(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.