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Breaking the “Berlin is Cool” Myth

I often wax poetic about Berlin’s specialness—there’s little question in my mind that this is one of the world’s most exciting, most interesting places to be. But “exciting” and “interesting” don’t have to be words that portray something positive. Berlin is a big city with a lot going on. In fact, it’s only been itself, in its newest iteration, for the past 25 years—since reunification. And in the past decade, the city has repeatedly seen itself listed as one of the world’s coolest cities, one that is rapidly changing.

When I first came to Berlin in the summer of 2011, I didn’t know what to expect. The city already had its reputation for cool; Kreuzberg was already the hipster mecca it still is today. I came to Berlin just as a tourist, but after a one-week holiday, it was immediately apparent that Berlin was somewhere I wanted to stay longer. So I did. And how did I stay? I did what so many before me had done, and what so many are still trying to do today: I got a job in Berlin’s startup scene.

“Job” is a word used loosely here. It was actually an internship. And, at the time, I thought it was pretty cool. It was paid—albeit terribly. But, I thought, it would give me the chance to get into the “scene.” To meet other entrepreneurs, to find inspiration, to start doing something. In the end, I do think it was a good thing. I made some of my best friends those three months. And I learned a lot about what I don’t want to do: in life, in business, in Berlin. I was already 26 at the time, so maybe that was a bit late to be learning life & career lessons, but hey—you gotta start somewhere. And in this day and age, it seems like our generation is constantly stuck in this struggle.

My relationship with startup companies is a complicated one. On the one hand, I strongly believe in entrepreneurship. Hell, it’s what I’m doing right here with this blog. You might not know it—but this blog is a big part of my success as a freelancer. (Actually, it’s 100% responsible for my success as a freelancer.) On the other hand, I believe startups are responsible for a lot of the problems affecting my generation. We’re supposed to like startups that disrupt society. And I do; I think change is important and we shouldn’t be afraid. But it’s my belief that a lot of startups, including those “cool” ones regularly making headlines in Berlin, are doing things at the expense of workers rights. My generation maybe has more opportunities for new things, for better things—hell, even for a better life. But at what cost? We don’t have as many jobs. We don’t have as much security in our future.

In Berlin, sometimes those problems get lost in the whirlwind world of cheap parties, long nights and the “live free” attitude that’s come to embody “cool Berlin.” So, when I saw my friend Liam post the following story about his own startup experience, I thought it was important enough to share. I don’t always write about the negative things on this blog, but it’s an important part of life in Berlin…and one that’s surprisingly neglected in many Berlin blogs and local media.

Berlin at sunset

Berlin’s Shitty Startup Scene

By Liam Docherty

At some point in Europe’s history there was a cool contest where it was decided that Berlin is the coolest place in the universe. The contest involved cities like New York who preached to Stockholm about his gay vegan cooking blog. London was there too, wearing a top hat “like totally ironically”, telling Paris about the new bands that Paris hadn’t heard, but had definitely heard the name of. They all sat around on mismatched sofas waiting for the announcement. The winner was Berlin, but where was Berlin? Not there of course, Berlin was 36 hours into a drug fuelled underground fetish party taking place in an old squat house. Berlin chose not to give a fuck about being cool and didn’t show up, because not giving a fuck is the coolest thing you can do.

Berlin startups are like everything else in Berlin, cool! Contracted to work 40 hours per week, but work 50+ and only get paid for 40? Don’t worry you are working for a cool startup, you are on the forefront of a new business venture! Working on a 6 month intern contract, hoping they don’t replace you with another intern after it’s done? At least you have ‘Manager’ in your title, that’s cool right? It must make you feel important when you’re talking to all the other Managers in your open space office about how cool it is you get free Club Mate.

Working for a startups is like going to a casino for the night. Everyone turns up wearing what the unwritten dress code expects. Everyone is trying to look like they know what they are doing, throwing around money in the hope they will hit it big. Arrogant arseholes everywhere, bullshitting everyone into thinking they have the winning strategy. Many people are sitting at machines for hours on end, longer than they know they should. At some point someone might hit it big, but it’s not you, it’s never you… it’s the rich kid who’s making bets with his Dad’s money. He cashes out as the investors take his company.. sorry I mean chips, and you get to keep your job.. sorry I mean, come back to the casino… wait, what were we talking about again?

