Interview with Alena Huberová, mentor and coach of promising young entrepreneurs and start-ups

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Alena Huberová is a communication strategist, coach and trainer. Having gained 22 years of experience abroad, she now helps start-ups and entrepreneurs with presentation skills, business pitching and the art of attracting attention. As she herself says, the initial mentoring sessions are key to understanding the targeting of a start-up and the right sense of the project’s “essence”. One of the activities in which she is currently engaged is CzechInvest’s CzechStarter programme, which offers mentoring and consulting for firms that are seeking assistance and advice at the start of doing business and established companies looking for a new direction. In what areas does Alena Huberová see the strength of Czech start-ups? How has working elsewhere in the world for over two decades shaped her views? The answers to those questions and more can be found in the following interview.

 

1)    Alena, can you tell us exactly what you do and what you are focusing on?

Very simply said, I help people “sell” their ideas. I teach start-up entrepreneurs and corporate managers to present their projects in order to gain the favour of potential business partners, clients and investors and to convince them to buy or to take some other particular action, such as arranging a future meeting, establishing cooperation or making an investment. Where start-up entrepreneurs are concerned, I prepare them for negotiations with investors. I help them to formulate their business presentation so that the investor immediately understands 1) WHY the project even exists, 2) WHY now, and 3) WHY it would be in the investor’s interest to invest in the given start-up.

 

2)    As we mentioned, you lived in Europe and Asia for more than twenty years. How did that shape you? What did you bring back to the Czech Republic after such a long time?

Hmm, do you really want to know? I could talk about that for a week without stopping. Different country, different manners, as they say. Imaging living and working for a long time in five different countries, both in countries with a culture similar to your own and in countries where you sometimes slap yourself on the forehead because you don’t fully comprehend local thinking, manner of expression and behaviour. Of course, there is a reason for everything. With a bit of an open mind, you often realise that what actually doesn’t make sense is your own thinking, manner of expression and behaviour…

I consider myself to be a perpetual student. I see opportunities to learn something everywhere and living abroad was one lesson after another. It is an unbelievably enriching experience – I recommend it to everyone.

I learned a lot about myself, about people, about the world. I feel liberated from many of my prejudices, I look at things from a somewhat broader perspective and mainly I know that nothing is what it seems at first glance (or what the media want to “sell” us).

When I returned to the Czech Republic after 22 years (which was unexpected and unplanned), it was quite a culture shock for me, even though I had visited my family in the Czech Republic at least twice a year. I was an “alien” in some foreign country for years and so I almost looked forward to the fact that here, in my home country, my “status” would finally change and voilà, what a surprise! My “status” changed, but I still felt and feel like an “alien”. I am still learning to understand my compatriots, just as I learned to understand my fellow citizens abroad. But I have to say that I am extremely happy in Prague. It is an amazing city, beautiful, practical and safe and life is good here. We don’t have war, disease, earthquakes, unemployment. On the contrary, we have unbelievable opportunities and now we even have tropical weather like in the Caribbean J. We simply have no reason to complain…

 

3)    In your opinion, what is the strength of Czech start-ups?

I have had the opportunity to work with numerous Czech start-up entrepreneurs and I’m excited! They have generally been younger people, smart, educated, ambitious, with a lot of enthusiasm and the conviction that they can leave their mark on the world! Dreamers, not realists, like we were and like the generation before us. As a general rule, they are also people who have travelled and gained international work experience, so they have had the opportunity to see how things work elsewhere in the world and now they want to apply their findings and knowledge in their own business and in their own country. I have certain reservations about the Czech education system, but it is true that on the technical side it prepares our people very well and their knowledge and skills are highly valued here and abroad.

 

4)    In your opinion, what is the most frequent mistake made by the start-ups, entrepreneurs and firms that you coach?

I see several, but I’ll mention only those that I consider to be the most fundamental.

  1. Start-up entrepreneurs typically suffer from a “disease” that I call “the Curse of Knowledge”. Since they are very technically competent and very “immersed” in their business, it is a problem for them to describe their business in such a way that we other, “normal people” can understand what it’s about. It may be surprising, but investors are also only “normal people”. If investors don’t understand the essence of your business, you can’t expect that they will immediately see the amazing value added that you are convinced about.
  2. Related to that is the fact that start-up entrepreneurs often are not able to explain what their competitive advantage is. How their product/service/idea is better, smaller, bigger, lighter, darker, etc. than what already exists on the market. Many of them also let themselves be mesmerised by the thought that their product is so exceptional that they actually don’t have any competition! That’s a mistake. There is always competition. The need that we are trying to satisfy can be satisfied may different ways. Imagine, for example, if someone first brought an online dating app to market and proudly exclaimed: “We are the first; we have no competition!” Yes, that’s true. They don’t have any direct competition because no other online dating app exists at this moment. However, there is indirect competition and it is necessary to take it into account! What about bars, clubs and discotheques or fitness centres, where people go to find the partner of their dreams?
  3. Start-up entrepreneurs often do not have a clear idea of who to target. I frequently hear: “Our product is sensational, everyone can use it!” To which I reply, “That’s great! And how do you plan to address the masses of people in your sales materials, in advertising, the product name and slogan so that you get their attention and astonish them? And how much money, time and human resources do you have for that?” Unfortunately, the fact is that targeting everybody is exactly the same as targeting nobody…
  4. And last but not least, many start-up entrepreneurs underestimate the value of preparation! Preparation is necessary. We feel better when we are well prepared and we increase our chance of success. You don’t go on a date wearing a wrinkled shirt, with mud on your shoes and toothpaste residue on your lips, do you? Meeting with an investor is the same. Preparation is necessary and it pays off. It’s a pity that a lot of people still don’t understand that.

“We’ll give this presentation somehow; after all, we know our business inside and out!”  And these are precisely the people who wonder why absolutely nothing happens when their presentation is over. No one has any questions, no one asks for another meeting, no one is showering them with money. And what’s worse, if they corner some unlucky person who was present at their presentation and ask for feedback, that person will search his memory and realise with horror that he doesn’t remember anything at all about their presentation!

That’s a shame! Because this start-up could leave its mark on the world with its idea, but it won’t, because it didn’t manage to capture the audience’s attention, let alone build enthusiasm for its idea.

This is one of the reasons I do what I do. So that all of these amazing, eager and talented people are prepared to present their firms the right way and not lose their opportunity to leave their mark on the world.

Thank you for your time. We wish you much success. More details about Alena are available at http://www.alenahuberova.com/ .