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Swiss EP Methodology

Learning from implementing Swiss EP since 2015

At the core of every thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem is a vibrant community of entrepreneurs.

The Swiss Entrepreneurship Program (Swiss EP) has championed this belief since our inception in July 2015. Over the years, we have actively contributed to the establishment and growth of local startup communities, collaborating with entrepreneurial ecosystem leaders in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Peru, Serbia, and Vietnam, and witnessing remarkable transformations.

During our mandate, we have learned valuable lessons and applied a few principles that helped us impact respective entrepreneurial ecosystems where we are active. We are sharing our credo and methodology, hoping it will help other people and organizations in their efforts to strengthen and develop entrepreneurial ecosystems worldwide.

Our credo: They lead. We support.

From the very beginning, Swiss EP adopted an indirect approach. In practice, this meant that Swiss EP supports others in designing and implementing their activities rather than implementing its own activities. This is a commonly applied approach in international development practice with the hope of generating local ownership and long-term commitment to project interventions. Although Swiss EP applies the same logic, the difference lies in our expectations and offer of support.

Swiss EP operates on the principle of empowering its partners—local accelerators, incubators, business angel networks, and co-working spaces—to drive their own change process. We encourage them to define a clear mission, understand their own needs, and be attuned to the needs of their customers, the entrepreneurs. This approach has proven to be instrumental in fostering sustainable and impactful changes in the local entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Local partners present Swiss EP with specific requests to improve their performance further. Swiss EP teams can bounce ideas, iterate, and connect to relevant resources.

Only when the local organizations assume a higher degree of ownership for their development can they achieve sustainability and success in the local ecosystem and have a long-term impact.

Swiss EP does what the development cooperation community has been
trying to do (with mixed results) for the past 20 years or more: being demand—driven and fostering recipient ownership.

Geert Engelsman and Andreas Tarnutzer—External evaluation of Swiss EP, 2017

Don’t subsidize

The logic of indirect and demand-driven approaches was tested when Swiss EP presented local organizations with another guiding principle—No subsidy! Neither of staff salaries nor operational costs.

In other words, Swiss EP does not pay for the job the local organization should do. In the Balkans, in particular, this approach sent a shockwave through the local donor-dependent communities of NGOs and freelance consultants, leaving Swiss EP with a far smaller pool of potential partner organizations than initially foreseen. It was a blessing in disguise.

Relationship among equals

By demanding local organizations have a plan, commitment, and skin in the game, Swiss EP attracted a new breed of organizations confident in their ability to bring value to their customers – the entrepreneurs. Swiss EP fundamentally changed the relationship between a donor project and beneficiaries with three simple approaches—indirect, demand-driven, and no subsidy.

The local organizations are no longer financially dependent on us, the donor project. Instead, it is now a relationship of equals. They lead, we support. Not we lead; they deliver. Suddenly, Swiss EP must prove its worth by bringing non-financial value to local organizations and entrepreneurs. To do this, Swiss EP draws on two main resources: Swiss EP local teams and international experts.

Swiss EP has been established as a dominant actor regarding the expertise and support they give to the organizations. I always saw Swiss EP as an enabler, like the organizations in your corner, which you can always reach out to and get the same level of expertise and support. That has been very important. Building capacities have always been a critical task, and Swiss EP was always that actor in the ecosystem who provided international expertise. So it has definitely had an impact on all of us.

Arlind Haxhiaj, CEO and founder of Coolab, Albania

A team fit-for-purpose

The fact that the local Swiss EP teams are now recognized as critical resources and highly appreciated contributors to the local ecosystems is no coincidence. The original job descriptions in the project proposal called for local staff skilled in administration, monitoring, and finance, preferably with experience with donor project implementation. These are all essential duties in servicing the needs of donor agencies, but they are entirely unsuitable for delivering value to local ecosystem organizations and entrepreneurs. Selling services, let alone taking on a facilitator role among equals, requires different skills.

Swiss EP thrives with local teams who speak the language of entrepreneurship from the heart, individuals who have an entrepreneurial attitude and assume a pro-active facilitating role within the ecosystem rather than passively reviewing and monitoring the system from the outside.

Participating in the Investment Readiness Bootcamp (supported by Swiss EP) was a sensational experience! We acquired a lot of knowledge from different perspectives backed by experts. Now, the Yakufil team is clear on which areas we need to continue improving to take our startup to the next level.

Jenyfer Pineda, CEO of Yakufil, Peru

Relevant expertise comes from abroad

Swiss EP’s second resource is international expertise. Here, too, the program evolves in its methodology, challenging some core habits in international development for the benefit of the ultimate clients of the
program – local entrepreneurial ecosystem support organizations and entrepreneurs.

First of all, Swiss EP works with international entrepreneurs, not consultants. The reasons for this are pretty simple:

  1. Our international experts have hands-on experience achieving what our partners and entrepreneurs strive for. They founded companies, ran and designed acceleration programs, and invested their money into startups. Thus, they are highly credible. Local organizations can learn a ton from them and pick and choose what they need for further development.
  2. Swiss EP’s key areas of entrepreneurial ecosystem development, managing acceleration programs, and founding lean companies are new turf in most Swiss EP countries, which means there is no local expertise—we are building it now.

Swiss EP comes right there—the second you want to scale, you want to go beyond your capabilities; Swiss EP helps you by bringing someone you need, enabling you to access international market knowledge.

Leart Zogjani, Entrepreneur, Skins Agency, Kosovo

Peer learning approach

We work with international experts. Their missions are tailored to answer a specific challenge for one of our partners, and they can be either live or online.

