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Berlin – the Perfect City for Freelancers?

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With more and more regularity, I wonder if Berlin is truly my kind of city. I’ve read all the articles extolling the benefits of Berlin as the best city for expats, for freelancers, for entrepreneurs but after nearly 6 years living, working, freelancing and creating my way through the city, I’m done drinking the Kool-Aid.

Berlin is not the best city for freelancers. I’m not even sure it’s a great city for freelancers.

I can already see your comments and your tweets, the snarky Facebook shares. I know what I’m saying and I’ve got not just my own experiences to back it up, but those of friends and acquaintances who I’ve watched similarly fail. I’m not sure when I’m going to publish this, but as I write it (it’s late in March 2017), the sun is shining and it’s nearly 20º.

To be totally honest, it feels silly writing the words “Berlin is not the best” when it’s a Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting half-naked in a Berlin park (Volkspark Friedrichshain, hey!), drinking a Club Mate (manna from heaven). There are some 35 odd other people on this patch of grass, each reading a book, listening to music or chatting with friends. Bikes are parked in the grass, a handful of them are eating snacks with makeshift picnics. For 14:00 on a Tuesday, it does seem pretty magical.

My über hipster bike in Volkspark Friedrichshain

But it’s all a red herring. I know, for myself, I should be writing a guide at this very moment, finalizing the designs of a new travel app and setting up the marketing campaign for a new travel contest. But I’ve shaken off all my duties because today is the first day in a while when the sun is shining. Self-control is tough as a freelancer, and as a Berlin-based freelancer? Forget about it.

In Berlin, when the sun comes out (which is rare, but not unheard of), the city really does come alive. People stop just about everything; it’s considered an acceptable excuse for a break. Understandably so, too, because really Berlin does have an incredible atmosphere in the warmer months.

Imagine a city where it’s legal to drink in public spaces, where cold beers can be as cheap as 80 cents. A city full of young people, one where artists and performers can actually live within their means. A city where the unemployed are provided generous and deserved social support, and one with a diverse population of immigrants, migrants, refugees, and countless people looking for a better life. There’s an atmosphere in Berlin in the sun, and it’s truly special. Who wouldn’t pass it up?

People who have to work—that’s who.

The thing about working for yourself in Berlin—whether you’re an artist, an entrepreneur, a freelancer, a writer, whatever—you’ve got to hustle. And while hustling is never very easy, in Berlin, the hustle is T-O-U-G-H.

Oberholz in Rosenthaler Platz

Berliners are famous for their Berliner Schnauze—that attitude that makes people a little less than friendly. But it’s not just that; it’s the fact that there just isn’t much work nor much money in Berlin. High unemployment rates and a city that is notoriously averse to foreign works makes for a tough environment for anyone, let alone those looking for a fresh start from almost nothing.

Obviously, Berlin can be and often is a great city to live in. That’s why it makes it on top of so many “most livable” city lists. But the thing is you’ve still got to start from something. If you’re a nobody in Berlin, you’ll continue to be a nobody—the rise up from the Berlin bottom isn’t easy.

To be fair, there are plenty of things in the city which make it easy for freelancers. A laid-back attitude to “too-much-work”, a drive for creativity, a heavily caffeinated coffee culture, cheap beer, plenty of vegan food, and decent wifi options.

But there are a lot of potential problems. Mostly: mobile data doesn’t come cheap in Germany, Berliners can be and often are quite cold and protective of their domain; there’s still a lot of racism and fear of foreigners. Some are norms, some are exceptions to the rule. But Berlin is not paradise.

So where is that perfect place for the freelancer, the free-spirited entrepreneur? Spoiler alert: there’s nowhere. Every city, every place has its advantages and disadvantages for every type of person, every type of company, every creative endeavor. It’s purely personal choice. For some, maybe Berlin is paradise (looking at you DJs and street huskers with more resolve than myself). For others, it’s maybe New York City or Barcelona or London or Hong Kong or Chiang Mai.

For me? I still haven’t found it.

  1. Cool article and definitely written from the heart. We felt similarly disillusioned with Chiang Mai, for different reasons. Keep the articles coming :)

    • Adam says:

      Oh I never really liked Chiang Mai. Just couldn’t find my place there and it all felt a bit too much and not very exciting…

  2. Unscene Berlin says:

    You’ve scratched the surface of the problem with freelancing. Berlins poor economy and corrupt government have conspired to turn the word “freelance” into a euphemism for “zero hours casual contract with no benefits”. Witness the waiters cleaners haircutters and other regular staff who are forced to take freelance contracts. I think you’re very lucky if the worst thing you can say about freelancing is that partying gets in the way; live here a few years longer and you’ll be like the rest of us: too poor & stressed out to even enjoy that rare day in the sun

    • Adam says:

      Oh definitely! I had my fair share of startup jobs/contracts in Berlin and they were truly awful. Search my archives and you’ll find all my anger about the lack of a minimum wage in Germany (until recently, of course). You’re 100% right that the problem is more than just sunshine!

