Every year, Kickstart works together with a wide network of top-class advisors and experts, who support our startups and scale-ups with their broad specialist knowledge in deep tech, innovation and entrepreneurship. One of them is Oliver Durrer, Managing Director of our program partner SwissLEAP, who supports both the Intrapreneurship and the EdTech & Learning Vertical. In this interview, he shares how Lean Startup methods can be used to enhance both customer-centric learning as well as organizational learning.

First and foremost: Do you have a morning routine?

I do indeed have a morning ritual that I try to cultivate and follow:

First, right after waking up, I go for a 15 minutes sitting meditation session. I use Emily Fletcher’s method of the “3 Ms”: Mindfulness (all about being fully present in the moment with all your senses), Meditation (giving your body deep rest and sort of purging the stress of the past) and Manifestation (practising gratitude and vividly envisioning the future, combining it with actual emotions as if you have already experienced it). 

Second, I do a breathing exercise inspired by Wim “the Iceman” Hof. It’s a form of abdominal and chest mouth-breathing hyperventilation combined with holding your breath for as long as you can after completely exhaling. This makes me feel alert but calm and focused at the same time.

Third, a short morning workout routine of 20-30 minutes and I am ready to win the day. 

What are your key recommendations for startups?

First, I like to ask them about the company’s purpose (the why) and learn whether the teams are clear and aligned on the deeper motivation and its roots. This is crucial for the company’s vision and values as well as a key driver of individual intrinsic motivation to help them get through the tough times to realize their company’s mission. To structure the startup team’s challenges, I like to use a simple but powerful curated framework we have dubbed the SwissLEAP Diamond – a combination of 2 Golden Triangles:

  1. Customer – Problem – Solution
    Make sure that you understand the problem you want to solve by deeply understanding your customer having that very problem, before obsessing about your solution or product. In other terms, citing Ash Maurya: “Be in love with the problem, not with your solution.”
  2. Desirability (Is there a need?) – Feasibility (Can we build it?) – Viability (Can we profitably and sustainably scale it?)
    Once you have confirmed the need/demand for your solution, you can shift your focus on building the solution in a sustainably scalable way. Focus on solving the customer-problems with the highest impact on your business’ success and with the highest remaining uncertainty. This is a great way to de-risk your enterprise.

In combination with this framework, we use powerful problem-solving techniques and methods for accelerated customer-centric learning and de-risking, such as Lean Innovation. As my friend Brant Cooper, co-author of The Lean Entrepreneur, taught me, the base are the 3 Es: Empathy, Experiments and Evidence

An example of such an experiment is the one Dropbox used: Before even writing a single line of code for their product, they used a video to illustrate the problem and their solution and asked people to sign up if they were interested in such a cloud-storage product. If memory serves they received something like 70’000 sign-ups in very little time. The Dropbox team generated Evidence from this Experiment that there was a need for this kind of solution.

This accelerated customer-centric learning is extremely valuable for startups – also in a corporate startup context for intrapreneurs. For sustainable success with lean startup and lean innovation practices, the culture and context of a larger organization most often need to holistically evolve, though. The core common denominators are learning and collaboration, whether we are in a pure startup setting or in a corporate context. It is like Yin&Yang: both startups and established enterprises can and should learn from each other, a blend of their respective best practices is the likely combination for success. Here, adopting a learning mindset and practices, in combination with the adequate structure, systems, strategies and culture is crucial – also when it comes to corporate-startup collaborations.

What does “Lean Startup” mean for you personally? 

Lean Startup emphasizes learning as much and as fast as possible with as little resources as possible to avoid or reduce “waste”. The build-measure-learn and innovation accounting approaches beautifully combine creativity with a scientific structured approach for effectiveness and efficiency in problem-solving and designing products and services. 

Personally, I like to use Lean Startup methods to drive customer-centric learning as well as to enhance stakeholder-centric organizational learning. I even use it as a personal development tool by applying experimentation and learning loops to my own life – for example to my morning routine ;-).

About the author:

A certified lean innovation coach, Oliver’s 15+ years track-record of catalysing a culture of organizational learning, intrapreneurship and innovation, as intrapreneur and entrepreneur, spans across large enterprises, SMB and tech startups in Europe, Asia and the US, over a broad range of functions and fields. He started, scaled and integrated an EdTech startup and created an InnoLab for Migros Club School, Switzerland’s biggest further-education institution. Oliver founded SwissLEAP to empower purpose-driven pioneers to increase impact by evolving corporate culture with lean innovation, intrapreneurship and organizational learning to create shared value. 

Good things take time. The joint project between Veezoo and AXA wasn’t all plain sailing. Shortly before the finish it even threatened to fail. Thanks to a lot of patience, excellent collaboration and tenacity, AXA and Veezoo managed to establish a successful partnership.

As Switzerland’s biggest insurance company, AXA works with complex systems and large volumes of data. Extracting and preparing useful information from this huge amount of data can be time consuming and requires professional handling. This is where the technology from Veezoo brings a clear value add.

Understanding data with Veezoo

The insurance company and the ETH spin-off met for the first time at Kickstart Accelerator in fall of 2016, where AXA appeared as a partner and Veezoo as one of the first startups in the program. It quickly became clear that the startup’s software was of interest to AXA. Because, with Veezoo’s smart, dialog-based data analysis software, data and information can clearly and easily be made accessible and useful – and this has considerable potential in many areas for AXA.

With Veezoo’s help, concrete questions can be answered easily and in a way that can be understood by anyone. Questions are asked to Veezoo just like in Google and Siri; here, however, based on company data: “How many new customers aged over 30 have we gained in Zurich in the past 3 months?” The question is answered in seconds with a clear, interactive graphic. Answers can also be further explored, either by clicking on individual elements of the visualization or simply by asking a follow-up question, such as: “How many of them came from our online channel?”


