So You Want To Move To Berlin and Work For (or Build Your Own) Startup?


Berlin Startup

So You Want To Move To Berlin and Work For (or Build Your Own) Startup?

I get it. San Francisco is so 2003 – when did 6th and Mission become hip? Buzzfeed is giving you 22 reasons to move here (by the way, they are sooo wrong about no one paying for the Ubahn – you will be caught your first time without a ticket) and, according to the New York Times, half of Brooklyn’s DJs have already immigrated. While some say that Berlin is over, if your goal is to work for a startup, or build your own, this could not be further from the truth. Berghain may have fallen from grace, but the startup scene is just heating up.

With the (far too many) accelerators and ever expanding tech hubs, people spent too much time last year asking: is Berlin just hype? It could have gone either way, but only three months into the new year, Berlin has proved that it has staying power. From Delivery Hero’s whopping $88m funding round this January, to TVSmiles’s 7 million series A, to Outfittery’s 13m round, Berlin is settling into its startup ecosystem skin. This means more opportunity for you entrepreneurial expats to come in and conquer the scene. Want to move to Berlin to work for or build your own startup? Here’s my advice.

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A hy! Summit Recap – “We Knew it Was a Waste of Time to Talk to German Investors”

And I’m back! After a two month stint in California and a jaunt to Nicaragua, I have returned, and Berlin Startup Girl lives on.

Last night, for my first event in 2014, I headed to Hy Summit.

As many of you know, one of my favorite pastimes is complaining about events in Germany. The organizers typically mean well, but the small details are lacking. Like, who has a tech event and doesn’t offer wifi? Or, an event in November without a coat check? Networking here is awkward enough without having to hold onto your jacket, scarf, gloves, plus an ipad.

So when I walked into Hy Summit yesterday, I had a moment of “Wait, what happened to Berlin in the last three months?” I’d thought of Hy as one step above a Meetup, but they proved me dead wrong. They stepped up their production value, and offered a coat check, wifi, friendly and efficient check-in people, the right amount of seats, and GET THIS headsets for the English speakers so the event could be translated.

It did not feel like a German event until the VC sitting next to me complained that they were not running on time, probably due to the government official who was from Bavaria, which may have correlated to his tardiness or was just an additional anecdote. To my neighbor’s credit, the event did start thirty minutes behind schedule.

Hy Summit kicked off with a surprisingly un-cheesy video about the future of innovation, featuring music by Moderat. It did not however, include any women, as noted by WomenShiftDigital. On that note, the women in the crowd (not counting staff or waitresses) probably accounted for 5% of the audience. Hy did include Anna Alex of Outfittery (which just announced in February a €13m funding round led by US-based VC Highland Capital Partners) in the panel (w)hy Berlin?!.

Next up was the aforementioned Bavarian, Alexander Dobrindt, the current Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, but since my translation headset did not work, I spent the ten minute talk noting the other people who were listening via headsets – I counted less than ten.

Ijad Madisch, the co-founder of ResearchGate, turned out to be the most engaging German presenter I’ve ever seen. Yes, his company is one of the most interesting out there as it is solving a real problem, and Bill Gates is an investor. But Ijad’s story of how he started the company despite being advised not to, and why he did it in Germany, was inspiring. The presentation also featured photos of fingers grafted onto mice, stories of Russians solving mathematical problems, and lots of references to hair loss. Ijad is so unbelievably charming someone needs to make him the poster child of German startups.

The (w)hy! Berlin? panel was made up of Ciaran O’Leary of Earlybird, Anna Alex of Outfittery, and Lucas von Cranach of THE Football App. It kicked off with Hans, the moderator, asking about the good, then the bad, of Berlin. Ciaran’s point really stuck – Berlin is the only city on this side of world that is inspiring, English-speaking, and focused on Entrepreneurship. Talent was mentioned as another plus. When they discussed the bad part of Berlin, Anna shared what was, by far, my favorite quote of the evening: “We knew it was a waste of time to talk to German investors.” Way to call it like it is! There isn’t enough capital here, the Germans are too risk averse, companies sell too early, and raising money is much more challenging than it should be.

