nervous speakers often seem to have little control over their legs, skipping around the stage, not even aware that they’re doing it. Once speakers have an awareness of what they’re doing with their bodies and how they can control their movements, it makes for a much more relaxed and easy-to-watch presentation. Jeanne shared some tips on how to move with a purpose and to cure that ‘shaky voice’ that always accompanies nervous situations.

Don’t Be Slide-Driven

notapresentation

“ You and your message are your presentation. NOT your slides. Too often, slides drive a talk and the speaker’s and audience’s focus is on them.’ “

A lot of presenters get stuck reading the headlines of each slide and then following the information as it pops up on the screen. This is a comfortable, but boring way of getting through a presentation, and it puts the material ahead of the presenter themselves. When you give your pitch at a demo day or a conference, you are presenting *yourself* as much as you are presenting your ideas, your team, and your work so far. A sure way of failing to inspire anyone, is to take yourself out of the loop, and show a set of slides that attendees could have read through on their own in 2 minutes.

Make sure that slide creation is one of the last in your preparation steps. And, focus on creating visual, eye catching slides that will attract the audience’s attention and turn to you to learn more.

Jeanne was a vital part of our teams’ pitch success on Demo Day and we’d like to thank her for working with them so passionately. If you’d like to make a successful presentation or pitch, we can definitely recommend Jeanne’s work.

Jeanne Trojan

jmtcz.cz

@jmtcz

Meet the 2014 Founders: SentiSquare. Helping global brands become better listeners.

The last of the 7 from 2014, SentiSquare began as an academic project by Josef Steinberger, assistant Professor at the University of West Bohemia. I caught up with Josef this week to talk about SentiSquare, a “sentiment analytics” engine that will revolutionize the way that global brands engage with their customers online and offline.

Josef

Cofounders Josef Steinberger, and Tomáš Brychcín

Hi Joseph, where does the idea for SentiSquare come from?

Several years ago, I started to research opinion summarization at the University of West Bohemia. There is an enormous and ever growing number of opinions about various entities all over the internet. For example, on Facebook alone, on Ford Motorcars company page, there has been over 37000 comments during the last year. And most of the comments are in English. If we include local Ford pages (ones for different countries), Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube and various discussion forums, we end up with over 1 Million comments. I think that gathering that data and making sense of it through summarization has a great commercial potential. With the initial idea, I entered the Microsoft Innovation Centre (MIC) accelerator and the idea saw some further development. From there, I moved to the StartupYard program. Tomas and Michal, our top two NLP researchers at the university, joined me and together, with valuable advices of StartupYard mentors we further developed the idea and SentiSquare finally crystallized into a workable business idea.

Is your whole team from academia? How did you all get together on this project?

Yes, all three founders are from the University of West Bohemia. I’m an associate professor and Tomas and Michal are finishing their PhD theses. We started working on sentiment analysis together at the beginning of the year. We ran experiments for a Semeval’s shared task [an international NLP research community evaluation campaign] and we were ranked 3rd out of 30 participating teams. We joined  forces for the brand-related opinion summarization project which I’d been already working on in the MIC program. Tomas brings the knowledge of semantic analysis and Michal’s expertise is in machine learning.

What will SentiSquare allow clients to do? What will its limitations be?

Sentisquare discovers the most important topics in social media content and automatically produces summaries of the topic-related comments. We can analyse millions of tweets, facebook posts, forum comments, and many other sources. It’s really the next generation of sentiment analysis. Basically, it does more than just produce sentiment polarity figures (e.g., how many times a brand was mentioned positively or negatively) but it answers the crowd sentiment question by tracking “key” opinions, e.i. opinions expressed by a large number of contributors. The trick is in identifying these opinions even when they are expressed in very different ways. These opinions drive brand reputation in a much more concrete way than “likes,” and so forthe. Sentisquare links topics across different brands, languages and periods, it will allow you to produce temporal, competitive and geographical comparisons. This will allow global companies and brands to get a good handle on their most common user complaints, the successes or drawbacks of their marketing campaigns, and their brand perceptions in a broad set of categories, for various demographics. The size of the data set limits the possibilities for the technology. If we don’t find enough relevant and content-rich comments about a brand (~1 thousand comments), the analysis won’t produce conclusive figures. To hone our models, we currently need over 1 Million domain-specific pieces of text, so this will apply to very big brands, probably with a global presence.

So you need a lot of data. what kinds of companies and people do you see as your likely customers?

Skoda [the leading Czech automaker, owned by Volkswagen Group], is a great example of a potential client. If they monitor what people are saying about the current car models, they can get inspiration on what people like, what they’d don’t like, what they want, and to which competing cars they compare Skoda’s models. This information can help in designing and marketing a new model. After the new one is out, the aggregation of the expressed sentiment about it can help in shaping the decisions taken. The power of sentiment analysis is in the fact that it goes beyond just sales figures and statistics. We can imagine this technology making the world a better place for everyone. For example, there are applications in entertainment as well. You know how Hollywood lives only on the box office take of whatever movie they release, no matter the quality of the film? Films all end up copying each other and looking pretty much the same. Plus, there’s a huge amount of risk in budgeting for a $150 Million film just because a similar one was successful. Well, what if our technology could help movie studios to understand what people like about their movies, and so allow them to *avoid* copying the things that don’t need copying. They could get ahead of trends, and really understand what the audience is yearning for before making the next film. Everybody wins.

What do you see as your primary competition in this field?

We feel that competition is a badly negotiated cooperation :laughs:. That means there is a lot of room in this market for new ideas, and new players. Even if current social media monitoring tools are nominally our competition, we’d rather position Sentisquare as a new layer on top of their functionality. We are investigating the possibility of cooperation with SocialBakers, BrandEmbassy, GoodData and eMerite, however, there are many others we would like to work with.

Josef does some deep thinking.

Josef does some deep thinking.

As an academic, what do you find most challenging about thinking in business terms, and talking to business people?

The first difference is that in business we need to think much more about the target group of users and the business benefit our solution brings. Also In research, we push the quality of the technological solutions. For example, if we improve the quality of sentiment polarity prediction by 2 percent, we could write a famous paper about it. In business, it is more about uniqueness of the idea and differentiation from the competition. Business is about practical, workable solutions that deliver, not just theoretical models.

How has your experience at StartupYard been so far? Which of the mentors has had the most powerful influence on your team and your direction as a company?

We’ve learned a lot about the business world. Now we have a good basis for pitching, business planning, marketing, sales, and positioning the company and so on. There were many mentors who gave up a valuable feedback. Jan Šedivý and Jaroslav Gergic helped us to elaborate the API strategy. Marcel Vargaeštok introduced us to what the marketing research agencies do. Adam Zbiejczuk connected us with the local social media monitoring community. Viktor Fischer share with us his knowledge about sales possibilities and company directions. And finally, there were crucial times when every positive feedback was important for us, like the one from Roman Stupka, Philip Staehelin or Jan Muehlfeit.

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