Author - Peri Kadaster

What happens in Vegas: Turkish start-up stand-outs at CES

This past week in Las Vegas, the usual troves of high-rolling gamblers and bachelorette parties making their way down “The Strip” were replaced by 170,000+ members of the global tech community. From some of the world’s largest corporations to seed-stage ventures, the annual Consumer Electronics Show continues to host the largest and most diverse tech exhibition in the world. I was thrilled to see a large number Turkish entrepreneurs, investors, and executives in attendance. Here are a few of the Turkey-based startups I saw exhibiting at CES:

Toyji is the world’s first smart toy platform. While there are certainly a lot of educational toys targeting all ages, Toyji is especially exciting for a few reasons. One, it brings together the digital world (via tablet-based games) with the physical world (via game pieces on a Toyji trackpad) – meaning it enables development across a wide array of skills, from spatial visualization and motor skills to math and coding. Two, as noted in their Kickstarter campaign, the nature of the 3D-printed pieces make it customizable, so kids can not only create their own characters digitally but also easily bring it to life in durable plastic form. Lastly, it has “smart” features not only for kids, but also for adults: parents can adjust settings in the game center to set mealtimes, bedtimes, and more – so kids’ virtual friends can accompany them and encourage good habits.

Monument lets you effortlessly store and manage all of your photos. The device’ hardware shell is simple and sleek, letting you store multiple external hard drives in one physical location. But what’s really exciting is the software – its AI algorithms organize and sort your photo content, and even recognizes and tags your friends. The ability to have multiple members of the same Family account also solves the eternal problem of sharing photos in a household – distributing to others while still maintaining your own private photo repository. The kicker is that unlike other cloud-enabled storage, this offers the benefits of auto-upload and backup without any monthly fees.

Ekin Bike Patrol is a bicycle-based mobile technology that detects license plates and speed / parking violations. A unique proposition for public and private security enforcement, the device is compatible with any type of bike. Its sophisticated connectivity your centralized digital map cuts first response time in case an incident scene is identified. Taking a step back, the Bike Patrol is the latest in innovations from Ekin Technology, which has deployed its proprietary “Safe City” OS in other use cases such as for automotive patrols and tower-based monitoring. By automating key activities like license plate recognition and speed limit / traffic light adherence, Ekin’s portfolio is geared toward increasing efficiency in a number of public safety levers.

It’s a testament to the growth and ongoing improvement of the Turkish startup ecosystem that the companies above (and many others I missed) merit the global recognition of an institution like CES. Anecdotally, I was delighted – but no longer surprised – how often I heard Turkish being spoken in CES hallways, at booths, and at other events. We have no reason to be surprised; although we still have many institutional and cultural hurdles to overcome, Turkey rightfully deserves its place as a hub of innovation, among technology luminaries at a global level, as it proved in no uncertain terms at #CES2017.

2016: Don’t Look Back in Anger

The one area of agreement across today’s hyper-polarized society I’ve seen is around the sentiment that 2016 was / is an annus horribilis. Given what I witnessed politically, economically, socially (and personally) in both Turkey and the United States, just know that the angst surrounding this year is not isolated to one country, one company, or one individual. Today I want to look back on 2016, in an effort to find lessons from the pain.

Remember, you are not the ‘average’ person. Usually I say this in reference to product users, when doing testing: always remember that you are not the ‘average’ user. People from different geographies, age groups, interest areas, socioeconomic strata bring wildly disparate use cases, motivations, and capabilities to a product. This is certainly true of people outside of our Silicon Valley (or ITU Teknokent, or Bilkent IEEE, etc…) bubbles – i.e., in terms of how people behave with their money, their time, their vote – anything. Whether shipping a new product version, or simply being an informed citizen of your own country, we must not forget that even if (or, especially when) empathy between different groups is stretched thin because of a yawning gap distancing them, the ability to identify the need states of people different than yourself – and to identify a solution – is critical for long-term success.

Balance quantitative predictions with qualitative reasoning. In my rose-tinted glasses I truly did think that scientific prediction and high-tech survey algorithms, sliced and diced a thousand different ways, meant the death of drama in the political sphere. But from the UK “Brexit” to the US Presidential votes, I (and much of the poll-following world) was shocked at outcomes that veered so far away from pundits’ predictions. While overnight everyone seemed to become an expert on polls and conservative-this and liberal-that, the one certainty in my mind is that you can’t trust ‘just’ numbers. What were the exact reasons in these (and other cases) that Minority Report-like models and technology were incorrect, it’s not my place to say. But I can say that numbers are not enough – that understanding people’s motivations (for changing their minds, for not answering, for not voting) and the trends that may impact them is crucial. The robots still need the humans, at least for a little while longer.

