Campus - 16.10.2019 - 00:00 

HSG entrepreneurs breathe in the Silicon Valley air

Thanks to an initiative by Startup@HSG, five young company founders took a trip to Silicon Valley, where they were introduced to a startup mentality that is not always replicable even for young entrepreneurs.
Source: HSG Newsroom

15 Oktober 2019. The US trip offered the five participants little time for a breather. Over five days, their jam-packed schedule meant they worked from 9 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock at night. The agenda included visits to local Berkeley and Stanford Universities, interaction with Swiss startups that have already taken the step to venture into the US, guided tours through the luxury working temples of Facebook and Apple as well as numerous workshops about effective pitches, design thinking and growth hacking. The week was organised by Startup@HSG, an initiative by the Centre for Entrepreneurship led by Prof. Dietmar Grichnick, together with Swissnex San Francisco. “We want to enable outstanding startups with an HSG background to gain insights, contacts and initial market validation in this unique Silicon Valley ecosystem,” says Dominic Knape, who is responsible for the new programme for Startup@HSG called “Entrepreneurial Champions”. The five people selected for the trip had all already been singled out beforehand within the “Entrepreneurial Talents” development programme as being particularly innovative. As a criterion for selection as “champions” they now had to demonstrate that they have promising prospects for their company in the US market.

Sharing ideas uninhibitedly

Silicon Valley: to many, it sounds like frenzied hustle and bustle in a futuristic place where disruption is celebrated afresh every day and is put on display. But it doesn’t really look that much different to where we are, says Paul Bäumler: “I was surprised how straightforward and unspectacular everything seems. You walk past a venture capital office which invests billions in startups but which looks really unassuming.” The difference between Silicon Valley and innovative centres in Switzerland or Germany is therefore based less on the streetscape and more on the mentality of the entrepreneurs who work there.

It became immediately apparent to Marvin Speh that sharing his own business ideas in California is a much more uninhibited experience than it is at home in Switzerland: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a bar or an UberPool car, people candidly share their ideas with other people wherever they are in the hope that it’ll be quicker to find people to help them with their own project, while here in Switzerland there is a great fear that their idea will be nicked.”

Trial and error

In the startup culture, you also see differences in dealing with failure, says Simon Haller. “Unlike here, people in the US don’t view it negatively when someone’s business idea is not successful. Instead, it is seen more as an educational lesson and they just try again with something new.” As a result, there are people in Silicon Valley who have never even got their idea past the test phase, adds Marvin Speh: “There are many entrepreneurs who abandon a project at the smallest hurdle and skip onto the next one.”

The date when you launch your idea on the market is scheduled in much earlier in the US, says Camillo Werdich. “While in Switzerland we make an effort to broadly perfect the product before we take it to the customer, in the US this is often done at a less mature stage of development.”

Before the trip, the “Champs” had already heard about the working conditions at large tech companies such as Facebook and Apple. The free food and wellness, fitness and games areas are supposed to have a particularly motivating effect on their employees and blur the borders between work and leisure. “On our visit to the tech companies, I was surprised when I spoke to some employees about how this offer impacts productivity: Many people think it is more of a distraction than a motivating factor to work,” says Marvin Speh.

Pitching must be learnt

To be able to expand into the US market, sources of financing must be found which, for startups, often come from risk investors. In the pitching workshops, the “Champs” were therefore able to practice how best to sell their business idea. They could then test out what they had learnt straight away in front of potential investors. One such venture capitalist then actually signed up for one. An investor from San Francisco wants to co-finance Camillo Werdich's startup: “He was amazed that at our stage of product development we hadn’t been on the market for ages,” says the young entrepreneur. 

Fewest of the “Champs” started the trip to the US with the goal of finding an investor. The intensive week gave everyone the opportunity to take home diverse input for developing their businesses. And for some, it helped them to be able to more accurately assess whether a leap over the big pond would actually be something to aim for. “The programme helped me get to know the stakeholder system in the Silicon Valley with its universities, startups and established corporate groups. I can now imagine opening up a branch office for my company in San Francisco,” says Max Sieghold.

The five “HSG Champs” and their startups
Camillo Werdich, Sinpex: Sinpex developed an algorithm which accurately identifies information from documents, such as company reports, and makes it available to the user in a structured form. Sinpex specialises in applications for the financial sector to detect money laundering and the financing of terrorism. 28-year-old Camillo Werdich, who did his Ph.D. in international management at the HSG, developed the Sinpex company together with two other people. The software is about to be used for the first time in a commercial setting at a major Swiss bank. 

Simon Haller, AdBag: Rent the back of a rucksack as advertising space; that’s the idea behind the startup AdBag. Students are paid to wear rucksacks with a fixable advert of their choice, ensuring that the advertising message reaches the university campus, city centres and public transport. The startup was founded by the 22-year-old BWL student Simon Haller together with five students at the FHNW. AdBag will launch on the Swiss market in October 2019 with a campaign for mobility. 

Paul Bäumler, Letsact: The Letsact app aims to bring together potential volunteers and corresponding organisations, making it easier for young people in particular to find voluntary work and get involved in social projects. The app was launched by 21-year-old BWL student Paul Bäumler and two co-founders from Munich. The app has now been introduced throughout Germany. A market launch in Switzerland is also planned. 

Marvin Speh, RoomPriceGenie: The startup RoomPriceGenie offers smaller hotels and hostels an algorithm that helps them to automatically adjust prices to demand. Behind the company is the 27-year-old HSG Masters graduate Marvin Speh and two other founders. They sold the first software at the start of this year and now serve around 100 customers.

Max Sieghold, Sleepiz: Sleepiz has developed a medical device which measures vital signs using electromagnetic waves enabling people to diagnose sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, at home. Behind the startup is 25-year-old Max Sieghold, a Masters graduate in Accounting and Finance from the HSG, together with three other founders from ETH Zurich. The device Sleepiz developed is currently in the approval phase. 

Picture: Adobe Stock / Callahan