What could Switzerland learn from Silicon Valley – and vice versa? How far has Switzerland come as a technology hub in terms of digital transformation?
I asked Toni Schneider these questions, amongst others, at the WORLDWEBFORUM in Zürich. Toni was the CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress, for 8 years. Right now WordPress is the world’s most popular CMS and powers nearly every third website – including this one.
As a partner in the Silicon Valley VC True Ventures Toni invests in startups such as Fitbit und Bandcamp.
Toni is a Swiss national and grew up in Meilen and Stäfa. After completing his studies at secondary school he worked for a year as a DJ for Radio Zürisee. Now he lives in California, where he studied at Santa Barbara City College and Stanford University.
I conducted the interview in Toni’s native Swiss German (I have provided subtitles in English 😉).
Here is the interview in it’s entirety:
Stefan Vetter: In your opinion, how important is Switzerland as a base for startups compared to Silicon Valley?
Toni Schneider: Switzerland is catching up. After secondary school I moved to California to study in 1989. At that time it was nearly impossible to launch a software startup. In the last 25 years things have improved gradually. Looking at the Swiss startups today, I’m impressed.
“Swiss startups have really come on a long way.“
In recent years Swiss startups have really come on a long way. Fundamentally, the local enterprises are just as good as those in Silicon Valley or anywhere else in the world. They are, however, much smaller and investment levels are lower. It will still be a while until the number of successful startups and their significance in the market will have reached a volume that attracts enough investors.
Have any Swiss startups in particular caught your eye?
Yes, and I nearly invested in some of them. In BestMile from Lausanne for example, who have developed autonomous fleet management software. Or in a very good product from ComfyLight: an intelligent LED lamp with an integrated, app-controlled security system.
Which technologies interest you as an investor? What direction would you advise a Swiss startup company to take?
At the moment we’re looking at areas like machine learning or life sciences. For example in 2008 we invested in the Fitbit fitness bracelet, one of the first of it’s kind. Fitbit went public 18 months ago.
“Sensors are on the way in.“
Sensors are increasingly on the way in. Initially this was as step counters, then it was about sleeping. Now they’re being developed in new directions. We’re looking for products with sensors which will allow for whole new applications in the future, because these sensors are going to be cheaper than they are now. The unit price has fallen from $100,000 to $500. In a few years they’ll cost 50 cents. At that price you could put them in anything: bracelets, shoes – anywhere really. This creates opportunities for new applications. These possibilities are fascinating for us.
If you could draw up a curriculum for (Swiss) schools in 2017, what would need to be included in your opinion?
That’s a good question. The people we invest in have different backgrounds. Some of them come from great universities. Some of them didn’t go to university at all. We’re looking for people who don’t take needless risks but at the same time are not afraid to take risks. Unfortunately this is something that seldom features in a curriculum.
Yes. That’s important quality: the ability to learn new skills, change your mindset and take a risk. In Switzerland we haven’t come so far in this regard compared to Silicon Valley. How could that change?
There are two parts to a startup: the product and the business side that brings in the money. The Swiss are leading the way with their products and technologies. They have great ideas and are prepared to try out new things.
“The Swiss are leading the way with their products and technologies.”
On the business side the companies are often too conservative. Many Swiss startups want to set out with their often very good products in Switzerland. They say, “let’s see if it works out here. Then in Germany, Europe and maybe in America.” They’re far too cautious, because by the time they get around to the States competitors have already established a foothold in the market. This is an insight startups in Switzerland can take on board. Some do say, “if we have to go to America anyway, sooner or later, to build up a big business, we may as well go there right away”.
What could Silicon Valley learn from Switzerland?
In Switzerland we are more far-sighted. People have more patience for a project lasting 10 or 15 years. If something doesn’t work after 18 months in Silicon Valley, they start on the next project and forget that some technologies need more time to win through.
Toni, many thanks for the interview.