Plan for chaos. Whether negotiating fundraising in the middle of a coup, or being sabotaged by a former business partner, or solving for a key hire’s abrupt departure, the most unpredictable forces tend to make the biggest impact on our companies – especially in startups. Being resilient, never sacrificing your integrity, having a support network of trusted advisors / partners / clients, and empowering your team to be nimble in its operations gives greater flexibility in finding solutions – or at least options – when at times it feels like you have none. Planning for chaos is not having a guidebook or practicing drills – it means building a team over an extended period of time that has not only operational excellence but also an inordinate amount of trust and respect for one another, so that when circumstances take a turn for the bizarre, you are already set up to work together to make the best of it.

The impact of a mentor, or a hero, is exponentially bigger than the person him/herself. We lost so many people who were loved and admired this year – celebrities, victims of war and terrorism, friends and more. But what gives me hope is that the reflection on each of those people shows a halo, a bright light that they have each extended through their impact on so many others that they either worked with or influenced from a distance. Being a mentor to someone, or a leader to a team, or a hero to a group, is not one-to-one, or even one-to-many; it’s truly exponential in its impact, because each person that they have apprenticed will likely carry and pass along the salient traits from that person to the next, and the next. Loss is permanent, but legacy is infinite.

Your “life KPI’s” should be different than your business KPI (Key Performance Indicator)s…. Many of us are armed with personal cell phones that access our work emails, and laptops we tote home to finish emails after dinner – increasingly blurring the line between business and personal life. But there is a stark need to keep that line intact. A clear focus on revenue, or customer retention, or cycle time, or whatever your business’s KPI’s are, is absolutely critical. However, bringing the activities home that contribute to those business KPIs often threatens the time and attention needed for your “life KPIs” – your health, your family’s happiness, your personal well-being. The relentless zeal with which you pursue the success of your business endeavor should not be your only pursuit.

… and remember that the Life goals matter more. Businesses come and go. They say 90% of startups fail, and that’s probably right. Even in large enterprises, companies fail or pivot or reorg and the job you signed up for might not be as expected. Your company will be the industry darling one day, and toxic the next (see exhibit: Theranos). People you trusted may try to steal your strategy, your team, your money – or perhaps most loathsome, may try to assassinate your character. At the end of the day, it’s all noise. Fantastic, exhilarating, challenging, heartbreaking, life-affirming noise, but noise nonetheless. It is a moment, it passes, it is transient. There are very few elements in life that are not transient – health, family, maybe your homeland, maybe your beliefs – that you are born with and spend the rest of your life fighting to protect, because there is no alternative. Remember to make sure you pick the right battles – for inner peace, for the health of your loved ones, for safety in your home – because those are the only battles you simply cannot afford to lose.

**

I wish each of you a happy, healthy, and peaceful 2017 – and wish you the greatest success in fighting the battles that inspire you most.

Pitching In

This is an incomplete, non-exhaustive, and unstructured list of things I personally am impressed by when watching founders pitch their startups:

Related experience. This may mean someone who has worked in mobile for over a decade who has a mobile idea; but it doesn’t have to be. Having related experience professionally is fantastic – but most important is a personal understanding of the problem they are trying to solve. A parent solving a problem their child faces, for example, means there’s a higher degree of empathy than you might expect.

Comfort with ‘failing fast.’ I love when I hear a team say they tried X or observed Y and it didn’t work. It shows a level of not only experience but also maturity, resilience, and focus that they continue. The “failure” doesn’t matter, it’s the learnings and insights that are the real value.

Killer team. A startup’s leadership team is everything – it sets the tone for culture, for fundraising, for future hiring, everything. So the page with the names and brief bio’s of the team are usually among my favorite. Ivy League pedigrees don’t matter, but people who show commitment to past jobs, a willingness to roll up their sleeves, and some indicators of success are the ones who are most likely to make the best use of funds.

Thoughtful business model. False precision in unit economics is just that – false precision. But having a well-thought plan around how a company can grow, and generate eventual revenue streams, shows that in addition to vision there is a commercial mindset in the company. You don’t need to breakeven in your first month or even year, but being aware of who values your product and shows willingness to pay, at a high level, is critical.

