Managing Director digitalswitzerland on how startups can thrive in Switzerland

With the mission statement “Making Switzerland a Leading Digital Innovation Hub. Worldwide!” digitalswitzerland is engaged with empowering Switzerland within the various fields of digitalization. 

digitalswitzerland is a Swiss-wide, multi-stakeholder initiative with over 150 members. Working together with government, business, academia and the public, they are developing initiatives to drive Switzerland forward. Founded in 2015, digitalswitzerland will soon celebrate its 5th anniversary. Managing Director Nicolas Bürer answers 3 key questions on how startups can grow to thrive in Switzerland and worldwide.

Question 1: Since the official “startup phase” of digitalswitzerland is over and you have grown rapidly in the past years, what advice would you give new founders in Switzerland on developing a project and establishing themselves within Switzerland and also worldwide?

These are excellent questions. Let me share 4 key takeaways from my experience at digitalswitzerland but also my other startup ventures (Movu, DeinDeal, joiz, Yamo, etc). This is advice I’d give founders in Switzerland and anywhere else in the world.

  • 1st, brace yourself for a roller coaster. No matter how good you are, how strong your team, how promising your ideas and first tractions, you will find yourself riding some steep downward stretches along the way. Buckle up, be ready, and never give up!
  • 2nd, staying with the speed metaphor, my second piece of advice is prepare to fail fast. I’m sure you’ve heard this ten times already but, believe me, we all make the same mistake. We instinctively believe that that sharp corner is about to smooth out so we can grow in the right direction. It won’t. Set yourself a clear deadline and KPIs to reach for. If you don’t hit those targets, stop. And start something else.
  • 3rd, my next tip is to seek complementary skills and cognitive diversity within the founding and managing team. Too often we look for “clones”, people we like who share a similar skillset. You need to take the opposite approach. Look for people with other business skills (marketing, sales, product, etc.) but also other soft and leadership skills (analytical, sales-driven, communicative, etc.).
  • 4th, last but not least, think big. Very big. You may feel that you are doing so already but I can you tell you, it’s still not big enough. Be afraid of your vision. Only then you get closer to your objective. 

Question 2: Leading innovation hubs, like Israel or Finland, are focused on scaling startups and SMEs, by influencing political frameworks and acquiring venture capital volume. How should Switzerland prepare to face competition with other countries globally?

It’s true that we face competition from other similar hubs. I really recommend James Breiding’s book Too small to fail. It offers an excellent explanation of why small countries (like Switzerland) have “unfair advantages”. To remain or become (depending on the point-of-view) a leading innovation hub worldwide, we need to do the same as Finland or Israel: pick up topics, invest heavily in them and make Switzerland great at them. Israel is leading the race in cybersecurity, for example, and excels in data analytics and drones. Finland is strong in education and diversity. 

What about Switzerland? Thanks to early pioneers, we’re in the top 5 worldwide in industries like banking, pharma, manufacturing, watches and many more. But we have great potential for innovative new industries as well. According to the Bloomberg Innovation Index 2019, Switzerland is number 4 in the world when it comes to innovation. We’re prepared to spend on research and development and we score well on productivity, high-tech density, and patent activity.

What’s next? I believe a lot will happen in the country in the next two to three years and we will develop in areas of very high interest for corporates, venturing and future jobs in general. I believe in blockchain, AI, robotics, trust-based business models, healthtech and greentech. These will all put Switzerland on the map! 

Question 3: The “Digital Switzerland” Strategy, which the Federal Council is planning on implementing in the next years, provides guidelines on what actions are necessary to shape the transformation process in Switzerland. What principles would you add, if any?

There are 2 principles I’d like to share and discuss. I believe we can all learn from them and should work towards really implementing them. 

1.The future is transversal. Tech and digital are not separate industries, they permeate all industries. No one is protected against competition from other industries and tech companies. On the other hand, everyone can go transversal and disrupt other industries.

This is where education, research and innovation comes into place. It is important to establish at what points we intersect, hence transverse, with technologies. Working together with them – hand in hand – is what needs to come naturally to stay ahead. We need to think about what we can do to develop these skills and critical thinking mindset.

2.The future belongs to unlikely alliances. Because they reinforce the positions of all alliance partners in the ecosystem. Alliances will build new infrastructure that in turn facilitate structural change. We need to think about forming these networks that might seem unlikely in the beginning. This is also where the idea of networking will all stakeholder groups comes into practice. Are you as a company allowing this communication between stakeholders to happen? Cooperation is essential.

The best recent example is the insurance company Mobiliar’s investment in Ringier! Who would ever have imagined such a deal? Only transversal and alliance-oriented visionaries.