What Swiss startup founders can learn from Silicon Valley, Sweden and Israel

Move fast and break things… that is the traditional (albeit slightly cliche) Facebook/Silicon Valley slogan we’ve heard for years. And for a time, it was incredibly effective. Just look at Big Tech’s domination of the S&P 500.

Without question, wildly ambitious founders and wild rides have defined the last two decades of startups, innovation and venture capital, all while creating trillions in market cap. And although there were definitely some bad apples and things we’d rather take back (like Facebook and Google’s Stasi-esque surveillance capitalism and Uber’s every-driver-for-themself destruction of social safety nets), on the whole, the world has moved forward for the better.

For no one is this more true than the founders and early employees of these companies. The attack, innovate and iterate mindset of constantly trying new things, failing fast and racing forward has spurred more capital creation, innovation and creative destruction in the last twenty years than any other period in human history.

But innovation and enormous exits have not been limited to Silicon Valley, the USA, or China. Thanks to a “move fast” mentality and mountains of investment, there have been waves of growth and progress, with exploding valuations everywhere as new unicorns are crowned seemingly everyday.

Even small countries like Sweden and Israel (with populations of 10.3 and 9.2 million respectively) are getting in on the action, each having some of the highest unicorn per capita numbers in the world. 

Israel alone minted 24 new unicorns since the start of 2021!

Israel startup unicorn companies
Source: VC Cafe

And while valuations and exits aren’t everything, they are a big deal and something that is quite lacking here in Switzerland. The question is: Why?

What’s different about Swiss startups?

Why aren’t there more Swiss founders ringing the NY Stock Exchange bell or having enormous exits? What is it about our incredibly successful, innovative land (with comparable population, wealth and education to Sweden and Israel) that so few Swiss startups go on to dominate the world?

Where is our Spotify or Skype? 

Where is our Waze, Mobileye or ICQ? 

As an American expat that’s chosen to make Zurich, Switzerland my family’s adopted home, at first, it was a little baffling. Why aren’t more of Switzerland’s finest transforming the world and reinvesting it back into our local ecosystem? (Are you a startup changing the world? Join our swissSTARTUPS community on Slack to network with other like minded founders, investors and innovators doing great things here in Switzerland!)

After living here several years and learning the culture, I started to get it…

It comes back to move fast and break things. It comes back to not being afraid to fail, to stir the pot, to try the impossible and put your heart (and economic safety) on the line. It’s all about risk tolerance… 

And then it starts to make sense. Switzerland’s biggest industries are banking, finance and insurance after all. There is a reason we’ve always stayed neutral and come out on top – and it is not taking massive risks.

But being neutral and not ”rocking the boat” are no way to build a world-changing business. Being a successful entrepreneur requires incredible drive and equally important, ignorance. 

“If I’d known how hard it was going to be, I’d never have gotten started.” 

This is one of the most common refrains you hear from successful founders. It takes a cocky, take-on-the-world arrogance to truly believe you can upend conventional travel (Airbnb), redefine transportation (Uber) or electrify the auto industry (Tesla).

And yet, those founders did it. They did the impossible because they didn’t know (or care) that it “couldn’t be done.”

Unfortunately here in Switzerland, this often isn’t the case. Instead friends tell me how as kids they were encouraged to “keep their heads down” or “not try too hard.” Being overly ambitious or individual is/was often viewed as a bad thing.

But don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no wish to judge. In fact, I find Switzerland a much better country than the US overall – it’s a much better fit for me and my family. There is so much here to love and appreciate, hence why I’ve chosen to make it my home.

That said, it’s time for Switzerland’s incredible founders and talent to take their place amongst the tech elite of the world. It’s time we started minting Swiss unicorns and started reinvesting millions (or billions) back into our brilliant minds (Building the next Swiss unicorn? I’d love to help! Plus, you should probably join swissSTARTUPS on Slack).

Dream Bigger

One of the biggest hurdles I see holding back Swiss founders is their goals. I have attended numerous startup events and coached many more founders (also as part of Venturelab), and heard startups make their pitch and show their financials and vision of how they change the world.

And it often ends in a 50-100M exit… and that is it. That’s the biggest conceivable outcome they can imagine. And even that is pushing it. (Add your email below to get my free pitch deck guide and “up the ante!” 🙂

They don’t dream bigger, they don’t proclaim to be able to take on the world, and win.

You can’t blame them. We need examples of success to emulate to be willing to accept that something is in fact doable. 

Roger Bannister ran the 1st ever 4:00 mile in human history in 1954 – before that it was “impossible.”

Since then, it has been broken 1400+ times.

Which comes back to ignorance and arrogance (sort of)… Why dream of owning the Swiss market when all of Europe (or the entire world) are there for the taking?

