Berlin Life: Four Entrepreneurs On Living In “Poor But Sexy” Berlin

Berlin_ent

It was Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit, Germany’s first openly-gay politician, who drew on the city’s nostalgic decadent past, by declaring, “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” (poor but sexy). It was a phrase that encapsulated the post-unification capital.

Unlike most European capitals, Berlin is not the country’s richest city. But rents are still cheap (though going up) and the city’s reputation as a counter-culture has proved to be an irresistible lure to a new generation of entrepreneurs.

Informilo asked four entrepreneurs, none of whom grew up in the city, what it was that attracted them to move to Berlin and what advice they would give anyone thinking of following their path.

Julia Bösch

Position: CEO, Outfittery
From: Konstanz, Germany

How did you end up in Berlin?
I wanted to found my own company since I was 16 but rather than starting a company right out of university, I wanted to see first how you do this. I moved to Berlin to join this online shoe company — Zalando — which was just one year old back then.

What keeps you here?
Berlin is a huge playground. You can explore new things and get inspiration all the time. It is all about the people that surround you. In Berlin you meet a lot of people who inspire you because they are kind of crazy.

How easy is it to run a company in Berlin?
What is very important for us is that there are lot of creative people. Half of our team, about 100 people, are stylists and experts on fashion. For that, Berlin is perfect because so many creative people move here.

Berlin also has a different cost structure. If we had set our company up in London, there is a whole different salary level, office costs, and so on that we would have to pay.

How important is German?
It is not an issue.

What advice would you give for anyone setting up in the city?
Provide someone to help new employees work with the authorities. We accompany them to meetings to make sure that this really important part of getting into Berlin is handled smoothly.

Jens Begemann

Position: CEO, Wooga
From: Detmold, Germany

How did you end up in Berlin?
After university, I was thinking of setting up my own company but was not ready. I started to work for a start-up called Jamba. My goal was to learn how a start-up works for a few of years and then do my own thing. Then I founded my own company — Wooga.

What keeps you here?
You can live in Berlin if you are interested in arts and music and you want to have a quiet life. The eastern districts are where many of the students live and where parties happen all the time, where the clubs are open at 2AM, or there are raves before work.

I live in Prenzlauer Berg. Five or 10 years ago it was the hip place. Now the hip people have babies, but they still live there.

How easy is it to run a company in Berlin?
Germany has a reputation for bureaucracy. There is a different attitude compared to the U.S. or UK. We have always carefully selected our employees so from a practical point of view it’s fine.

How important is German?
You can get along perfectly well in English in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. There are some restaurants where the waiters don’t even speak German.

What advice would you give for anyone setting up in the city?
Hire for Berlin, not in Berlin. Perhaps one-third of people who we hire were in Berlin. The rest we brought in from abroad.

Naren Shaam

Position: CEO, GoEuro
From: Bangalore, India

How did you end up in Berlin?
We are building the largest ground transportation and distribution system for all of Europe. I was looking for an ecosystem. There are really only three in Europe: London, Berlin, and Stockholm. Stockholm was a bit disconnected from the rest of Europe. London was too expensive.

What keeps you here?
There is not this quest for chasing money. People prefer a better quality of life than material things. Quality of life plays a very big part. It is very good city for a mix of art and fashion. When you combine this with technology you find a lot of very creative people here.

How easy is it to run a company in Berlin?
If I compare it to the U.S., Germany is heavily bureaucratic. But given the challenges we face as a start-up, the bureaucracy of the Germans is not a limiting factor.
When you are building a pure engineering-driven organization, you need to be able to hire a lot of engineers at a very affordable price. The talent all comes here.

How important is German?
You don’t need to speak German to do well in Berlin.

What advice would you give for anyone setting up in the city?
You need a very senior German person in the company who can take care of all the logistics of setting up an office, the legalities, tax, etc. Hire that person early.

Tim Nilsson

Position: Managing Director, Glispa
From: Stockholm, Sweden

How did you end up in Berlin?
I had run my own company but the dotcom bubble burst. I applied for a lot of different jobs around Sweden and Europe. There were a couple of brothers — Oliver and Marc [Samwer] — [who] were hiring people from all over the world. I was recruited to work with Jamba.

What keeps you here?
There is a great feeling of freedom. There is a lot of space. The city really has everything. I have lived in lots of places before Berlin. None of them had that feeling. You have more energy to be successful because you get so much energy back from the city.

How easy is it to run a company in Berlin?
It was very easy to go to London and set up. But in Berlin to set up a company is not a streamlined process. [However] I do not think we could have acquired the talent we have acquired anywhere else. We would never have been able to bring this kind of talent from 36 nationalities to London or to New York. It would’ve been super pricey and we would not have got the same talent.

How important is German?
I speak fluent German, but you don’t need it.

What advice would you give for anyone setting up in the city?
Make use of whatever support networks you can. If there is a relocation company that can helping foreigners, use it.

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