Ash Maurya is the founder and CEO at Leanstack, a leading provider of Lean Startup and Lean Business Modeling tools, content, and coaching resources. He is also the author of the book Running Lean. Prior to Leanstack, he worked at companies like telecom technologies and Sonus Networks and founded the startup Wired Reach in 2002, which enabled the creation of simple peer to web applications that blurred the boundaries between the desktop and web. He holds a BSc in Electrical Engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The Lean Canvas came about as a way to combat the preconceived notion of business ideas as overnight successes. It helps aspiring founders take their idea and deconstruct it to learn what needs to be tackled first and how to chronicle the process. It helps you get specific (because if you try to build a product for everyone, you end up building a product for no one) and helps you find out whether the problem you’re looking to solve is big enough.
The Lean Startup Methodology can also help you figure out things like pricing. Founders tend to want to price their product in terms of solution (meaning, based on how much it costs to produce the product/solution) instead of pricing it according to the problem (figuring out how big of a pain the problem is, and how much people are willing to pay to fix it).
It can also help founders find paths to customers, whether that be through paid advertising or through posting original content, or through being featured on other people’s original content, like Ash just did with Swisspreneur.
"Being too early to market is almost as bad as being too late."
"When we try to build a product for everyone, we end up building a product for no one."
Chris Bach is the CSO/CCO at Netlify, a platform for building highly-performant and dynamic websites, e-commerce stores and apps. He studied film and media science at the University of Copenhagen but then pivoted to the business world, and created Netlify in 2015 together with co-founders Mathias Biilmann. By uniting an extensive ecosystem of technologies, services and APIs into one workflow, Netlify unlocks new levels of team productivity, while saving time, money and the planet.
Their idea was to change the architecture of the web and provide a viable workflow for developers, since nowadays it’s known that the biggest overall challenge companies face is reducing time to market, and that the number 1 way of doing so is to invest in developer tools and workflow.
They knew that Netlify would have to be venture-backed in order to have the right time-to-market and create the desired impact. Europe was much too risk averse in terms of capital, so they decided to raise funds in the US. To date they’ve taken on $212M in investment from investors such as A16Z, Kleiner Perkins, Bessemer, EQT, BOND and Menlo Ventures, and angels such as the founders of Github, Heroku, Rackspace Cloud, Slack, Yelp, Figma, and many more.
"Venture capital was much too risk-averse in Europe. What we needed was the Silicon Valley approach."
"The mission is not money. The mission is building a better web."
This episode was produced in cooperation with the ETH Entrepreneur Club.
Samuel Mueller is the co-founder and CEO at Scandit, the leading technology platform for mobile computer vision and augmented reality (AR) solutions for enterprises. He holds a PhD in Computer Science and Temporal Logics from ETH Zurich. Together with Christian Floerkermeier and Christof Roduner, he created Scandit in 2009.
Their goal with Scandit was to create a bridge between real world objects and the digital information available about them. Barcodes were then the natural entry points, especially at a time when phone cameras were just starting to become ubiquitous.
Nowadays they work with 4 key verticals:
Scandit runs a subscription-based model which allows customers to “go as they grow”, meaning the bigger they get, the more Scandit services they can accrue. It's also a very high margin business, because a lot of the heavy lifting, the computer vision magic, is happening on the user devices, so there’s no distinct cloud need.
"As an entrepreneur, if you don’t get really good at saying ‘no’, you’re gonna get terribly distracted."
"Today’s customers are really smart. If you don’t have an answer ready for them, they’re already on their way to check out the product somewhere else."
Elian Kool is the co-founder and former CEO at Netcentric, a Zurich based company that develops CX marketing solutions. He previously worked at companies like Acommit AG, Namics and Logica Deutschland.
Elian co-founded Netcentric in 2012, right around the time that Adobe Experience Cloud (the focus of their business) was first emerging. They were quite precocious, in the sense that they always competed at eye level with big consultants like Deloitte and Accenture, and very early on set up an office in Barcelona. They were also quick to take on a holacratic organizational method, in order to create a work environment that was both extremely efficient and attractive to its employees.
In 2017 they were acquired by cognizant in order to grow more quickly at an international level.
"In my view it’s much better to stay focused and know what you’re good at than trying to mitigate every potential risk."
Dennis Just is the current CEO at Smallpdf, a company offering a suite of clever document management tools for everyone. He holds a BSc in Economics and Engineering from Technische Universität Berlin and previously founded companies like Numbrs and Knip.
Mathis Büchi is co-founder and chairman at Smallpdf and Taxfix, a digital tax accountant. He studied International Business and Global Management at the University of Hong Kong and previously founded Encounter Korea, a company organizing tours to North Korea.
Dennis and Mathis recommend that you only scale once the following conditions are met:
Do you always need to raise funds in order to scale up? Not always, no, but if you’re solving a problem that is too big or too complicated to make money from right away, then you need to raise funds. Or if, for instance, you need to beat your competition in a winner-takes-all market by outspending everyone, then you need to raise funds.
"Even if a problem seems boring, like PDFs or taxes, it’s still engaging to solve it, and you still get to help a lot of people’s lives." (Mathis)
"You need to define your entrepreneurial identity: why are you doing what you’re doing? What’s your goal?" (Dennis)
Kevin Smith is the co-founder and CEO at Snipd, an AI-powered podcast player built to unlock the knowledge in the podcasts you listen to. Originally from England and Germany, Kevin came to Zurich to get his MA from ETH in Quantitative Finance. After a time working for banks like Julius Baier and UBS, Kevin decided to join the startup Contovista, where he worked up to becoming head of analytics and AI.
In 2020, he decided to put his love for machine learning to good use and participated in Hackzurich together with his ETH friend Ferdinand Langnickel, at a time when a breakthrough in self-supervised learning had just happened. Having originally planned to create a prototype around the topic of meeting notes, they eventually pivoted to podcasts, and ended up winning that year’s Hackzurich. In 2021, Kevin, Ferdinand and third co-founder Mikel Corcuera Lejarreta created Snipd.
The problem Snipd solves is pretty intuitive: the audio medium is great for both consuming and producing content, but not so much for interacting with it, i.e., for storing it and consulting it. It’s pretty hard to skim through a 2h podcast episode to find what you’re looking for. Through its AI algorithm, Snipd allows you to do just that: when you’re using their podcast player, whenever you listen to something which particularly interests you, you press a button in the app or you triple click your headphones, and then AI will analyze the content you just selected to determine the appropriate start and end point, provide a transcript, a summary and a title. Snipd also provides you with automatic chapters (with titles and summaries) for each podcast episode.
By providing this service, Snipd is able to collect data about which podcast moments are interesting to each user, and this data will soon allow them to make predictions on what each specific user may be interested in listening to.
"I’ve come to the realization that creating things is something which fundamentally makes humans happy."
"Something you should ask yourself before you start a startup is: Can you see yourself working on this for 10 years?"
Roy Raanani is the co-founder, former CEO and current president of Chorus.ai, a B2B SaaS platform that helps sales teams improve the quality of their conversations and sales processes by analyzing how top performers engage with customers in calls and video meetings. He holds a BA in Engineering Science from UoT and an MBA from Stanford, and previously worked for companies like Bain & Company and Innovation Endeavors.
After quitting his consultancy job and spending a sabbatical in Rheinfeld thinking about business ideas, Roy developed an interest in undervalued data sets in business, specifically conversations – he wanted to use machine learning to discover what makes a conversation end badly and what makes it end well. He founded Chorus.ai in 2015 and has since grown it to millions in revenue and over 100 employees, and raised over $65M in capital from Emergence Capital, Redpoint and Georgian Partners.
But the sailing wasn’t always this smooth. Thinking back to when they were first building the product, Roy recounts an interesting cycle he observed:
In conclusion, so long as you don’t run out of hope or cash, perseverance will get you to product-market fit.