People working for startups are generally held hostage by the idea that, “if this company makes it big, I’m in on the ground floor!” That’s why people work massive amounts of overtime for no extra pay, and why no one wants to be the first to leave. Got to impress to boss right? If he only sees me doing an hour and a half of overtime per day he might pull me to one side and tell me I don’t seem motivated (actually a thing that happened). Don’t forget he’s giving you “a great opportunity” by letting you work here (another thing that actually happened), by which he means a great opportunity to make him rich.

Let’s imagine a scenario where the company doesn’t fail, you don’t get fired from the startup after your 6 month internship is over, i.e. now they have to pay you more than 1200 Euros per month, and stay long enough for the company to be bought. Do you get a share of the millions from the acquisition? No, you get to keep your job and maybe get a pay rise to bring you up to what people in better companies make at entry level. However, you can impress everyone on Linkedin now you’re the “Customer Care Executive”, “Code Ninja” or a “Big Data Scientist” (all actual job titles I found on job boards).

This serves as more of a warning to anyone thinking of coming to the epicentre of cool that is Berlin to begin your cool new life; That is, if you can even get a job in the first place, but that’s a article for another time. With all that said, not all Berlin’s startups are exploitative bullshitting conventions. You can work for some genuinely cool ones and meet great people working for them. Although I’m British and being negative comes naturally to me. Maybe being undervalued and overworked is your thing, whatever you’re into I guess.

Don’t forget, most startups are sinking ships waiting for investors to come and plug the hole with money. The captain untying the only life boat with one hand while telling everyone “No really, everything is fine, just keep scooping the water out and we’ll hit dry land soon! What do you mean your arms are getting tired, I’m giving you an opportunity here!”

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Posted by IMO Reviews on Sunday, May 24, 2015


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  1. Great article. I think the coolness of startups means that many 20-somethings are prepared to sacrifice salary, their time and rights to part of the next big thing.

    But the truth is that 85% of startups fail.

    However, while you´re part of one you will learn more than you can ever learn in some corporate boxy job. You´ll learn how to get things done. Even if you´re taken advantage of in the process, that education is invaluable.

    I started at a startup, got fired when we run out of money. But after 6 months I had enough experience and self-esteem to hawk myself as a freelance copywriter. My hourly rate was 4-5x what I was earning before (minimum wage) and my workload was much lower.

    So I´d say – get involved, learn hustle, set your boundaries (your boss will be a shark, don´t worry about being fired or asserting yourself, they´ll respect you more). Then get out of there once you´ve learned what you can.

    Then you can experience Berlin like the god-sent city it is.

    • Adam says:

      Thanks Alex for your helpful comment. I think you’re right — there is a lot to be learned from working in a startup, I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of so many other things. I’d like to think we could live in a world where you can learn in more helpful and supportive environments. Unfortunately not everyone is able take the risks with the potential rewards for working in a startup :/

    • Clairikine says:

      Good points!

  2. Tina says:

    And Berlin is a city with already some lower wages in Germany – it might be cheaper to live but even in a non start up business I would earn 40% less just because its berlin…

    • Adam says:

      That’s a good point Tina. I’m also fairly certain that Berlin has one of the highest unemployment rates in Germany. Things don’t always look so good here.

  3. Sofie says:

    An article that makes you think, Adam. Thanks for sharing it.
    Also: “I was already 26 at the time, so maybe that was a bit late to be learning life & career lessons, but hey—you gotta start somewhere. And in this day and age, it seems like our generation is constantly stuck in this struggle.”
    >>> I’m 28 and I feel like I’m only now slightly starting to get a clue of things. Slightly:)

    • Adam says:

      Thanks Sophie. And yeah, I’m now 30 and I have no clue what I’m doing. I honestly feel we have a lot more options in front of us in this day and age—a double-edged sword, I guess. More options requires more time to figure everything out. Things were maybe simpler before?

  4. Angel says:

    Well, not that bad as here in Spain. We’re used to that since long ago, not only in start-ups but in big and multinational corporations. I will talk about my field: software, games and ICT companies

    Except for some exceptions, you’re hired for 40 hours/week and end up doing a schedule 8am to 8pm-10pm as a rule with two unending hours for lunch, and of course, no overtime paid. This happens either in startups (less cases I think) as in big and multinational corporations (more often). In addition, in Spain we have a huge problem with outsourcing, and a worker may have passed through 2, 3, 4 or more companies to get to the final client where he’s finally working.

