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Yann Girard: Startup lessons learned from China, Berlin and New York

“Entrepreneur, started a company in China, worked in the VC scene in Berlin and New York, wrote startup books and helps startups around the world.” That’s Yann Girard in his own words. After the presentation, he was asked what is the one thing people should remember about him after they leave the room today. “Just write that I am awesome,” he said without hesitating. I’ve already heard this sentence from many startup people in their 20s. It might be just the cockiness and arrogance Jeff Burton talked about  — or it can be true. We can honestly say, there’s something about Yann and it’s maybe the openness and energy he brought to Wayra with his talk.

Looking back in history

Back in 2009 he was one of these students thinking about future and looking for his own place in the corporate world. Fortunately, he decided not to follow the common path and he rather went for something different. “I chose an exchange programme and I ended up in China. University wasn’t so satisfying as I expected, so I was thinking about what else could I do there. An internship? That didn’t sound so interesting. I never chose moving to China or being an entrepreneur – it just happened. Nowadays, people are forcing themselves to start something. On my first day I met a guy from Cameroon and two weeks before I went back to Germany he asked me to share a company with him. It was more of a lifestyle brand. The biggest problem was raising money. In China, that’s a hell of a problem. I didn’t know anything about startups and we probably did all the mistakes possible. It was something fresh and new for me.”

After some time, they ran out of money and investors. Yann went back to Germany and started the search again. He was broke but soon he landed a job in a technology innovation agency. It was like a dream. He had a nice office in New York but after some time he was dealing with the same question: “Is this really the thing I want to do for the rest of my life?” Evaluating other people’s ideas may be interesting, but the answer was no. He quit and got back to Germany and back to startups. “At this point of my life, I used to read a lot of books. I am a business guy and I don’t know how to code. I was trying to look at stuff from a different perspective. What could I do? Can I learn how to sell stuff? That’s the main problem of many startups today — how to get customers and make them pay. It is not only about building a product but mainly about the ability to capitalize it. I wrote a book about it and I did a tour in Germany in order to present my experience and promote the publication.” This trip around Central (Eastern) Europe is just another part of his journey. “I haven’t been here yet and I want to discover the whole area. I was invited to Krakow and the reaction was very positive. People here are much more open than in Germany and they are willing to ask questions or give me feedback.”


The big time in China

Yann describes his stay in China as a time full of discovery and tough learning. “China is big. Everything is big. Not only the market but even the supplies. You have to compete with so many famous brands (Adidas, Nike…) and the minimum order for your product (so it is interesting enough for a factory to produce it) is 1 million. WHAT? I had 10 bucks! Every entrepreneur has to do this at least once. I was creating the goods by myself because we couldn’t find anybody else to do it. I had to learn. I bought a t-shirt, printed it, put tags on it and tried to sell it. We had the whole production system. I never imagined I will end up in China making t-shirts. Nevertheless, willingness to seduce stuff you thought you will never do – that’s the most important thing in life. You should be ready to do things you never expected. If you wanna sell coffee machines, you have to know exactly how the coffee machine works. If you are trying to launch a product in New York… look at Seamless and check what they did. Bunch of Harvard graduates were taking bikes and delivering food in Manhattan. They asked every single customer for a feedback because they knew the regular employees will never tell the negative stuff they learnt along the way. Richard Branson started with selling christmas trees. That’s how he learned it. Some of us can be lucky like Zuckerberg, others have to do a lot of work. But it is a good school.”

Train your selling muscles

“I’ve actually never built a company. It is such a funny thing. Most of us have a dream of establishing a technology company — but that’s the most complicated and sophisticated product! It is so damn complex. And if you’ve never done it before — how you want to get among the best? Technology companies are usually so busy working on the product that they don’t have a chance to get into the psychology behind it. I learned my lessons the hard way. I had one hundred potential customers but I sold the product to only two of them. My conversion was only 2%. I thought I am a creative person and I will sell it like this * fingers snapping *.”

“You can be an entrepreneur before starting your own company. What am I doing here is that I am having a free training lesson for selling and presenting. I don’t have a proper product right now, but I am still using time to train myself and work on my sales skills. Toastmasters are the best way how to become an entrepreneur. You walk around the stage and talk. You learn how to sell yourself and your product. You can observe others and their progress. When is your boss looking for a presenter — raise your hand, that’s your chance! You want to become an entrepreneur. Now. Not after you have your own company.”

The networking muscle

“Another important part is your networking muscles. Find 10 people you don’t know, check their LinkedIn and send them emails. Doesn’t matter if you don’t have your product yet — you won’t get really far without a network to distribute your idea. Before any networking event, I am usually trying to see who is coming and what is he interested in. I don’t see people as a potential help for me, but I rather think who could help somebody I know. I go there with 50 business cards. In 5 or more years, I may need this person but he won’t know me. I can try to introduce him to his future wife or business partner. That’s how I try to approach networking.”