In Chorus.ai’s case, it also got them to a tradesale. They were acquired by Zoom Info in 2021 for $575M and have since seen their yearly growth rate double from 100% to 200%.
"A lot of investors are too comfortable giving entrepreneurs advice having never been in their shoes."
"We’re always focused on older, experienced people, but I think it’s just as important to get to know the amazing people that are maybe a couple years behind you."
Kai Eberhardt is the co-founder and CEO at Oviva, an app which provides personalized advice and individual support for targeted dietary changes. He holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from ETH and previously worked for McKinsey and Groupon.
Kai left McKinsey to get a taste of the startup life at the rapidly growing Group, but ended up having a mixed experience. Due to its IPO goal, Groupon cultivated unsustainable company growth, which often came at the expense of employees and customers, and was, in Kai’s experience, a “ruthless” environment – which explains the crash they suffered right after going public. Kai nonetheless considers his time there a valuable personal growth opportunity.
In 2014 he founded Oviva together with co-founders Manuel and Mark, and the inspiration actually came from his past: during his time as a student, Kai suffered from cancer (which fortunately was treatable), and this motivated him to help people live healthier and happier lives. Kai and his co-founders saw that dieticians weren’t meeting often enough with their patients, and hypothesized that a much better way to reach these patients would be through their phone, which they already used for copious amounts of time anyway.
Oviva offers not only one-to-one nutritional assessment, advice and continual support, but also nutritional tracking, through pictures that patients take of their meals with their phones, and which dieticians review. Oviva employs these dieticians and tries their best to have users be reimbursed by their health insurance providers. They mainly acquire users through their doctors, and to both doctors and health insurers Oviva shows metrics like program completion, weight loss (when relevant), a calculation of the hospital visit reduction, and also how many patients were able to go off (expensive) medications by following their dietary protocol. This proves to doctors and insurers that Oviva saves hospitals their resources and insurers their money.
"I didn’t want to stay at McKinsey forever because there you never get to own anything you work on."
"Nowadays integrated medicine only happens in specialist clinics, despite the fact that obesity and type 2 diabetes are absolute epidemics."
Christof Tremp is the co-founder and CEO at Rebels 0.0%, a startup producing alcohol-free spirits. He holds an MA in Business Administration from HSG and has previously worked at Kraft Foods Group, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Lindt & Sprüngli.
Rebels 0.0% currently produces alternatives to gin, rum and aperitif, aiming to capitalize on the current trend of declining alcohol consumption, especially prevalent among younger generations. However, they take good care not to position themselves as anti-alcohol: they are merely providing an alternative.
These concoctions, which taste incredibly like the real thing, are the result of double distillation using organic botanicals. Their production site is Switzerland, since the company cares deeply about sustainability. Since their production process is more complicated than regular alcohol and obeys a series of ethical standards, the finished product is not cheaper than its alcoholic counterpart.
Rebels 0.0% recently met a crowdfunding goal in just 11h, which gave them an extraordinary proof of concept. Despite having gone the bootstrapped way early on, they have now also begun to raise funds in equity rounds (recently 1M ) in order to really accelerate their marketing.
"I never really looked at entrepreneurship as a risk. If I failed, I could just go back to my old life."
"Switzerland will always be our home, but it’s too small a market."
Patrik Deuss is the co-founder and CEO at LEDCity, a cleantech startup specializing in smart lighting solutions. Patrik holds a BS in Energy and Environmental Engineering from ZHAW and previously worked at m-way agm and blitzzcar GmbH.
With LEDCity’s solution, AI-trained algorithms control the light autonomously and dynamically. This means that rooms are only lit when it actually makes sense to do so. The duration and intensity of light can thus be adapted to actual lighting needs, and energy spending is cut by about 90%. This is an incredible win considering that lighting makes up 12% of Swiss energy consumption.
LEDCity initially relied only on research grants money and otherwise bootstrapped their operations, which turned them into a very efficient team. They later raised an equity round (CHF 2M), and this capital combined with their efficiency has given them a great growth rate.
"In the beginning our sales person was calling people way too much. It’s never good to come across as desperate."
"If your startup doesn’t have an impactful mission, your motivation will suffer."
Alexander Schueller is the founder and CEO at cellvie, a seed-stage venture developing mitochondria-based therapies. Tobias Reichmuth is a founding partner at maximoon, a venture studio company builder which has already built 2 longevity startups, with 3 more to follow this year.
Nowadays we know that there are 9 reasons for human aging, all cell-based:
- Genomic instability;
- Telomere attrition;
- Epigenetic alterations;
- Loss of proteostasis;
- Deregulated nutrient sensing;
- Mitochondrial dysfunction;
- Cellular senescence;
- Stem cell exhaustion;
- Altered inter-cellular comms.
Nowadays average life expectancy is at 83. Alexander’s and Tobias’ companies aim not to extend life indefinitely, but significantly, and insure quality of life right up until the very end. Longevity companies typically have a hard time raising money because their research results require several decades; funds looking to focus on health topics usually go for companies whose products treat diseases, and which can therefore return the investment max. 14 years after it was made. However nowadays the World Health Organization already recognizes aging as a sickness – it’s therefore time for venture funds, research granters and healthcare insurers to start doing so as well.
Alexander’s & Tobias’ general tips to improve longevity:
- Eat less and do intermittent fasting;
- Do HIIT training or some other form of exercise;
- Quit bad habits like smoking or drinking;
- Cultivate a good social life;
- Take both hot and cold showers;
- Take certain supplements (this will depend on each individual’s case).
Greater longevity will naturally result in societal changes such as:
- People putting up with poor labor conditions for much shorter, since their working life will be longer;
- Co-living solutions for active seniors;
- Changes to the pension system: if labor conditions are good, people will not want to retire so early, even if they no longer continue to work 100%. A good life requires purpose, and a good job can serve as that;
- Employers may begin to offer benefits such as a sabbatical semester every 10 years, plus an educational stipend, so that every 10 years you may reinvent your career if you so choose.
"The ideal human future is one in which you are free from disease and have a strong purpose up until the very end of your life."
"Our goal is for people to die as late as possible, with a body as young as possible."
Severin Hacker is the co-founder and CTO of Duolingo, the world’s most popular language learning app. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University and previously worked as a research intern at Microsoft.
It was during his time at Carnegie Mellon that he met his co-founder, Luis von Ahn, with whom he soon began to work on a research project which would later become Duolingo. The project aimed to identify what the hardest part of language learning was and how to make it easier — they soon discovered the power of gamification in this respect and ran hundreds of A/B tests in order to make the Duolingo experience as fun as possible, resulting in a much higher retention rate than other language learning apps. In fact, Severin identifies A/B testing as Duolingo’s “secret sauce”, and says these tests focus on assessing 3 things: how well the new feature teaches, how engaging the new feature is (i.e., retention) and how it contributes to monetization.
Duolingo’s mission is to make great education universally accessible, which is why it uses a freemium model that allows free users to access all of the content under certain conditions, and paying users to access this same content with much less restriction. In order to maintain their independence and keep working towards their mission, Duolingo did not aim for a trade sale but instead went public on NASDAQ in 2021, with a market capitalization of $3.5B. Their IPO behind them, they hope to expand the Duolingo offer to first language acquisition and math learning.
"You should only pursue a PhD if you want to become a professor. It’s not necessary for entrepreneurship."
"By this point, Duolingo is too expensive to be acquired."
Mikhail Kokorich is the founder and CEO of Destinus, an aerospace company building hyperplanes to provide the fastest transportation on earth. He studied business administration back in Russia and also went on to complete executive programs at Stanford, and co-founded several companies such as Astro Digital, Exact Farming and Momentus.
