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What every entrepreneur can learn from the growth of global tech start-up Prezi

With the launch of Prezi Business today, Startups meets with Adam Somlai-Fisher to gauge the lessons that took his start-up from one user to 75 million

Prezi, the presentation platform which looks to overcome the “dustiness of PowerPoints and slides”, is a business that has been on a growth ascent ever since its launch back in 2009.

Started by Adam Somlai-Fisher, Peter Arvai and Péter Halácsy as a means to make presentations more “engaging, fun, and memorable”, the cash-positive tech start-up now has 75 million users across the world and has raised over $72m investment from Accel Partners and TED conferences.

Its team has also swollen to in excess of 200 staff split across offices in Budapest, San Francisco, Mexico and the UK.

In just seven years Prezi has achieved mammoth progress and is taking a huge share of the presentation market – Somlai-Fisher explains that the platform has generated 260 million ‘Prezis’ to date while the likes of Slideshare “have just 20 million”.

This morning, Prezi announced the launch of its ‘Business’ offering. Combining visual presentations with advanced collaboration, analytics, Slack integration, and mobile presenting capabilities, Somlai-Fisher tells us that Prezi Business “is more than just a conversation tool” and says it will enable workforces to “engage in the most effective way possible”; Yelp and Zendesk are among a cluster of major brands that have already expressed an interest in the platform.

To coincide with the launch, met with Somlai-Fisher to find out more about the business’ impressive journey and customer base (Barack Obama is indeed a fan) and to get insider tips on how others should approach starting a tech start-up from the ground up.

Here are the entrepreneur’s lessons for tech start-up success:

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Find business idea inspiration from what you really need

“We started the company seven years ago and initially I created the product for my own needs. I used to be an artist travelling around the world, often having to do lectures and talks, and it just didn’t work for me to use slides into slides. I wanted something different that would tell a story and connect them [the slides].”

Use customer proof points to drive product development

“[The moment I knew Prezi was going to work] was when I got an email from a 70-year-old Canadian firefighter who said ‘Thank you for creating Prezi, I feel creative again’ and to me, because he was not a typical early adopter, that was just a proof point for us. And two years ago we joined Connected in the US where we gave $100m worth of licences to poor schools in the US and we got a personal thank you from Obama!

“Because [Prezi] offers such a different format we got a lot of attention almost straight away. We got TED as an investor, this was the first thing that they had ever invested in, so it was a big deal for us and they believed in our mission that this [Prezi] was a supreme medium.”

Make yourself relevant to the biggest target market possible

“When we started we had a natural focus on keynote speeches and conferences because that’s a naturally large audience and it was a great fit. It gave us high visibility straight away; if you have a speaker using Prezi, people will ask ‘What do you use [for your presentation]?’ We were conscious that this was a great market. But there’s only so many keynote speakers in the world.

“So the second thing we really loved was education and that just burst globally. It has a natural fit for students because [Prezi] is more playful and interactive. Teachers wanted to use it because students were using it – it was a really great growth opportunity for us.

“We really want everyone to experience Prezi and I think we’re far from there, our market is much bigger than where we are today. We’ve cracked keynote speakers, we’ve cracked education, and now business. We will continue to listen to the market.”

Invest time and money in finding co-founders that share your business ambitions

“When you choose your co-founders, think about the skills you will need to make [the business] a success. You will need co-founders, you can’t do it all.

“Spend a lot of time finding the right people, it’s a bit like marriage; you’re going to go through good and bad times. You have to have people who can really work together. A common thing I see with a lot of start-ups is that co-founders [go different ways]. We [Somlai-Fisher alongside Arvai and Halácsy) talked a lot about our vision, not just for the company but for the world in 10 years, to make sure we were on the same page.”

Use customer feedback to tap into new revenue streams

“We see that our biggest growth market is [with] business and marketing professionals. Why? Because we have stories from our business customers who said ‘I saw my kids using Prezi at school and they are much better at presenting at me, I can’t do this [with slides]!” so they learnt from their kids. The kind of generation that are growing up with Prezi are going into the workforce and bringing their tools with them.”