    As I read in this blog in Berlin an internship is 6 months and you’re paid 1200 euros per month. In Spain you’re an internship if you are an under-3-years-experienced worker, and the internship is 400€-600€ per month. So you can be hired for 6 months as internship at a company, fired, then hired again by the same company another 6 months, etc. If you’re lucky and are hired as a normal worker (i.e. software developer) maybe you’re paid 1000€ per month and if you’re luckier and have more than 3 years of experience, you may have 1300€ – 1600€ euros per month…

    • Adam says:

      Thanks Angel for your comment and insight. And I think you’re totally right that multinational companies are taking advantage of workers just as well. It’s a bit frustrating and I think many of our government regulations are also partly to blame…

  5. Michael Collins says:

    Do not really understand your complains . That is what entrepreneurship or these “startups” are about, do a lot of things at the cost of doing loads of hours to become profitable and someone in the market scene. If you are not happy with, get a job in a multinational or create your own “startup” and you will realise how difficult is to deal with finances.

    • Adam says:

      Hey Michael – I think part of the problem lies in the fact that not everyone has the ability nor necessarily the interest in creating their own startup. Society and government have forced many people into these situations. And while someone like myself can make it work for my benefit, not everyone has the same opportunity. That’s what concerns me about the current state of the job market and how many startups work.

      • Michael Collins says:

        Well yeah I agree and understand what you say, but that is a different discussion. Fact is that you gotta sacrifice your self if you choose -or want to be a part of – to be entrepreneur. if you want to become someone in any industry -nowadays completely dominated by big multinationals-. The reason why the market is like that is another story,google lobbies and governments and so on.. So if you wanna make your own way you have to do this sort of sacrifice. Otherwise you need to re think how to drive your career. Anyway good article and is been a pleasure to comment.

  6. the_frickerman says:

    100% same Story here. Got to Berlin with 26 (now already 30) and worked for a Startup. Well, a Company that after 2 years got international and had 100+ workers and still called itself a “Startup” just to justify our shitty wages. Started as an intern earning less than 600 netto and after probation period I was lucky to get 1200€ brutto just because i complained a lot… Result? I got “blacklisted” and wouldn’t be taken into account for promotions for being the “worker’s rights pain in the ass”. Luckily I left the Company after a year and a half (funny, the CEO would talk to my Manager about lengthening the contract another year, but not to me directly, he knew I would kick his ass because already many People who left earlier than me said to him that he was a total incompetent). this was just the tip of the iceberg, I can tell you that…

    Now I happily work for a Little Company on my field of studies earning over 2000€ Brutto in Havelland. The bad Thing is that this has happenned already in my 3rd year here and I’m already quite burned from living abroad. But well… Congrats for the post, can relate to it 100%!!

    • Adam says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and story — I think more people need to share this kind of information as I’ve generally found most talk of the Berlin startup scene to be overwhelming positive and inspirational—when sometimes the reality is quite different. Not in every case, obviously, but in plenty.

      It’s so important to share.

  7. troin says:

    Being an entrepeneur is always a harsh thing to do. Think things in berlin are difficult ? Try doing the same thing in spain.

    Its easy to say “the captain holds on to the only life vest”. The captain is putting all of the money in. If you get fired cos the company sinls you have to find another job.your boss not only is left with no job, but also with no money and having lost quite a lot of it while developing the failed startup idea.

    The problem comes because people dont realize this. Working on a startup is extremely hard. Long hours, a lot of production, and one bad choice in developing, using a certain technology or hiring the wrong guy, can get you out of the business quick

    • the_frickerman says:

      Then don’t hire anybody, my friend. Is someone pointing a gun to the entrepreneurs to hire People? Then be freelance! Oh, I get it! We all love lots of zeroes to the right in our bank accounts at the end of the month! You wanna be rich? Then treat your fucking employees properly! If the work conditions are gonna be harsh, then be honest and say it upright. It’s the Minimum you owe to People on which are gonna depend.

      Relationship worker-owner is strictly symbiotic, and only like this should be understood and interpreted.

    • Adam says:

      Hi Troin, Not arguing with your point here, but I think there is sometimes a little too much glorification of founders and entrepreneurs, and not enough respect given to workers. Just because a startup company is taking risk does not make it immune to to proper work conditions.

