Behind the Scenes: Interview with TechChill
X-Europe project is run by five partners - F6S, TNW, TechChill, Design Terminal, and Growth Tribe. For you to get to know the X-Europe team better, we have created a series of articles where we interview the main people running the X-Europe machine. TechChill's Ernests Štāls (Co-founder and board member), Lauma Sīle (COO), and Āris Brencis (Investor, Startup, and Community manager) shared their thoughts and experience so far in being a part of the X-Europe programme and the challenges of adapting to the online environment.
The team behind TechChill 2021 digital version.
Tell us more about the very beginning of X-Europe - the proposal, setting up the team, the excitement, and your very first impressions.
Ernests Štāls, co-founder and board member of TechChill hosting a stage during TechChill 2021.
Ernests Štāls: We were approached by our friends at “The Next Web” to collaborate on this pan-European project. We had had smaller collaborations before that and this seemed to be a great opportunity to bring it to the next level. It was great to meet all the other partners and see that we are part of a great team working on a common goal. Our responsibilities within the programme are marketing and communications, so we had to prepare a lot of content for the launch and it was quite a challenge as it coincided with TechChill 2020. But we managed to pull it off and the experience since then has only gone up.
Āris Brencis, Investor, Startup, and Community Manager at TechChill, keeping track of the pitching competition during TechChill 2021.
Āris Brencis: I vaguely remember hearing the name “X-Europe” here and there in January 2020 and that someone was going to Amsterdam for a meeting because of it. At that point I was overtaken with getting ready for TechChill 2020 and I had no idea that I would be involved in the X-Europe programme at all, nor that I would take over as the lead from TechChill's side a few months later. The first 2-3 months were quite challenging - setting up the procedures, preparing materials, and playing a bit of a catch-up with our responsibilities. But once we got over the initial hump it has been smooth sailing for the most part.
This year has brought a lot of challenges and the project has turned out more virtual than planned. Tell us more about the challenges you face and how you tackle them!
ĀB: Adapting to the digital environment has definitely been a challenge, e.g. working with people you've never met in real life. The initial programme plan stipulated that the team would meet in person on a somewhat regular basis across the two years and obviously that has not been happening. So, we kind of lost out on many team bonding opportunities, but luckily the chemistry still developed online, just probably much slower than it could have.
Luckily, most of the programme services can be transferred to an online environment quite easily, but there are some services like incubation and event attendance that just aren't the same no matter how well planned and executed online. On the other hand, it has also opened the doors for so many things that we wouldn't have been able to do. We've been accepting one or two extra startups during each cohort, we are able to provide the acceleration services to a wider number of people, and the participating startups are definitely saving both time and money on travel. Whether or not it offsets all that we've lost by not being able to meet in person is an individual question that everyone can ask themselves, but I can definitely say that we've done everything to make it as beneficial as possible for our portfolio startups.
As with everything in life, moderation is the key. So, I'm hoping that the latter half of the programme will allow us to find a healthy balance between in-person and online activities.
This project involves a lot of teamwork not only within TechChill’s team but also other teams across all Europe - tell us more about the teamwork - what's working and what could be improved?
Lauma Sīle (on the right), COO of TechChill doing the work during TechChill 2021.
Lauma Sīle: Throughout the whole year, we work with many different teams from the ecosystem. The digitalization of the past year and a half has created a new normal to networking and opened opportunities to e-meet and connect with new people. Other ecosystem representatives have been a tremendous help to adapt to different forms of events and processes while still keeping the synergies and common goals for the future.
ĀB: The teamwork has been great, the communication is easy and people are always very understanding and open to help each other out. This especially came into play this year when we were getting ready for TechChill 2021. Organising an event of such scale, especially, in a new medium, takes a lot of time and energy. The X-Europe team regularly checked in on us to see how we're doing and whether they can pitch in in one way or another to make the process easier for us.