Founded in 2021, Destinus is developing an extremely fast aircraft capable of moving cargo between continents in 1-2 hours. This vehicle will be a hybrid between an airplane and a rocket— they call it a hyperplane. It runs on hydrogen, which allows you not only to build incredibly powerful engines but also to cool them, so that overheating does not become an issue at that type of speed. Hydrogen-fueled hyperplanes are also carbon neutral.
Hydrogen is not yet affordable, but from his talks with hydrogen producers Mikhail estimates that within 3-5 years, some selected airports will have it available at a reasonably low price; in 5-10 years, almost any airport will have it; and after 10 years it will hopefully become one of the primary fuels for aviation.
After having built their first prototype in just 4 months, Destinus estimates that within 3 years a hyperplane MVP will be available for testing, but not yet for commercial use — for that they require certification. In the meantime their MVP will allow them to start generating some revenue and prove customer interest.
"With Hyperplanes, you will be able to fly to Tokyo to have dinner with your friends, fly back afterwards and sleep in your own bed."
"In ten years’ time hydrogen will hopefully become one of the main fuels for aviation."
Bassil Eid is a co-founder of Earny, a startup providing simple automated payroll in 10 mins or less for startups & SMEs. Bassil’s family moved from Lebanon to Canada when he was young, and it was in Canada that he studied Business Administration and Economics and began working as a project manager in the freight industry. He then moved to Denmark after his masters to work at eMagCreator, a startup selling online magazines — this was his first entrepreneurial experience. When it came time for him and his wife to settle down, and his wife got a job at UBS, they chose to settle in Switzerland.
In Switzerland, Bassil noticed that despite there being some momentum in the cap table space, for instance, no one was tackling payroll yet. By talking to accountants he discovered that Swiss SME payroll got done in one of 3 ways:
People do it themselves using one of the available softwares. This requires some previous payroll experience, and even then, you’re bound to make your fair share of errors. People hire an accountant at a rate of 30-60 francs per employee per month, on average. This still means you have to gather all the documentation yourself to email to the accountant. People hire internally, if they can afford it, which they often can’t. And often the person they hire ends up having to speak to an accountant anyway.
With Earny, anyone can run payroll with no experience needed, since most of the process is automated. It is also still possible to work with an accountant. In fact, earny has 3 interfaces: one for companies, one for employees, and one for accountants. Charging 10 francs per employee per month, Earny comes at about a third of the price of regular accountants.
"A lot of successful entrepreneurs are immigrants. They have a strong drive to surpass the status quo."
"In the startup world you don’t wanna assume anything too fast. But you also want to be agile enough to fill the demand once it comes in."
Christof Roduner is the co-founder and CIO at Scandit, the leading technology platform for mobile computer vision and augmented reality (AR) solutions for enterprises. He holds a MSc in Business Administration and Computer Science from the University of Zurich. It was during his time as a researcher at ETH that he met one of his future co-founders, Christian; together with Samuel, whom Christof knew from UZH, they created Scandit in 2009.
Their goal with Scandit was to create a bridge between real world objects and the digital information available about them. Barcodes were then the natural entry points, especially at a time when phone cameras were just starting to become ubiquitous. It was when they began getting some coverage from the press that they realized the true commercial potential of their product.
Their scanning app was rather shaky at first though: it only worked on a certain type of phone, the barcode had to be in perfect condition, there had to be perfect lighting, and it was tricky to deploy the app itself regardless of how perfect the rest of the setup was. Another challenge that they faced at an early stage was finding real world applications and knowing which one to focus on, from price comparison, to ethical shopping, to vegan/vegetarian shopping, etc.
Nowadays their main two verticals are retail and logistics. Scandit helps its customers at several points, from self checkout, to inventory counts, etc. They currently have over 1M users worldwide and have offices in 6 countries. Scandit has also recently achieved Unicorn status.
"As an entrepreneur you need to accept that you can’t control everything, and sometimes that means that you can’t deliver perfect results."
Alexandre Laybros is the co-founder and deputy CEO and CMO at WattAnyWhere, a startup offering off-grid renewable electricity for BEV fast-charging. He holds a masters in Electrical Engineering from ENSEA and previously worked for companies like Thales and Honeywell.
EV owners now require ultra-fast chargers of renewable energy, anywhere, but the deployment is currently slow and costly, mainly due to lengthy studies (up to 2 years), and high cost to connect to the grid. Together with EPFL, Helbio and Elcogen, WattAnyWhere provides a long-term solution with Solid Oxide Fuel Cell-based mobile generators that consume ethanol, are ultra-silent, and deployable anywhere within 1 month.
WattAnyWhere recently successfully closed a pre-seed round and are currently enjoying market traction provided by trusted partners, such as charge point operators and utility companies in Switzerland and France.
"There is no single solution to the electrification of all our equipment and industries."
Philippe Bubb and Martin Altorfer are the co-founders of session.vc, a fund investing in early stage companies in the software and consumer space. Philippe has an MBA in Business Administration and Finance from HSG and previously worked as a financial analyst. He also co-founded several companies, namely the wealth management boutique IFS, BCAP AG and Focus Capital. Martin is a serial entrepreneur, with companies like Celeris AG, replica GmbH, BCAP AG and Active-Net under his belt.
Philippe and Martin have been angel investors for over two decades. Back in the 00s, there was hardly a structured approach to finding and securing deals: you just had to keep your eyes open, speak with lots of people, and take opportunities as they came. In the case of the ON founders, whom they invested in, there existed already a previous friendship. As for the money they invested, Martin made use of the money he made when selling his first company Active-Net at 29, whereas Philippe took out a loan from his parents (this is a setup he definitely does not recommend).
Philippe and Martin pride themselves on being active investors, but they also make a point of showing that an active investor does not equal a founder. In the past, they made the mistake of accruing too much responsibility on the operational side, which shielded the actual founders from the true hardship of entrepreneurship. Nowadays Martin and Philippe make an effort to preserve some distance.
In 2019 they founded Session VC. Their fund focuses on the software and consumer space because these are the industries that Martin and Philippe understand best, and it focuses on early stage companies because this is the phase they find most fascinating and in which they believe they can contribute the most. Together they’ve also created Session Lab, where they discuss interesting topics and later either find a founder who will pick that project up or a founder who is already doing something similar, whom they can invest in.
When investing, Martin and Philippe look for a good team and the right timing. They don’t think the idea is crucial — just look at ON, a running shoe company. They consider it a red flag if the founders have day jobs or if their cap tables look a mess (50 angels, 7 convertibles, etc…).
"If I have to read the manual, it's a bad product." (Martin Altorfer)
Deborah Learoyd is the co-founder and managing director of Freesuns, a company designing beautifully integrated solar roof tiles for residential, commercial and heritage buildings. She worked at the technology company Honeywell for 20 years before going all-in on her startup in 2022. Originally from Sidney, Australia, she and her husband have resided in Switzerland for several years.
Freesuns came to be when Deborah and her husband decided to purchase a house in Switzerland which needed a new roof. Since they were environmentally committed and even already owned an electric car, they decided they’d like to generate their own electrical power, but solar panels were not a viable option for them, because they did not match the look nor the shape of the house. The couple put their engineering background to good use and designed a solar tile which combined functionality with flexibility and aesthetic appeal. They soon contacted a manufacturer and had prototypes made. After due testing they applied the solar tiles to their house and nowadays produce more than enough power for the entire habitation and their electrical car as well.
Freesuns does not seek to compete with solar panels. They address the market of people who would like to make an environmental contribution but cannot/will not use solar panels, either because they don’t like the look, their commune doesn’t allow it, or their roof is unusually shaped. When getting started, Freesuns sold directly to end users, but nowadays they work closely with partners (roofers and other solar installers) so as to scale up their business.
"Switzerland is a great market to test out buyer interest. It’s quite diverse. If we succeed in Switzerland, we’ll have already understood many of the challenges we’d face globally."
