Interview with Honza Chmelík, head of CzechInvest’s foreign office for the East Coast of the United States in New York

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Honza Chmelík has been with CzechInvest for nearly four years and during that time he has gained experience in several fields. He began his career with an internship in London and subsequently built up his skills at the agency’s headquarters in Prague in the position of sector specialist for aerospace. When he found out two years ago that the position in CzechInvest’s office in New York opened up, he did not hesitate to apply for the job and soon found himself in the Big Apple.

As he says himself: “The foreign office’s work does not differ that much from what one is used to in Prague, but at the same time it’s completely different – instead of one sector, you deal with several sectors at once; instead of numerous territories, you deal with one big territory, and you serve as your own colleague in the form of the accountant, assistant and in other positions.”

In addition to his main workload, which is attracting newinvestors for the Czech Republic, Honza also helps Czech start-ups to get a foothold in the American market and thanks to agency’s start-up support programmes CzechDemo and CzechAccelerator, his assistance grows more effective by the day. As we informed you a few days ago, up to CZK 70 million awaits Czech start-ups in the continuation of CzechAccelerator (approximately $2,8 million), which will accept applications from 17 June to 31 July 2017.New York is one of the four destinations where Czech start-ups can use a three-month acceleration residency in a selected New York incubator, for which they can receive financial aid from structural funds.

What is Honza’s experience with Czech start-ups in the United States? How can he help them? Where does he see the strengths and weaknesses of our firms? You will find the answers to all of these questions in the interview below.


Q1: Hi, Honza. Tell us how CzechInvest’s support for start-ups in New York looks today. How can you help them and how can you not help them?

Hi, Káťa. These days, it’s a bit ad hoc. Together with my colleagues in Prague, we are working hard so that we can launch the main activity that supports Czech start-ups, namely CzechAccelerator. We believe that all of the administrative issues have already been resolved and we can now concentrate on selecting the best partner for acceleration services and selecting the best Czech start-ups that are ready for such a programme.

I am now in touch mainly  with firms that are turning to me themselves. I try to get them acquainted with the relevant people in the city, referring them to established programmes that the city offers for support of international business and getting them into networking events with the right people.

I highly value the cooperation with our Consulate General here in New York, which is also very active in this area. In connection with CzechDemo and participation in TechCrunch, we have managed to put together an accompanying programme that I think is exactly what Czech start-ups need and their feedback has been very positive so far.


Q2: Can you briefly tell us more about that programme?

Sure. We teamed up VentureOut and, together with the Consulate, we put together a programme that actually began before the start-ups left the Czech Republic. Through videoconferencing, they receivedmentoring in a number of key areas for entering the American market. The first half of the week was all about TechCrunch, where we again had a national stand (thanks to the CzechDemo programme), and the second part of the week was filled with personal meetings with local investors, mentors and preparation for pitching during pitch night (which was made possible by the economic diplomacy project).

Together with colleagues from a German accelerator, and basically the whole European tech community, we organised a networking event at the Bohemian National Hall that put everyone in touch with the local start-up environment. I’m very happy that the event was packed and that truly relevant people showed up.

Based on the feedback, we would like to continue and further develop similar activities in connection with both CzechInvest’s programmes and the Consulate General’s economic diplomacy projects.


Q3: After two years in New York, you know the American market and you surely know Czech firms that are coming to the US and want to fulfil their dreams of being successful on the American market, making money, getting an investor. Where do you see the biggest problem? The language barrier? The different mentality? Unrealistic goals?

Like most things in life, I think it’s more complicated. There are countless sources available that you can learn from how complex and demanding the local market is and how strong the competition is in basically all areas. Despite that, there is a full range of firms, and it often doesn’t matter if they’re start-ups or companies that are relatively large in Czech terms, thinking that success in the Czech Republic is a good prerequisite for success here. It’s not.

It’s hard to point out a single problem, but the basic rule is that you must offer something extraor exceptional – why would I buy the same or similar thing from the Czech Republic when I can choose from local alternatives? Which, furthermore, Americans usually prefer? Another product-related issue is service and warranties. The approach to the customer is absolutely key; whereas certain things can come across to us, as Czechs, as peculiar or exaggerated, that’s simply how it works here and there is no point in disputing that. The local market is very much founded on trust and relationships. My colleagues and I basically constantly repeat that if you want to do business here, you can’t do it from the Czech Republic; you have to be reachable on local time.

Of course, the language barrier is often a problem, though on the other hand, it isn’t necessary to be afraid of doing business in America if you don’t have the highest level of language certifications. Just in New York, hundreds of languages are spoken, perhaps the most in the world. But it is necessary to reach such a level that you can explain who you are, what you are selling and why you are better than the others.

I’m glad that we have a full range of examples of Czech firms that are very successful here in a lot of fields, from IT to automotive and medicine.

Q4: In a few weeks, Czech firms will be able to register in the continuation of the Czech accelerator programme and one of the destinations where they can gain experience is New York. What will your task be?

That’s a good question. The acceleration programme itself will be done by a selected partner that works with start-ups today and every day and is thus a real expert that can push the firms forward and aid their growth and expansion to the US.

Like my colleagues in San Francisco and London, my time will be especially at the beginning of the programme, when the firms arrive. We will help them get settled in as soon as possible, so they can focus on the programme instead of looking for a place to live and figuring out what here is different from Europe. Of course, our colleagues in Prague will help them with that before they even depart. I will definitely help in every way necessary and to make sure that the programme is running as it should.

The final adjustments and division of tasks are still ongoing and will be adapted to the selected partner. I’m already looking forward to the arrival of the first start-ups!


Q5: After these past two years, can you say what American representatives of the start-up sphere think about the CEE region?

In general, I think that they view the CEE region with respect and as a region where there is a full range of investment opportunities for them. Successful examples from the past confirm that the world gets from that region a lot of products and services that we use every day.

On the other hand, it’s true that, especially when it comes to breaking through and selling often top-quality products, CEE lags behind, and that includes the Czech Republic. That is exactly one of the reasons that CzechAccelerator exists!

It is also generally true that there is obvious positive development in this region, staetups are being more often part of a business equation and there are a number of state and private programmes supporting them; major players, including Google, are expanding the geographic reach of their programmes to support these activities. That was far from the case a few years ago. Representatives of investment groups often express interest in discovering more about the Czech start-up scene and coming to Prague.


Q6: What are your plans? Are you planning any interesting events?

All of our events are interesting! 🙂

The first half of the year is slowly coming to an end and we’ve had some, I think, successful events here in the East Coast. In September we will shift from nanotechnology and start-ups to electro and automotive. Of no less importance, we have to get everything set up for the first cohortto take part in CzechAccelerator! We’re working on a lot of stuff, so keep checing our website and if you’re ever in New York, don’t forget to stop by the Bohemian Spirit restaurant in the Bohemian National Hall. You won’t find better Pilsner anywhere else in America!

Honza, we wish you much success!