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Entrepreneurship

Building Yelp: A History Lesson

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In the fall of 2004, Jeremy Stoppelman caught the flu.

He had just arrived in San Francisco that summer, so he jumped online in hopes of finding a recommendation for a doctor. Instead, all Stoppelman found were bare bones directories and useless information.

But this gave him an idea. He and Russel Simmons were in San Francisco working for a business incubator called MRL Ventures, searching for “the next big thing” on the internet. He met with Simmons over lunch.

The two were in the office of their boss, Max Levchin, pitching their new concept before dinnertime. They didn’t have a PowerPoint presentation or a specific revenue plan; just a sense that they could make something that would appeal to lots of people.

Early photo of Simmons (left) and Stoppelman (right).

Levchin hesitated. “I wasn’t sure if it would work. But the guys were really enthusiastic about it. And in my experience, when you have smart people who work well together, it’s foolish not to invest.”

Maybe he was feeling lucky because it was his 29th birthday, or maybe it was those tens of millions laying around from his recent exit from PayPal, but Levchin agreed. He invested $1 million in the half-baked idea and Stoppelman and Simmons got to work.

Yelp 1.0

So what were they building? The two founders realized from Stoppelman’s doctor experience that the best way to find a business was through word of mouth. But word of mouth hadn’t moved to the web yet. The question they were asking was, “How do we bring those in-person recommendations online?”

They thought the answer was email and that’s exactly what the earliest version of Yelp was. On the website Simmons put together, users could email their friends asking for recommendations on specific locations or types of places. Responses were logged on a communal site for everyone to see.

Their first review came in on October 12, 2004. Katherine W. gave Truly Mediterranean four stars and a simple, but convincing:

“dirt cheap, good falafels.”

Despite that promising review, their idea was a flop. It attracted few users beyond the founders’ friends and family and failed to impress the venture capital investors whom Stoppelman pitched at the end of 2004.

“We got the doors slammed in our face over and over again,” Stoppelman said. Things were starting to fizzle right before their eyes.

The Epiphany

Undeterred, the founders searched for a way to improve their product. One day, they noticed something.

The site had a link, buried somewhere in the footer, that you could click if you wanted to submit a review without being asked. While poring over their analytics, they realized that people were not only finding that link, they were beginning to use it — often.

They watched as users submitted unsolicited reviews more and more. It got even bigger than the email-requested reviews. People would write 5, 10, or 15 reviews in one sitting.

They knew they had stumbled upon something big. So in February 2005, the duo launched a brand new site, this time focused entirely on unsolicited reviews. Yelp 2.0 saw an immediate rise in traffic. It was a hit.

The Foundation

A 2005 version of yelp.com

To kick-start the process of building a platform for this new review system, they purchased a database of over 20 million business locations. This database was old and inaccurate, but it created the framework for what Yelp called “claimed business locations”.

The empty business pages functioned as an open invitation for people to submit reviews. It motivated people to, at the very least, write a few words about the business. In fact, many of the early reviews were just that: “this place is great”, or “this place sucked.” But as time passed, reviewers started to take the platform more seriously and write longer, deeper reviews. The framework paid off in dividends later.

Also, they didn’t subordinate the user’s contributions to professional reviews, as on Citysearch, or to directory information, like yellow-pages sites. Instead, Yelp motivated people to share reviews through praise and attention , something no one else was doing. Those social networking features were what made them stand out.

Getting Social

Now that they had the right direction, they needed to grow their user base. Without the cash for a national rollout, Stoppelman decided to first focus on making Yelp famous locally.

With the help of a buzz-marketing guru he hired on a whim, Stoppelman decided to select a few dozen people — the most active reviewers on the site — and throw them an open-bar party. As a joke, he called the group the Yelp Elite Squad.

A Yelp Elite event

Levchin thought the idea was crazy: “I was like, ‘Holy crap, we’re nowhere near profitability; this is ridiculous,’ “. But 100 people showed up to the first party, and traffic to the site began to increase. Since the parties were reserved for prolific reviewers, they gave casual users a reason to use the site more and nonusers a reason to join.

