Martina Lauener works for SIX in Business Development. Together with seven other volunteers (four of them also employees of SIX), she has launched 4Switzerland.ch, a crowdfunding platform for Swiss small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that are hit by the Corona crisis. Daniel Steingruber is leading the innovation field “Banking Services & Platforms” at SIX. In an interview, he and Martina reflect on how the 4Switzerland.ch platform is developing and what insights can be gained from this for future innovation projects at SIX.
Martina, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, you launched the 4Switzerland crowdfunding platform within a very short space of time. How did this come about?
Martina Lauener: We came up with the idea over dinner: We wanted to defuse the current situation for SMEs by providing financial support to as many of them as possible. With a donation on 4Switzerland.ch you support your favourite company – for example a hairdresser you have been going to for years. This helps to bridge the lockdown as well as the difficult economic situation that follows. In the first four weeks 45 companies signed up to our platform and we have raised around CHF 12,000 for them. That is an average of CHF 150 per donation.
Isn’t that just a drop in the ocean considering the scale of the crisis?
Martina Lauener: CHF 3,000 or CHF 4,000 more in your account can make all the difference when it comes to paying the rent at least. But financial contribution is just one aspect of it. The sense of solidarity and of visible support from customers is just as important. This gives businesses the strength to weather the crisis. Many entrepreneurs have called and e-mailed us to express their gratitude.
What makes the 4Switzerland platform an interesting project for innovation at SIX?
Daniel Steingruber: Innovation thrives on people who believe in what they are trying to achieve – people who act as the “CEO” of an idea and go the extra mile. For this reason alone, I am extremely excited about the 4Switzerland project, which is being driven forward by committed SIX employees working in their free time and out of a sense of solidarity. As the Innovation Manager for the “Banking Services & Platforms” field of innovation, I am particularly interested in what makes our customers’ customers tick and how the respective platforms perform.
SMEs are an important target group for banks.
Daniel Steingruber: Yes, and financing is a core service of banks for SMEs. But there are many other options. If banks do not want to lose their customer interface with SMEs to fintechs, big tech firms or other competitors, they need to offer them additional, innovative services in the medium term. We at SIX are developing ideas for this.
What other services from banks could be relevant for SMEs?
Daniel Steingruber: During our research, we have had many conversations with independent entrepreneurs and found that financing is not one of their most pressing problems. That’s not to say that financing is unimportant, but business owners are first and foremost entrepreneurs, so their day-to-day concerns center much more around how to attract young professionals or how to develop their business so as to remain attractive to customers, for example.
What does this mean for the banks?
Daniel Steingruber:Banks are increasingly moving away from selling only a specific service or product: they want to be involved throughout the whole customer experience, i.e. by offering needs-based services before and after financing. To this end, we at SIX are sounding innovative solutions for the banks.
Has the 4Switzerland platform uncovered a major need among SMEs during the corona crisis?
Martina Lauener: Generally, we expected to see more signing up, given the existential threat of the crisis and the broad publication of our platform. However, at the beginning of the lockdown crowdfunding platforms sprang up like mushrooms, which made it difficult for companies to keep an overview. We also underestimated the pride of Swiss entrepreneurs: from personal conversations we know that many have huge problems and do not know how to pay their rent or their employees’ wages. Nevertheless, they do not register on a crowdfunding platform because they do not want to make their financial difficulties public. This becomes less of an issue when companies can give something in return, as it is the case on 4Switzerland.ch. It also helps when more and more companies from an industry or a region register.
The size of the platform is therefore crucial to its success.
Martina Lauener: Yes. That’s why we launched 4Switzerland as a national initiative. Our aim is to show how important SMEs are for the stability of the Swiss economy. The platform is now also available in Italian and French.
What other criteria are crucial for a successful SME platform?
Daniel Steingruber: A platform that is relevant to SMEs and aims to remain so must offer a variety of components. When it comes to innovation at SIX, we talk about an “SME banking ecosystem”. Take 4Switzerland as an example: at the moment, SMEs can use the platform to attract donations and issue vouchers. A potential next step is the integration of customer relationship management (CRM) or a connection to a digital invoicing system. It is important to consider what is potentially relevant for SMEs. What are their needs and how can they be met? For me, it is extremely exciting to see how the 4Switzerland platform will develop and what kind of lessons can be learned from it for our own innovation projects.
What’s the next step for 4Switzerland?
Martina Lauener: Our priority is the idea of solidarity and support for the Swiss economy. The financial bottlenecks caused by the corona crisis will not disappear overnight, also because of the imminent repayment of bridging loans. As long as we can support Swiss companies in this area, 4Switzerland.ch will remain. However, we do not want to exclude to follow up on new project ideas that are in line with our vision, e.g. in the area of succession planning or in the environmental area. Working on a meaningful project is a great fun, and our team is highly motivated: we will continue to develop 4Switzerland.ch. Everyone can play a part by informing friends about the platform, share it on social media or by making a donation themselves.