Use competitors to your advantage

“We talk with [Microsoft, Google and the like]. We started at the time of the financial crisis and we set out to compete with them so it was quite daring.

“I think in many ways we don’t really have a competitor because they [Microsoft, Google etc.) are all slide-based. Yes, you can use them to do a presentation but when you really want to have a conversation this [Prezi] is much more slicker. One of the other things we’re doing with Prezi Business is moving away from a presentation tool, it’s more like a platform – part of the team will only use the analytics feature to check how their presentations are going (if clients are engaged and improve). It will be more like a platform to empower teams to build communication with their clients.”

Generate interest from your customers first and investment will soon follow

“Our first professional investor Sandstone Capital is a Danish firm and helped us launch our San Francisco office. Why did they invest? They just said that they had heard good things and gone on Twitter and checked if people were talking about Prezi and people were. They said that one of the comments from our customers described Prezi as ‘love at first use’ and Sandstone said they just had to meet us.

“Today you can get really lost in competitions and accelerator programmes but they’re not coming from your market and your users. Just really stay focused on your users and bring value to them, that’s when you will get the professional investors.

“Before we got our first investment, we basically sold presentations on a one-by-one basis. The second thing we understood is that once we uploaded the software online and people could use it we had a wide range of people downloading it.”

Don’t leave it too late to launch your business overseas

“We worked very hard to move to San Francisco very early to be in the US market because we understood that if we didn’t do it, someone would just copy what we were doing.

“We just recently opened an office in Mexico City – we’re staying lean and getting a bigger team because the business is growing.”

Focus your hiring around cultural fit and knowledge base

“It was really hard hiring our first employees and finding good people. We created this assessment week process where we would make everyone work together for a full week before we hired as we understood that there could be little differences culturally. We created a really strong team, a bit stronger than hiring like this [snaps fingers twice].

“For our second round from Accel we worked really hard on getting knowledge. We didn’t really need the investment – we were cash flow positive – but what we really needed was really experienced people in the American market with a vested interest in our success. We worked really hard in finding people that could support us and empower us.”

Company titles and salary packages shouldn’t be a priority in the early stages

“One of our mistakes early on was hiring an executive that wanted a lot of money. It was the wrong choice because we really should have got someone who was in it for the vision, that could have taken share options.”

Only take investment from people you would want to be business partners with

“We had to do a lot of pitches and meet with a lot of venture capital (VCs) firms. We would meet with VCs that we wouldn’t really want to work with but we would get experience and get [and idea of] the questions [they would ask] so we could get really good at [pitching].

“There’s no magic trick to raising investment so do the hard work and talk to a lot of investors but only take money from people that you would want to be business partners with. I see a lot of people take money and yeah it’s cool, it’s money, but you really need to understand the investor that you’re getting and feel the chemistry and connection.

“The challenge with funding is that it can [distract] and delay the [start-up] process. On the second day of Prezi, we went out and met with people and got their views, this is really important. I think very early on [raising funding] can blur your vision.”

Build a team that shares your company vision

“You really have to empower your employees; you need to have a team that are interested, motivated and love the vision. We don’t have working hours, we have very few rules – we don’t need them because we have a shared vision.

“It really comes down to your ability to be humble and your ability to hire people that are better than you. When you start, you do everything and it’s a lot about the mindset of respecting the people.We invest a lot in sustaining our team, unity is key to the company. It’s a continuous investment. Empower your team.”

Don’t get blindsided by business opportunities that could take your eye off the ball

“Always focus. At the start, we got a request from a Chinese TV company about making a tool and it sounded really cool but you can get distracted early. You have to say ‘no’ many times because when you choose what you do and you do it really well [it works]. To be smart, you have to have a strategy and know where you want to get to. There are distractions but they should all lead in the same direction.”


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