Building a startup is tough. You’re handling multiple roles – whether it’s fine tuning code, hiring a team, locking in sales, or perfecting a marketing strategy. At the same time, you’re constantly nervous about whether there’s product-market fit.
For those startups that want to cater to enterprise needs, the process of snaring paying clients can be even tougher. Large corporates usually have a gargantuan amount of red tape, with several layers of approvals before even a preliminary deal can see the light of day.
Toby Olshanetsky and Alexey Sapozhnikov understand the trials and tribulations aspiring founders go through, with decades of experience being entrepreneurs themselves.
Their current project is Proov, a “pilot-as-a-service” company, that’s tearing down the barriers between slow-moving corporate behemoths and agile startups.
Think of it as a marketplace where enterprise customers looking to inject speed and dynamism into their existing systems can hook up with founders working on disruptive solutions.
“The majority of our prior startups provided enterprise software solutions […] The struggles, triumphs, and experiences developing each of those companies collectively led us to the idea for Proov,” explains Toby.
The coding whiz adds that approaching enterprises was a pain – convincing them to run a proof-of-concept (PoC), basically a pilot program where the client can determine if the solution matches its problem – was an immensely challenging endeavor.
“[It wasn’t easy] to convince enterprises to run the PoC and get them to open testing environments […] Working closely with enterprises gave us insight into the pain points on that side of the equation as well. We understood the software testing process was too complex,” says Toby.
They spent three months traveling the world to perfect the business plan.
How it works is that an existing corporate can outline a problem that they’re facing – could be in logistics, big data, or HR. Startups that have solutions for this problem pitch their ideas. If all goes well, Proov will set up a secure testing environment that is an exact representation of the production environment – meaning what it would be like if the tech was deployed throughout the organization.
There’s no limit to the time that a pilot could run, but the client contracting the opportunity is supposed to define parameters before beginning. Corporates can also test multiple companies at the same time – and Toby claims the process of completing the pilot is much quicker on Proov as opposed to the alternative of direct engagement.
Proov launched for the general public in September 2016, and recently came out of stealth mode with a US$7 million funding round led by OurCrowd and Mangrove Capital Partners. But before Toby and Alexey even wrote down a comprehensive business plan, they spent three months traveling around the world, speaking with both corporates and startups. That was in 2015.
It’s currently free for both corporates and startups to list and source deals through Proov. Monetization is planned for mid-2017, but the founders want to engender a community before that happens. Toby says the team is a regular attendee at tech conferences worldwide and is also hosting a Startup Grind event soon to help build awareness.
There’s already around 600 startups and over 100 enterprise customers that have signed up with Proov.
“Younger startups might use [Proov] as a springboard to score their first clients while the more established vendors use it for general customer acquisition,” explains Toby. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution for enterprise software, and so all vendors, regardless of size and experience, are required to showcase proof-of-concept and run pilots.”
The secret to success is all about the team.
Another factor working in the startup’s favor is that the product is location-agnostic. Any company from any part of the world can explore partner startups through Proov. Startups from Asia can connect to enterprises in Europe at the same speed European startups would.
Toby says that’s one of the main ethos behind Proov: to democratize the PoC process and remove geography and personal connections as a barrier to innovation.
Southeast Asia remains a priority for the team because there’s plenty of activity and lots of areas of collaboration. But he’s tight-lipped as to when the startup plans on opening a physical office here. “It depends on the growth of the market,” he explains.
Advice for aspiring founders
Toby’s giving back to the community in more ways than one. After almost two decades of experience in building and growing companies, he remains steadfast in his view that the secret to success is “all about the team.”
“You need to know that the people you are bringing in believe in what you are trying to do and that you can rely on them no matter what. As you grow it’s important not to sacrifice those traits as you bring more and more people on. As an early founder, even during times of rapid growth, take a minute and meet the people coming on board, and make them feel like they are truly part of the team. It sounds cliché, but it really matters, as no one wants to just be a cog in a machine,” he affirms.
At the same time, Toby believes it’s vital to constantly talk to your users and understand the market in which you operate. That’s important at all stages of the product lifecycle – whether it’s at beta, or after a few updates.
“Make sure there is good product-market fit and to test it out on live customers and adapt and improve according to their inputs and feedback,” advises Toby.
And there’s no point in spending all that time and effort to build a company if you don’t have fun while doing so. Workplace culture is of utmost importance, he explains, because as a leader you’ll feel the pain if it stagnates. It’s integral to build camaraderie because, without it, employees won’t have as much desire and commitment to the vision.
“From the beginning, it was important for us not only to find the best people for the job but the right people too,” he says with a smile.
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