By June 2005, Yelp had 12,000 reviewers, most of them in the Bay Area. In November, Stoppelman went back to the VCs and bagged $5 million from Bessemer Venture Partners. He used the money to throw more parties and hire party planners — Yelp called them “community managers” — in New York, Chicago, and Boston. Community managers and the Yelp Elite Squad still exist today.

Stickers

The number of reviewers on the site grew to 100,000 by 2006. Stoppelman also raised several million more in venture capital. By summer 2006, Yelp had one million monthly visitors and they were slowly adding more cities.

Now that user counts were growing, they focused on their next problem: they needed to get merchants to play a much deeper role. A growing user base of reviewers was wonderful, but the other side of the coin was the businesses themselves. Not to mention they were Yelp’s only source of revenue.

They decided to begin an aggressive drive to get merchants to claim business listings, populate them (e.g. menus, hours, website, etc), and motivate their own customers to review their experiences on Yelp.

The Yelp sticker

One of the ways they did this was by using a sticker. It was a genius move.

Most businesses were already familiar with Zagat and Mobile stickers and the impact they had on awareness. But Yelp was more aggressive with it and even handed out extra marketing materials. This had a remarkable effect on the review count. Organic review counts shot up and more businesses got on board.

Yelp stickers became almost ubiquitous at famous restaurants in the Bay Area and continue to serve the company today. They stand as a daily reminder of Yelp to the potential reviewer, the potential visitor, and the merchant.

Yelp’s Legacy

Stoppelman, Simmons, and the rest of the Yelp team were persistent, humble enough to pivot, and savvy enough to see the real problems they faced and to use creative methods to overcome them.

Yelp continued to grow. The service kept adding cities and eventually went international. They launched a successful mobile app. Stoppelman gathered tens of millions in venture capital and then took it IPO. As of this writing, the company has a market cap of almost $3.7 billion.

They’ve made a few mistakes along the way, and some say they’re in the middle of a process of disruption. But Yelp — the original king of place reviews — spawned a score of apps and startups and changed the way consumers view their relationship with businesses.

For that, they get…

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About the Author
This article was written by Jordan Bowman of  jrdnbwmn.com.

Entrepreneurship

Science is the Next Big Thing in Startups

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From pharmaceuticals to petrochemical processes: Newcomer companies and investors and investors alike are setting their sights on science. How the start-up scene moves beyond the mobile apps bubble…

For the last two years Silicon Valley analysts and venture capitalists are anticipating the burst of yet another bubble. This time, under the risk are the mobile start-ups which constitute the biggest share of the market. Out of 50 companies listed in Forbes’ “the hottest startup of 2015” (by valuation) only six companies are based on innovations in other-than-mobile area, one company provide cleaning services, while the rest are diverse mobile apps.

Meanwhile many products listed can be barely called innovative. A significant proportion of the listed start-ups are texting apps, apps for people search (starting from business partners to life partners) or delivery services. While those services can definitely facilitate one’s life, in general they differ from their predecessors by only a narrower audience.

Many venture investors expect stagnation if not decrease on the markets, which is why they start to transfer their capitals from start-ups offering customers software to start-ups offering specific solutions for existing businesses. Such companies are expected to demonstrate more stability in the near future.

The Market for Mobile Apps Might be Saturated

Back in 2012 a talented entrepreneur could walk into a venture capitalist’s office, say his startup was a mobile-first solution for pretty much any problem (payments! photos! blogging!), and walk out with a good-size seed investment. “That pitch was enough to get going,” says Roelof Botha, a partner with VC firm Sequoia Capital. “It’s not enough anymore.”

“I think investors are bored with investing in another messaging app. And our idea is crazy enough that it might just work. ”, has declared in 2014 Nadir Bagaveyev a founder of a start-up using 3-D printers to make rocket engines. By 2016 the company attracted investors funding sufficient to launch its first rocket.

Pharma and Biotech Start-Ups in High Demand

Currently the most successful science-based start-ups are the companies offering innovative solutions in the field of pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies. It’s noteworthy that despite the previous revelations and even judicial proceedings the list of the most expensive start-ups still includes Theranos, blood analyzing laboratory, whose story did not descend from the main pages of the global leading media from 2014.