  8. Unimpressed says:

    Your article is incredibly superficial (hipster, cool, coolest, vegan cooking… How old are you? fifteen? By the way, how many times repeat your friend the word “cool”?).

    The startup mentality is everywhere, whether you are in Berlin, Paris, or any other medium-large city. Ask to Apple workers or any startup in Silicon Valley how many hours they are working and how much they pay them. People don’t become entrepreneurs because they like it, but no to be exploited by someone else.

    An economy based on speculation, derivatives, toxic bank assets, corruption and the impunity enjoyed by financial felons and corrupted politicians is the reason to the exploitation that we, European citizens are suffering, whether this comes from startups, a traditional company or the public sector. How is it possible?

    Banks can lend more money than what they have, so money is “created” in an artificial way (there is more money in circulation -through bank accounts, paypal accounts, etc. – that what actually physically exists), more money means less value for that money (offer-demand), so your salary is a shit even if they pay you all the hours you’ve worked and you have a +1000 euro salary. Bottom line the problem is not the place but the corruption.

    Evading exploitation by “living in Europe’s most hypster city” is probably one of the dumbest ideas I have heard in my entire life. On the other hand describe a city like Berlin in that way shows your absolutely lack of general knowledge and common sense.

    Honestly, if I have to give you a piece of advice, I will tell you: Travel more! Get a dictionary of synonyms! Start reading something serious (politics, literature, history and economy) and stop reading that lifestyle/snob travel rubbish that infects your judgment and your article.

    I really hope that your graphic work is much better than your rational thinking, for your own good.

  9. Kathryn says:

    I worked in IT for many years and most of the companies I worked for were ‘uncool’. A few times I thought about moving to somewhere more cutting edge until the money talk started. I actually had an interview with an indie record label who figured working in the “music industry” should involve long hours and crap pay. No thanks.

    Having a less cool job with the time and money to do cool things suited me better.

  10. Serge says:

    After 4 years in London, I moved to Berlin just a few days ago.. Can’t say I agree with everything about the startups bit, but I’d say there are points that make a lot of sense. Particularly the gambling bit, working in a startup only for a year I couldn’t understand so many things and also did in fact understand so much about myself.

    Firstly, when it happened that we hit big or just reached crazy targets, everyone was cheering to directors’ praise for no apparent reason. It’s like everyone seemed delusional that somehow the company’s profits benefited us in any way. On the other hand, I started to feel the atmosphere made me become competitive in a bad way, I didn’t want to bring a positive change in the company anymore but rather be better than my colleagues.

    Unlike a big part of graduates in London, I was lucky enough to have a job, but as you said, it came at the expense of so many things. Although I wouldn’t say I was working for a low wage, I couldn’t enjoy any of it. I was even resting or partying for the sole purpose of coming refreshed to work. I feel there’s loads to be learned out of it, so looking back it was a good thing. At least I now know what I don’t want.

    So, I really hope you’re wrong about startups here, at least about some of them.

  11. Alicia says:

    This article touches most of the things that no one else dares to talk about, which is great so people who’re seriously considering moving to Berlin and work in the startup scene know beforehand about the disadvantages of moving to work in tech there. True, this article uses many words like hipster, vegan etc. but that is not accidental, those are actual terms that the Berlin tech scene uses, same as with “code ninja” and if that makes it sound superficial it’s not the writers fault but it actually describes the city. I know a lot of people will dislike negative comments about their beloved city because they’ve experienced nice things there and whatnot or simply because they like to party there but that doesn’t change the fact that the Berlin tech scene is a not a safe bet (or even a positive move on your career.) I am an American who has an American science BA and a European science MSc. and the best offer I could get in Berlin after more than 1 year was as a translator. And then, when I finally got a position in the “scene” I could finally see how immature tech in Berlin actually is. It is literally decades behind London (where I got a short contract before) and Silicon Valley (where I currently work at). My two cents here is that I agree with almost everything that has been written here plus: If you really value your skills or your company DO NOT move to Berlin. It will be wasted time. There are better places where you can move your career or company forward. The ones on top of my head are: Stockholm, Milan, London, Amsterdam (not Paris) in Europe and NY, Silicon Valley, Denver, Raleigh, Toronto and Seattle in America.

    • Adam says:

      Thank you Alicia for sharing your experience and your thoughtful advice – I really appreciate it!

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