Sarah and I were in Prague for the last couple of days, acting as mentors on the StartupYard accelerator programme. The accelerator concept was pioneered in the US by organisations like Y Combinator and TechStars but is growing in popularity everywhere; Seedcamp and Springboard are the best known in the UK. The main objective is to turn very early stage ideas into investible businesses. Quickly.
StartupYard founders, Lukas Huducek and Petr Ocasec have done a fantastic job pulling together eight local teams with innovative, internet-based projects for a three-month programme of intensive mentoring from a range of entrepreneurs, angel investors, corporates and other advisors. Our visit was towards the end of their first month.
Sarah rustled up a team of UK mentors to work alongside us including James Fulforth, a corporate lawyer who gave great advice on vital issues such as trademarks, contracts and incorporation. Maria Molland, Venture Partner with DN Capital shared her wisdom on business planning and raising finance and Bob Schukai, Global Head of Mobile at Thomson Reuters provided a global perspective and great technology insights. Tony Kypreos and Sarah were there on behalf of the Global Entrepreneurs Programme, so on the lookout for ideas which could globalise from the UK. I focused on sales and marketing advice and digital strategy. And swearing.
We have all heard about the great engineering talent and entrepreneurial spirit in the Czech Republic and across Eastern Europe, but were all curious to see it for ourselves. So, in no particular order, these are the teams we met:
This one's up and running already, with real customers and revenue, so perhaps the furthest along the startup process. Somewhat analogous to the street team approach, BE supply online "brand ambassadors" who engage in social media on behalf of brands. Check out their interesting blog.
Optiscont couldn't be more different. They plan to build smart kiosks to sell spectacles. Customers input their prescription, try on frames, pick lenses and place orders directly. Glasses will typically be 50% cheaper than on the high street.
Taeksi are building a smartphone app so that users can order the cheapest and nearest cab at the press of a button. It can also help companies keep track of employee cab usage. They're starting off in Prague but have their sights on other European cities.
For people who think that 3D printing is still science fiction, Uniplicator have news for you: it's here and surprisingly affordable. Using UK-made printers, they will print from your 3D computer model or one you've chosen on their site from their community of 3D modellers and designers. They can also take a hand drawing and do the modelling for you.
Proactify have built a very impressive system for adding personalisation and recommendations to e-commerce sites. Think Amazon recommendations, but affordable for small e-tailers as well as large. Their technology has already been integrated into two sites, including a Czech language eBook retailer.
SimpleTestIO are creating a hosted web-based product for testing websites for bugs. It will be very simple to use so ideal for small developers and ongoing testing when new functionality is added to an existing site.
AskYou have started from the intriguing premise that even the most successful social media networks only really connect you to people you already know. They're building social tools which allow you to hook up with strangers in your area who share the same interests.
Finally, and truly different, LittleMonster is tired of the cheap and nasty or boring and expensive kids clothing available in Slovakia. Instead, they are producing well designed, high quality t-shirts and babygrows which sell for €10. All products are made locally and will survive many hot washes.
The nature of the startup world is that not all these teams will make it, at least not in their current form. But we admire and respect them all for trying. Being mentored on one of these programmes isn't easy. It involves exposing yourself and your ideas to constant feedback from highly opinionated people. Often the feedback isn't what you want to hear; sometimes it conflicts with advice received from others; it could even be wrong. This is not an exact science, after all. It's often painful and can mean letting go of a preciously held idea or even your company name. But it's probably the best education you can get in entrepreneurship when it's your first startup.
We had a lot of fun and plan to keep tabs on everyone during the next two months. You might even hear more about some of them here, or encounter them personally if any of them make it big, which we sincerely hope they do.