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Entrepreneurship

Rojahn, Jakob & Ilya, Founders Of NeuroNation

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Today, The Asian Entrepreneur sat down and spoke with the 3 masterminds behind one of the most popular cross platform apps for the mind, NeuroNation. Innovative as it is, we got down and personal with the 3 founders and got to know more about their journey. Meet Rojahn Ahmadi(left), Ilya Shabanov(center) and Jakob Futorjanski(right).

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So guys, tell us about about yourselves.

Ilya: Rojahn  was born in Iran and was 2 years old when his family moved to Germany. Jakob and I are both from the former Soviet Union and moved to Germany at ages 9 (Jakob) and 10 (Ilya), respectively.

Jakob, Rojahn and I all share a strong academic and professional background in computer science and artificial intelligence.

At 15, Rojahn and I started working for a Berlin media agency specializing in the development of online games. During the 10-years of employment for the company, Rojahn and Ilya founded OneExtraGames, an online portal whose pilot game “Agony: The Portal” generated over 10 Million gameplays on the web.

Jakob: After focusing on artificial intelligence in financial transactions during my studies, I began my career with PricewaterhouseCoopers Advisory in the financial consultancy business. Later on, I joined Rocket Internet and developed Groupon Amsterdam as a Regional Director before moving on to the Groupon HQ Management Team in Berlin, where Rojahn, Ilya and I teamed up to make NeuroNation the European market leader for brain training.

Rojahn: NeuroNation first came to life as a side project in late 2008 but we did not pursue it further until after our diploma in 2010. So the summer of 2010 marks the birth of the NeuroNation platform. After a scholarship from the BEUTH University, we were able to make NeuroNation our full-time job.

In your own words what is NeuroNation?

Jakob: NeuroNation is a fun and effective workout for your brain. Scientific collaborations with German universities ensure its effectiveness: Like a personal trainer NeuroNation has designed a fitness test to determine your potential and offers entertaining brain exercises to improve your memory, focus, logical thinking and problem solving skills. A social network helps you stay motivated, after all competing against your buddy can give your training routine that cherry on top.

How did you come up with the idea of NeuroNation?

Rojahn: NeuroNation was born out of our curiosity for the human brain and the potential for improving its performance. When we started with NeuroNation, the online offers for digital brain health were slim to say the least. We played Dr. Kawashima’s brain training for a while, but weren’t too happy with the actual science behind it. All of us have a strong interest in game development, so we started getting excited about the idea of making a relevant contribution to online games and brain fitness.

Could you walk us through the process of starting up NeuroNation?

Ilya: After engaging with Dr. Kawashima as a fun brain game for a while, we started researching the effects of cognitive exercises on the human brain. We were intrigued: was there a way to develop an actual scientific, yet game-like brain training? Something fun, yet effective?

The Cogito Study by the Max Planck Institute belongs to a series of scientific publications to show that online brain training works under conditions of a solid scientific background, high personalization and user motivation.

To create an effective, scientifically-based product, we reached out to the Freie Universität Berlin and the Technische Universität Dortmund, where leading neuroscientists supported us in the development of NeuroNation.

A study conducted by Prof. Dr. Niedeggen from the Division of Experimental Psychology and Neuropsychology proved that NeuroNation works.

In the first stages after the NeuroNation-launch, a virtual currency was used to access single games. A One-Time-Payment-model followed and today we’re working with a subscription model similar to gym membership.

This was quite a long way with a lot of ups and downs, I strongly believe that perseverance separates the successful founders from the not so successful ones.

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Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup and if so, how did you guys overcome it?

Rojahn: Founding a company can be a strenuous process, especially in the beginning stages. Monetization proved to be a particular challenge. We had some bad experiences with potential investors, who tried to get insights to our product and then created a copycat. They failed and taught us to be more careful in the following years of the monetization process.

How have you been developing NeuroNation since startup?

Rojahn: We began with a scholarship from the BEUTH University of Berlin and a small private loan from a bank, a bit later NeuroNation became one of the first ever companies to be crowdfunded in Germany. Later we partnered up with the most influential people and companies in brain fitness, related business areas and publishers, developed co-branded products, which helped our partners monetize their traffic and closed mutually beneficial cooperations. This kept us financed up to the point of the first big investment by Spiegel and XLHealth.

What kind of feedback did you get for NeuroNation so far?

Ilya: The feedback so far has been very positive. Our close cooperation with leading scientists in combination with our own expertise in developing entertaining online games has given us a competitive edge. Distinctions such as the Leonardo-Health Award for digital prevention show us the support and appreciation from the digital health community. In 2014 we have also started collaborations with nursing homes, a German health insurance company and numerous companies from many different backgrounds.