It first amazed the audience with its fantastic take-off and then with its collapse. One of the crucial parts of the success story of this start-up is its fundamental difference from the majority of the services produced in the Silicon Valley. Unlike the others, it was not a story of yet another beautiful gadget for communication or mobile app, but the story of the scientific idea which intended to conquer the world.

The great success stories in other scientific areas are now happening on occasional basis. However certain facts allow to predict that the situation is to change soon. One of such factors is growing interest among the big corporations to attract innovative solutions from outside to develop their businesses.

Given the accelerating pace of scientific and technological development of the world, the activities of internal R & D departments are often turn to be insufficient to ensure stable development of innovative business. Outsourcing of the R&D may become the efficient mechanism to stimulate the growth of the company. And high-tech start-up can certainly benefit from it.

Start-Up Technology for the Petro-Business

In December, 2016 world leading companies in the field of gas processing, petrochemicals and chemicals announced their intentions to enforce their R&D capacities by attracting start-ups. 3M, AkzoNobel, BASF, The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Henkel, Honeywell UOP, LG Chem, Linde, Sibur, Solvay and Technip together created a global stage for startups and investors.

“The petrochemicals industry can and must rely on the potential of open innovations to facilitate further inventions and implementation of new solutions in all major application areas, from construction and medicine to packaging and 3D printing. Thanks to the participation of international partners, IQ-CHem is now the largest global project within the industry which attracts innovative solutions and provides for their implementation into practice,” said Vasily Nomokonov, Executive Director of Sibur, a company which coordinates the project.

Positive Experience in Chemicals and Beyond

Some of the listed companies have already gained positive experience in working with start-ups which may have driven them to elaborate a systemic approach to attract innovative companies.

At the beginning of 2016, SIBUR and RRT Global start-up reached an agreement to build a pilot plant for isomerization based on RRT Global technologies in Sibur’s Industrial Park SIBUR “Tolyattisintez”. According to Oleg Giyazov, co-founder and CEO of RRT Global cooperation with a large corporation bring significant advantages to his company.

“By cooperation with Sibur we get a huge industrial experience that enables us to develop technologies and solutions better fitted to the market demand. This advantage is often not given due attention, but we, on the contrary, see significant opportunities in it. Currently, RRT Global cooperates with several companies around the world” he said.

Another petrochemical leader BASF enjoys successful cooperation with Genomatica start-up. In 2013 BASF started the production of 1,4-butanediol based on renewable feedstock (renewable BDO) using Genomatica’s patented process and in 2015 the license was expanded to the Asian market.

Unlike traditional forms of cooperation between a start-up and a venture capitalist, a cooperation between start-up and a relevant corporation allows to minimize the risks associated with investing in a potentially promising idea where the key word is “potential” (but not “guaranteed”). While delivering services in the same field as the start-up the corporation gets an opportunity to more effectively and accurately estimate the market value of an innovative idea and to support its implementation.

Structural Changes Ahead: Outlines of A Coming Market

In the short term prospective, possibly in 2017, the global start-up market will face structural changes – both in terms of start-ups professional orientation and of funding mechanism. In the future science-based start-ups will dominate the market and will change our lives at a deeper level than the way of sending a text message or searching the restaurant for an evening meal. To be more concise this is already happening in the pharmaceutical industry, and the other scientific areas are to follow.

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About the Author

This article was written by Dominik Stephan of Process Worldwide. See more.

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Callum Connects

Norman Tien, Founder of Neuromath and Early Math Matters

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From a young age, Norman Tien, found his passion helping students as a math tutor and went on to translate that into a successful business.

What’s your story?
From the age of 14, I knew I would be in business for myself and started designing my company logo.

Growing up in a poor family, I worked part time while I was in school. That’s when I started tutoring and realised I had a gift to help students “see” mathematics. I delivered good results, and my students started to love math as well.

A turning point was when I was down with dengue fever and I realised I had to grow my business to the next level. I started a learning centre and that was the beginning of Neuromath. The initial years were tough as costs went up while my personal income took a dive. I almost gave up, but I pushed through.

