With 30 more days to go for the Openfund‘s application deadline, and as I got a closer look at a number of applications already submitted, I’d like to share with you a few comments that hopefully will prove to be useful if you are about to apply, or simply interesting if you consider the whole effort worthy of your attention. I’d also encourage you to keep in mind these directions when you invest some time in filling an application in general, while please do not consider any of the rules below as general truths or let them stifle your creativity in any way.

1. Be real. – Pretending that you hold extra-terrestrial skills does not make your application more appealing, it rather results in second thoughts about its validity. Also, having served the last 20 years in chief executive positions and holding a track record of three multi-million exits does not make you the ideal candidate; instead it raises issues on your incentives and truthfulness. Moreover, holding at the moment three exciting jobs in parallel is not that promising after all, in terms of your full-time commitment at least.

2. Be clear. – Spend time and a couple of hundred more words to present your team and describe your idea in detail. Add a link to some screenshots or a mockup, a presentation or a short video. Be concise but precise on your targets and vision; doubt typically does not serve for your benefit.

3. Be different. – Describe the market that you target at, estimate its size and name the existing players. Then, analyze your differentiator factors and why you believe they are game changers. Remember, giving wrong but truthful estimations is better than not answering at all. And localization is not innovation per se.

4. Invest time. – Not well prepared submissions deserve nothing less than a clear no go, at least for me. If you cannot commit a reasonable amount of time to come up with a unique application, for any reason, you’re giving a clear signal that your team is not a proper candidate. Or, if you cannot properly fill out an application form, then keep in mind that a start-up is a much more difficult thing to do. Also, rest assured that the above become clear from the very first text field one gets to review, so invest some time to submit a well-thought proposal and avoid a desk reject, or you’d better spare your time and ours.

5. This is for your benefit. – Getting to write up your idea, either in a short application form or an extended business plan is among the best of exercises to do when you start up. Putting a plan on paper, with all its details, assumptions and malfunctions can significantly help you to get the truth out of it, and then reshape it, prioritize and focus. After all, to rephrase Preston McAffee (.pdf, hat tip to Panagiotis Ipeirotis) “we are in the business of accepting proposals, not improving business plans”, and, even if this only partially true during the Openfund’s first steps (that is, do expect to receive proper feedback to improve your application if you submit it early enough), it makes crystal clear what your main consideration when writing your application should be: make the most out of it, for your very own benefit. And, remember, you need to convince yourself in the first place, investors and clients will follow.

If the above still remain rather theoretical, here you will find the application of Askmarkets I submitted in Seedcamp a year ago. There are still a number of errors and wrong placements (and I keep blaming myself for all these, even if it got us straight to the interview phase), however I consider it an example of an honest attempt, that makes this clear from the very first sentence, please treat it as such (and nothing more).

Team Members
George Tziralis
Role: cofounder & CEO
Date of Birth: 18/01/1982
Email Address: ******@askmarkets.com
Skype Username: george.tziralis
Current location (city, country): Athens, Greece
Education: Diploma in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering – National Technical University of Athens PhD in Operations Research – National Technical University of Athens (expected late 2008, or dropout)
Work History: various research projects during PhD, among them senior researcher of the Olympic Games Impact Study for Athens 2004, under the IOC. also teaching Data Mining and Forecasting at a graduate and post-graduate level in NTUA. Full research CV is accessible here: http://ub0.cc/0M/D
Connection to Seedcamp: I have exchanged some email with Saul before, due to serving as organizer of the Open Coffee meetings in Greece. Met with Reshma a month ago in London, enjoyed some fruitful discussions with her on Seedcamp, OC GR and askmarkets.
Personal Website(s): http://gtziralis.com
Completed Projects: askmarkets is my first start-up, so I may now point to some pet projects of mine, like opencoffee.gr and websource.it. Some others are yet to come.
Impressive Accomplishment: helped to create a vibrant greek start-up community almost from scratch – see Open Coffee meetings in Greece and http://opencoffee.gr
Confirmation of Relocation: Yes
Confirmation of Commitment: Yes

Efthimios Mpothos
Role: cofounder & CTO
Date of Birth: 20/09/1981
Email Address: ********@askmarkets.com
Skype Username:
Current location (city, country): Athens, Greece
Education: Diploma in Electrical and Computer Engineering – National Technical University of Athens MSc in Engineering – Economic Systems – National Technical University of Athens PhD in Computer Science – National Technical University of Athens (expected late 2009, or dropout)
Work History: various research projects during PhD, among them senior researcher of the EU IP Project LABORANOVA. Intracom – Telecom engineer Siemens – Telecom Engineer
Connection to Seedcamp: –
Personal Website(s): http://www.linkedin.com/pub/4/6A1/371
Completed Projects: –
Impressive Accomplishment: graduated on time from the much demanding NTUA School of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Confirmation of Relocation: Yes
Confirmation of Commitment: Yes

Questions & Answers
What is your company called?
AskMarkets UnLtd

What are its contact details?
url: http://askmarkets.com e-mail: ******@askmarkets.com mob: {…} address: {…}, Athens Greece

What are you creating?
Markets (stock, betting, flea markets, etc) essentially bring people together, they sum up their information and transmit it through prices. Askmarkets intends to bring this functionality to the masses. And we’re creating a web service for (prediction) markets, which consists of virtual marketplaces for information trading. You may find more a more detailed description of the concept at our blog, http://blog.askmarkets.com

What is really new about that?
We like to say ‘everything’. There already exists a bunch of prediction markets sites, but we tend to differ, starting from our core {…} and its simplistic implementation, till the approach to interface design and our way of introducing/marketing the whole concept.

