What it feels like: to launch a tech accelerator during a pandemic

By Isabelle Tibayrenc

Business France UK is the French government agency that fosters trade and investment relations between France and the UK. In early 2020, the Tech department launched Impact, an acceleration programme tailored for French Tech startups and scaleups targeting the UK as their main export market…and then the world turned upside down!

We launched our Impact programme with a strongly held conviction that the CEOs of French start-ups and scaleups needed to come to the UK to build a successful strategy. Little did we know that months later our strongly held belief would become little more than a pipedream as COVID-19 stopped us from commuting to our office, let alone crossing the channel!

Our cohort was still eager to prepare for their launch in the UK. That meant that postponing the programme was out of the question.

We rose to the challenge.

In less than 3 weeks, while adapting to full-time remote working, and the world seemingly grinding to a halt around us, we transformed the programme.

We went virtual, and here’s how it all went down…

Bring on the challenge!

French Tech CEOs in our cohort embraced the new challenge, and COVID-19 didn’t put them off UK expansion.

In fact, far from it!

Whilst startups and scaleups may have changed tact in their development in non-priority countries, when it came to their key target markets, they were keen to push forward. This isn’t unique to tech, according to a Business France survey 62% of French tech companies who export will keep doing so, despite the pandemic.

The importance of keeping the human in digital

Despite being an increasingly digital world, human interaction remains key to building relationships. It’s a common sticking point, but I’m confident when I say that picking the right tech is not the panacea that it’s made out to be. Stakeholder engagement is far more important, no matter the platform.

Engagement and alignment are fundamental to digital success — and human touch, or lack thereof, can make or break an online programme. It quickly became clear to us that communication is of upmost importance when running an online tech acceleration programme!

As a team, our daily meetings helped us to make sure that we were on the same page and keep up morale internally. We also undertook one-on-one conversations with our cohort and our team of mentors to ensure they were happy with the direction we were heading with the project, allowing space for honest feedback and questions, and giving us the time and space to iron out any doubts.

Lessons were learned

One of the most valuable lessons we took from this experience was that in some cases, virtual meetings can be more valuable than face-to-face!

For example, our one-to-one digital mentoring sessions were a great success. A real advantage to going virtual, is that there’s no such thing as distance. We were able to work with mentors and experts who wouldn’t normally have time to commute and spend half-a-day meeting start-ups. This meant that our cohort benefited from sessions with industry leaders which might not have been possible in other circumstances.

What’s more, the cohort were able to spend more time with the mentors, as meetings weren’t dependent on them being in the UK. This meant that they had more quality time to refine and improve their respective strategies for the UK market.

As can be expected, there were some hurdles. For instance, we ran into the difficulty of shortened attention spans and lower emotional engagement when presentations were delivered to larger audiences.

Participants were more likely to multitask, open emails or finish urgent pieces of work. To avoid this, I would recommend keeping presentations very short, and better yet, very interactive. Ask questions, play a game and get all the participants involved.

We even had some pleasant surprises along the way!

Never underestimate how digital-ready and agile a public organisation can be. Even as someone who has been working at one for years, I was sceptical, but I’m happy to report that my misgivings were misplaced.

Despite not having a culture of remote working at Business France, from day one our team worked from home with ease. Our systems and our technology were well adapted for the situation. Every conversation and document was kept and shared through our secure system and we hosted our first virtual session on 7th April.

Onwards and upwards

No rest for the wicked, we’re already thinking about next year. Pandemic-permitting, for future editions we’re planning to have the best of both worlds. We’ll organise a blended mentoring programme with virtual and face-to-face session to ensure the most valuable programme possible for our cohort and our mentors alike. Who says we can’t have our cake and eat it?!

We are already looking for inspiring entrepreneurs who would be willing to lend a hand to help their peers from across the channel set up in the UK — if you’d be interested we’d love to hear from you.

Isabelle Tibayrenc is Team Lead for Technologies & Innovative Services for Business France in the UK and Ireland. She launched the Impact UK acceleration programme earlier this year.

To find out more about Impact UK, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, or visit the website.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Impact UK

An immersive programme providing the methods and networks to help growth-stage startups scale in the UK, powered by Business France