Séverine Gisin is the co-founder and CCO at IDUN Technologies, a neurotech startup with a vision of creating a more connected and empathetic world using brain-sensing headphones. She has a background in Health Science and Technologies from ETH.
Together with her co-founder Simon Bachmann, Séverine began the IDUN project at ETH by pitching to startup-friendly professors. Together they developed sensors which turn brain signals into actionable insights and can be worn discreetly: they come in the form of headphones. There are two main use cases: sleep health and hearing health. Sleep-wise, their product helps track the sleeping patterns of narcoleptics, which helps physicians make decisions about dosages. Hearing-wise, IDUN Technologies has partnered up with an app that provides hearing fitness: they train your ear to spot different frequencies, some of which you may have forgotten how to detect.
They recently enrolled in a SONY accelerator program in Sweden and were selected for investment.
"Engineering is the safest way to be creative."
"In other countries, entrepreneurship is a means of survival. In Switzerland, entrepreneurship is a privilege."
Andreas Lenzhofer is a co-founder & chairman at Dagsmejan, a company that develops innovative clothing for better sleep. After a UK MBA and an impressive corporate career, Andreas and his romantic partner decided to become entrepreneurs, and identified self-care as one of the lasting mega trends of the future. Within the self-care space, they decided to zero in on sleep, and joined Andreas’ operational/supply chain experience with his partner’s marketing background and the University of Stockholm’s research on sleep.
The basic premise of Dagsmejan is this: your circadian rhythms depend on your melatonin levels and your body temperature — if something is amiss with either of these, your sleep quality will be poor. If the problem is temperature, then naturally it is important to regulate room temperature, but what you wear to bed is also crucial.
Andreas and his partner choose to produce the Dagsmejan pajamas out of botanic fibers made in Europe, since cotton requires very high water consumption and recycled fibers still ultimately come from oil. They’re also testing out a more sustainable packaging material this year.
Andreas recommends 3 strategic thrusts for going to market:
- P.R.: get coverage on your product. If no one ever knows about it, how could they buy it? Here it might be a good idea to engage some agencies.
- Partnerships: trusted stores on the ground in every market which offer customers the opportunity to touch the product physically.
- Digital marketing: there’s no reach like digital reach. Invest in scaling up your company through killer digital marketing campaigns.
"One of the benefits of starting your own company when you’re older is that you’ve already handled quite a few complex challenges by then."
"As long as we continue to believe that we’re the best people for the job, we’re not gonna sell the company."
Mitchell Duffy is the CEO and co-founder at Cambrium, a next-generation materials company utilizing the molecular programmability of proteins to re-imagine the products you use everyday. Originally hailing from the US, he majored in Biology and Computer Science at Tufts University, did his masters in Synthetic Biology in London and his PhD in Molecular Imaging in Germany.
Shortly after finishing his PhD he became an Entrepreneur in Residence at Merantix, the ML incubator created by Adam Locher. It was here that he developed his idea for Cambrium, which he founded in 2020.
Cambrium’s crede is that biology is the most advanced tech on Earth: from robots, to swarm intelligence, to carbon removal, nature has already perfected what we are still struggling to achieve. The problem that Cambrium tackles is that materials make up 23% of greenhouse gas emissions, the vast majority of them having been gouged from the Earth, pumped from the ground or sliced from the bodies of animals. Man-made materials have, in fact, already surpassed all the biomass on Earth. Cambrium wishes to go from an extractive to a generative way of producing materials, and they plan to do so through the programming of proteins.
How do you program proteins? Well, proteins are made of 20 amino acids — you put these amino acids in different orders and you get completely different properties, different materials. Ever since the protein folding problem was solved in 2020, people have been able to program and test protein designs in their labs. Cambrium has done this with collagen, and created a completely vegan and sustainable version of it for cosmetic products.
"Materials represent 23% of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, the weight of man-made materials came to outweigh every biomass on Earth."
Loïc Schülé is the co-founder and CEO at denteo, a software provider for dentist offices. He studied computer science at EPFL and worked in consulting before pivoting his career and landing at Impact Hub in 2015.
He co-founded denteo in 2017 with 3 other co-founders. Loïc picked dentistry because it was an underserved niche market to which he had no prior connection, which would make failure feel less upsetting. Denteo’s cloud technology offers easy online booking for patients, a well laid-out calendar, seamless medical history, a quick way to record positions, tidy billing management and reliable recalls.
The delay in digitization within the dentistry space creates a generational divide between older dentists, who think their current systems work totally fine, and younger dentists, who are frustrated and yearning for something better. Part of denteo’s challenge is therefore to educate the market and breach this generational gap.
"Being naïve is dangerous but it’s also super exciting."
Gerhard Andrey is a Grüne Schweiz member and national councillor on the Swiss Parliament. He also co-founded the Swiss digital agency Liip, is a board member at Alternative Bank Schweiz, and has a background in engineering.
Gerhard felt drawn to politics because he strongly believes political decisions should be made democratically by individuals, and not by corporations. However, being an entrepreneur himself, he thinks politics and entrepreneurship can act in a mutually beneficial way, and he’s especially passionate about SME’s potential to drive real positive societal impact. He’s a fan of the Verantwortungseigentum movement and thinks companies should be “owned by” their purpose and not their capital — he would like to see the development of a new legal structure in Switzerland to represent this kind of company.
At Liip he’s had to say no to a long list of opportunities because of his commitment to not harm planet Earth. Recently, Liip has also begun to strive to live up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Gerhard is also adamant about maintaining a healthy work-life balance, both for his own sake and for the sake of his children.
He’s currently working on creating a Swiss green bank which would finance cleantech projects.
"I don’t believe in a Unicorn economy."
"SMEs are the most important companies for generating positive contributions to society."
"To make Switzerland more startup we shouldn’t try to replicate Silicon Valley’s unicorn economy. We need to grow sustainably and look beyond pure financials. We have the brains, we have the universities. So let’s do it."
Robert Lauko is the co-founder and CEO at Liquity, a decentralized protocol that enables interest-free borrowing on the blockchain. He studied Microengineering at EPFL but then switched to Law at UZH. Robert worked for several years as a lawyer before pivoting to blockchain research. He worked as a researcher at DFNITY for 2 years before creating his own venture.
To understand what Liquity allows you to do, let’s compare two lending scenarios:
1. You take out a loan from a bank to buy something like a house or a car. Whatever you have bought will then serve as collateral for the bank, meaning that if you default on your loan (= fail to pay it back), the thing you bought gets taken away and is sold by the bank, so that the bank can cover its costs.
2. You buy Ether and place it in the Liquity platform (or simply use the Ether you already owned), and then you take out a loan against it, meaning the Ether is your loan’s collateral. The loan you take out is in LUSD, a fully backed stablecoin pegged to the US Dollar that's maintained by an algorithmic monetary policy. The value of the Ether has to be 110% of the loan, otherwise you can get liquidated. You pay no interest and there is no repayment schedule.
"It’s yet to be seen how sustainable the NFT craze is, but I don’t think it makes DeFi redundant. There are good ways for combining the two, and either way there’s enough space for the both of them."
Roland Siegwart is a professor of Autonomous Systems at ETH Zurich and board member for Sevensense Robotics, NZZ, Komax and Evatec. He has been a visiting scientist at both EPFL and Stanford, and holds a PhD in Mechatronics from ETH Zurich.
Roland’s original ambition was to become an entrepreneur; however, he does not regret having become a professor instead, since teaching at ETH Zurich has allowed him to help and watch grow a vast number of startups.
Roland attributes ETH Zurich’s prominent role in the Swiss startup scene to the very clever students that it successfully attracts, and he suggests that if we want to further motivate students to become entrepreneurs, we should first and foremost offer them role models. He also would like to see ETH Zurich collaborate more with business-focused schools like HSG, so that the expertise of tech and business leads can be brought together.
