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Running an Accelerator During a Pandemic

Claudia Schaller from The Founder Institute, a global startup launch program, about how to adapt to the new normal

Lesson 1: We need better tools to run our accelerator program virtually

The backbone of our program are the weekly evening sessions where founders, directors and mentors come together. These evenings are lively, personal and besides the knowledge transfer, important relationships are being built. And suddenly this all had tohappen in the virtual realm. The initial feedback from our participants was devastating: “I don’t find the same value in virtual sessions”, “ I can’t pay proper attention” are just a few examples. It seemed even the performance of our experienced mentors had suffered.

So we realized we had to improve the virtual experience.

Engagement is harder to maintain – and forget about spontaneity or humor. Nuanced clues about emotions are lost and a feeling of distance and anonymity can easily sneak in. To make the virtual experience as compelling as possible, we needed to change the set up. It became clear to us that a great moderator, ideally matched with a co-moderator, makes all the dfference. Ground rules, like “camera always on” need to be established during our virtual accelerator meetings to keep everyone fully engaged. All participants, especially mentors have to be well briefed and shared slides need extra modi!cation in terms of design and content structure. When pitching, founders should get up and step away from their screen to ensure the setting is as real as possible. All in all, virtual sessions require a great amount of effort, preparation and focus. From both, hosts and participants.

Lesson 2: More Empathy, better Results

We realized our founders started to struggle with their weekly assignments and tasks. Coincidently, right when Corona hit an important review of the startup pitches by selected mentors was around the corner.

We addressed with empathy the extraordinary situation and the personal and professional hardship that came with it. Deadlines for assignments and incorporation tasks were generously extended and everyone was given a two-week break. This time was needed to adjust to an unfamiliar situation and settle into a new routine, either in isolation or with partners, kids or roommates in quarantine.

Lesson 3 : Zoom in on Opportunity

By the end of March, we were startled by a wave of drop-outs from the accelerator. The reasons were diverse, though somehow all tied to the ongoing crisis: customer interviews couldn’t be completed, a once great project idea seemed now less relevant, a co-founder fell ill with COVID-19. Overall, for most participants it seemed to be the worst time for founding a startup. But we as the team of directors didn’t want to give up on these founders so we picked up the phone. Maybe there was a chance to win some of them back.

In conversation with these entrepreneurs, we pointed out the invested time and effort of the founders which would all be lost. We also mentioned all the other participants of the Founder Institute chapters around the globe who keep on going despite being probably in less secure circumstances. And, on top of it the rescue package provided by Founder Institute’s Palo Alto headquarter offering benefits like access to the global mentor pool and virtual classes worldwide.

But most importantly, we wanted the founders to shift perspective and see the opportunity that lies in every crisis. We encouraged them to think how their specifc business can not only survive but thrive during and post-Corona and what adjustments had to be made. We were able to convince a number of founders and they decided to complete the program.

Lesson 4: This is the New Normal – Keep on Going

As of last week, we’re back on track, moving full speed ahead towards the end of the program. Our four founders are highly committed and I am convinced Sascha Soyk (GovRadar), Nina Wang (Immerneu), Hayk Ter Grigoryan (BackToCosmetics) and Robert Rohlfs (KnitNavi) will successfully graduate on May 12. They will join over 3500 Founder Institute graduates with a combined portfolio value of $20B. Despite the crisis, their business models are promising and they’re ready to scale.

It’s time for all of us to accept that this is the new normal and keep on going. Over the next months, probably way into 2021, we will have to live with this pandemic. Recession will eventually hit on a global level and we will see business, even industries crumble. But we can already experience the upside of the new normal. More digitization accompanied with a greater openness to it, the birth of numerous new businesses tackling the crisis on all levels and a strong sense that we are all in this together.

The Founder Institute is an American business incubator, entrepreneur training and startup launch program that was founded in Palo Alto, California in 2009. Although based in Silicon Valley, The Founder Institute maintains chapters in over 180 cities and more than 65 different nations across the globe. It offers a four-month part-time program for new and early-stage entrepreneurs that helps them develop their business ideas and form a company. As of 2018, over 3,500 companies had been created from the program, which raised over $800M funding in total.

Claudia Schaller - The Founder Institute
Claudia Schaller - The Founder Institute
Claudia Schaller - The Founder Institute
Claudia Schaller - The Founder Institute

Claudia Schaller, PhD, is a hybrid professional combining life sciences and entrepreneurship. As founder of InFutura, she builds ventures, consults and researches in the health, food and tech sector. Together with Nathan Evans, Magdalena Muttenthaler, Francisco Tavira, Jutta Merschena she serves as director of The Founder Institute Munich, a pre-seed startup accelerator, that guides new founders from ideation to incorporation.

Claudia is an equality activist and launched Changemaker Chats Munich, a platform for female empowerment. She frequently speaks about gender gap, biohacking and Silicon Valley. Claudia worked for many years at an US-based innovation consultancy with Silicon Valley clients like Apple, Dolby and Tesla; her PhD was received for conducting medical research at University of California San Francisco.

The Founder Institute, an American business incubator, entrepreneur training and startup launch program, was founded in Palo Alto, California in 2009. Based in Silicon Valley, the institution maintains offices in over 180 cities and more than 65 different nations across the globe. It offers a four-month part-time program for new and early-stage entrepreneurs to help them developing business ideas and form a company. As of 2018, over 3,500 companies had been created from the program, which raised over $800M funding in total.

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