Ideas are like children.

Interview Isabella Awad Photo provided

“Creativity in business is also very much driven by the heart and mind,” says Simon May, Co-Managing Director of IFJ.

Making your way through wind, current and waves to your port of destination, the safest route to the summit … Simon May is familiar with countless strategy metaphors. As Co-Managing Director of the IFJ Institute for Young Entrepreneurs he supports around 3,000 new starters each year. Yes, it’s also advisable for start-ups to have a strategy, he points out – and coupled with courage, passion and money, something could come out of it.

When you look at Helvetia’s four strategic priorities: could these also work for a start-up?

Yes, customer convenience, suitable offers, profitable growth and new opportunities are all factors that new companies could integrate into their strategies.

What number of strategic initiatives makes sense?

From my perspective, I would say no more than a handful. Focus is one of the key criteria for success, and all the more so for companies in their infancy. That’s the time when resources are extremely limited and, in business terms, more has to be generated from little.

In how much detail should a strategy be formulated?

That depends on the simplicity or complexity of the company in question. The main thing is that, aside from management, each and every employee is acquainted with the relevant guidelines and in their day-to-day work focuses on where the company is headed.

A strategy timeframe of five years – is that reasonable today?

How flexible do you still need to be? Constantly adjust or consistently stick at it? A strategy and a business plan should always be geared forward for three or more years, depending on the sector. When it comes to operational work, then flexibility, resilience, courage and adaptability are called for in any case.

So as not to have to make adjustments all the time: which mistakes should be avoided?

Having no focus, no short-term profit optimization, no professional communication, no plan, imitating the competition instead of understanding it, neglecting the administration side, a lack of physical and mental fitness and, worst of all, underestimating the factors of time and money – these are all disastrous mistakes.

Customer centricity” is the latest buzzword. But companies are nonetheless still focusing on themselves a lot. What observations are you making? Are there tasks and areas that could be eliminated?

It’s right that the customer should be at the centre of a company’s business activities. “The customer is king” is a decades-old mantra.

But every company needs to define for itself who actually is the customer and what are – and will be – their relevant needs. As I see it, the vast majority want too much. Less really is often more!

What role does the age of start-up founders play?

The ages of the company founders that we support in our daily work range from 14 to 75 years! A founder will require different support depending on their age. Nobody is too old or too young to tackle something new.

How courageous and innovative do you find the business landscape in Switzerland and Europe today?

For a number of years now, Switzerland has figured in the top rankings of the global innovation indices. We are the most competitive location and file the largest number of patent applications per capita worldwide. As one study shows, Switzerland is presently the only country in Europe where more new firms are being established than in the previous years – despite the coronavirus.

Strategic partnership with Helvetia

At the start of 2021, Helvetia and the IFJ Institute for Young Entrepreneurs initiated a strategic partnership designed for the long term. This cooperation strengthens Helvetia’s support for SMEs and the services it provides for them. IFJ and Helvetia aim to consolidate their position as expert partners for start-ups and SMEs, thus making a sustainable contribution to the promotion of the Swiss business landscape.

Does that also have something to do with the low levels of red tape?

In the course of our work providing support for over 3,000 new start-ups each year, we notice that foreign founders are happy about the relatively moderate degree of bureaucracy in Switzerland. There are undoubtedly other countries, such as Estonia or Dubai, which have joined the global running thanks to leading-edge e-governance. In terms of digitalization, Switzerland still has a lot of potential – we are witnessing that in the present situation.

What can “established” companies learn from “newcomers”?

Founders can learn from one another in the various phases of the company’s life. Newcomers definitely possess lots of courage and passion.

Are there start-ups that consciously choose not to have a strategy, and if so, why?

There are certainly a lot of start-ups that haven’t drawn up an explicitly defined strategy. Creativity in business is also very much driven by the heart and mind.

How can we keep things “simple” in a complex world?

Einfachheit macht unsere Welt wertvoller. Ich beobachte, dass Dinge, die einfach daherkommen, beliebter sind, also solche mit möglichst vielen Funktionen und Features. Gute, nützliche Dinge einfach zu machen, ist meist schwieriger, als sie komplex zu belassen.

Start-ups are frequently looking for money – to what extent is a strategy relevant for investors?

Let’s put this into perspective: Of the roughly 30,000 genuine new companies set up in Switzerland each year, only 300 are highly innovative start-ups with strongly scalable business models and international ambitions which are of interest to investors.

These start-ups have all invested a great deal in a promising strategy. Besides the top team, the excellent product and the sustainable business model, this is naturally enormously important for investors.

Growth is a top priority for the majority of businesses – but how seriously do companies take socially responsible growth?

For some it’s purely a marketing facade, for others such as NIKIN, which has a tree planted for each product bought, it is more central, if not the driver of success.

To what degree does “concentrating on a niche” contradict the idea of “growth”?

There is nothing contradictory about this. Growth is always limited. But there are enough interesting niches that can be successfully served with highly specialized products and services.

Let’s consider the work-life balance: Where does the young entrepreneur draw a line between work and private life?

In the present situation, where the workplace and the refrigerator are only a few metres apart, that is difficult. The fact is that start-up founders have to be prepared to put in an exceptional amount of work and commitment. Ideas that produce the hoped-for success with little effort may be desirable, but they are extremely rare.

What in your experience ultimately prompts the decision to set up a company?

My personal motto as a father and entrepreneur is “Ideas are like children. Your own are the best.” People who embark on the entrepreneurial journey should bring with them courage, passion and commitment.

One positive development strikes me in particular: More and more start-ups are being founded by people who are still in another job, usually under an employment contract. This shows that, today, entrepreneurial projects can frequently be launched with modest resources and then gradually expanded. contains some fascinating articles on the topic of setting up a business.

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