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Finding the Market for Your Technology

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We come across lots of gifted would-be founders. Some are the business-school or ex-financier type. Others have more specific expertise: product, engineering, AI or machine learning. For those with specific skills, and particularly those with deep technical aptitude in AI/ML – we often find an amazing piece of technology, new process or a proprietary algorithm that has been developed without a market to aim at.

Key takeaways:

  • Not everyone has to have gone to Harvard Business School to identify a killer use case
  • Teach yourself some basic top-down market analysis and layer on some common sense
  • The size of the market will drive who you should be looking to raise from

For all those of you who can identify with this… Forward Partners are here to help. We’re investors in Applied AI businesses. Taking technical know-how and applying it to a big use-case can seem like a daunting task. Hopefully this article can provide you with a 5 minute MBA, at least in regard to finding a market for your work. We’re going to do a ‘top-down’ investigation of a potential use-case for computer vision and, at a later stage, machine learning.

If you’ve been building, for example, technology or a set of algorithms – you’ve possibly been ‘going from the bottom up’. You’ve been applying your set of skills to a problem that you personally know a lot about. That may, or may not, be applicable for a large amount of people or a big market: the use-case. We’ll come to the importance of market size later.

Finding and validating that killer use-case will probably take some top down thinking. The best place to start is to identify industries and verticals where there are big problems yet to be solved by technology in any real way. That sounds a bit abstract but it’s fairly easy to interpolate. A good assumption as to the degree of tech substitution or advancement in a consumer market is the rate of inflation in a given category.

You can see, from this graph, that education and care are areas that are ripe for technology to come in, solve some problems and release some value. Given that 1-on-1 or in-person education is assumed to be the best way to learn for the time being, and thus hard to substitute technology into that equation meaningfully, let’s take healthcare forward.

Now it’s time to do a little bit of common sense validation. What are some possible macro-trends driving increasingly expensive health care? We all know that we are living longer and therefore there are more elderly people. Our environment is also changing, contributing to a wider range of potential health problems that we may suffer from. Knowing this, it’s a decent assumption to think that the price rises in healthcare have been driven by job creation and an increase in manual tasks. I just typed in “rise in number of healthcare workers” into Google and this next barchart is the 4th image result.

 

This is a really interesting result. We’re getting somewhere with identifying a killer use case: we’ve got a massive market and price rises likely being driven by increased employment in relatively-low skilled jobs. This is an almost perfect use-case for software.

That’s where you come in. If you’re an technical expert, you’ll know best about what is a tractable problem that you could help to solve. Talking to a nurse or medical assistant or two should reveal a couple of insights about what they spend large swathes of time on. I’d guess that you could drive huge efficiencies by helping to solve for the amount of paperwork that has to be done e.g. using computer vision to transcribe physical, handwritten records to digital. That’s no easy task. Nor is deriving insight from the data that you’ll end up with. Though these are the kind of tough problems in markets ripe for disruption that talented founders go after and that VCs love to back.

One important thing to know, regardless of what you’re working on, is that if you’d like to attract institutional funding you’re going to need to go after a big market. At Forward Partners, we need to be able to be convinced that every investment *could* return our fund. We have a £60m fund so that means that if we were to own 10% of your business we’d need to see your business have an exit value of £600m. There aren’t that many markets where that’s achievable, so that should help to narrow it down. The healthcare markets are massive and so the value that can be released by streamlining processes and improving outcomes is often well above the minimum market size bar. If you land on a slightly more niche area, this is something to bear in mind.

The final point is that, much like we’re not expecting the classic MBA-style founder to possess in-depth technical knowledge about computer vision, we’re not expecting founders with highly specific skill sets to come in and hit us with a pitch deck and business plan a la Harvard. There’s a minimum bar though, and hopefully we’ve been able to demonstrate that it’s pretty easy to overcome.

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About the Author

This article was written by Matthew Bradley, Investor at Path Forward Path Forward. The Path Forward was developed by Forward Partners, a VC platform that invests in the best ideas and brilliant people. Forward Partners devised The Path Forward to help their founders validate their ideas, build a product, achieve traction, hire a team and raise follow on funding all in the space of 12 months. The Path Forward is a fantastic startup framework for you to utilise as an early stage founder or operator. The framework clearly defines startup creation as being comprised of three steps. The first step of this framework involves understanding customer’s needs.Nic is Head of PR & communications at Forward Partners. Over the course of a 10 year career in communications, he has working with global brands including Orange, Warner Bros., BBC, and amazon.co.uk.

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.
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Experience

5 Important Reasons Not to Raise Capital for Your Startup

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I recently had dinner with co-founders of a startup who’d just raised quite a bit of money for their company, a deal which incidentally I’d passed on. The meal was fantastic: fresh salmon from the bay, washed down with a particularly good New Zealand pinot noir, while watching the sun go down over the water. Really you’d expect my mood to have been chipper… but it wasn’t.

