The Digital Revolution: Coaching young entrepreneurs through COVID-19

Photo: © Tina Rösler Photography

Since COVID-19 hit Germany, YBI member KIZ has doubled down on its efforts to support entrepreneurs – but its methods have changed almost completely. We spoke to Managing Director Dirk Luenzer to hear about the innovative digital workshops KIZ are running as part of YBI’s Rapid Response and Recovery Programme funded by Google.org.

Hi, Dirk. To begin with, can you explain what KIZ does in one sentence?

KIZ provides dedicated support to entrepreneurs that not only focuses on sustainable business growth, but also on the person behind each business.

How has COVID-19 changed life in Germany, and what is the situation now?

In Germany we had a strict lockdown from mid-March onwards and since June we have been slowly lifting restrictions, though we are now discussing the possibility of a second lockdown. In comparison to other countries our politicians took COVID-19 very seriously and reacted quickly. As a society, I think Germany has been very disciplined with social distancing, so we have been quite effective at slowing the spread of the virus. But in terms of the impact on business, I personally think that even after 6 months, we are still in the response phase and far from getting back to normal. The real impact of this horrible year on business will be seen in early 2021 or later.

How did KIZ adapt to lockdown?

We adapted quickly and efficiently – so in a very German fashion. Only 2-3 weeks after lockdown was imposed, the infrastructure for our crisis support was set up and we were able to move all our existing services online. Our consulting sessions, network events and workshops are now conducted by the same consultants and KIZ staff, but in form of online sessions and digital events. Currently we run one-on-one mentoring sessions, group sessions as part of our Youth Business Germany scholarship programme, our biweekly Soforthelfer.org Show, and weekly Lunch and Learn expert sessions. All of these activities have proved very popular, and we plan to introduce digital business clinics later this year.

What were the main challenges that COVID-19 created for young entrepreneurs in Germany?

As soon as lockdown was imposed, many of them couldn’t offer their services anymore, so they had no income but still had to pay their fixed costs. Thousands of small businesses had to apply for governmental financial support to pay their expenses. Entrepreneurs who were offering a service with direct contact to their clients were hit the hardest, whereas those who were already able to offer their services digitally found it easier to adapt.

What has the Google.org programme enabled you to do for young entrepreneurs? What new activities have you been able to implement?

The timing of the Google.org funding was fantastic, as it enabled us to implement the Rapid Response Programme, called ‘Soforthelfer’ in German, very early on. KIZ introduced our Soforthelfer.org Show, a biweekly online event which includes interviews, life coaching sessions, expert talks and social media guidance, and also invites people to connect within the show. Each show is recorded and can be watched on the Soforthelfer.org YouTube channel. Last week, working together with the Google team in Germany, we implemented a new module called ‘Lunch and Learn.’ So now we offer expert sessions once a week, every Thursday for 45 to 60 minutes.

How did you come up with this format?

I took a lot of time looking around at what was already out there and found there were already a tremendous amount of webinars available. I asked myself: “How can we make our online offer so attractive that despite having a lot of competition, our entrepreneurs will want to stay with us for 90 minutes in one evening?” We’ve decided to go for the approach of interactive sessions and a mixture of useful content, entertainment and networking, so the entrepreneurs really feel involved. As one attendee put it: “The Soforthelfer.org Show is a very refreshing format where you can learn a lot. I like the fact that I can apply what I have learned immediately to my own business – this makes the learning content highly relevant. I can recommend Soforthelfer.org to everyone.”

Many people are experiencing online fatigue in lockdown, so it’s impressive that your online sessions have proved so popular. Why do you think this is?

Our shows in particular have been a huge success because our entrepreneurs can get involved in whichever way they want to. They can turn off the camera and just sit on the couch or their bed and listen, or they can keep their camera on and be more involved and engaged. It’s entirely up to them. We also do a lot of interactive work with mentors and mentees, where they can speak to each other live on the show. It’s all about community, and what makes me think we’re on the right track is that they’re starting to make connections with each other. Most importantly, the show aims to transmit a sense of security and positivity to the entrepreneurs. Even though it is an online format, we try to make people feel less alone and show that there are others out there who are also struggling and facing the same challenges.