  3. Barry S. Brownstein says:

    There are too many variables to have firm consensus on “best”. One could easily argue for New york City but the expense is quite prohibitive.
    There are places that , for some reason, never show up i.e. Sydney or Melbourne Australia, Toronto.
    I live in Thailand and I couldn’t live in Chiang Mai but I’m very happy as a retiree in Pattaya. Different strokes for different folks.

  4. Alton Clay says:

    I am completely disappointed with Berlin. Summer is great (2 months) but the rest of the year…buf. I can’t stand the “Berliner Schnauze”, the cues in Supermarket, Discos… they love cues and bureaucracy, and arrogance…
    Drugs are a bit too much spread out and sometimes it looks like a psychiatric open air hospital. And you need drugs over there, otherwise you are not there.
    I think that it is a city just overrated at moment what helps gentrification and mafias.
    I had so many bad things about this wonderful city that finally, and sadly, I agree.
    Bye bye Berlin!

    • Adam says:

      Queus, bureaucracy, arrogance! Brilliant way to put it. Agree 100% that drugs have become just way too normalized in Berlin. It’s sad because there are so many interesting, unique, and creative people in Berlin – just too many lost. Oh and don’t even get me started on the supermarkets – DRIVES ME CRAZY!

  5. Justin Schumakar says:

    I don’t think Berlin is good for freelancers as i heard or read somewhere that Berlin has poor economy and some other major facts makes it bad for freelancers.

  6. Bas says:

    Been hearing similar complaints in the last couple of months. Have been living here for six years and I still make a living, but me and other friends have grown tired of the imperfections of Berlin that most ‘real’ locals (whatever that may be) just accept.
    Yes, it is a city of unlimited choices and possibilities. But it would be really nice to make decent money, to have less bureaucracy, less drugs and a bit less freedom and more friendliness.

  7. Giulia says:

    YES to all of this (that’s why I left for good two months ago), but I do think you can make it as a freelancer in Berlin. The secret? Have all your jobs/money come from somewhere else. This is sad but true, and it also speaks to how privileged we really are as foreigners that we have this option. By the end of my time in Berlin, I had one Stuttgart client, one Munich client, one London client, and a whole lot of American clients. Berlin companies just paid too damn low!

    • Adam says:

      I relate to all of that on so many different levels – interesting to hear you had the same experience Giulia because I always thought you had it different! Also congrats on escaping the city – I may have some news on that front myself soon ;)

  8. Binh Ba says:

    nice post, thank you.

  9. Serhat Engul says:

    Berlin is absolutely great city for having fun and experiencing the well-founded culture of GErmany. It’s my kind of city too. Nice to read it from your view.

  10. amy says:

    Contracts that aren’t with Berliner/German companies is the key! :)

  11. Georgette says:

    Have the folks who arrived over the past 10 years perhaps had too high expectations of Berlin? with many also anticipating blossoming largely on a language other than the native one?
    Berlin is of course struggling considering the people-flood and ensuing excellerated gentrification. But Berlin has grown from sleepy, walled province to multi-everything in the nearly 30 years I’ve been here. The tempo and change have been amazing, and it still offers endless exploration and inspiration – while remaining a very grounded city.
    German friends are true, friends for life.
    Yes, summers could be longer, much, and more consistent, much.
    ps plenty of circles without drugs – maybe next time.
    Good luck in the apple!

  12. Kaz says:

    Another thing that people don’t seem to bring up is the compulsory health insurance. There are few subsidies for freelancers in Germany and the COMPULSARY health insurance is super expensive. I’m a 30yo female with an allergy to cats. My insurance is €407 PER MONTH. This is a cost I need to pay completely out of my own pocket. Unless you earn over €59000 (by which point you qualify for public healthcare which is a fraction less) My clientele is all overseas based so I’m lucky, but this cost is still crippling.

    • Adam says:

      Yep – I paid a lot for healthcare in Germany, too! There were always extra unexpected costs to being self-employed…

  13. Little Londoner says:

    Interesting article, I am just about to embark upon a new journey in life. I’m Swedish living in Sweden at the moment, but used to live in London for 11 years.

    I have really fallen in love with Berlin and am looking forward to try a freelance opportunity there. So, this is of course a bit of a worrying article =).

    But, as a soon to be former lawyer, working 80-100 hours a week. I am for a while at least, seeing the freedom worth more than any money in the world…I say that now of course…with peace of mind and a solid income…

    I will look forward to reading more of your articles.

    //Little Londoner

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