How long have you been working on this? As a team?
Our inspiration on the markets concept stems from about 3 years of PhD research on the topic, for each one of us. We met up and started working as a team in Spring 2007.

What customer need will you solve or why do people need your product?
We do believe that our service is valuable in all cases that concern and could benefit from dynamic aggregation of information and its incorporation into a single metric, aka prices. Take the case of enterprises. Many employees possess valuable information and insights on various and crucial topics of interest. However, available ways of sharing typically extend to meetings and surveys, being time and cost inefficient while lacking incentives and being static by nature. Now, turn a typical survey question about the future into a market, where all ‘traders’ could anonymously ‘bet’ on the probability of an event occurring, and earn some profit or reputation when predicting correctly. What you now have is a playful way to efficiently extract information and people’s opinions, with practically no cost and in a 24/7 fashion. And we think there is a huge amount of latent information and potential to be discovered. Apart from the intra-enterprise / private marketplace solution, we also provide public marketplaces, to aggregate and filter the information of the many, plus create communities of traders and foster conversations via market prices on topics of interest. We think that such a product may serve as the next generation of polls, among others.

What specifically is your target market and how is it being poorly served today?
We focus both on b2b and b2c. Regarding b2b, an obvious target market will be the one of surveys, plus this of decision support tools. Regarding b2c, polls stand as a big market to target at. However, the novelty of the tool and the variety of the platform’s potential applications may mature to other markets that yet remain to be discovered.

What gives you an unfair advantage?
First of all, we are fans of being fair and open, and we believe that these virtues return in the middle and long term much more that any ‘unfair advantage’ can give. But we do also believe that we bring into the table our team’s unique mix of expertise (background knowledge, leveraging {…} findings of our PhD research), passion and creativity (as our work till now demonstrates), and this very mix put us in the right position to execute our idea in a highly successful way.

How will you sustain that unfair advantage?
We do aim at enhancing our mix of talent and expertise with experience, by quickly gaining a significant number of users and customers, in a way that makes this very mix and our brand loyalty unable to be copied.

How will you make money?
We employ a two-tier pricing strategy. Normal users at our default marketplace http:// askmarkets.com will be able to enjoy our services for free, while we may monetize their attention and time spent on the marketplace with various forms of advertisement. But, our main and directly monetizable product regards custom marketplaces, in separate domains, as a paid service (on a monthly basis, adding a specific cost per user and transaction for example).

Why is this team the right one for this company?
We feel that we have mutually complementary skills, expertise and experiences, while we share a common research background on prediction markets, plus a strong entrepreneurial attitude and same cultural roots; all of which have matured our cooperation so far into being real soulmates.

If you are incorporated (as a company): who owns what, and what is the detailed funding history? If you are not yet incorporated: who will own what percentage of the company?
We are incorporated (UnLtd) in Greece since summer 2007. {…}

To date, what specific progress have you made in building your product/company (e.g. development milestones, feature additions, customer sign-ups, etc.)?
Our product is already fully functional. We have progressed from a demo to an extended alpha phase with about 200 testers and now we’re in private beta and nearly bug-free, while we’ll probably go public during September. And we constantly add or upgrade our various features to finally ship a fully-fledged, yet ultra-minimal and attractive web service. We have no enterprise customers, at this moment.

We are really impressed by teams that get stuff done. Please provide a URL (with login details if necessary) to a prototype of your product, or failing that to a video of a prototype of your product. Keep it live from 11 August through 19 September.
You may log-in at http://askmarkets.com using your email and password “iminvited” to enter the service. We may also create a specific marketplace for the needs of Seedcamp, for example at http://seedcamp.askmarkets.com, to enable public “speculation” on the winners or private aggregation of the views and information of the Seedcamp board. Some explanatory/promo videos are available at http://askmarkets.blip.tv/ and http://opencoffee.gr/2008/08/01/tc-oc-askmarkets-video/

When will you have a prototype/beta?
see previous question.

What tools will you use?
We are developing in Ruby on Rails, hosting our site in Amazon EC2, and using scalable Mongrel web servers for databases. We have also utilized some of the latest technologies, for example Adobe’s Flex for the graphs, among others.

It is always good to evaluate all your future options. If you decided to sell your company, who would be the likely buyers for the business, and why?
The options are many, including all the big potential users of our services to the companies that may find our offering complementary to theirs, ranging from Google and SAP till Gallup, Deloitte and Betfair, you name it.

