Berlin’s startup community doesn’t have it easy. There is plenty of struggle, a cycle of ups and downs with seemingly no end in sight. And yet this scene of new Berliners always seems to bear these challenges with positivity and resilience. Why?
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to sweep away illusion. Without self-reflection, there can be no pivot.
Bear with me for a brief history lesson: After WWII, the de-industrialization of Berlin left the former capital with nothing. Subsisting at the bare existential minimum—from a capitalist point of view—in the socialist era that followed for half of the divided city, courage, integrity, and honesty were powerful currencies. For people that had little to their names, a mere handshake could speak volumes. Across the ocean, Reagan and his trickle-down economics were hard at work to ensure every American was able to live the "American Dream" and owned a house and car; West Germany was keeping a close eye on its ally in hopes of using the Nash Equilibrium to its benefit. Meanwhile, East Berlin was just leaving the field open. Nowadays we have terms like “sharing economy,” what detractors would criticize as the insincere policies of the moneymaking startup lobby like Uber and AirBnB—I’d call it the conformability of grown-up pluralism.
The last 20 years have built Berlin a solid foundation. The flow of Western money was pumped into infrastructure, and since 2006, the boom has really been underway. A super-affordable cost of living, cheap food, easy accommodation, and a scene that functions in English have created a very special loose community drawing creative and amazing people from around the world to Berlin. The big four: fashion, startups, music, and art. How cool is that? I can surround myself with this kind of hungry creativity and an endless flow of ideas—never mind that these ideas never seem to work.
There are three essential characters here, especially in the startup scene:
1) “I love my product.” I finance my life with "projects" and/ or collect government benefits, I work in a bar, I live for one reason only: Building up my amazing self-fulfilling prophecy. What I want is what I want. I know best, but nobody understands me really.
2) “I want to be rich and respected.” I work hard, attend a reputable university, never sleep, and never got enough love from my parents. One day I will start something that will bring me fame or fortune and say, “Fuck all of you.” I’m so smart I can make anyone believe in me.
3) “The Rich Kid.” Too cool for school, I mostly hang around and try to take in the best of my life. My best friends are buzzwords and conferences are where I feel most at home. I should actually list “professional coffee drinker” as my real skill on LinkedIn.
As for everyone else, they stay in the corporate world or develop a bouncer mentality after five years with a big consulting company or investment bank before moving over to venture capital: “I can’t let you in and no, I can’t talk to you, either.”
Collectors and hunters. What will be their formula for success? ADHD combined with luck. In Germany we call it “positively crazy.”
But what really makes Berlin the most wonderful place to live? Let me put it like this: Every day, I see all these hipsters in the subway on their way to work. They’re hungry and they have fire in their eyes, so even if they may be full of bullshit, I love listening to them. Every day brings the catharsis and humbleness of meeting with people to tell them I can’t invest. Nevertheless, just the opportunity to work with unbelievably intelligent pioneers, full of naïve optimism, trying to discover the unicorn and make it big—this makes me happy. If I have the chance to invest, become friends or part of the family, and try to make it big together—even better.
Whether Type 1, 2, or 3, I love all these Berlin characters, this variety of extraordinary, extraordinarily positive, and positively crazy people. These people and the city’s belief in disruption and change are what give Berlin its charm in so many ways. These people are an addiction—I wouldn’t want to live here without them. The tolerance, the international spirit: we are living in the midst of a paradigm shift, just the right cultural medium minus the old economic hierarchies, and the feeling of camaraderie that comes from sitting in the same boat. In this dirty-but-sexy, raw-yet-alluring environment, we help one another. Being the gateway to Eastern Europe helps us attract potential from the East as well as young stars from San Francisco coming here to start something new. The high ratio of developers is the heart but not the soul of every team.
Let’s take advantage of these opportunities. We don’t need a big exit—living here is fantastic enough already. Berlin may be a city rough with ups and downs but that’s exactly the beauty of the place, what makes people appreciate being here. It’s what makes the city as unique as it is. Visit us and you’ll see.
Thank goodness Berlin is not the Silicon Valley. It’s better.