Realistic product pipeline. An MVP should be just that – minimum viable product to see if the concept sticks. But having a prioritized plan that shows what features matter most, and at what stage, shows discipline. The best product managers ruthlessly prioritize the features needed, and thus the resources required to build them.

Enthusiasm. A founding team should be, by definition, the most excited people in the world about that idea. That enthusiasm should be visible in the presentation and in the Q&A. Not everyone is born a perfect presenter or speaker, but the level of enthusiasm is certainly palpable in pitches – and matters a lot.

Is “Me-tail” the next frontier?

“@edenthecat: Hello, welcome to Twitter Dot Com: where people try to become brands and brands try to become people. Enjoy your stay.”

Recently I spoke with a friend who has worked over a decade in the retail industry – across numerous leading dot com retailers in a variety of marketing and merchandising leadership roles. When brainstorming what we should do next, she seemed surprised at my suggestion – “Why not media?”

A decade ago, the line between a CNN and an Amazon seemed to be bright white. But today, social media sites like instagram and pinterest are doubling as not just entertainment but also as meaningful sales channels – and traditional media companies from Refinery 29 to Conde Nast are looking to cross the chasm from product discovery to sales conversion.

This, the blurring line between media and retail (“me-tail”?), does not mean that the two industries are entirely converging; what it does mean is that consumer behavior hops seamlessly between the two, and companies are scrambling to catch up. I read a magazine and see a necklace I like, and as a digital-savvy consumer, I expect to be able to purchase those in just a few clicks or taps. And when shopping on a favorite website I expect to have an immersive experience, seeing rich content and user-generated posts around the product.

I read the tweet at the top of this post just last night, and thought it nailed it; no one has cracked the code in seamlessly bridging media and commerce. But that’s ok – as consumers we continue to win as the overall experience gets richer on both sides. And as media and/or commerce entrepreneurs, it means that we can bring valuable skill sets in established industries to new, growth-stage ventures in adjacent sectors.

What I personally take away from these trends is that functional expertise – sales, marketing, development, design – is just as important (arguably more so) than sectoral expertise. So in thinking through your individual strengths and value, and where in the startup ecosystem you can drive impact, bear in mind that no industry is static; the skills used in one sector today may also be critical to the future of another.

Dog Days of Summer

Between holiday weekends, family vacations, and half-day Fridays, the summer is often a slower time of year, where getting the full team in a room or scheduling client meetings can be nearly impossible.

So what can a startup – where speed is crucial to success – do to survive?

Deploy your time in new ways. Time is an asset – just like capital, or talent. Look to use time flexibly and for functions outside of the often-delayed meetings. One way to optimize time is to list out what the 5 highest-impact activities may be that you can engage in. Oftentimes these are time-intensive but high-return tasks – for example, updating your CRM database, reaching out to strategic partners or mentors for a catch-up, preparing fundraising materials, or reviewing the product development pipeline for the fall – these are critical tasks that can drive meaningful growth but require the focused concentration provided by summer lulls.

Augment your team. Bringing on new hires – whether temporary as interns or permanent team members – requires significant time for recruiting outreach, interviewing, and successfully onboarding. The summer is a good time to kickstart that process – writing job descriptions, creating onboarding materials, and even reaching out to schools or headhunters. From the supply side, many people keen to change jobs are also waiting for the summer months to conclude to initiate the search process, so being ready can also help capitalize on that.

Maintain balance. At the end of the day, the reason people are away during the summer is that they need to time to relax, recharge, and gain a broader perspective outside of the office walls. So being patient with the slower pace is also important – see it as an investment in the well-being and culture of the company as a whole.

Now or never? The value of not working in a start-up right away

I have a dear friend – a former colleague from many years ago – who I think of as one of the most savvy, insightful people in the booming “fashtech” (fashion + technology) space. She has some of the most killer, unparalleled insights in the sector, and if I had my long-awaited lottery winnings (still waiting every week…) I would put my money on her and her killer idea for a wearable tech data platform.

The funny thing is, she’s not an entrepreneur.

Don’t get me wrong, she has the “itch” and is keen to make the leap into entrepreneurship, but she has been taking her time, and for all the right reasons:

1. Problem-orientation. Many startups are based on a planned or fortuitous development of a piece of IP that is the core of a product, then scrambling to identify that holy grail of “product-market fit.” She turned that equation upside down – with her in-depth knowledge of consumers, retail, technology adoption rates, and more, she can clearly see gaps in the market, and build a solution oriented to that.

