Virtually to Success – How German Startups Expand to International Markets From the Comfort of Their Home

Written by German Accelerator

There are many reasons for startups to join our global accelerator programs. One of them is the opportunity to travel to the world’s leading innovation and startup hubs and experience the hustle and bustle of entrepreneurial spirits in the U.S. and Asia. That was, of course, pre-COVID-19. The global pandemic changed the way we and many other organizations operate. For us, the wheels didn’t stop spinning and to cater to the unabated interest for international expansion, we are now offering fully virtual programs. We spoke to a few of our startups participating in our global programs to find out why they applied and participated in our virtual programs over the past few months and learn from the experiences and growth opportunities they’ve had.

Startups Press On With Expansion Despite Border Closures

German Accelerator’s offices in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, and Singapore are strategically placed in some of the world’s leading startup and innovation hubs to offer German startups the best environment for their international business expansion. This was echoed by Luca Frignani, CEO & Co-Founder, Exaloan (Southeast Asia Class 2020-1) when we asked him why he applied to the program: “German Accelerator is the perfect launchpad to propel us into one of the most vibrant and dynamic economic regions in the world. Its deep network provides an ideal bridge to establish a strong foothold in Southeast Asia.”

However, as the pandemic unfolded, companies participating in our programs in Singapore and the U.S. were on site when borders started to close. This obviously disrupted their expansion plans, and the challenge was balancing between strategies for survival versus continued pursuit for expansion.

Despite the sudden change, most startups pressed on and found that the program not only supported navigating through the changes due to COVID-19, but also kept them focused and on track with their individual expansion plans. As expressed by Dr. Christian Schläger, CEO & Co-Founder, Build38 (Southeast Asia Class 2020-1), “My view is that you should also be exploring new opportunities and preparing yourself for a post-coronavirus world. For that, you’ll need the close guidance of experts and mentors, and German Accelerator’s virtual program has done that for us.”

Similarly, As Good As Pros (JumpStart 2020) which started the program on site in the U.S., had to leave and complete the program virtually. Carolin Obernolte, Co-Founder and Managing Director, said that they were “eager to get guidance from Silicon Valley startup experts, who have worked with German startups before and understand the German mentality.” The reason why Carolin decided to join the program in the first place was that she heard from a German Accelerator alumni “about the steep learning curve they experienced. And now after having completed the program, I can only say the same thing.”

As Our Startups Adapted, So Did We

In the current environment, making adjustments due to the new circumstances without compromising the quality of the program was essential for the program. This was a benefit for recent graduate Lorena Soto Casanova, International Business Development Lead at Smart City System (U.S. Class 2020-2): “We like that the workshops were adapted to the current situation. For example, instead of a regular pitch coaching, we had a session that focused on how to pitch in a digital setting.” This paid off for Smart City System as they won the ‘Best Pitch Award’ at the virtual U.S. German Startup Night.

Despite switching from on site workshops to virtual sessions, certain features of the program did not change. Matching startups with mentors that can help them scale and reach milestones during their time with German Accelerator was one of the highlights for Build38. Co-Founder and Managing Director for Asia-Pacific, Pedro Hernández explained, “we worked with a lead mentor that was coming from the marketing space. That was a great decision because most of our team members have an engineering background and we realized we needed to move our messaging towards an emotional approach and away from the technicalities. I think that particularly for the positioning in this region, it helped a lot having to do that exercise because it made us stretch and reconsider part of our assumptions.”

Orientation on Culture, Before Jumping In

Companies participating in German Accelerator’s market discovery program Next Step, also missed out on traveling to the planned destinations in India and South Korea, but found that the virtual program still provided valuable insights. “Most helpful were the cultural tips, and hearing founder stories from Korean entrepreneurs as well as other startups that have moved to Korea. You get direct feedback on what they experienced and why it is a great place to do business, and a beautiful country. I was impressed by the German Accelerator team to make it happen via video. It is not the same as being there in person, of course, but a great start to get to know the country,” said Stefan Zundel, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Dopavision (Next Step in South Korea).

As highlighted in our blog article on cultural differences, personal meetings are important to deepen a meaningful business relationship. However, as participant Lorenz Schneidmadel, Co-Founder and COO of EDUBAO, (Southeast Asia Class 2019-2 & Next Step in India) poignantly put it, “with the current situation there is no other option, so the virtual program was comprehensive within its scope and not in need of improvement. The spread of the virtual sessions across the 5 weeks helped to reinforce the learnings, and there is also more time to condense the insights from each session and prepare to ask detailed questions.”

More Positives Than Negatives

Working virtually meant having a lot more online meetings. This was a positive effect for Eternygen, a participant in the German Accelerator Life Sciences program in Boston as Marco Janezic, CEO and Founder of Eternygen, shared: “Being virtual enabled us to have meetings more regularly than it would have been possible with face-to-face meetings. Having this close feedback loop enables us to continuously work on our most urgent topics.” Another perk of participating in a virtual program is that you get to take advantage of the time differences. “The good part about the virtual program is that you don’t get pulled from your daily business. Especially because of the time difference between the U.S. and Germany, you can easily work in the morning and join the sessions in the afternoon and evening. This way it doesn’t interfere with any important projects and so forth. Additionally, you don’t have any costs for accommodation,” said Katrin Dullmaier, Marketing Manager, PAFnow (U.S. Class 2020-2).

Having support in a new market, especially during the ongoing pandemic has been helpful to Certif-ID (Southeast Asia Class 2020-1) as well, as Tim Miller (Co-Founder & Managing Director) confirms. “The mentor network in the accelerator program has been invaluable. And it kind of took a completely different direction with all this happening,” referring to the COVID-19 crisis. “Obviously the 2008 financial crisis was the closest example that a number of the mentors had so there was a lot of information that came through in terms of navigating startups through a crisis. But for us, particularly with our lead mentor it was a totally honest breakdown of the business to its roots and creating different scenarios,” said Tim Miller.

Due to the effects of the pandemic economically, Eternygen’s Marco Janezic shared that their fundraising plans have been delayed. But he adds that “the German Accelerator Life Sciences program validated our business proposal from the U.S. perspective and helped us to get access to local key opinion leaders. Additionally, we were able to validate our clinical plans with different clinical experts in the U.S. The U.S. being our most important target market, this has significantly enhanced our exposure to world class expertise.”

Pedro Hernández from Build38 agrees that working with mentors and local experts was the best aspect of the virtual program. “You could do all the preparation of the discussions and then just have a video call to efficiently get the work done. You lose part of the human interaction that comes from having a coffee together and the chit-chat, to some extent, but from an efficiency perspective it worked pretty well,” he said.

Still Need Convincing?

When asked if German Accelerator’s virtual program has helped, and if they would recommend others to apply, As Good As Pros’ response is – definitely. “From all the accelerator programs we have participated in so far, this one was by far the most valuable to us, because it was tailored to our needs and the specific situation in which we were in. Due to the small class size, the feedback sessions were incredibly intense, fruitful, and fun. We have way more clarity on what we want to achieve and how to get there. We are more courageous than before and due to the valuable guidance from the mentors, we have adjusted our plans for the future. The mentors are brutally honest, highly critical, and help you think out of the box and develop yourself personally as well as professionally,” said Carolin.

We are here to help startups get through this crisis and prepare for a post-COVID-19 economy. If you are considering international expansion, apply to our programs in Boston, New York, Silicon Valley, Singapore, or in our Next Step locations in Asia.