COVID, and Our Journey to an Entirely Virtual Program

Program Manager, Cerina Bezuidenhout shares  the learnings and outcomes of how the Xcel Program evolved to support its community and continued with programming throughout lockdown.

How did the (M)Xcel programs operate prior to COVID and how do they work now?

  • The METRO Accelerator/METRO Xcel has been running for 5 years. Our main partner in the beginning was Techstars. During the three years with Techstars, the programs were full-time and required physical presence throughout a full three months. These programs were very much focused on early-stage companies, physical workshops and lots of physical mentor sessions. MXcel then pivoted with a new name to hybrid programs. These programs were hosted with “in-residence” periods during which there were physical workshops and meetings, but also 6 weeks in-between which were online, with weekly meetings for progress, community building, mentor calls, and more.
  • During COVID, we pivoted to completely online, offering a “Survive & Thrive”program over four weeks. The goal was purely to help our alumni startups in anyway we could, while also supporting our corporate partners.
  • Following the success of our crisis program, MXcel’s methodology changed very much and, with that we now, host the entire program; meetings, connection sessions and, content-delivery online.This allows the companies to keep running their operations, plan their business (and lives) around the program offerings. We can also connect startups quicker with our contacts, because we can easily arrange a call instead of having to travel for an in-person meeting. In essence, the COVID program changed our outlook on how to operate a scaleup program completely.

What thought process did you go through to arrive at what turned out to be a successful structure to both programs?

  • For the “Survive & Thrive during a Downturn“ program, we did 2 things; 1. we put ourselves in the shoes of founders/entrepreneurs and imagined which      challenges they were possibly facing, their biggest fears and uncertainties during the lockdown, and what they might want help with.  2. Then we went out and asked startups how we could support them; which topics they are most concerned about and want help in. From all of that we created a product and service which matched their immediate challenges at the time.
  • For the current program: The perspective on the corporate changed; we now not only see the startup as a client but we see the corporate as a client as well. If we can provide a solution to a corporate’s real business need, both parties (startup and corporate) win. This is what we strive to do – to stop wasting time, assist with meaningful connections and make business happen.

Most accelerators/startup programs switched to event-based content during COVID, or were even cancelled. What made you decide to go ahead with a complete end-to-end online program (both last spring and currently)?

  • There was and still is so much potential in creating a platform where corporate partners and founders can work together, we do not need to cancel a program! As mentioned, Xcel’s methodology changed; Xcel now operates by determining pain points within a corporate and identifying startups with solutions to fill those gaps, as a result creating a matchmaking platform. As a first mover the entire program facilitated online; from recruitment, to onboarding, content delivery, business development meetings, and community events.
  • On top of our matchmaking programs, we do offer events around fundraising and internationalization/scaling.

What have been the outcomes and successes of both programs?

  • The purpose for the “Survive & Thrive” program was to offer expertise in the different principles of startup businesses and to offer alumni support. We achieved this 100%. As an example, one of our alumni companies, Waitrr fulfilled an imminent pain point of contactless ordering, which became a priority during COVID. As a result, Waitrr managed to scale across several countries through the support of Xcel and METRO.
I enjoyed this so much you don’t believe it. Thanks to you (the Xcel team) being in this group of startups is very exciting. I followed every single session religiously, even if it meant catching up on work late at night. It really meant so much to me. Because of all the work you put in to organise this, we feel we have to power through , because you are investing so much in us. Thank you for all the support you give to us startups. - Tim Wekezer, Founder, Waitrr

  • To empower our alumni to survive & thrive through COVID, we offered group workshops plus 1:1 coaching with subject experts. In addition to this, the group workshops and events allowed for the startups to connect with each other, to share their experiences on managing the New Normal all the while having a deep sense of understanding for what the other is facing.
  • The most recent program is going great. There have been several meetings with 25+ startups to identify the best fit solutions to our partner pain points. 50%+ of participating startups have been chosen for potential pilots – all within 2 weeks time.

What specific challenges have you seen startups face/overcome during this “new normal”?

  • What we saw through our “Survive & Thrive” program is that startups have been quick to adapt. By pivoting their business models, getting a better understanding and control of their financials, leaders are managing their teams with compassion, changing and incorporating new cultures that come with remote working, as well as having difficult conversations for the survival of the business. In one word, we have seen a lot of resilience.

Going forward how will the future program look like? Will they continue to be virtual, if so in what capacity?

  • Xcel will continue to run all future programs virtually. With the the full offline experience, including a virtual Digital Xcellence Forum taking place twice a year with focus on internationalization and scaling. A similar hollistic experience to our well-known Demo Day but online.
  • We have learned so many great things from these two programs and have been able to hone in on our value add to both corporate partners and startups. We are grateful for the opportunity to have been able to contribute and to have pivoted into a space that differentiates us from many other startup programs.

Stay tuned via our website and social media, as we launch bimonthly online Get Connect-ed events for the entire startup community!


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