One of the hardest parts for me personally about COVID-19 has been watching my son lose a big part of a senior year in high school. Daily zoom lectures are no replacement for the camaraderie and celebration of wrapping up twelve years of a primary school education, and the cancellation of graduation ceremonies is a particularly difficult pill to swallow for young adults and their families who’ve waited a lifetime to cheer the receiving of a diploma.
I imagine those participating in startup accelerators may be experiencing a similar feeling. While it may not be the same as replacing the culmination of twelve years of primary education, the 12 or so weeks spent in an accelerator are intense and life-changing for all involved and, like with my son’s high school, many of those days and the final “graduation” have been swapped out for virtual facsimiles.
Which is why I decided to attend the recent BSH Appliances/Techstars Future Home Demo Day. I’d had the chance to attend the “graduation” of the first cohort of this same accelerator in person a year ago in Munich, so I figured I’d have the proper context to see how this virtual demo day compared to the real thing.
The accelerator cohort spent the first six weeks together in Munich, but the decision was made in mid-March to send everyone home and conduct the rest of the accelerator time virtually, including this final virtual demo day. Last year, each of the 10 groups of founders packed into a Munich movie theater and, over the course of the next couple hours, gave polished pitches about their companies as friends, mentors and potential investors cheered them on.
This year, the event was held via (you guessed it) Zoom, where an initial kick off with comments from the accelerator organizers, and from there each founder would give a quick description of their company. The fuller pitches, the ones that essentially replaced the ones given at demo day in Munich, were pre-recorded so they would, as BSH’s accelerator organizer Tibor Kramer explained, “avoid any issues with streaming.”
The inital kickoff in Zoom was pretty fun. Despite presenting from their own homes virtually, I could sense the founders and the accelerator organizers participating really were happy to see each other and they all cheered each other on and fondly called each other by their nicknames when each took over and gave a brief intro to their company.
At last year’s event, many in the audience held a glass of wine or a beer in hand as they cheered along the founders from their seats. This year, many of the founders and accelerator participants cheered each other along with a celebratory beer or glass of wine as they sat in front of their computers.
After the demo day kickoff, attendees were encouraged to spend the next hour watching the pre-recorded pitches and then drop into private web video chats with each founder team to ask questions and congratulate them. BSH invited me to drop into a few of these meetings and ask questions so I did.
In total, I dropped in to meet four of the founder teams individually and each one seemed excited about graduating and the future despite the obvious differences in today’s landscape. Some admitted that there were definitely some challenges with going virtual, with a couple pointing to the time zone differences as the biggest struggle for them as they tried to participate remotely during Munich business hours from places as far-flung as Bangalore.
“One big change was time zone management,” said Saakshi Jain, cofounder of Zelish a kitchen and meal planning app startup. “We are in a very different time zone that everyone else and it was very late for us.”
Another big difference was the loss of some of the exchanges that are only possible in-person.
“When you’re there with the other founders you really build this strength with the cohort that is hard to replicate in a virtual setting,” said Mihai Hogea, cofounder of Pepper, a voice-powered nutrition & diet management startup. Hogea gave an example of how the accelerator organizers took his cofounder (and brother) Andrei to some Munich brewhouses to celebrate his 30th birthday.
Overall, however, I found my first accelerator virtual demo day enjoyable and pretty informative. I was able to spend more time with each founder I wanted to chat with and felt I found out more about their companies than I would have in an in-person setting, in part because I was able to ask them questions and take some notes on my computer which, it goes without saying, would have been somewhat awkward in-person at a Munich movie theater.
For the founders, I think they also found it enjoyable, but I still think they would have preferred to be drinking beer in Munich. All of them told me the first six weeks spent in person really allowed them to bond and helped make the final half of the accelerator more productive and enjoyable, despite being virtual.
For future accelerators, I imagine the same success will depend somewhat on how much in-person time the cohort gets. And, hopefully next year, the third cohort of this accelerator will be able to get together in Munich and pitch their companies in a dark Munich movie theater.