Most importantly, we are in close contact with our consumers and greatly appreciate their input. NeuroNation constantly strives for improvement and could not exist without constructive feedback. I strongly believe our members realize that we highly value the scientific foundation of our product and that we would never compromise in this matter. This is one of the core reasons why our users stick with us.

Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?

Rojahn: Competition in the digital brain health market is fierce, we are counting quite a few copycats in German Speaking Countries and probably over 100 globally. In light of demographic change and a society permanently overloaded with information, a healthy brain becomes more and more important.

NeuroNation’s best practice combines a scientific approach with elements of gamification. NeuroNation was developed in cooperation with leading neuroscientists and is updated to state-of-the-art studies on a regular basis. To guarantee our brain training’s effectiveness, the cooperation with the Freie Universität Berlin and the Technische Universität Dortmund is very important.

NeuroNation is a highly personalized brain training perfectly adapting to its user’s needs and potential. Elements of gamification ranging from individual progress reports to social-media-shareability increase the user’s motivation for the training. For instance, members can share their top scores via Facebook or Twitter and compare their brain performance to their friends’ results. According to the research of Susanne Jaeggi, PhD, from the University of California Irvine, motivation is a vital ingredient of successful cognitive training.

How do you plan to stay relevant in this industry?

Rojahn: To stay relevant in the digital brain health market means to provide the most engaging and effective brain training possible. We continuously work on increasing the engagement and effectiveness of our games by expanding our scientific collaborations and optimize based on our users’ feedback. Compared to our competitors we never compromise on effectivity, we do not want the customer to pay for false promises.

I think this is the crucial difference between us and our competitors.

We also strive to consolidate our B2B partnerships and broaden our clientele. Digital prevention in Alzheimer’s, the neurological rehabilitation of stroke patients as well as the prevention of stress and burnout are highly relevant factors in today’s health sector and present great growth potential. At present, a German health insurance refunds NeuroNation for stroke patients in neuro rehabilitation.

What is the future of the industry in your opinion?

Jakob: The digital brain health market is expected to expand to a volume of $6bn by 2020 and chances are we can expand our European leadership beyond the continent’s borders.

What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia? Is it harder or easier, why?

Jakob: Asia is an extremely important market for NeuroNation. The people in Asian countries have been the first to recognize the importance of cognitive excellence and training. Much earlier than Europe, Asia has invested in human capital, psychometric tests and promoted innovative education measures. Therefore, for us, on the one hand, we find the Asian market to be more open to brain fitness and brain training than other regions. On the other hand, the Asian consumer is used to high-quality offers, so any digital brain health company has to make sure to be on top of their game when preparing to launch in Asia. This is why we are extremely happy about the positive feedback from 13 Asian App-Stores making us one of the leading education app providers in the market.

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What is your opinion on Asian entrepreneurship vs Western entrepreneurship?

Ilya: As a Berlin startup with founders whose roots lie in Russia and Iran, the appreciation for Asian entrepreneurship is high. Hard work, innovation and discipline are three values we take from our frequent analyses of Asian entrepreneurship. Western entrepreneurs tend to act locally. They do not launch their products fast enough in other countries. Asian entrepreneurs think bigger and act faster in this context.

What is your definition of success?

Jakob: We believe that our success should be a benefit to the society we live in. We build NeuroNation with the idea to provide scientifically researched products with real benefits for our users while still being as fun as your everyday candy crush session.

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

Ilya: The idea of a free mind is deeply rooted inside my character. Even though I have worked for other companies during my university time, I always felt that I had to become an entrepreneur at some point to live this freedom. When the university just casually invited us to participate in a business plan competition we took the small step, without knowing anything about entrepreneurship but with a strong conviction that it is the right thing to do. The small step became the first in a year long journey which probably will keep leading me to new places over and over again in the future.

What do you think are the most important things entrepreneurs should keep in mind?

Jakob: Think through your ideas and talk about them with potential customers. Do it often and with different people. Create and iterate fast!

To me, this is one of the most important aspects of entrepreneurship.

In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Jakob: Focus, passion, discipline

Ilya: and perseverance

Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there?

Ilya: The only boundary there is the belief that there are boundaries.

Rojahn: People who are afraid of changes, will never change anything.

Jakob: Never stop exploring and trying new things. Just start creating and with time you will find a way to success.

RoJack

Connect

iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/ph/app/neuronation-brain-training/id821549680?mt=8

PlayStore https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=air.nn.mobile.app.main

Facebookhttps://de-de.facebook.com/NeuroNation

 

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by TheNextWeb.com as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taravelis/

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

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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