Roland is not of the opinion that every Swiss startup needs to scale massively. However, if scaling massively is the goal, then two things are needed:
Founders must change their Swiss mentality and relinquish the desire of staying in control. Switzerland shouldn’t necessarily mimic Silicon Valley, but it needs to be faster to get bigger, and there is a lot of outstanding tech for us to do this. More financial support is naturally required.
"If you want to build a perfect product, you’ll never be on the market."
"In order to motivate students to become entrepreneurs, we need to give them role models. And we have to create a stronger link between established companies and startups."
Oliver Ganz is the co-founder and CTO at Testing Time, a UX test and market research recruiter founded in 2015. Oliver has a Masters in Computer Science and previously worked at Amazee Labs and Doodle, at the latter of which he met Reto Lämmler. Testing Time was acquired by the Norstat Group in 2021.
Reto and Oliver’s goal was to create the “uber” of UX testing. Market research is a rather old business which has, in many ways, missed the digitization wave: many companies still keep an excel sheet of test users whom they have to manually call and screen — Reto found this to be a huge pain at Doodle.
Testing Time, on the other hand, allows UX departments to get a direct contact with their target audience and test their products and services in an early stage, saving them not only time but also money. Testing Time’s target customers are UX teams and project managers across several industries, from banks to B2Cs.
They have several ways of finding test users:
- Organically: test users google how to create an additional income stream and find Testing time.
- Through campaigns: LinkedIn ads, Facebook ads, and sometimes even paper flyers.
- Through referrals: good test users can refer their friends and have them join the platform.
Testing Time pays users in real cash (through Paypal or eBank transactions) and the pricing for companies is based on the target group (how difficult the profiles are to find). For more info on their pricing, check out our episode with Reto Lämmler.
In order to prevent future technical challenges, Oliver recommends:
- To pick well-known programming languages and frameworks. The tech you pick should outlive your startup, otherwise you risk having to migrate stuff and incur huge costs.
- Not to fall into the trap of trying to do everything yourself. Don’t build your own CRM software or your own call center — use cloud services for all they’re worth. They may be pricey at times, but it’ll pay off in the end.
"Building a startup means proving your idea at every level. First you solve your own problem, then you find the first paying customers, and then you start scaling."
Lars Mangelsdorf is co-founder and CCO at Yokoy, the all-in-one spending management solution automating the expenses, invoice & credit card processes of medium and large firms. He previously worked as a Senior Account Executive at Beekeeper.
After successfully raising over $100M in less than a year, Yokoy is now focusing on expanding its team, and has grown from 40 to 200 employees in the past few months. Lars is no longer down in the sales trenches nowadays but more so focusing on Yokoy’s international expansion and scaling up the team.
In order to scale up their team, Yokoy works with both an internal recruiting team and external recruiters (for foreign markets). They’ve also begun having monthly company-wide updates, where things like strategy and funding updates are discussed. A new communication strategy has been put in place to make sure processes go through the right people and not everyone is stuck in meetings all day long.
"Sometimes when a company grows very fast, you try to include everyone in every meeting, and end up with your whole team in meetings all day long. That’s not good."
Peter Schnürer is the CEO at daura, a digital equity platform which helps companies keep a digital share registry. Peter has a background in Business Administration and has worked for several banks and IT companies.
60% of Swiss companies aren’t sure their share register is correct — with daura, not only can you avoid this issue, but you can in fact manage the whole company lifecycle, from founding, to fundraising (which necessitates printing shares to sell them to people), to shareholder assemblies (which are significantly facilitated by having shares printed as tokens) to an exit scenario (where shares will of course be sold).
Listeners should note, however, that daura is not like a stock exchange: a stock exchange is a secondary market, where shares that have already been printed may be traded; daura, on the other hand, focuses on printing the shares and distributing them to shareholders, who may then decide to sell these in a secondary market or transfer them to another person.
daura’s business model consists of charging issuing companies a yearly fee for their share register, an additional fee for running a capital increase, and an additional fee for doing a general assembly.
"The blockchain empowers people to be responsible for their own assets and not rely on 3rd parties."
Olivier Laplace has been a partner at the VC fund VI Partners since early 2022. He previously worked as head of corporate VC at Swiss Post and founded a company called Balumpa, which provided users a geo-localized social network. Throughout the years, his investor portfolio has included companies like TestingTime, Beekeeper and guuruu.
At VI partners Olivier mostly invests in B2B SaaS. His typical day as a VC includes:
- 2-3 phone calls with new potential companies
- 2-3 calls with potential co-investors
- A few random calls, like helping portfolio companies with day-to-day issues
A common complaint within the Swiss ecosystem is that there isn’t enough gross capital. Olivier thinks this should be solved in two ways:
- Swiss pension funds need to start investing in VC. There’s 1 trillion CHF in the Swiss pension fund system. Nowadays 1% of that (10B) goes into private equity, but very international private equity, and mostly into the buyouts.
- Building innovation in-house might not be the best way to do it anymore, so Swiss corporations need to buy out more startups. Despite popular perception, IPOs are very rare ends to the startup journey — it’s mostly tradesales.
"In 15 years of work experience, I changed careers about 5 times — these changes were always based on opportunities."
Patrizia Laeri is a business journalist and the co-founder and CEO of elleXX, an independent money media platform for women. She studied business administration and then went on to start her journalism career in 2003 at SRF. During her time in Swiss television she reported on a number of subjects, like the World Economic Forum, Nobel Prize winners, and countries like Iran and North Korea. In 2020 she joined CNN Switzerland as editor in chief, only to see it declare bankruptcy soon after.
In that same year, she decided to launch her own company, elleXX. Being well aware of the dire financial situation of Swiss women (56% of which are not able to support themselves independently), Patrizia was tired of simply raising alarm on the issue and wanted instead to become a part of the solution.
Besides the financial independence issue, it is also a fact that Swiss women invest much less money than men, are very rarely targeted by wealth management companies (with 86% of them addressing men), and receive less than 1% of Swiss venture capital. During the pandemic, Swiss women also quit their jobs in larger numbers than men.
elleXX has a few ideas on how to foster female financial independence:
Offering financial literacy courses: to fix a problem, you first must understand it. elleXX regularly offers “money hacks” courses. Raising awareness about the importance of the 3a pillar: lots of Swiss women don’t have 3a insurance. Together with Vontobel, elleXX offers you a 3a pension solution to help you make sensible provisions. Offering legal protection against gender-based work discrimination: if you’re a Swiss woman in the workplace, chances are you’ll need a lawyer at some point throughout your career. Together with CAP, elleXX offers you legal advice and representation in court.
"25 years ago I didn’t know any founders personally, let alone female founders."
"35 years ago Swiss women couldn’t open a bank account without the signature of their husbands."
Laura Matter is the co-founder and CEO of noii, a video chat-based dating app. noii combines sophisticated algorithms with psychological know-how to find suitable partners and then allows you to join them on a video chat speed dating round. You are then free to follow-up with the people you click with. Laura has a background in marketing and created noii out of a personal dissatisfaction with the available dating apps.
From her recent experience fundraising for noii, Laura recommends raising money from people who already know you, because then you don’t have to convince them of your virtues as much — they already know you’re a hard worker with integrity. She also recommends focusing on landing a lead investor, since it exponentially smoothes things along. Despite the difficulties, Laura is of the opinion that compared to building a product, fundraising is nothing.
Laura praises the amount of info available on the internet about starting a company in Switzerland, but she wishes there were more transparency between older and younger founders. She can also speak to the Swiss female entrepreneur experience — check out her recent article for the elleXX blog here.
"B2C is difficult in Switzerland. There’s not a lot of Swiss investors who invested in B2C success stories."