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The opportunity muscle

“I have a rule of 97%, it might be more or it might be less. I would say that 97% of the people in this room are not really interested in me. They may hate me. And I am not going to be upset about it. If only three people will say I was a cool guy – that’s enough. It is the same for people buying a product. Imagine you make an advertising and only three people will click on it. If you know this rule, you will handle your business in a different way. You will try to get to another potential customer. If you go to a bar, in 97% of the cases — the girl will say no to you. So who is the guy who goes home alone? The one that approached only one girl and didn’t try it somewhere else.”

How do you look for partners, co-founders and investors?

Y: I and my girlfriend broke up at the end of last year. What do you think was the reason, except that I am ugly? You are right. I am an entrepreneur. I am busy. She never said it that way — but it is not stable. People wanna decrease the risks. At that time, I was just a risky investment. If you want to find a life partner, it is actually about decreasing everybody’s risk.

Today, I am a risky investment for Wayra. But what I did, I included a few links to the email I sent to your director — and in Wayra, they knew some people I’ve already worked with. That decreased everyone’s risk. You will get a lot further.

When you want to raise a fund and you are already talking with an investor, he will most probably ask about your previous investors (if there were any). If you are able to tell him at least one name he already knows – the money is yours.

Do you already have a demand lined up before you launch?

Y:Customers usually don’t want to buy when you are ready to sell. There are statistics about it. I may be wrong, but there are like 3% of people buying the product now and 7% are considering it.

I am explaining this in my book — You should already start with the marketing, even if you don’t have a product yet, only an idea. 80% of the customers come from people you interacted with more than 7 times. What does it mean? Today, it is my second interaction with you. First was signing up for the event. I will be only successful in case you are going to interact with me 7 times. On TV, Twitter, Facebook. It is all about trust. Do I trust you? No. Do you trust me? No. When I heard I need to connect with each of my customers at least 7 times, I was saying it was impossible. Then I came with marketing that allows me to collect customer data. That can help a lot. How can you do that? Gather likes on your page and make people subscribe for your newsletter.

What about Facebook advertising?

Y: Let me explain the Facebook thing. Years ago, you posted something and it was shown to 89% of your followers. Today, it might be just a few percent. You are competing with thousands of people in the newsfeed. Why it decreased so much? Facebook wants to monetize the reach and it changed the algorithm. Now you can only reach around 3% of your followers. If you want to get that 7+ interactions, you have to pay all the time. Depends on your country, but it can be about twenty cents for one customer. In the end – it can cost hell of a money. That’s why you don’t rely on Facebook advertising.

Email might be an old school thing, but it has a high conversion rate around 7%, Facebook has 3% and Twitter… dunno, I guess nothing. I never sign up for anything, I am probably the worst customer ever. It is not only about selling the product but about educating the people.


What to do when you want more interaction?

Y: Build a trust. You can make an infographic people can look into. You can educate them about stuff they are already thinking about but they don’t have the solution. And if people come to your website and they will find everything they need – they will see you as an expert and they will stay.

I was sending emails all over again. People came to the blog and they shared the articles. You have to start with the base. Probability that your friends are your customers is — zero.

I have a blog with highly valuable content to collect email addresses. People are usually lazy to sign up, you have to put links in every post. Everywhere. I have there even the books I haven’t written yet. If you say this is never going to work because you never subscribed for a newsletter… me neither. And it works. I am annoyed by it. But that’s how you sell your product.

Do you already have a demand lined up before launch?

Y: When you make an ad on Facebook, it allows you to target the audience very specifically. So usually I target the people that already read books about startups.

For example: You have a lot of competitors but you know their names and what is their USP. What can you do? You go to Facebook and you choose people according to their likes. You can show them an advertisement of a competing product that is improved. If your product is similar to Adidas, you can target people that already liked Adidas. Nevertheless, the conversion might be still very low just because you never interacted with them.

Y: I forgot to mention that when I did a Facebook ad, I made a landing page as well. It was just a picture I took, two sentences and a sign up field. It is all about marketing anyways. From all the people that came from FB and clicked on the landing page – 20% of them subscribed. It is all about two things – USP and sign up field. That’s how you get the email address. My landing page was bullshit. You can actually get it much better than I did. But don’t waste too much time with it.

Did you validate your idea before you started working on it?

Y: I discussed this with a lot of people here in Wayra. You should always sell your product before you build it. Is that possible? Interaction and engagement. The more you attract people and get them engaged – the better. It is all about the two-ways communication. Once you start interacting with people, you are building trust. During my next time in Prague, you may say you trust me. I don’t have my book yet, but you can keep an eye on it. I was monitoring everything about who opened my emails and I decided to make a test — I sent these people if they don’t want to buy my book right now with some special sale. It convinced many of them.

