Croissants and Awkward Glances: A Tale of Networking in Berlin

Networking in Berlin is painful. I’m talking about old-fashioned face-to-face interaction, not reaching out with a click of a button on LinkedIn or Xing.

As a native Californian, I come from one end of the personal networking spectrum.  I knew that it was time to leave San Francisco when I could no longer find a table at my neighborhood café because it was packed full of twenty-year-olds in entrepreneur approved hoodies, surrounded by multiple Apple products and munching on vegan donuts, keen to tell everyone within a five-table radius about their epic new photo-sharing startup.

Here, in Berlin, I’ve reached the other extreme.  Shortly after I arrived, I attended Startup Camp and Next Berlin, eager to network and discover new clients for my startup-oriented marketing firm. The mornings were the toughest. I would approach a fellow attendee near the obligatory croissant table and, after a polite introduction, inquire about their company. The typical response is a vague answer – “I have a B2B startup” – followed by an awkward pause, and a glance down at the nearest handy device. It has reached the point that I do not even attempt to network during the actual conference. Instead, I wait until the after-party, when attendees loosen up after knocking back a few Tannenzäpfle.

At first, I put it down to modesty. Over time, I have realized that Germans have a different cultural approach to the idea of ‘collaboration’. The dictionary gives two definitions:

  1. to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work: They collaborated on an epic new piece of software that led to a monster IPO.
  1. to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, especially when they are occupying one’s country: He collaborated with the enemy during World War II.

In the early days of Silicon Valley, openness fed innovation. Gradually, the cooperative spirit turned into cutthroat competition. However, the new generation of wannabe entrepreneurs in San Francisco drank the kombucha of openness. Californians are just dying to tell anyone who will listen about their startup idea, but the Germans are cautiously reserved, fearful that someone may take their ideas.

I am not advocating that Berliners become more like San Franciscans. I like this city, and the profoundly unpretentious tech scene, so much better. But until collaboration is seen as a positive part of business, Berliners are missing out.

Successful entrepreneurs not only live and breathe their product; they share it. Their excitement is infectious and it attracts potential collaborators. Every time you go to a conference and look down at your iPad, rather than talking to the person standing next to you, you are missing an opportunity.



  1. Attend the FridayatSix event. Send me an email. You won’t be disappointed.

  2. I like your writing style, but my personal experiences are *very* different here in Berlin.
    Look up some of’s events in Berlin.
    Some good ones (in my opinion) are:

    Good luck!

  3. Jean Noosinow says:

    Your wonderful Dad is at my home, as I write this, and he prompted your Mom to send me your blog.
    Fantastic. Your writing style is really great and if all else fails, which I doubt, you could be a writer.
    I remember years ago when you Dad was over here working and between coats he would stop and brag on his beautiful and smart daughters. Things haven’t changed. Except you are a grown women doing exceptional things in wonderful places. I used to send books home with him for you kids to read. If you were here today I would still be doing the same. It would be fun to share reading experiences.
    Good luck in your exciting venture.

    Jeanie Noosinow

  4. Pravin says:

    I enjoyed the read. I feel your thoughts with the Germans, but hey its their lose and our gain. Good luck

  5. Ugh, I know what you’re going through. I’ve never had any problems making friends or new connections but Berlin is tough. Literally all the people I know are expats.
    I’ve had some luck with 🙂

  6. Sascha says:

    I’m not sure your take on collaboration in Germany is right. It may be that you mistake the local culture of understatement (which can be a blessing and a curse) for fear of having one’s ideas stolen. I know an opposite example for instance of a German who went to MIT Medialab. Once there he was trying to collaborate and kept hitting a wall because everybody was super competitive and protective of their ideas. Coming back he jokingly said that that had been the first time when he felt like an east German communist.

  7. Robert says:

    Hi Kailie,

    I don’t work in a startup here in Berlin, though as a German ux designer with family in California I can see that there are cultural differences.
    I know Americans who came here and were disappointed because the failed to connect to the locals.
    What all of them had in common: they didn’t speak German, or only an a very rudimentary level. Even if most startup related Germans do understand and speak English to some degree, English feels ambivalent to most. It’s indeed a language of occupation, and even if this is not consciously known, it gives strangeness and makes it harder to open up. Of course, this is not true for every German, but I would argue there’s a tendency. Especially the self-confident tone of colloquial American English often used to approach an unacquainted counterpart, can feel awkward to a German tech type person with little international experience. Plus, Germans may have an inferiority complex regarding startup talk, and since they have a hard time admitting that to strangers, they may withdraw from conversations.

    My advice: Approach in German, it’s a game changer.

  8. Peter says:

    It’s interesting to learn about the expectation of many who are visiting Berlin these days.
    Earlier this year there was a rant in the ex-berliner exploring how language adaption, or the lack of it, can cause frustration. On both sides apparently.

    Though, Kalie, you didn’t even say anything about the language you were using. Maybe your German is just fine, and this whole language aspect is irrelevant. Or maybe even if not, maybe startup people can be expected to happily converse in English everywhere, after all most startups dream of international rollouts.

    Anyway, I like the idea of a rant. It’s an hoest way to facilitate and dramatize personal anger. Germany should do a bit more public ranting themselves I think. It’s healthy like singing out loud.

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