Heiner Grüter is the CEO at Meridium Partners, a strategy and M&A consultancy company. He was previously the CEO at UNIC, one of Switzerland’s first digital agencies and one of the Swiss Startup Mafia’s “mother” companies, having given rise to major players like Rentouch, Students.ch, Fashion Days and Qmram.
But why was UNIC so special?
Timing: UNIC employees were weathering the boom and bust storms of that era, and this gave them a clear picture of what works and what doesn’t. Hiring: UNIC made a point of hiring only very talented people. Founding team: the UNIC founders were very entrepreneurial themselves, and cultivated that sort of environment.
Why should you sell your company?
- You should sell your company if you believe somebody else would be a better owner for it than its current shareholders.
- You should not sell your company simply because you’re tired and want somebody to take your job. This results in a fire sale, usually with very mediocre results.
What’s the right time to sell your company?
You need to wait long enough for your company to build a track record: KPIs and other metrics which show the strength of your business and support your projection of its future. It’s okay to go into a financing round without a track record, but never an M&A process. Don’t wait so long that you run out of cash half-way through the M&A process. Time pressure to finish the deal is something you want to avoid at all costs, or you’ll risk ending up with a pretty crappy deal.
"Selling your company means you believe someone out there is a better owner for it than your current shareholders."
"Being successful in Switzerland doesn’t say a lot about your expansion potential."
As founder and managing partner at DART labs, Sophie is a Silicon Valley VC with Swiss roots. She and her team focus on finding the best European technology startups and turning them into global players. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, she worked in media relations. In a livestream with Swisspreneur host Silvan, she answered some of the most common fundraising questions, like:
Is your company VC-backable?
- First things first: if you can scale your startup by bootstrapping it, don’t take investors in. How scalable is your company? And how scalable would you like it to be? VC money only goes to the most scalable companies. The goal of every VC is to have an investment be an entire fund returner — that’s how they look at startups.
Should you choose a VC fund or a business angel?
- Both can work: it really depends on your case. Look for the person with the most insider knowledge/network in your industry. If that person happens to be a business angel, great. If it’s a VC fund, that’s great too.
How many investors should you talk to?
- As many as you can handle. Your goal as a fundraising startup is to create FOMO (fear of missing out) in investors. If you’re only talking to one, he or she will feel perfectly at ease to drag things out, but if you’re talking to several investors simultaneously, each of them will be afraid that you’ll close a deal with someone else. Doing this in a condensed timeframe will allow you to really build up momentum.
What’s an inflection point?
- An inflection point is anything that validates your business in the eyes of an investor.
- Examples: Entering a new market, launching the next version of your product, acquiring a big customer, reaching time milestones, sheer growth, etc.
"The goal of every VC is to have an investment be an entire fund returner. That’s how they look at startups."
"Getting into Y Combinator can mean the difference between being valued at 6 million or 15 million."
Zeki Bulgurcu ist der Gründer von Swissmeme und Zekisworld. Aufgewachsen in Basel, startet Zeki seine berufliche Laufbahn mit einer Berufslehre als Detailhandelsfachmann. Seine ersten Memes veröffentlicht er 2013 - schnell entwickelt sich sein Instagram Kanal "Swissmeme" zu einer festen Grösse in der Schweizer Social Media Szene. Neben Instagram ist der Meme-König persönlich, aber auch mit weiteren Comedy Profilen auf Facebook, Youtube und TikTok unterwegs. Nicht selten zählen diese Accounts mehrere 100'000 Follower und so ist der Baselbieter einer, wenn nicht der erfolgreichste "Social Media Typ" der Schweiz. Dank des starken Personal Brands, welchen er sich in den letzten Jahren aufgebaut hat, ist er immer wieder als Werbegesicht in Online aber auch Offline Medien zu sehen.
Neben über zehn erfolgreichen Social Media Accounts hat Zeki Bulgurcu eine eigene Sucuk Wurst, welche in vielen Migros Filialen zu finden ist. Zudem plant er aktuell einen eignen Kino-Film.
"Hör auf dein Bauchgefühl. Wenn du eine Leidenschaft hast, welcher du in deiner Freizeit gerne nachgehst - bleib dran! Vielleicht explodiert es und du kannst ein Business daraus aufbauen."
"Als ich kündete und auf Social Media setzte, sagten alle 'Du spinnst doch'. Doch das machen einige heute immer noch."
Olga Dubey is the co-founder and CEO of AgroSustain, a one-stop-shop solution for biological plant protection. She’s originally from Russia and came to Switzerland for her PhD in Plant Pathology, during which she met her husband and future AgroSustain co-founder.
AgroSustain produces natural, biological crop protection solutions. These solutions serve to reduce food waste by preventing the formation of molds both in the field and on the shelf. The product, which is invisible and does not smell, creates a very thin barrier around the food which leads it to reduce its respiration — according to Olga, this is the plant equivalent of “falling asleep”.
"A researcher isn’t just someone who sits in a lab all day. It’s someone who’s constantly developing their analytical abilities."
"When you run a startup, you learn something new every day. You never get bored."
Estella Benz is the co-founder and CEO at Skin Match, a retail technology which uses AI to take the beauty industry to the next level. In her university studies she combined marketing with the beauty industry, after failing to get into her desired fashion design school. Her interest in the beauty industry stems from the fact that it just takes a miniscule difference in a brand’s angle for this brand to find a completely new market, even if the industry as a whole seems saturated.
The predecessor to Skin Match was RUE CINQ, a luxury eCommerce store which targeted customers’ specific needs through its powerful algorithm. However, soon enough Estella started being asked by other brands for the use of this algorithm, and this was what in the end truly became a business, under the name Skin Match.
Skin Match offers beauty quizzes for brands’ websites, an “INCI-Explainer” for every single ingredient on the website (which is of course based on their growing product and ingredient database), and “beauty insight” — the google analytics of beauty products. Whatever new feature or tool they push out first gets tested by 100 customers with their likes. Estella recommends that you never assume you’ve reached product-market fit definitively, and that you be willing to ask the questions you don’t want the answers to. She says oftentimes founders know what’s wrong with their products, but aren’t willing to go through all the work required to fix them.
"We could earn a lot of money in corporate. But we still believe that entrepreneurship is the right path, and that keeps us going."
"Be open to ask the questions you don’t want the answers to."
Simone Riedel Riley is the general manager at the Swiss Technology Fund, which grants loan guarantees to Swiss cleantech startups. She got her MBA from UZH and also studied at Harvard and Indiana University. She then came back to Switzerland to work as a CFO for a number of companies, before joining Emerald Technology Ventures in 2010.
In 2014 Emerald Technology Ventures won a mandate by the Swiss government: as part of the passing of a CO2 law, the government wished to set up a fund which would help cleantech startups receive loans from banks, and ETV won the mandate together with South Pole. So the Swiss Technology Fund was born.
The companies the Swiss Technology Fund works with are 90% startups and 10% SMEs. Most of these startups would simply not get a bank loan without the fund’s help, and while the SMEs could eventually secure themselves a loan, they would certainly have to pay higher interest rates without the Swiss Technology Fund’s stamp of approval.
Why does the Swiss Technology Fund facilitate loans instead of equity rounds? Because the Swiss government did not wish to get too involved: with loan guarantees, the government only has to pay in the case of a default. In the case of a default, the government formally becomes that company’s new lender, and the bankruptcy administrators take a couple of years to fully dissolve the company, selling all the assets. The Swiss Technology Fund receives nothing, but that is a risk they are willing to take: out of 135 companies, only 7 have thus far defaulted on their loans.
The fund can also help companies by providing contacts from their wide cleantech network, in case of a funding round. To receive the guarantee, companies pay the fund an annual fee of 0.9% of the loan guarantee. Then of course they also pay an interest rate for the loan, which usually lands somewhere between 1 and 2% — quite cheap, compared to equity. Companies are also required to submit quarterly and annual reporting to the fund, as they would to any investor.
