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Startup Guide Berlin: face to face with the city’s entrepreneurs and ecosystem players

This well-designed book provides an insightful overview of Berlin’s emerging startups, accelerators, co-working spaces and supporting institutes. The framework is also useful for ecosystem players and governments in other cities around the world.

Madanmohan Rao
21st May 2019
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The 2018 edition of Startup Guide Berlin is spread across 450 pages, and makes for an easy and entertaining read with profiles of founders, co-working spaces, and key ecosystem players. More than half the book consists of photographs of venues and people, but the small font could do with some improvement.


The book is part of the Startup Guide series of books published by Sissel Hansen, which covers cities such as Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, London, and Lisbon. Here are my key takeaways from the book; see also my reviews of the related books Startup Communities, The Manual for Indian Startups, China’s Mobile Economy, Ikigai, and The Creative Curve.


“Berlin is changing, and fast. Fueled by Brexit, the city has seen a spike in international interest in recent years,” Sissel begins. Though still affordable by the standards of European capitals, rents are rising rapidly. But still, the city feels freer, more experimental, and less conventional than other major capitals, she adds.


Berlin has been a creative and experimental capital in domains from jazz and street art to electronica and digital media. It is a political powerhouse, artistic hub and nightlife mecca as well. Its unofficial motto seems to be “poor but sexy.”


Around 50 percent of all tech employees and a quarter of tech founders in Berlin are non-German. English is widely spoken at startup events, but German friends are needed to navigate the bureaucracy, jokes Travis Todd, co-founder of Silicon Allee.


The city has open-mindedness and a young-at-heart outlook, according to Ramona Pop, Berlin’s Senator for Economics. The city and European Social Fund contribute Euro 40 million to the Berlin Startup Stipend.


The city has an urban population of around 3.7 million, with a total of 6 million in the metropolitan area. Berlin is home to people from 190 countries. Around 20 percent of the population is foreign-born (mostly from Turkey, Poland, Syria), and there are over 300 research institutes.


I. Startup profiles


The book profiles 11 startups: Assistr (elderly-care tech), BigChainDB (blockchain solutions), Bunch (team culture tools), Codepan (API tools based on AI), Coworkies (professional network for freelancers in coworking spaces), GlassDollar (investor-discovery tool for startups), Grover (subscription services for electronics products), and Jaspr (trading platform for unneeded valuables, services).


GreenCity has developed CityTree bio-filters for better air in urban habitats, based on moss and IoT sensors. InFarm builds pipe gardens and other urban farms for fresh produce such as micro-greens. Kontist is a banking solution for the self-employed, and includes tax calculators and a business debit card.


II. Startup ecosystem


The book features picturesque profiles of a number of the city’s co-working spaces: Ahoy Berlin, BetaHaus Berlin, FabLab Berlin, Factory Gorlitzer Park, Google for Entrepreneurs, KAOS Berlin, MindSpace, Silicon Allee, St. Oberholz, Unicorn.AEG Courtyards, and WeWork Sony Centre.


The book also provides guidance on issues like renting an apartment, finding insurance, getting work permits, paying taxes, opening bank accounts, cultural traits, and networking opportunities. Berliners have a “mix of irreverence and bluntness that can come off as rude,” the authors joke. “Woe unto the pedestrian who unknowingly occupies a bike lane,” they add; this is quite a common phenomenon with tourists.


Also read: German and Indian entrepreneurs - start your global journey with these programmes


There are a number of accelerators, incubators and other company builder programmes. For example, APX is a joint-venture between Axel Springer and Porsche, and helps startups scale up in exchange for a fee and equity.


Beyond1435 connects startups and corporates in the field of mobility and logistics. Wincubator is run by the Wilo group for sustainable building and industry solutions. Enpact fosters entrepreneurship in emerging economies such as Tunisia, Egypt, Ghana and Kenya, and in immigrant communities in Berlin.


The METRO Accelerator focuses on hospitality and retail; it is powered by TechStars (see YourStory’s profile here). TechStars Berlin runs a three-month accelerator programme, with Investor Days and FounderCon events.


The Next Big Thing accelerator targets IoT and blockchain. Sap.io Foundry is dedicated to machine learning and enterprise solutions; SAP also runs an IoT accelerator, which is connected to SAP Silicon Valley.


Plug and Play from Silicon Valley is active in Berlin as well, and also operates an automotive platform - Startup Autobahn - in Stuttgart. It conducts innovation roundtables called Focus Weeks.


III. Expert insights


One chapter profiles active mentors, coaches and consultants in the startup space, along with business insights. Find your niche and make your network count, advises Stefan Holst, business coach at Airbus BizLab.