Today, we have 3 specialty math enrichment centres managed and delivered by my dedicated team of teachers.

What excites you most about your industry?
“How to win” has always influenced how I position myself in the industry. I researched the psychology of learning, why some students are so naturally good at math, while others struggled. I managed to find the connection, and have always sought out niches to position myself so I can win.

In the beginning, I fused academic delivery with psychology to differentiate my services. Now I have a good team of teachers fully equipped with a psychological skillset.

In the next evolution of our business, we will incorporate technology into education in order to customise each student’s learning experience based on his or her needs.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and educated in Singapore. One key driver why I started a business was, as a youth, I witnessed how my dad struggled daily as a taxi driver trying to make ends meet.

That said, I am very blessed to be in Singapore and to be given the right education. I see this as a very important factor to my success today.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore – well, for one, most of my businesses are here. Singapore is convenient for business and is very well governed. There are rules and systems that make the entire entrepreneurial journey more secure here. One big plus is the location: Singapore is a hub that allows us to connect to the world.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
船到桥头自然直 –
There is a Chinese saying that when a boat goes near the pier, it will automatically align itself (with the current). It means we don’t have to worry too much, that things will take care of themselves.

A mentor once challenged me: “But who can guarantee you can even reach the pier?”

It is such a highly competitive world we are in, who can guarantee success? This is the ONE question that has been etched in my mind for decades. The Chinese saying always comes to mind when I am positioning, designing and strategizing for my business.

Who inspires you?
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew – The fact that he started ruling the country just like a startup. With limited resources, he was able to find a strong positioning to differentiate his country from the rest of the of Asia. With hardwork and proper planning, he transformed Singapore from a fishing village to a prominent financial hub in Asia.

Because Mr. Lee Kuan Yew positioned Singapore so well, government owned companies, such as Singapore Airlines, have emerged as the best in the world.

His story inspires me, spurs me to understand that success is not by chance but by design – every little step, all the strategies are all planned out. Not at all by chance.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
My business coach, Marshall Thurber, shared with me the power of the “Trim Tab” – a small part of the rudder system in a ship. This Trim Tab, despite its small size, is able to influence the entire ship’s direction by turning it.

This metaphor helped me see that a man can influence the entire world if the right effort is applied. We are now living in an entirely new world, the way we commute with an app on the phone – that’s the power of the Trim Tab at work.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would embark on the same journey but I would seek a mentor at a very early age.

I have been through many hard knocks along the way, and I definitely could have shortened the learning curve if I had a mentor to advise me on the many aspects of entrepreneurship.

How do you unwind?
Driving down long highways helps me unwind, that’s when I let my mind relax and wander.

I love long distance driving and riding. My wife gave me a Harley Davidson Tourer for my 50th birthday and we intend to embark on riding holidays together in Asia.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Hong Kong – I love the fast pace and the vibrance of the city. I love the cars there and it’s a very unique and exciting experience for me. And of course, I love the food there too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
One Minute Millionaire – this book highlights the mindset of an individual that is the key determinant for success in whatever we embark on. As long as we know we have a very strong reason why we need to do it, we can do it!

Shameless plug for your business:
I am the CEO and Founder of 2 Math enrichment brands:
Neuromath is a Specialist Math Learning Centre that helps students from Primary 1 to Junior College, empowering them with strategies, skills and a strong desire to learn and problem solve. We use technology to train students to avoid careless mistakes reclaiming 30 marks or more in Math exams and achieve their full potential in math.
www.neuromath.com.sg

Early Math Matters is a premier Mathematics and Cognitive Development enrichment centre for preschool children aged 3-6 years old. Through purposeful play and our renowned EMM approach, we help learners build a strong foundation for problem solving at an early age, and instil in them a passion & love for math that will stay with them for life.
www.earlymathmatters.com

We are actively seeking passionate teachers, entrepreneurs and investors who are keen to grow the education business with us.

How can people connect with you?
I speak regularly at workshops for schools, parents and platforms demonstrating the use of technology for peak performance in education.

Do contact me at
www.NormanTien.com

Alternatively, you can connect with me:
www.NormanTien.com/facebook
www.NormanTien.com/linkedin

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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