"If we only support high-flyers, then we’re not doing our job as a startup fund. We should support the startups that actually need us."
"The climate crisis won’t be solved by technological innovation alone."
Ivan Cossu is the co-founder and CEO at Deskbird, a people-centric solution for a hybrid workspace. He has a background in economics and worked for a number of banks and consulting companies before venturing out onto entrepreneurship.
Deskbird came about during the start of the pandemic: Ivan and his co-founder Jonas Hess quickly came to the conclusion that Covid would cause a huge disruption in the workplace, and initially planned to tackle this with a B2B co-working marketplace. However, upon gathering customer feedback, they decided to pivot it to its current model, where each office is exclusive to each company but employees can book desks as they please for their in-office days.
Ivan is a strong believer that a strong culture can be built remotely just as well as in-office, as long as the team actively works to build it. Remote-first teams also benefit from much bigger talent pools, which may grant an advantage culture wise in the long run.
"I believe you can have a stronger company culture in a remote setting than in an in-person setting."
"As a remote-first company, you have a much wider talent pool."
Soumya Dash is the co-founder and CEO of Sleepiz, a startup which produces remote sleep monitoring devices. Originally from India, he grew up constantly relocating to different regions of this country due to his father’s job, and this allowed him to develop an incredible degree of adaptability. This adaptability was then put to good use when he chose to do his masters at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology as a fully funded scholar.
During his masters he visited Switzerland as an Erasmus student. Soumya’s time there made such an impression on him that when the time came to choose were he would do his PhD, he turned down an offer from Stanford to study at ETH.
It was during the last years of his PhD that he started Sleepiz, which leverages the power of sleep insights with a device that is simply placed next to the bed. The device operates in a non-contact fashion and measures movements originating from heart contractions and breathing patterns, as well as body motions with medical grade accuracy. This is quite simply the first time we’re able to measure cardiopulmonar activity without actually touching the body.
Sleepiz is catered towards respiratory illnesses, namely sleep apnea. Most people who suffer from sleep apnea do not get diagnosed, which is concerning considering that this condition makes it likely that at some point in their lives these people will suffer a fatal stroke. However, even if people do make an effort to be diagnosed, it is a cumbersome process involving a night at a sleep clinic with a bunch of wires strapped onto you. Sleepiz has come to change all of that.
"I lived in many different places throughout my whole life. This has made me capable of seamlessly fitting into any environment."
"I don’t think I’m the type of person that takes no for an answer, at face value."
"We’re risk takers but not stupid ones. We needed to ask ourselves: is the impact worth all the pain?"
START global, the (nowadays) international organization promoting entrepreneurship among young people, was co-founded by Hermann during his Zwischenjahr at HSG. The inspiration for it was actually another project of his: during this time Hermann also created a computing school for kids in his home country, Austria; he then felt it was necessary to create role models for these kids, so that they would feel they had more career options than going into banking or consulting. He himself comes from a family of entrepreneurs and feels this area is a much better use of great talent than areas like finance, seeing as they nowadays don’t provide much value to people, according to Hermann.
In 2000, after finishing his studies, he co-founded btov — brainstoventures, a matchmaking platform to connect great companies with great venture capital. The founding team, Hermann reflects, underestimated how difficult it would be to make money with their business model — they wanted to take a cut from the equity the way Y Combinator does, but after one year they realized this model wasn’t going to work for them and they had to pivot.
Coincidentally, companies had previously approached the btov team saying it would be great to have their matchmaking software to use with their own employees, as they had little clue about the skills their people had. And that’s how btov was pivoted into the HR software Umantis, one of the first Swiss Software as a Service companies. In 2014 Umantis merged with the Haufe group: after realizing that one of their competitors was going public in 2011 with 30M revenue, 45M losses and an evaluation of 1B (which were crazy numbers back then), the Umantis team knew it was their time to start actively pursuing an exit scenario.
"When doing business, you should always be very clear with your terms and write them down — especially if you’re doing business with friends."
"It’s hard to see your company go in a direction you don’t agree with."
Click here to answer the 2022 Swisspreneur Survey.
And if you want to meet Carlo and Silvan in person, join us at the Unfold Conference.
Carlo Badini is a co-founder and CEO at Pabio, the startup which allows you to decorate your apartment with high-quality furniture through a monthly subscription. He studied Business Administration and Psychology at the Universität Bern.
Back in high school, he wanted to be a movie director, and so borrowed money from his parents to buy an expensive DSLR camera. To pay back his loan, he began producing short explainer videos for companies around Bern — and so Cleverclip was born. After graduating, Carlo took a gap year to focus on Cleverclip and travel, and it was by traveling that Carlo realized his privilege as a middle class Swiss person, and decided to put his “luck” to good use. While at university, he bootstrapped Cleverclip as a solo founder, which he nowadays does not recommend.
In 2020 he decided to step down from his role as CEO at Cleverclip to start a new venture: Pabio. The idea for Pabio is based on the premise that it’s cheaper to rent high-quality furniture than to periodically replace “fast” (= low-quality) furniture. In case a customer really likes a piece, they can eventually buy it out. Carlo says that this is obviously the best option for the customer, and that Pabio can afford to lose out on that recurring revenue.
In 2021 Pabio got accepted into Y Combinator’s Summer Batch. Carlo relates that though very expensive (Y Combinator takes 7% for a post-valuation of 2.1M), it was a really great experience: in 3 months Pabio tripled its sales and learned how to grow fast while still focusing on market fit; afterwards they raised a great seed round from both European and US investors.
"Entrepreneurship is one of the most efficient ways to change the world."
"Usually the problems you don't anticipate are the ones that actually end up making your life more difficult."
Click here to answer the 2022 Swisspreneur Survey.
Lena Jüngst and Simon Nuesch are the co-founders of Air Up, a revolutionary scent-based drinking system. Lena has a background in product design and Simon studied technology, management and business administration. They both come from Germany.
During her bachelor's, Lena and fellow student Tim Jäger stumbled upon the topic of retronasal smell (tasting with your nose) when they were looking for a topic for their bachelor's thesis. Their interest led them to connecting this topic with our modern diet, which is currently both a huge threat to our health and to the environment.
Our early evolutionary history taught us that food which tastes nice is good for us, but today that is certainly no longer the case. So if you want the sensory benefits of drinking a fizzy drink without the health and environmental costs, what do you do? You trick your brain into thinking water tastes like a fizzy drink, of course.
Air Up's first prototype was simply putting one straw inside a cup full of water and another straw inside a scent diffuser and slurping both simultaneously. This was the rudimentary beginning of the "pods'' for sale today, which can be conveniently attached to water bottles.
"Sustainability is THE product design question right now."
"Entrepreneurship means feeling constantly overwhelmed and constantly fascinated by your work."
Pascal Koenig is the co-founder, former CEO and current board member at AVA women, a startup manufacturing wearable fertility trackers for women. He studied business in St Gallen and New York and worked at McKinsey for a few years before being invited by one of his university professors to join a startup project — Cardiosave.
After having started 4 companies, here’s some of the advice Pascal has for young entrepreneurs:
- Pick your co-founders very carefully. Most people do so randomly or without much thought. Having studied alongside them and being confident in how knowledgeable they are is not a good enough reason;
- When building your product, don’t strive for perfection right away and know that ideas aren’t worth much. The real magic happens when you buckle down, get it done, and then iterate, iterate, iterate;
- Switzerland is more or less the same country whether you live on 100’000 or 1’000’000 CHF. So if you’re hesitant whether or not to take the entrepreneurial leap, take it;
- The best place to start when building a product is with a real problem that you know quite well.
"If you’re not embarrassed when you launch your first product, it’s too late to launch it."
