July 27, 2020
15 minute read
I wanted to help Finnish startups get their shit together so that they would be fully prepared when they went to the U.S.
It was disheartening to see companies failing when they had clearly invested lots of time and energy in their ideas - they needed better guidance and support
Nordic Startup School
Startup Accelerators are sold to budding entrepreneurs on the promise that they help startup companies achieve success, faster. But Tomi Terentjeff, founder of the Nordic Startup School, could see that Finnish Startups were not actually getting the support and skills they needed during the crucial early stage of development. He could see a pattern of early-stage companies repeating common mistakes. Finnish companies were going overseas and struggling to make any impact. Whatever acceleration programmes were claiming to provide, in practice they were failing. Tomi wanted to build a new type of accelerator. One that would actually help Finnish start-ups to build better businesses.
In March 2019, Tomi took the plunge by launching the first ever Nordic Startup School. He wanted to challenge Finnish startups to really scrutinise their businesses. He built his programme from the ground up, taking his own experience, knowledge, and “sisu” and pairing it with insight from Finnish startups, to create a new approach to the standard accelerator.
Tomi ran two schools in 2019, testing his ideas about how to shake up the accelerator model and gathering important insights into what entrepreneurs needed. He wanted to reach beyond the generic and superficial programmes that had come before, and instead offer a hand-ons, learning-led programme for the founders of the future. But developing a programme that would teach people how to think like a successful entrepreneur was no easy task. He realised that he had taken on a very complex problem. If he wanted to offer something of real value, he was going to have to interrogate his own assumptions.
Finnish startups typically had an “engineering mindset” which made them very technically savvy but overly focussed on solutions.
They were modest. They didn’t like to blow their own trumpets, making their branding and storytelling weak.
They had an inward focus. Though they had great ideas, they weren’t international enough in their outlook.
Startup Accelerators need a shake-up: the truth is that they don’t offer true value to their participants and we want to change that
We met Tomi at the end of 2019. Morgan, Co-Founder of Framlabs, had been a startup mentor on several high-profile programmes. Morgan had been questioning the real value of accelerators - do they actually work? There was a meeting of minds, and we realised that we shared a joint vision for a startup accelerator that would question the traditional model, and be rigorous in its approach to building successful businesses. The current accelerator model was not working and we wanted to offer something different. So we first had to understand – where were these accelerators going wrong? We got to work dismantling the current model so that we could understand where the problems lay.
We began designing a programme that would simultaneously tackle the problems of the current accelerator model and help startups become great companies, as defined by our five pillars. At the centre of the design was a heavily guided programme that would force startups to rigorously assess their ideas on an ongoing basis. We wanted to give first-time entrepreneurs the tools to be open-minded founders who were focussed on delivering real value to their users. We arrived at a structure we thought would help support startups in a more meaningful way. It involved a 12-month journey, starting with a 3-month intensive school followed by nine months of afterschool where companies would be supported by a team of hand-picked mentors to accelerate their progress.
The other participants really grilled us - for the first time we seriously considered that our business might not be viable, but in the end, we actually became more motivated to build a company that would last
We gained a new community and a new mindset of asking questions rather than seeking solutions
On 6th of March th 2020, we delivered the first bootcamp for the new version of NSS. Teams from all over Finland came to Tampere for an intensive weekend of work on their startup companies. Framlabs comprehensively planned and facilitated the event. We built a structured agenda around the question “Who is the customer and what is the problem they have?” and challenged our teams to ask themselves fundamental questions about their businesses. The weekend involved:
Facilitated conversations with teams to drive alignment and deepen their insight and understanding of their customer
Introducing teams to a unique set of tools and frameworks to challenge their assumptions and shape their value propositions
Structured sessions with mentors who had been fully briefed and would provide continued support after bootcamp
Expert advice into how to engage users and generate insight
Globally networked and partly delivered in the U.S. Helping teams think international from day one. Opening doors to national and international networks. Dedicated networking events and trips abroad.
Participants get early funding and enter a complete learning journey. In our problem-based learning model, they experience a comprehensive start-up course while building their business.
Mentors are trained and tooled to become consistent and constructive helpers. They are paid parties and invest in the accelerator equity pool. They’re vested for the long-term
Support for personal growth & learning.
Explicit focus on growing as a person, being the best first-time entrepreneur you can be.
12-months, not 12-weeks.
Built to support teams over the long term, fostering a strong foundation, and helping to avoid first-year mistakes.
Programme delivered by world-class facilitators and supported by robust innovation methodology.
Focus on solving customer problems in the international markets from day one.
The programme has allowed us to build real relationships with our mentors, whereas, before NSS, we might have brushed past issues we were having, now we lean into those problems because we know we have a support system
Now we have a list of people who we can call up when we face a problem
When Framlabs came on board with NSS to create a new type of startup accelerator, we wanted to help entrepreneurs dig deeper into the problems that would make or break their businesses and learn faster. But did it work, did we have any impact?
The startup teams’ feedback tells us that we’ve encouraged them to move away from solutions, stay in the problem for longer and ruthlessly assess their ideas. Teams are more open to challenge and more comfortable dealing with uncertainty.
But still, it’s just too early to say whether better support and learning leads to better business outcomes.
Planning meticulously and creating a comprehensive structure proved one of the most valuable elements of the programme. Detailed agendas for the bootcamp weekends and clear communication meant that everyone was on the same page. Teams remained engaged and got optimum value for their time.
