An insider look at life and work in Europe's start-up capital.Sarathy Kalaichelvan
Every 20 minutes a start-up is founded in Berlin, according to Gruenden, a German advisory agency. Nicknamed “Silicon Allee”, the city once split by a wall is now a major tech hub, attracting investors from all over Europe.
Madurai native, Sarathy Kalaichelvan, has been at the centre of Berlin's start-up scene since 2013, first pursuing his MBA at the Berlin School of Economics and currently employed by price comparison website idealo.in in the Affiliates and Partnerships Department. We asked him for his take on Berlin's success, opportunities for Indians seeking work experience abroad, and the difficulties of adapting a German website to the needs of Indian users.
What is the secret to Berlin's success as a start-up capital?
“Berlin has everything start-ups need to get off the ground”, explains Kalaichelvan, “especially in the area of human resources, but also investors, market channels and lower rents than other major cities.” The multicultural atmosphere is also a major factor in his opinion: “Berlin is a mini-Europe. It's the perfect city for companies with international ambitions to test out their products.”
Does the city offer good opportunities for Indians seeking work experience abroad?
“Berlin is the ideal launchpad for someone breaking into a new career or switching industries”, says Kalaichelvan. When asked about potential challenges to finding a position, he lists language barrier as issue #1. “Most start-ups here enter the German market first. You need German language proficiency, especially in areas like sales or marketing. Language demands are lower in fields such as programming and development”.
idealo is a Berlin start-up success story. Self-proclaimed mission of the company is to help consumers make the best possible buying decisions. The site provides a combination of price comparison, reviews, and handy tools, such as a price alert. In addition to Germany, idealo currently enjoys success in France, Austria, UK, Italy and Spain.
Launched in 2015, the Indian site partners with, among other shops, Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon. Consumers can compare and find deals on everything from high-tech to fashion. Smartphones, TVs and video games are some of the more popular categories, but the site also serves niche markets, offering a huge range of baby and children's products, such as prams and car seats, personal care items from beard trimmers to hair straighteners, and kitchen gadgets, such as mixies.
Can a German website like idealo be adapted for Indian consumers?
“Adding and adjusting the category structure to include popular Indian products, such as sarees or mixies, was the least of our problems”, Kalaichelvan sighs. “The entire website design was based on German preferences. When I say this, I mean that the pages have a high proportion of text. Words everywhere. Indian consumers expect a much more visual experience.”
Life at a Berlin start-up is an experience in and of itself. More conventional benefits, such as paid holiday and advanced training, are supplemented by a range of “quirky” perks: choice of 7 kinds of organic muesli for breakfast, a well-stocked cooking area for employees including fresh fruits and vegetables, and true to German culture, free beer at an after-work party every second Friday. A fleet of bicycles awaits employees for use during lunch breaks.
What surprised you about German start-up culture?
“German office culture is 180° opposite what we're used to in India”, says Kalaichelvan, who has 6 years' experience working in Chennai. He was particularly surprised by the concept of flat hierarchies: “You're given a goal, a deadline, and then you plan your own day without feeling constantly watched.” We don't even check in on the clock. Each is trusted to put in his or her 40 hours sometime during the week. “The atmosphere is very friendly, open and above all – free.”
And about Germany in general?
“Germans welcome foreigners, but they don't strike up long conversations or ask as many questions as Indians would expect.” Kalaichelvan explains that it's easy to misinterpret this behaviour: “It's not a lack of interest but simply politeness. Germans tend to be private people who need a lot of personal space, and they grant this privacy and space to foreigners who come here, too”. His advice for making friends: take the first step and ask a few polite questions about Berlin.