Don’t make untested assumptions when hiring foreigners or expanding internationally, cautions Christian Herzog, Digital Business Head at Berlin Partner. The company organises international delegations of startups to visit cities like New York.


Also read: Start Berlin holds demo day for 15 upcoming entrepreneurs


Harald Marx, Head of Daimler Fleetboard Innovation Hub suggests one be patient when breaking into fragmented industries in traditional domains. The Daimler Fleetboard Innovation Hub focuses on connecting startups with logistics players.


Look for networks that give you professional as well as emotional support, recommend Rowan Barnett and Mayra Frank of Google for Entrepreneurs. Test things early and get critical feedback often, they advise; it is also important to “pay it forward and give back” to the startup ecosystem in a virtuous cycle. The company’s partners include SINGA, an incubator for refugee entrepreneurs.


Professor Martin Wrobel of the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society shares a framework of 19 competencies for successful founders, such as a focus on results, strong customer orientation, analytical capabilities, and willingness to learn. Matthias Lesch, Founder of TAB, helps startups with consistent communications and quality marketing.


As startups go from “seed to speed,” they need to get their financial and accounting procedures in order, according to Benjamin Jetter from KPMG’s Smart Start programme. This is especially important for startups expanding overseas.


Social entrepreneurs need to combine business acumen with a strong sense of purpose, urges Ann Rosenberg, Global Head of SAP Next-Gen, and co-author of Innovation with Purpose. “With technology evolving at breakneck speed and impacting every facet of our lives, it’s important to take responsibility for what you build and to think about the rippling effects it may have in the long run,” she emphasises.


Videesha Bockle and Daniel Dierkes of Signals Venture Capital urge teams to align and strengthen their expectations, values and ability to withstand failure together. This calls for willingness to have tough conversations and act on decisions.


IV. Founder advice


The book ends with startup advice straight from six founders, along with profiles of their startup journeys. It also includes the most helpful advice they have received from others.


Founders need to ensure they do not undervalue their data, or give up too early in their journey, according to Benjamin Roche, Co-founder of GermanTech Digital. It brings together the three worlds of academia, corporates and startups, and builds portfolios of digital strategies.


Events are an important part of the startup ecosystem, according to Kerstin Bock and Carolin Lessoued, Co-founders of Openers. Tech Open Air (TOA) is Europe’s largest inter-disciplinary tech festival. Openers is actively involved with delegations to South by Southwest and Asia-Pacific Week, and organises events and communications campaigns in Germany for Wayra, Eventbrite, Quora, Atomico and Harvard Business School.


Sascha Konietzke, Co-founder of Contentful, provides cloud-based content management solutions for companies with complex workflow. Starting up is a mix of art and science, and founders are more willing these days to share their experiences, he observes. He advises founders to explore B2B opportunities and not just B2C, where success comes from large volumes but is also risky.


Disruptive ideas can come from outside traditional industries like banking and finance, explains Maximilian Tayenthal, Co-founder of mobile-first bank N26. The company invests heavily in technology, user experience, and continuous experimentation.


Paula Schwarz founded the World Datanomic Forum to encourage transparent decision-making based on trust and facts. Problems need to be framed to include long-term environmental and humanitarian issues, despite challenges of fake news and corporate wealth concentration. Younger generations of citizens want to take on active and impactful goals and don’t want to be told to do things the same old way. Paula regards her Forum as a movement, and not just a company.


Waldemar Zeiler and Philip Siefer are Co-founders of Einhorn, which produces sustainable and transparently-sourced condoms. Their mission is to “unfuck the economy,” or to promote businesses that have sustainability and a sense of higher purpose at their core.


The co-founders see themselves as “court jesters,” promoting concepts like “fairstanable” (fair and sustainable business). They also advise “fight and hug” approaches to team building, to factor in the inevitable disagreements and necessary reconciliation.


The book ends with a six-page directory of resources like expat groups, meetups, investors, accelerators, government support services, and startup events in Berlin. Listed events include BetaBreakfast, Talent Summit, Creative Mornings, Data Natives, Fuckup Nights, Heureka, Silicon Drinkabout, Startup Grind, Typo Talks, and Quo Vadis.


In sum, the book provides informative and entertaining insights into Berlin’s startup ecosystem, as well as a useful framework for other cities to reflect on and improve their own startup ecosystems. We at YourStory look forward to reviewing the other Startup City Guides in this series already!


Also read: Achtung Baby: the rise of Berlin as creative city and startup hub



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