2. Credibility. Most investors say they’d rather put money on a B idea led by with an A team, instead of vice versa. What makes that A team? That depends – but usually it’s not your school or GPA, but rather your work experience. Successful startup backgrounds (especially with exits) are certainly a plus, but someone with a decade of operational experience who knows the industry, key influencers, and trends is another step ahead.

3. Potential strategic advisors. Related to the above, current or past employers are not just great for building operational expertise – they are also great for networking with the sector’s heavy hitters and innovators. More often than not these people will be the foundation – advisors, board members, investors – of a future endeavor with someone who was a rockstar employee and knows the industry.

4. “Free” training. I remember when I first tried “marketing.” Not consulting about it, or being an intern watching it, but really being responsible for how many new customers my company had. I was scared that I couldn’t deliver results – or at an even more basic level, that I don’t have “real” skills (to be fair – that’s still debatable ;)). I was given a budget and connected to advisors to help me along the way, but was still skittish until my CEO took me aside and said – “Peri. You’re the only one on this team who can at least try to do this. Take the budget, and just keep learning.” And with that I understood the value of a free education. From the rigorous training sessions I was lucky enough to have as a consultant – things like analysis, synthesis, and storytelling – to the tactical, street-smart training I received in mobile user acquisition, I realized that the best training is the one you can get on someone else’s dime. I don’t mean that in a crude or transactional way, but I mean that I had investors who were willing to take the risk as I learned with their capital over the course of successes and failures. It is much easier to do so, to get both book and hands-on training, when it is not your bootstrapped venture putting your ability to pay rent on the line. Indeed, one might even find themselves stepping into too risk averse-a role to really be able to flourish.

Some people have the itch and will take the leap into startups straight from college / high school / the crib – and that’s fantastic. My point here is that age, or operational experience should not be seen as a negative; quite the opposite, it can help create an even stronger product and a more engaging story.

Required Reading: Startup Rising

As my friends and family know, at the moment I’m painfully behind in most aspects of my personal life – my unread gmails recently hit 4 digits, my to-do list is embarrassingly outdated, even my blog posts here have been delayed (related: don’t expect time management-related posts from me anytime soon…) – but what troubles me most is how far behind I’ve fallen on my preferred reading list. I used to be a voracious reader, loving how a few pages can quickly transport you to a new place or spark excitement in heretofore sleeping neurons. Whether modern or classic, fact or fiction, books are the key to keeping the brain well-fed, creative, and curious. Read More

Manic Monday: 3 Unlikely Tips to Kick-Start the Work Week

Mornings are hard. Especially Monday mornings, for some. I used to face serious “Sunday night blues.” But through trial-and-error, and even some accidents, I found a few things that made Sundays my fundays.

1. Go off the grid – Implicitly one of the things I found myself dreading the most was the email flood I would face if I didn’t check my email. First I just dealt with it head on, with Monday morning being a mad dash of sifting through loads of unconnected emails, and I was stressed with context switching the feeling of spending time not being productive, and just falling behind in general. Then I thought if I spent Sunday night cleaning my inbox that would solve things, but what I found is most people responded to my emails so that Monday morning I faced the same flood, one tick later in the conversation, after a not-relaxing Sunday evening. Read More

Opportunity Cost: The Choice is Yours

I recently heard from a friend about an “urgent” request from her manager. He requested an increase in the frequency of a report which – admittedly – almost no one in the management team even read at its current cadence.

“But why?” he asked. Apparently that was the wrong answer – the fact that it was recommended from the manager-on-high should have sufficed to rationalize what would be a doubling of effort for ostensibly diminishing returns.

The trigger for this (miscalculated) request – an offhand comment a friend of the manager’s had made about her own team – led to the worst possible outcome: guidance made in an irrelevant context, precious / limited time spent, a deliverable that was underutilized, employee disengagement upon seeing the lack of impact from her incremental new work, and perhaps most devastatingly – a sudden lack of faith in the manager’s judgement and decision-making. Read More

2015: My Person of the Year

As I write my last post of the calendar year, I am stunned to think back at all of the change we experienced in 2015, both locally in Turkey (2 elections!) and globally (HP split! so did Ben Affleck and Jen Garner!). With regional tensions, a shaky lira, and polarized electorate, there are many potential obstacles that may greet Turkey in the new year. However, these challenges provide a unique opportunity to entrepreneurs in that times of confusion and/or resource scarcity require the discipline of laser-like focus on mission, product, and capital allocation that can, counter intuitively, help adept entrepreneurs be poised for unique success in a time of uncertainty. Read More