It’s clearly very important at KIZ to embrace each entrepreneur’s individuality. Do you think this approach has marked you out from the crowd during the COVID-19 crisis?

Yes – people are different, and what works for A doesn’t work for B. KIZ doesn’t only focus on sustainable business growth, but also on the person behind each business, on their soft skills and personal skills. I think this makes all the difference. COVID-19 has also shown how people react differently to stress situations or danger. Some of our entrepreneurs took 48 hours to decide exactly what they needed to do, whereas others couldn’t work it out for two or three months. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ blueprint for success, and the feedback I got from my team throughout the crisis was that they took much more time than expected giving one-on-one support to each entrepreneur.

Do you have any examples of entrepreneurs you’ve worked with who have shown great resilience during the crisis?

Danny and Robin Söder are the founders of the Entrepreneur University, a huge event that takes place once a year with over 6,000 participants. They were hit very hard by the crisis because their business model, an event agency, was no longer feasible. But instead of cancelling their 2020 Summit, they and their team were able to do everything online, including an after-show party with a DJ and opportunities to connect with other participants. On top of that, they quickly founded a new consulting enterprise to offer their digital know-how online.

As part of the programme, Google.org employees are offering support to members and delivery partners. What support have Googlers been giving to KIZ and your young entrepreneurs?

KIZ has received a great deal of support from Google employees. Our Soforthelfer team has already attended four different sessions with different Googlers on topics such as brand marketing and Google Analytics. We are working very closely with the Google team in Germany, and together we have established a new format, ‘Lunch and Learn,’ which takes place every Thursday at lunchtime and where our entrepreneurs are trained by experts from the German Google team, the ‘Google-Zukunftswerkstatt’.

Do you think that COVID-19 and the Google.org programme has permanently changed the way KIZ works?

Yes. When lockdown hit, our CEO Markus and I recognised that it was a very unique situation, and we took the opportunity as an organisation to shape our service model in a more digital way. The traditional KIZ work is one-on-one and face-to-face, like workshops and classes at our office. The Google.org funding gave us an opportunity to develop these digital services and laying the groundwork for a lasting and sustainable part of our services. That was all very new to us, and we are very excited about it. Another very positive outcome of this is that we are now reaching more and more people through our existing network, and are scaling up our impact as a result.

What has been one of your favourite moments at KIZ?

There have been many! One of my favourite moments was when one of our entrepreneurs, Christina, who is running a manga painting school, drew a picture for us. She is one of the talented young entrepreneurs we supported with training and mentoring for over a year, and she’s also a finalist for YBI’s Young Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award. As a token of her appreciation, she gave us this unique present. The picture shows four people next to each other, everyone representing one of the protagonists of our programme: the entrepreneur, the mentor, the trainer and the funder. Underneath she wrote our slogan: “We all rise by lifting each other.” That was quite a moment, I must say.

What do you think the future is for MSMEs in Germany?

I am very optimistic that MSMEs will have a very important role in our ecosystem. More and more entrepreneurs and small business owners are willing to take risks and go for their dream instead of having a 9 to 5 job. On top of that, I think the younger generation is far more conscious than my generation was. Besides making a living and covering their costs, they want to make an impact, they care about the environment. So I can see a bright future if we can cure viruses like COVID-19 and really take the impact of climate change seriously.

What are your hopes, aspirations and future plans for KIZ?

Our vision and mission at KIZ is to make a sustainable impact on someone’s life, which then has an overall positive impact on our entire society. We start with the individual and support them so that they grow and are then able to make a bigger impact. That’s especially important in our current environment, where we are faced with global political tensions, a global pandemic and with massive social imbalances. This situation calls for people and organisations like us. I hope we can extend and expand our work by onboarding more partners and attracting more funding.

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