How can you validate your idea without having a market place? Kickstarter. Emails. Landing page. Target people and ask them some questions to recognize their interest. If you want to know the amount of money you put into the project and how much money you can get out of it – collect numbers and look at the data.

What to remember

  1. Being an entrepreneur starts way before you have your own company. You can learn it before!

  2. Build up a demand before you launch your product.

  3. Before wasting months and months building a product no one wants, validate it first (sell it!).

  4. Know how to get a paying customer (not only in theory).

How to reach the critical mass?

Y: There is a technology life cycle. Everybody wants to go to the big market and bridge the gap. Right from the start you will move up until you reach the critical mass. Things are not done on Facebook. You have to meet people and understand them. The first one hundred customers are pain in the ass. What i am doing here, maybe three of you will talk about me. And that’s how it starts. Almost nobody will be able to cross the chasm and reach the critical mass without doing all these steps. That’s where startups are stuck.

How important is the KPIs (Key Performance Indicator)?

Y: That’s something very important for investors. When I started I didn’t know anything about KPIs or monitoring. But if you come to investors and you don’t really know how many customers you will be able to acquire, they won’t probably invest in your company. What is the customer lifetime? How much revenue can generate one customer?

If we are talking about Wayra and digital products – you will bring it to the market and people will buy it after. You have some KPIs, but they are virtually made. You can see the KPIs of your competitors and therefore you can know your market share. You can do whatever you want with a digital product.


Do you get fat and lazy?

Y: In Germany, we have government funds that support entrepreneurs that just got out of the university. You recognize afterwards, that only one or two of them already had a validated product. Why? It is simple. If you don’t have money, you try to do everything to make them. Otherwise you are just lazy and fat. It is just a theory, but you know why NYC and Sillicon Valley are so successful? Because in these cities you have to validate your idea as soon as possible. It is too expensive just to live there and do nothing. With these german funds, people don’t have to worry about getting food because they have money from the government each month. If I had money, I wouldn’t come to Prague. I would be just lazy and fat. What would I do if someone gave me 100k? I would try not to use it. I would put it aside.

How far will you get with an investment?

Y: I saw many pitches. At the end of the day, everything that counts is — if the startup is able to get to the next round. How far these guys will be able to get with 100k? It can sound weird that is all about revenues. But investors are putting their money into something and they want to be sure they will get them back. If you don’t want investors, don’t waste your time and don’t look for them. If you would never waste the money of your friends or family — then you shouldn’t use an investor as well. I only invested my own money in every project.

What was the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?

Y: I never made a mistake. I learnt so much from the ones I made, that I can’t call them ‘mistakes’. Having done something in China while having no clue about their culture, business or people… I came back and I was smarter. I get the most out of all the stuff I am afraid doing. I would prefer staying in bed and do nothing, but I know that learning will reward me so much. The more you are scared, the more you should push yourself. Even the CEE tour can be the biggest mistake, I don’t know yet.

How do you work with Twitter and other social media?

Y: I am using a lot of tools. I can’t name all of them — but you can find them in the book. I pretty much automate everything. As soon as you subscribe to my newsletter, I have an automated email for you. I am sending the emails early in the morning because nobody does it at this time. That means my email will be the first message people will see after they wake up.

Is there anything in your life your regret or you would push yourself more?

Y: My philosophy in life is that I don’t want to get old. I imagine that I am sitting on a beautiful balcony near Venice beach and I am reflecting my life and all the things I would regret not having done. It is more about doing things. I do crazy stuff – I was living in China teaching English — but when you see me standing here right now… it suddenly makes sense. All these small pieces built the whole picture even if it didn’t make sense at the early beginning. Everything in my life has taught me something. I hated university but It taught me that if I want to achieve anything — I have to go through pain. It is not easy.

Was it the right decision to involve investors into your startup?

Y: It always depends. If it is a proven business, they are only investing in you if you have a generating business. It’s more about your personal ambition. I don’t need to expand to another country, so I don’t need an investor. You mainly need investors to expand and your business already have to work perfectly. It is always up to you. More than 50% of all the investment in US comes from friends or family. You have to decide what kind of business you want to make.

Investor is not a validation of your business.

What kind of startup would you invest in?

Y: I never really invested in any startup. But I would probably look at the african space, because there is a lot going on. How I decide if someone would be worth the investment? If the CEO is able to convince people to use his product and they keep using it even after weeks. On a party. Then I would invest in it. I am probably not able to go to a party and get people to use my app.

How many books are you expecting to sell?

Probably none. But I can tell you a story. What usually happens — from 100 people there can be 1 person that might ask you to do something together. I sent an email about stuff I will be doing and this guy opened this email 18 times. Then he asked me for a meetup. We were talking quite nicely and he said he is going to sponsor me.

I don’t expect anything but it is all about the opportunity.

If you want to know more about Yann, check his blog or follow him on Twitter.