10 April 2018

Learnings: Building swissnex SF's startup accelerator

Originally posted as “8 learnings for startups (from swissnex SF Startup Camp)” at startupticker.ch and the swissnex blog.

This piece was written and posted at my time at swissnex SF. With support from incredible swissnex SF and global teams, we scaled the program from 8-10 companies per year with 2 partners to 16-24 startups per year with 5 partners. We achieved this by shifting our model from 1:1 consultancy to bi-annual camp cohorts with demo days, and through improvements to startup marketing channels, internal processes, and new connections in the ecosystem. Other links from the time:

• https://www.swissnexsf.org/startups • https://www.startupticker.ch/en/news/june-2018/what-swiss-start-ups-learned-in-san-francisco • https://www.startupticker.ch/en/news/october-2018/swiss-startups-bring-the-silicon-valley-spirit-back-home • https://www.nextrends.org/blog/2018/3/27/back-to-the-city • https://nikodunk.com/accelerator

swissnex San Francisco connects Swiss startups to a Bay Area network, and provides tools, techniques, training, and workspace in San Francisco. Twice a year, the swissnex SF Startup Camp brings together startups from EPFL XGrant and Innosuisse Market Entry Camp, and any other Swiss startup (for a fee). Get in touch with any questions or see below for more information.

The camp is relevant to Swiss startups looking to make the jump over to the US. We specialize in helping deep-tech startups integrate into a network of founders and supporters in the Bay Area, while getting used to the US ways of doing business – marketing, sales, speed of testing, etc.

Results of the camp speak for themselves: over the years some of the best Swiss startups like Ava, Beekeeper, Faceshift (acquired by Apple), Doodle, and Mindmaze have come through our camps. Today, their valuation totals 1.1B! swissnex is proud to hold a network of 400 founders and friends to help future campers.

The swissnex SF Startup Camp approach

As the markets in both Switzerland and the US have changed, we realized that startups benefitted from talking to others about their experiences in the Bay Area, and could help ‘translate’ those learnings for the Swiss environment. That’s why we’ve restructured the program to give startups an opportunity to explore on their own, but process those learnings for a Swiss context alongside a Swiss cohort. Our 3-4-week program in February and August consists of:

  • Monday 9.30-11a – Office Hours (similar to YC’s Office Hours, startups can ask questions, share learnings and solve each others’ current challenges – led by the swissnex team.
  • Wednesday 9.30-11a – Breakfast Fireside Chats (similar to YC’s Dinners) we invite external speakers, who are currently building a company or have done so in recent years, to share their insights. They freely explain tips and hacks, and share their journey. Excerpts from these sessions are below.
  • Friday 9.30-11a – Toolkits, similar to to 500 startups’ Toolkits, are tactical sessions for learning U.S. specific skills, as opposed to the speaker’s journey in the fireside chats. We share stories and tips from these sessions below.
  • Workspace – Startups can freely work from the space and schedule meetings outside of the sessions, and of course attend meetups/events/network in the evenings.

Here are eight of our key takeaways from the first swissnex SF Startup Camp.


Learning #1: To deal with big challenges, get into the mindset with a high level of energy — and you’ll be at the top of your game to overcome it.

(Teo Borschberg, Oto.ai, Week 1 Fireside Chat)

When founder Teo was hit with a business crisis, he didn’t flinch. When their first term sheet was endangered by a key team member leaving, instead of freaking out and trying to solve the problem right then, he counterintuitively went to the sauna, worked out, got dinner with friends and a great bottle of wine, a full nights’ sleep, and then the next day walked into the meeting room with a smile. This energy spread to the rest of the team as they realized they would get through this. And they did! The team now knows Teo’s a strong leader – nothing can get this guy down.