We facilitated a process whereby teams had to ask themselves fundamental questions about who their user was. Even more experienced teams benefitted from interrogating what the core value of their business was. This process was tough on participants but in the end made them feel more motivated than ever before.
Many teams struggled to stay in the problem space. They found it frustrating and wanted to jump ahead to solutions. Some entrepreneurs found it hard to let go of their initial ideas but all teams ultimately appreciated that challenge and in the end they became more focussed on solving the customer’s problem.
Mentors were taken through their own training programme and given a thorough understanding of each team. Structured sessions helped participants get real value out of their time with mentors. Open communication and feedback allowed for valuable relationships to form over the course of the programme.
Participants found great value in meeting other startups who were in the same boat and a supportive community quickly formed. Whether mentors, other participants, or Framlabs facilitators, each team now has a support system of people they can turn to when they need help.
Time was an issue across the board and sometimes participants felt they couldn’t complete exercises and tasks in the given time-frame. The feedback from Bootcamp I suggested that teams were frustrated by not having enough time to have fully fleshed-out discussions. We adjusted timing for Bootcamp II and III but it’s a process and we’re still learning.
At times there was too much “teaching” and not enough “doing.” Teams wanted more time to work together and less content to absorb. We’re learning how to create a balance so that we feel we are providing enough valuable content while also leaving space for teams to make discoveries.
Some teams were at different levels to others and at times content was less relevant to certain participants. We are exploring how to deliver content that’s more adaptive to companies’ stages and needs.
Nordic Startup School has been by far the best experience I have had as a startup founder, I wish more people could get to experience it
The startups loved the new NSS accelerator format. Overall, we had an average approval rating of 9.1/10 across the three bootcamps. What really surprised us, though, was that attendees preferred the virtual bootcamps to the in-person version. The Covid-inspired switch to a virtual format seems to have actually improved the attendee learning experience.
Average approval rating, on a scale 0f 0-10, based on an average of 15 attendees / BootCamp, collated from attendee feedback forms.
We can already see how our participants' mindsets have changed over the course of the programme - they’re learning to ask important questions of themselves and their businesses
For me, that’s where the real value lies because that’s what makes a great founder; and a great founder makes for a long-lasting business
Nordic Startup School
Great entrepreneurs are all about change. Changing things that are broken; changing mindsets; challenging the status quo; making things better. Change is inherently uncertain, it’s a leap into the unknown. So we have to get comfortable with not knowing all the answers. In our experience, the most interesting startups are those led by open-minded founders who embrace this uncertainty. Founders who are honest with themselves and aren’t afraid of being wrong. Founders who actively experiment and view mis-steps as learning opportunities.
Through the NSS we’ve given first-time entrepreneurs practical tools to help them learn, experiment and grow - as people and as entrepreneurs. . Their mindsets have shifted, and they’ve become more flexible, collaborative, self-reflective and user-focused. They take away a whole gamut of new skills: in strategy, branding, sales, product strategy, team dynamics, branding, marketing, and storytelling.
Time will tell whether we really have invented a better acceleration model. Maybe one or two of our teams will become genuine world-changers. For sure, our startups will change and evolve. Some may even die. But the skills and the mindsets will persist. And by giving our founders the tools to solve real human needs, we’re confident that some of these teams will succeed in changing the world for the better.. And what could have more value than that?
At Framlabs, our process is all about collaboration and a crucial part of that is being in the same room with people. So, when the world went into lockdown, our first reaction was panic - the time of the face-to-face accelerator had come to an end.
Our key question became – How might we create the most delightful virtual experience that we can?
Framlabs has always been international & virtual by design, its tools and frameworks flexibly used across offline & online settings.
However, how could we replicate face-to-face workshops without losing the magic of being in a room with other people?
Going fully online, we were concerned with:o Human dynamicso Preserving spatial orientationo Maintaining tactile nature of workshopso Creating moments of Serendipity. The online experience is very controlled, so those moments needed to be engineered somehow.
Our fears aside, when the feedback came back from our participants and mentors, it was overwhelmingly positive and showed that participants got more value out of the weekend than any previous event. Going virtual had actually made us do things better.
Many of our participants said they would be happy with replicating face-to-face experience into a virtual setting. However, most agreed that it only worked with the benefit of the innate human connections between the participants that been built prior to the shift to virtual programme.
It’s somewhat comforting to know that at the end of the day, humans want to be close to each other. That’s why we believe the future of facilitation lies in using the best bits of both physical & digital worlds in combination with each other.
Create space for human moments
Think outside the box to encourage authentic interactions – for instance, we designed virtual walks where people went on an actual walk outside while having a chat on a pre-arranged topic.
Balance the mix of asynchronous and synchronous work
Our teams and mentors were given work to prepare in advance, so that their time together online could be optimised. This is particularly necessary to combat the ever-present challenge of online fatigue.
Be conscious of participants’ emotional experience
When facilitating online, you can’t just look around the room and see who’s having a hard time. Make sure to set a positive tone and be ready for things to go wrong so that you can keep everyone on track when something doesn’t work the way you expected.
Have a great online producer (like our Joe)
Who’s familiar with the tech, can set everything up, herd the cats and get everyone together in the right place at the right time, and knows how to fix things when they go wrong.