What measurements will you use to value your business in a year? What will it be worth? What are key milestones that will account for the growth in value from today to 1 year from now?
We believe that each single visitor of askmarkets who gets introduced to or inspired by our markets’ concept essentially adds value to the service. And each transaction in our default or custom marketplaces adds value, too and that’s why we provide these metrics at the homepage. Speaking of milestones and more tangible metrics for estimating our service’s worth in one year from now, we believe that our 100,000th user (aka trader) and our 100th client (aka 100th separate marketplace) are the targets to beat and will serve as proofs of a seriously considerable value of askmarkets.

Who are your main current or potential competitors as well as identified potential new entrants? (Think hard before you say ‘none’)
There exists a bunch of public marketplaces out there, either with real or play-money, among them Hollywood Stock Exchange, Intrade, Newsfutures, Inkling and the late entrant Hubdub. You may add some betting sites, too, with Betfair being the most prominent one, if you consider betting as an alternative view of trading (which is valid). However, our core monetizable product is not our default public marketplace (we won’t wait breaking even with ads) and this marketplace actually serves as a engaging demonstration of our application’s uses and potential. So, our main competitors include the providers of market services and these, for the time being, are Consensus Point, HSX, Inkling, Newsfutures, Intrade, Nosco and Xpree. And we do believe that all of them are far from unbeatable, while our offering already presents various critical innovations and the market to compete for is literally limitless – imagine every organization running markets next to or instead of surveys.

What is the single largest competitive threat to your business that you can identify today?
Well, most young entrepreneurs and web start-ups are usually scared of a software giant entering their field. And there was rumors of Microsoft creating Prediction Point, a software for prediction markets, while Google already uses such an application internally. But we like to see threats as the one side of risks; the other side regards opportunities. So, in the slight possibility that such a move takes place, we feel that our chances of being acquired will be significantly higher, while the market for our product will immediately grow and mature; and both these are welcome.

Planning for the worst is a key to great success. Think hard: what might go wrong? How can you minimize those risks?
Regarding our public play-money marketplace and the limited number of alpha testers so far, we had a difficult time convincing them to return and trade again and again, or create their own markets. Traders’ ranking wasn’t enough of an excuse to spend time on the site and this is still a problem for us, while yet in private mode. This may prove to be a chicken and egg problem -if the users are few, there is not much liquidity on markets, so there are no reasons to check it back soon. And we plan to go public soon and spread some invites into major blogs to get things running, while we are working on a really engaging and hopefully viral facebook application -which shares its database with our public marketplace. Another reason we consider important is the uber-horizontal character of the marketplace, resulting in a lack of focus on the topics that each user potentially considers interesting. We plan to bypass this by -already- developing a structure that {…}: for example, {…} that will result into a more engaging experience, user and ad-wise.

What about your business are you most uncertain about?
The concept of markets as a decision support tool, in enterprises for example, is fascinating and useful, but new. And, while we do believe that we have innovated a lot in popularizing it enough, we still feel somehow uncertain about convincing a ‘conventional enterprise’ and its ‘super busy’ or IT-avert employees to actually use it; or at least that was the premature feedback we had in some rare and early attempts we made on local enterprises. But the enterprise world is more about imitation rather than innovation -regarding the enterprise tools, at least- so we are positive that a few good case studies in the begging will get the ball rolling. Plus, we are not targeted at enterprises only, but at any kind of community a marketplace may serve.

What fact would make the most difference to your confidence that your company will succeed? How and when will you find that out?
Closely to the previous answer, we do feel that a dozen of pretty successful case studies and marketplace’s implementations till the end of this year will significantly boost our already high confidence and bring askmarkets really close to success, by enabling nearly exponential further growth.

Is your team working full time for the company? If not, what needs to go right for this to happen?
No, we are working part time on askmarkets, being at the same time PhD researchers, while trying to maximize the synergies among these. The initial target was to end up our PhDs first -and we are close to that-, but the entrepreneurial world seems to fascinate us more than the slowly moving academic one, no matter how strong our passion for research remains. Thus, we are willing to switch into full time, provided that askmarkets is viable (we have developed everything so far with zero funding) and their potential keeps growing tangible.

What do you hope to get out of the Seedcamp experience?
We applied to get at the top. But, even if not, we address the seedcamp experience as a process of maturing and we do grape its fruits, already since filling out this application form.

Does any founder have a conflicting future commitment? If so, what? Are any of you involved in other projects?
No. We are yet involved in our PhD research, but we’ll hopefully manage to graduate soon. Or, hopefully not.

Apart from open source software, was any of your code written by anyone not on the team?

Does any actual or potential legal restriction or limitation apply to any team member which we should know about (e.g., non-disclosure, non-compete)?

Let us say you have 15 seconds to pitch your business. Can you describe your business?
Markets. Stock, betting, flea markets. They all bring people together, sum up their information and transmit it through prices. Now you can make it happen, too.

What is your favourite movie of all time?
Pi, by Darren Aronofsky.

What question do you wish we had asked? What’s the answer?
Could askmarkets be operated with real instead of play-money? Yes, absolutely. {…}