For this, Swiss EP needs a clear idea of what support the local organizations and entrepreneurs need and access to a pool of professional international startup founders, mentors, and investors. The
goal is for these experts to share their skills, experience, successes, failures, approaches, ideas, new information, and networks. Through this personal and professional experience, they bring relevant value to their peers.

Swiss EP is the matchmaker in this relationship, and often, these relationships are long-term in nature. Experts stay in touch beyond the duration of the mission. Some continue to advise organizations and mentor startups, while others even start business ventures together.

The support from the Swiss EP team is professional and beyond our expectations. The team is very dedicated and patient in finding us the best experts, who have been very supportive in helping us [the Zone Startups team and our startups] to grow our businesses. Partnering with Swiss EP allows us to reach out to international experts and connect to the local ecosystem at the yearly summit. It also helps us to reflect and focus on our main business, which is to support the startups.

Quynh Vo, Program Director, Zone Startups, Vietnam

In search of local ‘leaders’

Swiss EP actively seeks to identify and involve local ‘champions’ among local entrepreneurs who are passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship.

However, identifying entrepreneurs with the right attitude and inspiring them to assume roles as local ecosystem leaders takes time and a lot of work. For more than one cultural reason, successful entrepreneurs often fly under the radar and focus on their business rather than engage actively with the ecosystem as mentors, investors, and program implementers. That said, it is a challenge that must be overcome if the local ecosystem has a chance of survival, let alone growth. Public institutions and donor agencies are ‘feeders’ and can play an important role. However, despite their good intentions “if feeders masquerade as leaders,” they “stifle short-term growth and long-term health of the startup community” [Brad Feld – Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in your City, 2012]

Successful local entrepreneurs understand the context, know the local market, can spot new talent, and are often willing to leverage their resources to support development. Increasing the contributions of local entrepreneurs to the ecosystem is, therefore, directly linked to its sustainability.

Swiss EP helped us a lot. We highly value the knowledge we gained from participating in the Investment Readiness Program for Female Founders, Content Marketing program, and Next Level Demos program, as well as from mentoring sessions with different experts. It feels magnificent when you're getting constant support and validation from someone, which is what the Swiss EP team does for us.

Senita Slipac, CEO and co-founder, Orea Bazaar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Entrepreneurship is everywhere; no sector focus

People with an entrepreneurial spirit and drive can be found throughout society. The areas in which they apply their entrepreneurial talent may vary from country to country and region to region and depend more on local resources, context, and traditions than on some common understanding about which sector is supposedly the most competitive or predicted to be so.

Therefore, Swiss EP supports local organizations in designing programs and support activities tailored to the local context and specific needs of local entrepreneurs, no matter which sector they belong to. That said, the focus is on entrepreneurs willing to grow their businesses. Again, an entrepreneur-centric approach that is context-sensitive is bound to achieve better results than blueprint solutions fixed to a specific sector.

Pick the winners! Or Focus on the exceptional

Donor programs focus on entrepreneurs at the idea and very early stage of their development through self-employment programs and basic entrepreneurship activities linked to grant schemes. Such activities are relevant as they contribute to building a pipeline of entrepreneurs within the ecosystem.

However, we often find this space very crowded, while support for startups further ahead in their development gets scarce. This is particularly true in the critical growth stage, where startups need funding, networks, and international exposure. This is where Swiss EP comes in and helps partner organizations tailor their services to make the entrepreneurs even more competitive, allowing them to grow sales and revenue, attract investments, and create jobs. In turn, the success of some startups will work as role models for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Swiss EP has been adding real value to the entire region's growth, not only by bringing mentors and supporting different programs but also by bringing confidence. This informal aspect—there is somebody as a stakeholder who is significant and critical and can help you out when you actually need help—is bringing a lot of confidence into people and the region.

Eli Zhabevska, Principal, South Central Ventures, North Macedonia

Agile and lean project management

All the characteristics mentioned above make Swiss EP unique as a donor-funded program. Our work is underpinned by an agile and lean project management structure throughout our program. We continuously optimize our resources and activities to create genuine value for our customers—local organizations and entrepreneurs. We aim to support entrepreneurs, and to do so in an impactful way, we need to operate as entrepreneurs. This is somewhat of a balancing act when being funded by a public agency, but it is possible.

We were able to adapt our management structures and processes to the pace of our partners and their portfolio companies. In this way, we remain relevant and valuable to them. We work in a highly people-centric way and seek continuous improvement of our services. We can assess requests from our partners and identify and mobilize experts very quickly and with minimum administrative procedures. For example, we have replaced experts’ cumbersome CVs with their LinkedIn profiles,
making background checks and mission planning much easier and faster for local organizations and Swiss EP staff.

All of these activities and results are only possible with the Swiss State Secretariat of Economic Affairs SECO, our enabler, and their willingness to agree with this approach. We believe SECO gives an example to other donors that it is possible to leave part of a program fairly open (e.g., no sector focus), to abandon annual plans in a rapidly changing context, to allow budget reallocation where it makes sense due to local needs and finally to slim down a highly inflated monitoring system that tries to monitor everything except what matters to our partners.

Swiss EP is essential in all the ecosystems that it's present. In Serbia (I know firsthand), it acts as a connector with other ecosystems and inside the local ecosystem. The main reason for such a role is because it's a small team of people with high expertise who are very immersed in the community. So, the trust is there. People know Swiss EP, and they confide in Swiss EP and Swiss EP does its best simply because Swiss EP listens to the community and provides high-level support that I don't think anyone else can do. People are still amazed at Swiss EP's customization level because you're so small and agile.

Milena Milic, Program Coordinator, Garaza by Tenderly, Serbia

All these ingredients make Swiss EP a strong, valued program, and we are getting overwhelming feedback from local organizations, startups, and experts who continuously support our endeavor.