Peter Thiel, while clearly a brilliant entrepreneur and investor, is not a natural public speaker. He gave a very high-level, big-picture talk without any actionable insights. He started by discussing forms of progress and moved on to important questions to ask when starting out, which include: What is valuable? What can I do? What are others not doing? The audience was then invited to ask two questions, and the first person picked asked the same question everyone in Berlin asks at these events: What did Peter Thiel think of the Berlin ecosystem? To which he replied that Berlin is missing one extraordinarily big success, which is right on. For the Berlin ecosystem to thrive, investors and entrepreneurs are going to have to take more risks.

The event blew me away. Not only was the organization flawless (Hans, Aydo – well done!) but it showcased a new, more grown-up Berlin. The previous events I’ve attended in Berlin typically fell into one of two categories: (1) Berlin is AMAZING – we are on the path to be the next Silicon Valley! or (2) We aren’t growing fast enough, how can we be the next Silicon Valley?

The Hy Summit showed a more mature side of Berlin, comfortable in our position in the world. In 2013, everyone was talking about hype. So far this year, we’ve seen real progress, especially in terms of funding. Since January, Delivery Hero announced a whopping $88m, Outfittery raised a €13m funding round, TVSMILES closed a $7 million Series-A funding round, and a handful of other companies including Clue, Sensorberg, and Mbrace have raised sizeable seed rounds. The startup system is growing and, while there is plenty that needs to change, especially when it comes to raising funds, for the first time everyone seems realistic about Berlin opportunities.

With that, the networking part of the evening commenced. Because this is Berlin, and not the US, I walked up to Peter Thiel and asked to take a selfie because I am American and have no shame.

So here it is. Ola and I chillin’ with P’ Thizzle (caption provided by Johanna of Frestyl).


Berlin Startup Girl In Paris: Less Hype, More Wine

Berlin Startup Girl in Paris

Berlin Startup Girl in Paris

When I think of Paris, I think of making out with strangers, drinking wine from the bottle in the Place Des Vosges, and macaroons. Startup ecosystem in the same sentence as Paris never crossed my mind.

This changed last month, after I wrote about the Israeli startup scene with a link to the Startup Ecosystem Report. The comments I received were not about Israel, but Paris. People were outraged that Paris was ranked 11th while our beloved Berlin was in 15th place.  How could this be?  I decided to buy a last-minute ticket to Paris to check it out myself.

After spending four days talking to French investors, entrepreneurs and accelerators, Paris began to feel like brash Berlin’s elegant older brother. Berlin tosses you a beer in the Betahaus courtyard; Paris pulls out your chair and orders the most expensive bottle of Côtes du Rhône. The energy is more refined, but it is there, and so is the funding.

Why Would You Build A Company In France?

I kicked off my visit at Rude Baguette’s monthly Founders Event, hosted by the enthusiastic editor and former Californian Liam Boogar. We met again the following day at the Poissonniere Starbucks (yes, Starbucks in Paris) so I could pick his brain about the differences between Paris and the Valley, but never had the opportunity. Liam, seriously popular, had so many meetings back-to-back that the morning turned into informal office hours. American entrepreneurs, Bulgarian investors, and French techies circled in and out, a kind of Starbucks salon.

Several points were becoming clear:  Paris doesn’t spend time on hype. Not one person at the monthly Rude Baguette’s Founder event tried to convince me that Paris is the place to be. Berliners may be dreamers, but Parisians are realists. The French entrepreneurs readily admitted that it is a bitch to build a company in France. Nobody attempted to sugarcoat the bureaucratic obstacles or the dismal tax situation.

At the same time, France has a solid technical infrastructure and some serious talent, with thousands of engineers coming out of top programs. They also have money. ISAI, Jaina Capital, and Kima Ventures – the most active angel investors in the world – will invest in one hundred startups this year. According to a report by venture capital firms DFJ Esprit and Go4Venture Advisers, based on data from about $1.8bn in venture deals over the first half of this year, France secured 22 percent of the total European venture capital, and the DACH countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) received about 19 percent. Financially, Paris is hot.


