Roland Siebelink – Topicmarks 2 of 2

“Manage the long-term vision and the short-term results.“ Topicmarks automatically reads and summarizes electronic text documents in the cloud.

Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation what have you learned about your business, or your users, that you didn’t know prior to launching?

Roland: Well, that’s a good question. What we assumed in the beginning was that just the ability to organize your information and to summarize the text would be enough for people to come to our website and start uploading their documents in our website. This is the assumption we had when we launched last year. 

But, since the proliferation of the cloud services, people do love our service, but they say hey, can’t you just log in to where I have already uploaded all of my information? In my Evernote, in my Dropbox, in my Box.net? This is the big change we made at the end of last year. 

Instead of expecting people to start building a new cloud repository on our website we just go where uses already have their information and we start plugging into the big cloud services that are out there to make it much more easy to start adding this value within the information space you have already built up.

Matthew: So, lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make starting companies look easy. What skills or talents come easy for you? What has been challenging and how have you managed that?

Roland: Well, I think it is always hard to say about yourself what skills are the easiest, but, I think the skills that I would say you really need as a CEO are very much inspiration. You have to be able to inspire both employees, investors, customers, people at events all the time. Of course, there is hardcore selling that you have to do. That is actually part of that. 

Recruiting is very important. Getting people on board, whether they are employees, advisers or investors. What I think is the hardest things for CEO’s at the time when the company is really taking off and you do half the funding and people are expecting your results, is to manage the gap between the long term vision and the short term operational results, because often you are far away from where you want to go and still to keep people motivated to work on these very first steps, even if the vision that people are striving for is still miles away. That, I think, is the hardest thing to do, and that’s not been everybody’s talent.

Matthew: Excellent. What is the most important lesson you have learned since launching Topicmarks?

Roland: I think that the most important lessons we have learned are all in the field of customer development, with understanding. Being much closer to the customer. Understanding what is the exact study that they are willing to pay for, rather than coming up with a vision, believing that this is the greatest product you have ever developed and then failing in the marketplace. 

I think because Karl and [Yaro] and the other engineers worked on this for many years out of their engineering vision, very clearly we had developed a lot of technology. A lot of that was not immediately usable for the user. We are all very inspired by Steve Blank and his theories on customer development and I would encourage any entrepreneur, particularly if you have an engineering background, to study everything Steve Blank has written and has put on YouTube before you build a big company out of this. 

Matthew: Excellent. What mentor has played a significant impact in your professional development?

Roland: Several. Frankly, all American mentors actually. I have only moved to America in mid 2010. The big mentors that were important for me were my first American manager Dave [Stockson] who told me everything I know about marketing. Second, the CEO of Telenet back in Belgium, Chuck Carroll, who told me a lot about what it is like to be a CEO. How to manage that gap between the long term vision and the short results and really to keep focusing your energy on what really matters on a day to day basis. I am very grateful for having worked with both guys.

Matthew: Excellent. Thank you for sharing that. What advice would you like to give our audience about launching a start up? What do you think are the most important elements?

Roland: I think the most important elements are definitely you do need to have to have a vision that is driven probably by some hardcore technology or something that you can do that nobody else can do. It needs to be something that is not easily replicated by other people. But then you quickly have to confront that vision with actual customers. With people trying to understand your product. Seeing if people are willing to spend time with it. Showing prototypes and seeing if people would actually click on the right buttons and things like that. 

It is that confrontation between your vision and the reality of the customer that to me is the highest priority. it is a much bigger priority than starting to build products right away. Focus on screen shows first, focus on wire frames second and make sure you have got the feedback from the customers before you actually start building a big product. That may be a little bit in the wrong direction as you will discover later.

Matthew: Excellent. What are the next steps for Topicmarks?

Roland: Topicmarks is currently closing its seed funding rounds by the end of next week. I will finally be able to relax for a few months. Then of course the recruiting is starting. We are now hiring many people. People like community managers, product mangers, designers, everybody very much focused on making our products more appealing to the front end to the user base. [inaudible 05:59] will be doing marketing for the PR and then in the end I think the key point is to start launching these plug ins for the cloud services like Evernote, Dropbox, Box.net and others. 

Matthew: Can you give our audience your big vision for Topicmarks and how you hope it is going to change the world?

Roland: Yes. What we hope is going to change is that where people were used to reading all of their input just in case, just in case they may need it to write a paper about it or to present it and then to have all of these stacks on their desk that are so annoying that you still know you have to read but you really don’t have time for it. We want to change reading just in case to reading just in time. Why don’t you put all of these stacks in a software like Topicmarks digitally. Paper doesn’t matter. Let us read everything for you. Let our machines do the work for you and then when you need the information it is right there at your fingertips, just the five points you need. Nothing else.

Matthew: Excellent. Well, Roland we are rooting for your success at Topicmarks. We appreciate you being a guest on the show. For those in our audience who would like to learn more you can visit them at www.topicmarks.com. Thank you.

Roland: Absolutely. Thank you Matthew. It was a pleasure to be here.

 
 

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