"Switzerland is more or less the same country, whether you live with 100’000 or with 1’000’000."
Boris Manhart is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of Growth Unltd, a company that helps scale your business. He was previously involved with CodeCheck and Numbrs, and studied for a couple of years at the Universität Zürich.
Boris is actually a university dropout: he quit after 2 years of studying to co-found the communication and promotion agency Compresso AG, which he ended up leading for 10 years. When looking back, he thinks a university education may give you a good background, but it's not all that's necessary to turn you into a successful entrepreneur.
Despite having co-founded Numbrs and Compresso AG, Boris has also been the external CEO at several companies, namely CodeCheck and TRIQ. This can sometimes be a challenge, because founders typically look at their startup as their baby and have a very hard time establishing emotional distance and creating space for someone else to come in and take things in a new direction.
Here are 5 things Boris wished he'd known before starting his first company:
- You shouldn't start without a solid foundation: what kind of values do you want to share with your team? What is the purpose of this company? What skills do you need to build a company that is successful?
- Choose your core team wisely: it is more important that people add strength to the company through their personality than through any specific skill.
- Leadership is not a competition: learn to delegate responsibility and to worry more about the team's collective talent than your own personal abilities.
- Stick to best practices: data based approaches always win. Find proof for your hypotheses!
- Listen to your gut feeling: though this contradicts the fourth point, there are certain situations in which you simple have no data. In those cases, trust your deepest instincts.
"If you do something out of passion, it usually turns out well."
"There is always a better you. Be willing to learn."
"As a founder, you should never pay too much attention to compliments."
Before joining VNTR, Alice's work at Postfinance consisted of trend scouting the data economy in San Francisco. Alice and her colleagues were interested in discovering which US startups and research projects would end up having an impact on Europe, and especially on Switzerland.
Lorena's main project is miira, a solution to optimize your pension with just a few clicks. Lorena's research told her that financial security and the ability to keep up living standards is a rising concern, even in Switzerland, and that due to a lack of transparency on the part of official entities, and the lack of an incentive to start saving, Swiss people do so too little too late. Out of this research, the "DESIRE" (Design Your Retirement) was born, but as it had an over-abundance of features, Lorena and her team simplified it into an MVP which tells user what their income is going to be upon retirement, and whether there is a gap between their ideal standard of living and that income. This MVP would later become miira.
Another one of VENTR's initiatives was the "Failure" and "Success" books — the former originated from a huge excel file a co-worker of Alice once had to compile, listing every innovation project VENTR ever did and at what stage it failed. The 500 copies originally printed turned into 2000 once HR got wind of it: they wanted every employee at Postfinance to own one, to foster a more failure-positive culture. This bred a wish for a book celebrating VNTR's successes, and so the Success book was born.
"Never fall in love with your first prototype. I've never heard of anyone whose first prototype was their golden ticket."
Markus Meyer is responsible at UBS Switzerland for payments, trade finance and leasing business. He has been working for UBS since 1996, and holds a PhD in Information & Technology Management and Banking from HSG.
According to Markus, there is no universal right timing for going international, but it is something Swiss companies should start working on as early as possible, considering the size limitation this country necessarily imposes.
Before going international, companies should take care to:
- Clearly define their USP/differentiating factor;
- Find out where their clients are, world-over;
- Ascertain what the competition is like in the countries they're looking into, and what the pricing level currently is.
Common challenges when going international:
- Sometimes you are simply not allowed to sell your product in a certain country, especially countries which already rely heavily on imports and therefore wish to protect their economy;
- Even if you are allowed to sell in a certain country, you will have to face different rules, regulations and taxes;
- Regarding distribution, companies would do well to remember that mindset changes greatly from country to country. Are you really catering to local needs? Are you falling into the (typically Swiss) trap of over-engineering?
"If you're a Swiss entrepreneur with a good idea, you have no choice but to go international."
Martin Eichenhofer is the co-founder and CEO at 9T Labs, a startup making 3D printed carbon composites for high volume production. He has an impressive academic background, with one BA, one MA, one MBA and one PhD under his belt.
His university path is actually deeply tied to his entrepreneurial career, since the idea for 9T labs occurred to him during his masters, his MBA was motivated by his desire to build 9T labs, and he got his PhD after realizing he didn't have enough of a scientific foundation for it yet. Martin also met one of his co-founders, Chester, during his PhD.
When commercializing an idea which originated in academic research, the 9T labs team relied heavily on market insights and treated the transition as a very gradual process. They also opted to sell to different industries/application fields, instead of hunkering down on a single one. In their book, it's better to partner up with the champion companies of each industry than to pursue every single company in a given industry.
"US companies get a lot more funding than us, but the fineprint of those deals often shapes the exit negatively."
The ON team won the SEF (Swiss Economic Forum) award for Innovation in Production of Sporting Goods, which earned them the SEF.growth (at the time called SEF for KMU) label. SEF growth companies get easy access to loans from UBS, and this was how Martin and Patrick met the ON founders.
They were very impressed from the very beginning with the ON team's commitment and with their expertise: despite being a young company, they had systems and automation in place which allowed them to know their global sales with a 30 min delay — and this in the early 2010s.
ON needed the loan money in order to pre pay all their orders, since their choice to invest all revenue into growth meant that it took them a long time to start generating cash. The loan amount was adjusted periodically based on the influx of ON orders. UBS also provided expertise for the decision making process.
"If you can get get funds through loans instead of equity rounds, then that's always preferable as a startup, because it means you get to keep your baby."
Phil Libin is the co-founder and former CEO at Evernote, the world’s best known note-taking app. Prior to Evernote, he built Engine5 and CoreStreet. He holds a BA in Computer Science from Boston University, which he began in 1989 and only finished in 2019. He originally dropped out shortly before graduating.
Phil did not originally plan to become an entrepreneur, but despite his ambitions of working a steady job for a large company, he just couldn’t commit to that sort of life and instead prefered to build companies with his friends. It was only 20 years into this career that it occurred to him entrepreneurship was a valid option.
He sold his company Engine5 for $26M in January 2000, right before the dot com bubble burst. Phil was 30 years old at the time. 25% of the money earned by the founders was held in escrow for 2 years — which turned out to be a very good thing, because the remaining 75% they invested into companies which then very quickly went bust.
Around 2007, Phil and his team got to thinking about building something like a cognitive prosthesis, a second brain — the note-taking app to conquer all. Their research led them to a California team of scientists working on a very similar product, and they decided to combine the teams. Originally, Evernote was a product intended for journalists and investors.
In 2015 Phil Libin stepped down from his CEO role at Evernote (remaining as Chairman until 2016) and moved on to new projects, such as the product studio All Turtles and the video communication company mmhmm.
"As young entrepreneurs, we always felt like we were failing. Like the reason we were starting these companies was because we couldn’t get real jobs."
Thomas Hofer is the head of the transaction advisory at UBS' corporate finance department, and has been working for UBS for over 20 years. Vito Gigante has been the head of SME M&As at UBS ever since 2016.
Here are a few common mistakes when it comes to selling/buying companies:
- Sellers often underestimate the difficulty of the selling process;
- Sellers often neglect to undertake the necessary preparation (i.e., mostly the documentation process);
- Buyers often focus on the aspects they have expertise on, and neglect to ask for advice on other topics.
Thomas and Vito recommend that you sell your company while it still has a bright future ahead, and not when it's about to tank. You should also pay close attention to the political and technological zeitgeist when assessing the right time for the deal.
UBS provides transaction financing services, where they act as a sparring partner for the buyer the whole way through. Their internal experts provide a 2nd opinion on various aspects of the deal, and they also coordinate the closing process to ensure utmost transaction security.
"The best time to sell your company is as soon as a promising future comes on the horizon. Don't make the mistake of waiting too long."