STEP USA is a 5-day startup boot camp launched and organized by the German American Chamber of Commerce New York (GACC NY). A highly successful program, it focuses on facilitating U.S. market access for young innovative companies and takes place four times a year. It also exists in a virtual format. STEP USA prides itself on having created a network of more than 300 STEP USA alumni, more than 60 U.S. incorporations, and 35 investment rounds. It is tailored to the needs of startups who intent to scale their business internationally.
The GACC NY is featuring selected STEP USA Alumni, calling these founders “STEP USA Ambassadors”.
“Change – it’s a chance, not a threat!”
STEP USA Ambassadors Claas Blume and Thomas Vorsatz, both co-founders of Berlin-based Clous GmbH, join us for this interview on their current business situation. Being a Fraunhofer spin-off, Clous GmbH was founded in November 2019 and currently employs 6 people. In December 2019, Claas and Thomas joined us for our STEP USA program in New York. Today they talk with us about their U.S. market plans and their most valuable take-aways from the STEP USA program.
GACC NY: Claas and Thomas – it’s great talking to you! How are things working out for Clous in the current economic crisis?
Claas Blume: Nice being in touch again! It’s hard to believe that it has been almost a year since we joined the STEP USA program in New York. So much has changed in the mean-time. The mechanical engineering industry around the globe is suffering enormously from the COVID crisis. For us, as a newly founded company, it is already difficult as such to win new clients. But the fact that many of our potential customers have empty order books themselves makes our situation even more challenging. However, to end on a positive note, we expected raising venture capital for our growth phase to be more difficult at this time, but our investor relations work very well – even during this lockdown. This is definitively a good sign.
GACC NY: Thomas, what does Clous exactly do?
Thomas Vorsatz: The core of Clous is our technology, which automatically fragments complex CAD designs into smaller and independently solvable tasks and reassembles them after successful processing. This way, we open up completely new perspectives, especially for medium-sized companies in mechanical and plant engineering. A new type of collaboration makes it possible to optimize internal processes, to seamlessly integrate service providers from all over the world, and also to meet the new requirements for remote work.
GACC NY: What do you consider the greatest success in your company’s history?
Claas Blume: The sum of the many small successes is certainly our greatest success. We were able to create a great product and convince investors of our idea despite tough circumstances. We are particularly pleased that we were able to win APX, one of the leading accelerators, for our company.
GACC NY: Looking back, is there ‘a lesson learned’ that you can share with us?
Claas Blume: Absolutely! At the beginning of Clous, we trusted every spoken commitment given by investors or clients. Meanwhile, we have learned it the hard way that a commitment is only a commitment when the ink on the contract is dry.
GACC NY: Thanks for sharing this! Can you please tell us why the U.S. market is important for you?
Thomas Vorsatz: There are several reasons for that. First of all, the mechanical engineering industry in the U.S. is very strong and the market size is immense. And the industry is facing the need to digitize business as well. It is not a secret that the mechanical engineering industry is quite conservative, especially here in Germany. Even though the industry understands that something has to change, many companies refuse to see the need to adapt their business models. We feel that companies in the U.S. are much more open to new technologies and are seeing change as a chance, not as a threat.
GACC NY: Is that why you joined our STEP USA program in December 2019?
Claas Blume: Yes, absolutely! It was the perfect opportunity to get to know the U.S. market in a compact way, to make first contacts, and to develop a strategy for a future market entry.
GACC NY: What is your most valuable takeaway from the STEP USA program as an entrepreneur?
Claas Blume: Our biggest takeaway from the STEP USA program is the number of valuable contacts we gathered. We now know where to turn to if we want to found a U.S. subsidiary or if we have tax-related questions. We also met with investors, enjoyed U.S. pitch training, and learned a lot on how to shape our U.S. product-market fit.
GACC NY: In your opinion, what do startups generally underestimate when coming to the U.S.?
Claas Blume: It depends on many factors, but in general I would say that the sheer size of the market and its competitiveness can be overwhelming in the beginning. It’s hard to get enough visibility if you only have a limited budget.
GACC NY: So, what are your next steps?
Claas Blume: Our next big milestone is to expand business within Germany and get through the COVID crisis in good shape. We are also continuing to implement our market entry strategy. This means we are entering a specific market segment – the tool and die makers in Germany – providing them with great added value. If we have a certain relevance there and also get a 5/5-star rating, we will grow into broader markets. In addition, we are planning to get another business angel on board in March 2021 in order to leverage great financing from Landesbank Berlin (IBB).
GACC NY: Last question: On Nov. 7, 2020, Joe Biden won the election as the 46th U.S. President. Does that have any implications for your business?
Claas Blume: I hope that the election of Biden will improve the transatlantic relationship and above all that the U.S. as a deeply divided country will be able to overcome their current challenges. Stability, a reliable legal framework, and intact business relations are important factors for us once we are ready to take the step into the U.S. market.
GACC NY: Claas, and Thomas, thanks so much for taking the time for this interview and all the best for Clous!