Adapting to an ‘Eat What You Kill’ World: Startup Institute Q&A

By David Knight |

Andrew Hoag of Startup Institute, which helps people who are at a crossroads in their career

A new accelerator is in town – albeit one with a difference. Startup Institute doesn’t accelerate companies, but rather individual employees, taking talented and experienced people and turning them into startup material. Berlin represents a leap for SI as its first European location and fourth overall after Boston, New York and Chicago.

The first two-month program in the German capital kicks off in May with up to 50 students across four tracks: sales and account management, technical marketing, web development and product and design. Silicon Allee sat down with Andrew Hoag, Startup Institute’s managing director Europe and an experienced founder and startup supporter, to find out whether the course has something to offer to Berlin’s digital community.


ANDREW HOAG: We really are excited about where Berlin is at as an ecosystem, and about the ways in which we can take companies here that are growing and match them with people that want to work in the startup business, give them the mindset and the network and the skills to work in startups, and help growing startups get stronger.

SA: Tell us a little about the Startup Institute program.

AH: One of the most important things is that we look at traditional education as learning how to learn, and our program is about learning to do. It’s very hands on. There’s really great experience to come out of that. For example, how do you teach people sales when they are not actually selling anything? We give the students a task where they have a day, and their goal is to find free swag, free gifts for everyone in the office. And they have to cold call companies and convince them to give them something for free. The morning starts out a little rough and the students are kind of nervous but by the end of the day, people are competing and they are bringing in stuff – one team got iPad covers for the entire class, for example. It’s pretty awesome what these people can do once they are put in this situation.

So it’s very very hands on, and across the four tracks our goal is not to take you from zero to hero because that’s very difficult, but to take you from being someone who knows something about the art – maybe you had a marketing degree etc – and teaching you how to do that in a startup or in a digital business. The companies that we work with as partners really like that because their goal is to have an employee that is effective from day one – it’s your first day, and we want you to be contributing right away, checking code, tweaking marketing copy, running analysis, making calls, we want to accelerate that whole thing. We think of ourselves essentially as a career accelerator.

SA: What kind of student are you looking for?

AH: We like people coming through the course to have some skin in the game. The demographic is such that most of them are early to mid career, perhaps five years work experience. Essentially what they are investing in is a change in their career. I don’t think of it as much as an education project, but more as career development, personal development, as well access to a network of other students and startups. We work with hiring partners who get access to the program while we’re running it and the students will do projects for them, so they’re working with real companies and the companies are seeing the students work on real projects.

SA: What sort of impact do you want to have on Berlin?

AH: I think we have a good opportunity to have an impact across not only Germany but all of Europe. As Berlin continues to invest in the startup scene, and as more companies become successful in Berlin, I think there will be a lot of attention attracted to Berlin. For us, you are only successful if the ecosystem is successful. So I’m much more interested in my partners, and our graduates, having a good experience, having a strong network, having a good community of their peers that they can tap into and this strong pay it forward mentality coming from the Valley. I think thats really important not only for the Berlin scene but for Startup Institute as well. We really look at it as a way for us to help support these growing companies and I want to see Berlin be one of the world class startup ecosystems.

SA: Where do your students come from?

AH: There are two categories of people that come into the program who are really strong, as we’ve seen in the US – the first is what we call career switchers. Study after study has found that people get satisfaction from their work not just by the amount they earn, but by having control and having an impact. When you work at a startup, when you work at a growth stage digital company, you’re having an impact every day.

The second category is when you look at the EU as a whole. There are a lot of underemployed or unemployed people in other markets. People want to come to Berlin and effectively network here, so being in class with 50 of your peers that are going to work in startup companies, meeting partner companies, is a valuable resource to springboard your career.

SA: The program costs €3,150 (although if you get hired by a partner company from the course, you get €1,250 back). Other companies which offer high-value but high-cost educational products, such as General Assembly, have found Berlin a tough nut to crack with its culture of doing things on the cheap. Are you worried about whether the SI model will work here?

AH: Not really. We’ve seen that for people that are looking to make a career change, a major pivot in someone’s personal life, they are wiling to invest in their long term success. If that investment didn’t work, this program wouldn’t have been going for two plus years.

SA: In the US, 90 percent of SI graduates get hired within three months – what advice do you have for people wanting to get a job at a startup?

AH: Some 60 to 70 percent of our class is focused on communication skills, soft skills. As a founder, when I was hiring people, that was your ticket to get the interview. You’ve got to be a startup person before you walk in the door. You show up the first day as an employee at a startup, there is no management structure, there is no catalogue, etc, and you need to say to yourself, I need to go start building stuff. And that’s a very different environment for a lot of people; we are able to help them understand that it’s a mindset. My belief is this is where the world of work is going. People are becoming a corporation of one, they need to take more responsibility for their own career growth, and that’s where SI fits in – education for the modern workforce.

SA: Less than a quarter of applicants get accepted onto SI programs – what do you look for in potential students?

AH: I’ve worked with big companies in Germany over the last decade, and there are a lot of very talented people that went into bureaucracy who feel like they’re just a number, they don’t feel like their contributions matter. The startup world is not like that. It’s kind of an eat what you kill world. But the good news about that is that you’re in control of your own destiny. So we’re looking for people that are hungry and want to get out there and do something that has meaning. You don’t have to be a founder to have that experience. We look for that level of appetite in our applicants. The startup world is very cutthroat. Yo have to be smart, you have to be able to come in and understand how things work and have a ‘no bullshit’ attitude.

SA: Why does Berlin need SI?

AH: Coming out of Silicon Valley, seeing NY develop as an ecosystem, seeing Boston develop as an ecosystem… an airplane needs a lot of jet fuel to get off the runway. And the two key ingredients for companies to be successful are capital and talent. We are starting to see the capital problem [in Berlin] being solved. Researchgate, EyeEm, 6Wunderkinder, there are a bunch of companies that are getting investment dollars not just from Germany but from outside of Germany. The talent problem is still an issue. It is not that there are not good people here. It’s matching good people with the right companies and making sure that there is a fit. I think thats the piece that I find really exciting.