This is especially true for the impact-driven startups I work with. If you are trying to revolutionize the future of food, create a circular economy or pull CO2 from the atmosphere, does it really make sense to limit your ambitions to just Switzerland or the DACH region? Pollution’s an everywhere problem… (By the way, if you’re tackling any of these problems or something equally meaningful in the world, reach out! I’d love to work together and help)

Take Bigger Risks

Dreaming bigger goes hand-in-hand with taking bigger risks. It’s impossible to change the world unless you attempt the “impossible.” 

And attempting the impossible is risky. 

It means forgoing that cosy 6-figure job with the great pension and career prospects. 

golden business handcuffs

It means telling your parents, in-laws and friends: “I’m quitting my job to start a business” and getting those uncomfortable, almost accusatory glances like “did she lose her mind?” 

It means having to defend your right to eat Ramen and spend your nights coding… 

And NONE of that is easy. Reputational risk, financial risk, future risk… It is absolutely terrifying.

But it is also what it takes, especially if you have big dreams and aspirations.

The only question is, what are you willing to risk to make it happen?

A friendly piece of advice/reminder: What’s the worst that could possibly happen? Probably that your startup fails, you lose a bit of money, a few years of “your career” and you have to get a real job.

But doesn’t that sound sneakily similar to not starting a business too. You’re pretty much where you started except you lost a little money and gained a lot of experience.

Scale Faster

One of the biggest differences between Swiss startups and those of Sweden and Israel is the rate at which they scale. When playing in a small market, it is critical to expand outward as quickly as possible (once you’ve figured out the model and have Product-Market Fit – if you need help here, we should chat!).

As a Swiss entrepreneur, you cannot afford to hold off on expanding to Germany, Austria, France etc… before conquering the entire Swiss market. There are sharks lying in the wait, ready to fund you (or your competitors) to dominate the European, American and world markets.

To avoid falling behind and being crushed, it is critical to keep pushing ahead.

The risk of course, is scaling too quickly, ie: the Vision Fund approach – pouring gasoline on something that’s bleeding cash only incinerates itself faster. Look at Rent the Runway and countless others.

But there’s a happy medium between breakneck acceleration and slow-and-steady-wins-the-race where startups can shine. And with the majority of Swiss startups I’ve met and worked with, it pays to push the accelerator a bit harder.

Remember, it is OK to dream bigger, it is OK to take (calculated) risks. Just don’t spend too much time calculating risks or getting weighed down by paperwork or you’ll never reach the finish line.

Which leads into our next point.

Sidestep Hurdles

How many truly brilliant Swiss founders have you met who are stuck with paperwork, insurances or other official forms rather than building their business? I’ve coached numerous founders who were debating a GmbH vs an AG but hadn’t written a line of code or launched their website or made a single sale.

They want to get all their ducks in a line before moving forward. The problem is, there are massive hurdles and red tape in the way of anything, especially anything innovative. 

It can take weeks or months to get all the necessary approvals. But you can start a business and start making progress much sooner. You don’t need to form a GmbH and waste 20k Francs to get started.

Just go and do. If things start to work, then incorporate the business, then worry about all those details that otherwise just hold you back.

The truth is, it usually only matters if you’re successful anyway. Is the Steueramt (tax office) really going to hassle you over your failed business venture that lost money and died after six months? No, probably not. And if they do, it will be a small fine.

And if you’re successful, even better. Then you can pay smart people to have your problem go away. 

Be Less Modest

Switzerland is world-renowned for its friendly politeness and modesty. We hate it when others show off or make themselves out to be better than they are. I’ve learned from my wife and from living here just how ingrained this is in the culture.

But when it comes to entrepreneurship, I want you to throw all of that out the window. 

Two startups enter a VC’s office. One says they developed breakthrough battery technology, are growing 3x year over year (YoY) and that customers “love our product.” The other says they’ve improved the battery capacity for e-scooters, are growing steadily and have “a lot of happy customers.”

Who gets funding?

Probably neither in this hypothetical example because they both developed the same thing, but you get the point. 

Sure, modesty has its place, but so too does selling. You NEED to sell yourself and your startup. NO ONE else will.

And if you don’t, you won’t end up changing anything, someone else will. And they might not have your company’s values and ideals.

Which kind of means if you’re doing something truly meaningful, you’re letting the world down by being a little too modest 🙂

Need help with this? Add your email below to get my free Pitch Deck guide plus my 15 step guide to acquiring and retaining customers. (And if you need more help refining your deck or practicing your pitch, I’d love to work together).

(Are you a Swiss startup changing the world? Join our swissSTARTUPS community on Slack to network with other like minded founders, investors and innovators doing great things here in Switzerland!)



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