The evening was spent with the founders congratulating themselves for raising money. I’m not being a killjoy but it felt like the end of the line, not the beginning. It felt like all the preparation had been done, all the work completed, all the sweat, tears and marriage breakups had already been had, and now finally they’d succeeded. Except of course that wasn’t the case. This was the beginning not the end.

All they’d done was raise some money. Money which, though it may be needed to fulfill their goals, stands as a liability. Now, I’m all for celebrating success but this attitude really worries me and here’s why.

VC culture has come to equate raising capital with success, where each successive round of financing successfully completed is denoted as success,but you know what, VC culture is wrong.

Success is success and raising money is raising money. Let’s not confuse the two.

Raising money amounts to taking someone’s hard-earned capital. Capital which has been acquired by sweat, savings, maybe even theft but it’s someone else’s nevertheless. That, folks, is a liability no matter which way you spin it!

Realise that even if the capital never came with strings such as board seats, preferred equity, liquidation preferences or any host of other typical “strings”, realise that capital ALWAYS comes with strings which I’ll get to shortly.

So in the event that you’re an entrepreneur, emboldened by the fact that most anyone in Silicon Valley today sporting a hoodie, some pimples, and professing to work out of his grandmother’s garage, can get funded and at eye-watering valuations, let me give you 5 reasons why raising money may be a bad idea for your business:

1. Lack of Focus

Multi tasking is rarely a great strategy for any business. If you doubt me, try rubbing your belly and patting your head.

37signals built one of the most successful businesses in their niche by remaining extremely focused on just one product. My point is that it’s next to impossible to be running around raising capital, while remaining focused on building your fledgling business.

Unless you’re sitting in Silicon Valley which stands as a distinct anomaly to the rest of the world, let me assure that raising money will likely take you far longer than you ever thought, will come with more distractions than you’ve even thought, and the progress in your business will suffer.

2. ROI Can Be Poor

Time has a cost. The time spent raising money can often be time poorly spent.

I little while ago I was pitched by a company which had developed a minimum viable product, cheap to produce, easily shipped and which when sold, netted a $10,000 profit. The founders were, however, trying to raise $250,000 and had been on a road show for 3 months already!

Consider that by focusing on building, marketing and selling that very product they needed only 25 products sold to reach their $250,000 they had spent the last 3 months raising. The sheer insanity of what they were doing forever precluded any investment.

3. It Can Be Expensive

Further to the above, as an entrepreneur you might consider paying brokers to raise you capital. While this is an option realise that in any financing round up to Series A, it’s not uncommon to have to pay up to 15% of capital raised, and sometimes even include some warrants, preferred stock or options.

In short, it’s expensive money. Really expensive.

4. Capital Comes with Strings

You should expect that incoming investors may want board seats and input in your company. Do you want that? Does the capital you’re looking for come with the kind of strings you are comfortable with?

You can take money from all sorts of sources.

  • Family and friends will invest because they like you, or maybe they hate you and want you to go away. Or they feel guilty and can’t bare the thought of the next thanksgiving dinner where they’re the only family member who haven’t backed your idea and aunt Marge will make a stink about it. These are psychological strings. Are you OK with them?
  • Angels will invest if they believe you’ve got a good chance at success and often, if they feel they can, add some personal expertise. These guys are not stupid though, and will likely structure deal terms including ratchets, liquidation preferences and so forth. Strings may be that the input by the angel(s) is not something you want. These guys can be of immense value but make sure interests and personalities are aligned otherwise you risk a lot of strife.
  • And venture capital comes with a set of different strings. This particular avenue of financing deserves an article in itself and I’ll write about it next week.

5. Too Much Capital Can Actually Be a Bad Thing

I’ve seen good ideas go to the wind when founders raise too much money. Money can certainly make people do daft things and I’ve learned that as well.

The fancy office space suddenly becomes “necessary”. Scrappy goes out the window in favour of “professional”.

You want to know what is really professional? A company that manages its cash flows, is scrappy as hell, is intensely, manically focused on building awesome value, and realises that when markets turn, as they always do, it’s the strong that survive and thrive. And the strong are always scrappy.

Make sure the money is aligned with your outcomes. Understand who you’re dealing with and what the motivations are. Most of all, don’t just follow the herd because the herd is rarely right.

If, after reading this, you’re not scared away and believe that your company has world changing potential, is less than $10M pre-money valuation and “needs to exist” then feel free to contact me. I’ll be happy to look at your pitch. I’ll almost certainly say no and be kind about it but maybe, just maybe that doesn’t take place.

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About the Author

This article was written by Chris of of capitalistexploits.at.

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