Learning #2: ‘No’ is always better than a ‘maybe’

(Suhas Ghante, Alchemai.com – Week 1 Toolkit Business Development USA)

Suhas, who has been through 500 Startups accelerator twice and specializes in business development, explained to us on the first Friday Toolkit that most of the time when talking with clients you’re dealing with hesitation and questions. Rarely do you get a straight ‘yes’. When you’re not getting a ‘yes’ however, most of the time founders are scared to push for the sale, thinking: “What if I get a no instead?”. But Suhas asks – what are you really risking? The upside is massive – a ‘yes’ – the downside is minimal – you stay where you are (not doing business with this client). So instead of fearing a ‘no’ and getting ‘maybes’ and ‘maybes’ and wasting months, put the cards on the table and get a clear ‘no’ – leaving you where you are – and move to the places with more potential to get a ‘yes’. Get a ‘no’ or a ‘yes’ – everything else is a waste of time.

Learning #3: Good advice comes in the form of questions

(Can Olcer & Dorena Nagel, Kosmos – Week 2 Fireside Chat)

Every route will be different, so be wary of people who give you absolute (and unsolicited) advice. The best advice comes from people who ask you questions, rather than giving you oversimplified answers and solutions that worked on their own path. Your approach to solving problems will be as unique as your experience and business. Whether it’s investors, friends, colleagues or even your team, be wary of which kind of advice you accept. You’ll know good advice when it comes in the form of questions.

Learning #4: Tell your story in Rules of Threes

(Nathan Gold, Democoach, Week 2 Toolkit)

Kinaps.co was telling their story and benefits as “we have x benefit, we solve y”. Adding the simple rhetorical flourish of “and it even does Z” was so effective that it convinced the audience — and they built it into their main pitch from that moment on. List your benefits in threes.

Learning #5: Get your business Karma on

(Thomas Querton, Atlasrun.com – Week 3 Fireside Chat)

The founding team of Atlasrun helped a non-profit for many years, free of charge, simply because they liked working with them and they had a cool mission. They also had a great network and introduced Atlasun to two influential contacts – who are now two of Atlasrun’s main clients. Good karma will come back to you!

Learning #6: A demo says more than 1000 slides.

(Stephan Eberle, Scale Venture Partners – Investor Perspective & Deck Feedback, Week 3 Toolkit)

On the first slide of their deck, camp participant Parquery explained their relatively complex machine vision technology in one beautiful photo of the live product. The image was so effective because it showed exactly what the product does, and Stephan from ScaleVP immediately understood the concept and complemented the startup on their communication. With a core understanding of the product established, Parquery CEO Andrea and Stephan were able to lead a deeper conversation on the additional features and benefits of the product. One slide lead to perfect understanding of the startup’s project, value proposition, and technology – if you’re looking for an investor’s advice or money, you need to make your product understandable first.

Learning #7: Get a US phone number and address, even if you’re not based here

(Damian Felchlin, Switzerland Global Enterprise, Week 4 Toolkit)

This hack applies mainly to European startups expanding to the US, but if you’re a tech startup there’s no excuse for not having your web presence up to date — in English — and having a US phone number and address. This will make US customers more comfortable with doing business with you. A US phone number costs little, but the upside is huge.

Learning #8: Find startup friends to share your journey with.

(Lea von Bidder, Ava, Week 4 Fireside Chat)

This last learning is not technically a Fireside Chat, but the knowledge Lea von Bidder shared spontaneously en route to Stanford in the car was valuable so we’ll recount it here nonetheless. If you can find colleagues and friends who are at the same stage of your journey, they can be a great asset – sharing knowledge, solutions, office space and even contacts. Being part of a cohort of friends, all thinking about the same things, will make you grow faster and be stronger.

Interested in learning more? Visit swissnexsf.org/startups – includes video, dates, and program details, or reach out directly to startups@swissnexsf.org


  • Free for Innosuisse(*) and EPFL XGrant startups (but open to all Swiss startups)
  • Dates: July 30 – August 17 2018.
  • Application Deadline: June 30 2018
  • Includes workspace in San Francisco and 3 week program
  • Apply now at swissnexsf.org/startups

(*)previously CTI/KTI. See swissnexsf.org/startups for more information.