DFF speaker Tal Catran: Don't ever think you know everything

Tal Catran is an Accelerators Guru & Seasoned Startups Builder, Startup Nation & TEDx Speaker and motivator. For years he has explored and mastered first hand entrepreneurship, marketing and business development. Through this process he has become a renowned expert on motivating and inspiring entrepreneurs to face reality head-on and fulfil their potential to the fullest. 

Tal has founded 7 accelerators, while mentoring many others, including some in Baltic & Nordic states, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania as well as in India and Russia. He mentors three Latvian startups - IT Sapiens, Walmoo and Giraffe360.

Tal will be one of the main speakers at Digital Freedom Festival in Riga, this November. With this interview we start an introducing series with some of the most interesting speakers of this festival, which will be published every week.

What does digital freedom mean to you?

I think it has a lot to do with connectivity. Having the world at your fingertips. We can already almost live our day-to-day life through a device, and I think in the future this will only develop further. Smartphones have changed the game. Our cellphone used to be just... a phone. Now it's our everything. In future smartphones will literally become a part of our body. I think the next step is getting rid of batteries. They make people so stressed, so frightened that they might lose their connectivity, you just have to watch how a person with a low battery on their phone acts.

How did you get into the tech and startup scene?

I think I was more approached to do it. Actually, in the beginning I was more of a listener and it got me curious and interested. I talked to people in this industry and got the sense that they lack the knowledge about the business side. I felt like I understand what they need, even though I am not a programmer or an engineer. Now I've been doing this full time for 5 years, but altogether – about 10 years.

What are the most common mistakes startups make?

First of all, it's all about focus. Understanding what's important and what's not. Secondly, they have to understand that having a great idea is not enough. Today you would need to show much more than just a good idea, at least an MVP (minimal viable product) for someone to take you seriously, because of the abundance in the industry. Once they're focused and put all their efforts they have to approach the market.

Sometimes young entrepreneurs stick to their original idea like it's their baby. They think that if they find it great, and their friends and family think it's clever, that's enough. It's not. You need to go out and make sure there is someone who really needs your products.

What are some characteristics or attributes you need to have to work in tech / startups?

Having a strong and small team. You need one person who brings the money and one person who knows how to develop the technology. There are situations when the CEO says: “Investors want the MVP”. And the CTO says: “Great, bring the money and we'll make an MVP”. It's like with the chicken and the egg – which one comes first? The one needs to be smart to bring the money and the other needs to know how to do a lot with little money.

Is it a good idea to do a startup with a friend?

Well, that's a million dollar question. From one hand it's great, because there is great commitment between the both sides. But then when things go sour, how can we part and still be friends?

From my experience it is damaging, yet beneficial. You need to have a certain level of maturity and the right mentor next to you. Some basic agreements need to be laid on the table and written down in a founder's agreement making it very clear who does what and how much. And if there is trouble in paradise, we bring in a third party - a good mentor, a person that is acceptable to both sides. But specify his responsibilities as well.

You have quite some experience with Baltic startups. What do you see as the biggest strength for Baltic startups?

First of all, they're very techy, very good with technology. They don't jump from one place to another, don't change their mind on a daily basis. This can be positive and negative at the same time. But this also translates to not taking enough risks. Because, if you're a startup, you get about 4% chance of success, with 96% possibility of failure. So I don't see Baltic startups taking much risks – they have a plan and they stick to it.

Israel is often considered the golden standard when it comes to startups and a healthy, encouraging startup ecosystem. What are some steps we in Latvia should take to get closer to that level?

I was first introduced to the Latvian startup ecosystem by the strong supporter of entrepreneurship - ambassador of Israel to Latvia Lironne Bar-Sadeh. I think you as an ecosystem need mentoring. The big mistake is thinking that you can bring Israeli investors to Latvia. Or maybe bring Israeli startups here. To that I say - why should you brag and be proud of an Israeli startup making it in Latvia?

Latvians are not short of creativity or innovation or thinking outside the box. Only they don't like to walk too far away from it. It's again about taking risks. You would benefit a lot by sharing more – sharing failures, getting mentoring on the ecosystem level, not just the startups. Get mentoring for the hubs, for the government. The government is the key player here. Startups are a growth engine, yes, but it needs the help of the government. It's the role of the government to make Latvian startups stay here, not go overseas, because they don't have enough support.

You can't just say “we want innovation”, you need to take action and do it, which involves money. Everyone wants to win the lottery, but 99% of the people don't even fill out the form to actually do it. You can't be successful, if you don't take the first step.

What would be your main advice to someone who has a great idea?

Don't think you know everything. Turn to someone with experience. It doesn't have to be a guy who's made a billion dollars, just someone who is veteran enough to understand what's going on. Then, form a good team. Start by going out of your office, talking to your potential customers and ask them: Would you consider what I'm offering you useful? Yes. Great. Would you use it? Yes. Great. Would you pay for it? No? So we have a problem. You need to identify very early if you REALLY have a market, approach it, make sure it is ready for you.

As a startup it is impossible to educate a market. But you can turn to people, talk to them, see if they're interested. If you are making an app and the users say they won't pay for it, don't just turn to them. Ask them, if they would use it, then go to the people who could pay for it and lay it on the table – we have users, will you give us the money? Once it's done get yourself to the market as quickly as you can.

What makes you excited about the digital future?

There are a couple of things that make me really excited actually. I think the internet of things is unstoppable. I already mentioned getting rid of batteries and our devices becoming a part of our body. I think this will give us total freedom by being connected but not having to worry about battery life, devices, cables and so on.

Another thing I'm excited about is the possibilities new technologies will give us. We plan to put people on Mars by 2034. We plan to have self-driving cars. I think in the future, it will be illegal to drive, because the machines calculate and process information so much faster than us.

There's a startup that created a technology needed in self-driving cars. In 6 months they were acquired by Uber for 680 million dollars! Can you imagine that? This is what is amazing to me, this is what I want to bring to DFF with me - the help and knowledge people with great ideas need to commercialize their product and make it successful. I'm on a mission to make that happen.