What is it like to build a new accelerator program from scratch? We asked our Program Director Dr. Christopher Smolka about the brand new German Accelerator program “Kickstart International” that prepares young German startups for international expansion. The two-week virtual program supports founders in designing their internationalization strategy through workshops and individual mentoring sessions with international subject matter experts. Applications are now officially open, and the first startups will kick off on May 18, 2021. A great time to catch up with Christopher and find out all about his tips for startup founders: the right timing, first critical decisions, and what it takes to go abroad and scale internationally.
While designing our new program, it was important for us to directly involve the startups and their needs on the one hand, and the existing ecosystem partners in Germany on the other. By running three program pilots with 27 startups last year, we were able to get specific input to develop a tailored and competitive program that will really help young companies kickstart their expansion preparation.
Of course, we also built on the expertise of our large network in different regions, like the U.S. and Asia, to ensure that the new program boosts the startups’ international mindset and expertise, and matches the overall program structure at German Accelerator.
We looked into the competitive landscape in Germany to understand the existing offerings and gaps. Most programs in Germany lack a direct international funnel to overseas markets and they often focus primarily on hard skills, such as fundraising and accounting, which are of course important ingredients of a successful expansion. Our new program provides a mixture of hard and soft skills, as we think it’s equally important to also know about cultural aspects of a certain region or country, to work on tailored pitching and storytelling skills to U.S. or Asian investors and customers, and to strongly focus on an international mindset.
If I have to choose one, I’d say it was the initial set-up phase. Our program colleagues from the U.S., Asia, and Germany came together as a team to bring this new and truly international program to life, and the level of energy and excitement was amazing to experience.
Last year, we ran three virtual program pilots with 27 startups. The fully-virtual setup was quite a challenge as we were initially planning to host in-person workshops. To offer the best online experience, we spent quite a bit of time playing around with the right set up, timing and mix of meeting formats, and structured our content accordingly. In the end, we were able to deliver a great virtual program tailored to the startups’ needs and their current business situation, while allowing them enough time to continue to run their daily business.
After running the program pilots, what stood out was that we really have a great network at German Entrepreneurship and German Accelerator, with startup innovation experts, serial entrepreneurs, investors, our alumni startups, and many other subject matter experts. All of them are part of the various programs in one way or another, as mentors, or behind the scenes. It was a great learning experience to see how enthusiastic everyone was in their interaction with the startups, how valuable the experts’ involvement was for the participants, and how many people are willing to support all these young companies.
Another major learning of ours was that, not surprisingly, the best virtual program setup cannot replace the in-person interaction. Still, the participants and us valued the virtual interaction and networking opportunities with the international experts and our German Accelerator alumni, and with the right tools, you can actually get rather close to a “live situation.” We tried and tested a lot and have learned which virtual tools are the best fit for the various session formats. Zoom as the main video conferencing tool worked well, complemented by such collaboration tools as Conceptboard and Slido. This combination helped enhance the participants’ interactive program experience.
The real challenge for startups who want to scale beyond Germany is finding the why and when to internationalize and how building a global mindset early can help discover and leverage global opportunities. It is essential that startups can address these major questions early because being able to make critical first decisions early can help avoid costly mistakes and detours later.
Our goal for our Kickstart International program is to provide participating startups with a clear understanding of the skills and tools needed to start their international expansion journey, as well as an in depth-understanding of assessing their own expansion readiness. While one of the startups realized during the program pilot that they are not yet ready for expansion, they learned all about the tools needed to get themselves ready and to worked towards the right timing at a later stage.
At German Accelerator, we equip German startups with the necessary tools and contacts and empower them to start their international expansion journey whenever they are ready.
We want Kickstart International to be the go-to program that best prepares German startups for their international expansion journey. From almost ten years of experience in helping German startups scale to international markets, we learned that critical early decisions will help facilitate the actual process that follows later on. It is our goal to help young German startups to make these decisions around product, business model, and growth strategy soon enough and avoid critical mistakes that will impact a potential international future. The sooner startups start working with us, the easier it will be for them to not only internationalize but to also build a scalable business in general.