The Leadspicker service has not been too visible for a long time - it avoided start-up competitions, as well as any greater attention of the media. However, over a period of five years the Czech company has gradually entered dozens of markets, established its position in the United States, and it has now concluded its first investment round, which also includes the J&T Ventures II Fund. Founder Vlastimil Vodička explains how an “unknown team from East Europe” managed to persuade clients in the USA.
Originally, you focused on searching for interesting start-ups, and now you’re offering tools for automating the work of businessmen. How did that change come about?
It’s actually not a major change; the technology has remained the same. When I look at the draft of our original website, it was exactly about what we’re doing now. But when a company is starting out, and entering such a big market, it has nothing to hold on to. It must learn to communicate, earn credibility and its first satisfied customers. It is important to start somewhere. Start-up accelerators were like low-hanging fruit for us - a very good starting position. They don’t sell anything, but they need to find interesting, relevant companies all over the world, address them, and get them to act. And that’s exactly what we do.
Are there so many accelerators that you managed to earn a living just by developing tools for them?
It surprises me more and more each year, as there really are a lot. Currently, we have around 15,000 unique leads in the pipeline. They are not just accelerators, but also different innovation laboratories, tech events, and often consulting firms, too - for example, PwC pays us in three countries. They sell innovation consulting, and we do the work faster than them: in just a few days instead of a month. They can then resell the result profitably. It is important to find distributors; to have something for the client to earn x-times more. Nabbing the market yourself is terribly difficult.
How challenging is it now to re-focus on a different type of customers?
The bet on the start-up niche paid off in this respect, too. It is difficult to make a breakthrough on a market where nobody knows the given service. However, our current and former clients accelerate about 2,500 firms every year together. These firms come to the accelerator, and their aim is either to validate or scale within a few months. So, they all need to sell, and that’s what we can help them with. It is also for the benefit of the accelerators, because valuation grows with the customers. Our clients then become our ambassadors, and we scale through them.
So, what exactly does Leadspicker offer to businessmen?
When I come to work in the morning, I switch the computer on, open my e-mail, and there are like eight or ten confirmed appointments with potential clients. And I didn’t have to do anything at all for it. All I do is go to the appointments and sell. I have my personal bot, which gradually searches for relevant clients, addressing them in such a way as to make sure I’m not overwhelmed. Our vision is that every businessman shall have their own virtual assistant to rid them of routine activities and supply them with work according to their wishes. It works perfectly; we acquire our clients in this way.
Is the technology you use unique in any way?
There are three things we’re very good at. The first thing is, that just like in Apify, for example, we can crawl data from all over the world very effectively. We clean the acquired lists automatically, searching for additional data and similar things to the individual companies. The second thing is that it is necessary to be able to read the data. In order to find a company that yields an opportunity for the given businessman, we take a certain sample of his customers, and using machine learning, we search for similar companies. These are rather common technologies nowadays, but it’s about the specific use. Skypicker uses them to search for plane tickets; Neuron Soundware gathers samples of sounds, searching for similarities. We compare the contents of websites. And our third specialty is that we learned to send e-mails. It sounds trivial, but it’s absolutely essential.
In what sense?
We have very robust technology to get by spam filters and ensure delivery. Before sending anything, we create the maximum possible reputation of the domains we send the messages from. It involves such details as paying Indians for clicking on the e-mails and replying, thereby increasing the reach. The actual e-mail also cannot look like spam or some general message. For each lead, we automatically search for the so-called catch, so, the message can start like: “Hello, we read this article you shared on LinkedIn, and that’s why we decided to address you.” Lots of e-mails are sent out, but each of them is unique and personal to a certain extent. People conclude that it was not written by a robot at all. Sometimes we get a 25% response rate, which is really an extremely good number; single percentage units are usually considered a success.
You were recently added to the chart of the fastest growing companies within the region by Deloitte Company. Did it help your business, or is it just a good feeling?
We never applied to participate in any competitions. I learned about this one from Petr Kasa from Pilulka.cz, who recommended it as the first truly fair competition. No presentations are compiled, and there are no stories told; you simply send a short summary and a tax return. They inspect the turnover for the past years, finding out how you manage to multiply it after reaching a certain amount. It is fair, because the rules are the same for companies with a large turnover and a small margin, and vice versa. It is about accrual, not absolute numbers. At that time, we were in the USA, struggling with the fact that we’re a company from the East, which nobody knows, and nobody cares about. And this really helped us, because we started basically every meeting by saying that Deloitte rated us among the 16 fastest growing companies. It added credibility, and we were able to reach interesting clients on the American market, because the Deloitte chart is known everywhere. It is a door-opener, and it also helps with hiring, because people want jobs they can be proud of. But naturally, it also pleased us on a human level, and it helped to improve the mood on our team.
You only opted to invite investors after five years on the market. Why now, and why did you decide to choose J&T Ventures?
From the start, we managed to at least double the growth each year, and we were break-even; we earned the first million euros ourselves. In fact, we were a little worried about whether we’d manage to grow even faster after the inflow of investment capital. But we’re ready now. Moreover, we know people from J&T Ventures on a long-term basis, and as far as B2B is concerned, I know they function perfectly as an interconnection to other firms. The option to use extensive contacts within the entire J&T Group is attractive, naturally. Moreover, the team at J&T Ventures is proactive and I’ve always felt they were working really hard, as opposed to other funds.
What were the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on your business, whether positive or negative?
At the turn of the year, it was very quiet in Asia, where everything stopped. Some of our clients quit, others chose a waiting tactic. Then, it flooded Europe and the USA. Today, Asia is back in business; the Americans were shocked for four weeks, but then they stopped worrying and they are back in business, too. Europe is slower. In general, however, we keep getting new opportunities. For example, we’re working for the German government now, searching for projects aimed at dealing with the solutions of the current crisis. We were asked to find specific solutions to different problems within 14 days. There are also virtual accelerators coming into existence, only focusing on funding, because the start-ups need to secure their financing now. We have always operated on-line; last year, we barely had a real office - some people were sitting in Slovakia, some in Austria, some in the Czech Republic. All of a sudden, all the firms had to do the same thing, and that means opportunity for services like ours.