The one challenge with teamwork is that we've seen quite a turnover of people since the programme started. For example, I'm the only one left from the initial TechChill team and the situation is similar with the other partners involved. Onboarding new people takes time and it hinders the flow a little bit, but then again constant changes are nothing new in the startup ecosystem and everyone who has joined the team by jumping on a moving train has quickly adapted and become an integral part of the whole system.
X-Europe is all about helping startups - tell more about what that means to you.
EŠ: TechChill is an NGO with an aim to help Baltic and Nordic startups to go global. We do so by filling the gaps in network, knowledge and skills. In practice it means that we promote regional startup ecosystems and bring knowledge and network to the region. X-Europe fits perfectly with our organisation's agenda. I'm very glad to see bi-directional collaboration. We have managed to help regional teams to accelerate development and expand the network. Also as a team, we at TechChill have gained tremendously by extending our network.
LS: In my opinion, startups have created a new and up to date entrepreneurship model. It’s a way to drive innovation at a speed that just makes sense. To make sure that they grow, scale, and develop at a fast pace, appropriate support is needed. Therefore, TechChill aims to help founders connect with other startups, investors, community representatives and all other stakeholders of the ecosystem to get the needed help.
ĀB: Startups find solutions for problems that really need to be solved and that's what life is for the most part - constant problem solving. Moving to the startup ecosystem from a government job has been eye-opening experience. It's amazing to work in an ecosystem which is so dynamic and fast-paced but at the same time very chill and relaxed.
If we can help startups to accelerate their growth and development directly through the TechChill event or X-Europe programme, I'm all for it. The Baltics have been playing catch-up with the rest of Europe in so many fields, but startups is the one area where we have the potential to not only compete with the giants but to overtake them. Exciting!
TechChill hosted its flagship event during the project. Tell us more about your experience while planning a virtual event.
LS: There were a lot of unknowns while planning a digital event, especially when planning it for the first time. We realized very quickly that the in-person event format cannot be copied to the digital world because attendees have different needs and expectations. We no longer compete with just other events, we compete with entertainment platforms, streaming services, work responsibilities, etc.
We had to reinvent TechChill in a digital format and a lot of the time simply experiment and risk with ideas that we had. Sometimes they worked out, other times they failed. At the end of the day, we reached a record number of speakers, maintained good participation rates of startups and investors, increased our masterclass attendance rate 2.5 times with the digital format and reached the overall visibility to a new horizon.
ĀB: The online environment is so unpredictable - it's so easy not to show up, it's so easy to simply forget, and it's extremely difficult to keep one's attention for an extended period of time. We had to compete with other events, any other online media and not so obviously with work. Yes, work. When people go to in-person events, that's kind of their schedule for the day. Sure, maybe they will pop-out once or twice for a quick call or to glance through the emails, but still for the majority they are there to absorb as much as they can whether it's information, new contacts, or investment leads. For an online event it's kind of flipped around, rarely does anyone block out the days for the event, they just pop in whenever they have some free time from their daily tasks. So, if two people, who would benefit greatly from meeting each other, pop-in for a short while at different times, the possibility of them actually making the connection is very low.
On the bright side, the online environment allowed us to experiment much more. More speakers, new formats, new platforms. We organised a networking event for investors where they had to control an 8-bit character to walk around and meet others. Did everyone enjoy it? Probably not, but enough people did to consider it a success. I'm quite sure that the virtual is here to stay, but not as a standalone product. In the future we will see more and more physical events with opportunities to join online and to attend a few online-only side events. It will be a challenge for the event organisers, but will surely benefit the attendees.
The project is ongoing - tell more about your expectations and what you're about to pursue in the future!
ĀB: We want to continue strengthening the relationships with the partners as well as the ecosystem players involved in the programme, i.e. investors, corporations, ecosystem builders. These connections will come in handy in the future to carry out our main goal of helping Baltic startups succeed in the world. We're already discussing the possibility of cooperating on similar projects in the future, which would benefit not only the partners involved but also the surrounding ecosystems. And, finally, I expect that we can throw a proper closing party at TechChill 2022. Everyone's invited.