Locally Grown with Incredible Talent

One of my favorite aspects of Berlin is the international diversity. Among my startup marketing clients are founders from Germany, Denmark, Ukraine and Italy, and we all communicate in English.

By comparison, the Parisian scene is overwhelmingly homegrown. About 80% of the entrepreneurs I met were French (almost half of which were hoping to move to the Valley). A remarkable number were bootstrapping and living with their families to get by since the cost of living is 42% higher in Paris than in Berlin.

President Hollande is trying to lure international talent with talks of a new entrepreneur visa for foreigners seeking to set up innovative start-ups in France, as long as they invest a “sufficient amount” of money, but the specifics, including how this program differs from the EU Blue Card is at this point unclear.


France is not known for being friendly to foreigners or businesses, especially where taxes are concerned. A certain French film star (My Father the Hero, anyone?) made international news when he bailed to Russia to avoid taxes.

Things are changing. Slowly. Earlier this year, President François Hollande announced ten pro business measures that would affect France’s startup scene. He introduced a graded scale for tax breaks on capital gains for entrepreneurs who bought start-ups: 65% if the company has been held at least eight years and 50% after two years.  Progress, right? Experts say that Hollande’s plan would mean an effective tax rate of 60%, compared with 15% on long-term capital gains in the US.

After two days with French founders and American angels interested in France, I decided that France is where I will move after I build and sell my startup. The money that I would save on capital gains alone would pay for a chateau in Burgundy.

Then, I met TheFamily.

Paris Lives Up To The Romantic Reputation, Even In The Startup Scene.

Maybe you have heard of Paris’s new accelerator TheFamily? They were recently featured in TechCrunch for raising ‘just under’ one million Euros from Index Ventures.

Alice Zagury, TheFamily’s co-founder and CEO, graciously invited me to their regular Thursday night dinner.  The address was on a chic side street in the Marais, but I would have wandered all night if I had not run into Liam a block away. He escorted me to their unmarked blue door squeezed between trendy boutiques where, despite all inventory marked half off, it is still impossible to find a dress for less than four hundred euros.

I was buzzed into a courtyard and greeted by the svelte and elegant Sandrine, who gave me a tour of the apartment (whose former inhabitant was some kind of movie star) including the Barbie bathroom with pink walls and sparkly pink tiles. I was home.

TheFamily is different from all other accelerators that I have had the pleasure of getting to know. For 1% equity, TheFamily will provide what they call ‘education and unfair advantage’ including access to mentors, special workshops with catchy names like Les Barbares Attaquent! as well as networking opportunities. They are focused not only on money, but also on revamping the French ecosystem by way of government lobbying and collaborating with other incubators. Co-founder, Nicolas Colin (whom I did not meet) is the go-to-guy when it comes to anything policy related. He recently published a report commissioned by the French government on the tax system and the digital economy.

Each week, they organize a family dinner, an intimate affair with a featured guest and mind-blowingly delicious food prepared by co-founder Oussama Ammar. On the night I attended, the guest of honor was Tikhon Bernstam, San Franciscan bro and founder of Scribd and Parse (recently acquired by Facebook for 85 million).

Tikhon’s talk was followed by bottles of wine and more conversation, soon accompanied by Oussama’s roast chicken and a superb ratatouille. Luckily, I was seated next to the chef who, in addition to making the best meal I had in Paris, launched his first company at age twelve, and made me envious with his travel stories, a feat very few people have the power to do these days. In an earlier age of Paris, this group would have been talking revolution, or art, or existentialism. Today, they are growing companies and transforming the startup landscape. While the French government is stumbling around trying to figure out how to encourage startups and innovation, TheFamily is doing it, along with wine pairings.

And they have a castle. Let that one sink in.

Dining room table or ping-pong table?

The startup ecosystem report is suspect, but you already knew that. Any score that includes a Mindsetter Index (“how well the population of founders in a given ecosystem think like great entrepreneur”) cannot really be taken seriously. The fact is: Berlin and Paris are booming tech hubs and entrepreneurs would be lucky to live in either.

They feel different, but whether you are learning about customer development in a castle in Normandy, or on a beanbag in a warehouse near Checkpoint Charlie, the goal is the same: make money, disrupt the market, and change the world.