Three Months in Berlin: One Tech Entrepreneur’s Journey

5/8/14Follow @hirodusk

San Francisco is the center of the tech world. But after three months in Europe, my conclusion is that there’s a major new contender as a great place to start startups: Berlin.

In this article I’ll tell you about the companies and investors I got the chance to work with, and then talk about the city in general. You might also be interested in how my adventure got started.

Startups

I made contact with a total of about 30 companies. Of those, I had introductory meetings with 20, and went on to do short projects with five. Disclosure: I’m now a shareholder in some of these companies.

  • Clue. Makers of an iOS app app for women to track and predict their periods. 10 employees, ~$1 million seed funding. The long-term vision is “Fitbit for reproductive health,” and they have some fantastic new products in the works, including a hardware prototype that I got to check out. Their product already has early product-market fit, and they have a fantastic team, great brand, and a huge and valuable problem space. Clue is poised to go really big. I helped them with building an initial backend prototype, developing their product sprint process, and hiring their first backend engineer.
  • 6Wunderkinder. Makers of Wunderlist. 60 employees, ~$24 million in VC funding. These guys are one of the darlings of the Berlin startup scene, and after spending some time with their team, it’s not hard to see why. Their product seems almost too simple to be believable (millions in VC funding for a to-do list? what?), but their user engagement numbers and the partnerships they have in the pipe tell a different story. That’s probably why Sequoia led their last round. I helped them analyze the opportunity around an open API/platform for Wunderlist.
  • Opbeat. 6 employees, ~$3 million in VC funding, based in Copenhagen. Opbeat’s product hypothesis is to build a full set of tools for dev teams (5-15 developers) to be aware of what’s happening with their app in production. Whereas New Relic focuses on the app’s performance, Github focuses on the app’s codebase, and Splunk focuses on log analysis, Opbeat tries to bring these diverse realms together with a single tool. I spent my time with them doing customer interviews and mining usage data to better understand their product-market fit. Great team and clearly a problem space with a lot of potential.
  • Contentful. 12 employees, ~$1 million in seed funding. Their product targets mobile developers at digital agencies. They have a strong product based on an earlier iteration and a very impressive customer list, including some big brands paying $1,000/month, $5,000/month, and up. The problem is simple: Drupal and WordPress, the content management systems used by most web agencies, don’t have APIs out of the box, and aren’t very suitable for managing content for screens besides desktop Web. I helped them work on strengthening their marketing and positioning as they gear up for a launch, including referring the PR agency that helped tell our story at Heroku. We also spent some time streamlining their development process.
  • SoundCloud. 250 employees, ~$120 million in VC funding. This is the startup that put Berlin on the map. SoundCloud is all but ubiquitous among every musician I know, and they are now making a strong play on the consumer side as well, competing directly with products like iTunes and Rdio. Some people call them “the YouTube of audio,” which I think captures it pretty well: make a platform that content producers love, and content consumers will come as well. I only spent one day with SoundCloud, but I was deeply impressed by their team, their engineering and product processes, and their company culture. Being situated in Berlin has given SoundCloud some interesting advantages, such as the music-oriented culture of the city that fits well with its product.

All of these companies are hiring, so check out their jobs pages!

Investors

Europe’s investors are still small but scrappy, and many startups go to New York or San Francisco to raise money. Index Ventures is the biggest name in European VC. I had the chance to meet with some knowledgeable investors:

Christophe Maire is the Ron Conway of Europe. He’s been in seed rounds for everyone from SoundCloud to EyeEm to Clue. His office is the top two floors of a building in Mitte, which he runs as a sort of informal accelerator.

Ciarán O’Leary of EarlyBird is a very well-connected investor. He knows the European startup scene top to bottom, and he gave me a wonderfully impassioned (and very compelling) pitch on why Berlin is positioned to become one of the world’s next big startup hubs.

Harry Briggs of Balderton Capital. Balderton is a traditional VC, but Harry is down-to-earth and direct in a refreshing way. His portfolio is very interesting, running the gamut from surgical training to debit payments.

Events

Berlin has an incredibly vibrant meetup culture. The friendliness, enthusiasm, and number of attendees of the startup events I attended was impressive, considering the still somewhat early stage of the startup scene there. There are also a great many other kinds of meetups, from craft beer to language exchange to photography to quantified self.

If you’re in Berlin, the first startup event that should be on your list is hy!.

Panel at hy! demo day. Left to right: Hans Raffauf, Kristo Ovaska, and me (Adam Wiggins). Photo by Dan Taylor.

Panel at hy! demo day. Left to right: Hans Raffauf, Kristo Ovaska, and me (Adam Wiggins). Photo by Dan Taylor.

I had the good fortune to attend one of their events in my first week, and was very impressed by the program, the quality of speakers and presenting startups, and the super-cool venue. Attending a hy! event is a great way to sample the Berlin startup scene in just one day.

About the City

Berlin is a truly unique place, and after spending some time here it’s my sense that it’s the perfect substrate for a tech boom.

It’s spacious, yet incredibly easy to navigate on top-notch public transportation and bike paths. Nearly every street is lined with trees and other green growing things. I got to experience the city both under a gentle blanket of snow, and in the early throes of spring — both were beautiful.

Parks are huge and plentiful, and on sunny days they fill up with kids playing on the playgrounds, young adults drinking beer and setting up impromptu sound systems, and people of all ages playing sports and just relaxing in the sun.

Springtime in Berlin. Photo by Adam Wiggins

Springtime in Berlin. Photo by the author.

There’s a huge party / nightclub scene (hence the joke, “Berlin is where young people go to retire”). Music and musical events are everywhere; you can’t walk down any street without seeing a poster for some band’s new release (“das neue Album”).

Beautiful city + bike/walking friendly + great nightlife + low cost of living = exactly the sort of place most startup founders (and startup employees) want to live.

The difficult history of the region over the last hundred years certainly affects its nature today. After headquartering … Next Page »

Adam Wiggins is an entrepreneur, technologist, and product guy. He cofounded Heroku. Follow @hirodusk

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  • http://www.fuzendesign.com/ Fuzen Design

    Excellent post. Great writing too; It helped place me in Berlin though I’m thousands of miles away.

  • Herditall

    From the hype of the boom, the seeds of the bust…