Euphoric test phase

Thanks to AXA’s open innovation approach, a potential collaboration and a use case could be prepared very quickly and presented to the decision-making committee. The Customer & Distribution Board wasn’t fully convinced with the original use case. „In a subsequent attempt, we focused more closely on problems of the daily business“, says Marcos Monteiro, Co-Founder of Veezoo. „In the end, it was the focus on the benefit AXA had thanks to Veezoo’s technology, that resulted in the final approval of the pilot.“

In phase one, constructive and close collaboration was essential. After just a few weeks, a running version of Veezoo could be tested. „Selected users in the AXA sales department tested the software for its functionality and to uncover possible deviations in the data reproduction“, says Svea Meier, Open Innovation Developer at AXA. „Initially, some answers from Veezoo differed from the results computed using internal business logics. However, following investigation by both parties, the systems quickly produced fully identical numbers.“ As a result of the test phase, the evaluation showed that the test persons were very satisfied with the support of Veezoo. They were particularly enthusiastic about the extremely simple way answers and information could be obtained from the large AXA data volume. None of them wanted to go back to their daily work without Veezoo.

The final hurdle

Shortly before the end, the Customer & Distribution Board further challenged the AXA/Veezoo team, insisting on full compliance with the process before permanent implementation of the software.

AXA and Veezoo worked hand in hand on that. After clearing the remaining open topics, the business case was presented also to the Executive Board. Further requests were submitted. A few days later, everything was implemented and resulted in the final approval.

For Kickstart Accelerator Co-Lead Katka Letzing, this is a good example of how Kickstart Accelerator can help closing the gap between startups and corporations: „It`s great to see how this pilot project between Veezoo and our partner AXA turned into a longer term partnership. I believe that this kind of collaborations contribute to the Swiss innovation ecosystem in a significant way.“

by Svea Meier, AXA and Till Haug, Veezoo


Many startups have a fixed time horizon within which they need to attract funding. Their own resources may enable them to get quite a long way. To develop a demo, an app, a website, a business plan. All of course informed by a vision, talented team and a customer need to solve for. So isn’t this enough? Simply put the startup in front of an investor, articulate the vision and the startup can then obtain the funds they need to start and to grow?

It is unfortunately not that simple. Investors will demand to see current users and to understand how quickly the startup is growing. If the startup’s answer is “I don’t have a use case or user base, that’s why I need the funding” – the feedback will not normally be positive for the startup. Usually it will be that they are not ready to raise venture funding before the validation of the technology, which often requires investment for development and runway – a vicious Catch 22.

Furthermore, many potential customer companies are conservative by their nature. They often like to see evidence of a direct or indirect peer company having worked with the startup, before they engage / become customers of the startup. This process is time consuming if starting with smaller customer companies and gradually increasing the size of the customer company to achieve any market capture.

So, to kick-start development and market validation, an accelerated path can start with a Proof of Concept (PoC) with an established company, as part of the startup’s journey to developing customers and attracting investment.

Moreover, as Andrea Alunni, Senior Advisor at Oxford University Innovation, states, it will also significantly benefit the startup as they focus and improve their product or service:

“PoC is instrumental to take novel ideas into practice, supporting inventors’ business confidence and releasing drivers to innovation embedded in the tacit knowledge of the inventors. The ultimate outcomes of proof of concept investments depend on the ability of the supported technologies to reach the market and generate returns”.

Link to relevant article:

The PoC should be correctly framed and agreed up front with the partner(s). What’s the agreed specification? How long is the development period? How is it to be funded? What are the conditions around the use of the resulting IP? What are the startup’s rights to publicise the association with the partner company and the resulting developments? How does the longer term engagement get structured after a successful PoC?

At the Kickstart Accelerator, startups benefit from access to many of the largest and most successful companies in Switzerland and beyond. These companies can also benefit by deploying the startups’ ideas and agility onto commercial challenges they are facing. In addition, the programme is also supported by leading, global Management Consultancies who can facilitate access to their numerous clients. And so provide potential win-win-win opportunities for the startups, the consultancies and their selected clients.

Successful PoCs are a key part of a startup’s journey and are also fundamental to their stakeholders. We believe that we will see numerous PoCs progressed from the Kickstart Accelerator programme. A key statement of the progamme’s value and results.

Would you like to see your startup grow at a faster pace, get mentorship from industry experts and the chance to attain an initial investment? The Kickstart Accelerator is back, stronger than ever!

Kickstart Accelerator is one of Europe’s largest multi-corporate accelerators with intensive innovation processes for joint Proof-of-Concepts (PoCs) between global corporate partners and selected startups. Backed by experienced entrepreneurs, investors, academia and top companies in Switzerland, Kickstart Accelerator offers a unique opportunity to bring your startup to the next level in just 11 weeks!

Start your company off on the right track: Apply for a chance to be one of the selected startups!

The program will take place between September 4th and November 17th, 2017. We are looking for international startups and intrapreneurial teams operating in the following areas: Food, FinTech, Robotics & Intelligent Systems, Smart Cities (in Zurich) and Healthcare (in Basel).

Did you know that Zurich is one of the fastest-growing startup hubs and one of the world’s leading financial centres? Kickstart your career in Switzerland and live in Zurich or Basel for three months.

Benefits at a glance:

Apply at kickstart-accelerator.com for an opportunity of a lifetime and scale your startup in 11 weeks!

Find out more about why you should join the Kickstart Accelerator during our Q&A webinars.

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