Berlin & Los Angeles


Expats: Navigating The Berlin Start-up Scene

If you've ever been part of an expat scene you'll already be well aware of the potential for partying, networking and having a whole lot of fun with like-minded travellers. However, what's it like if you're looking to stay a while and start up a small independent business?

That's just one of the questions currently being asked by expats in Berlin. From finding a place to live to ducking out of the way of an almost permanently grey winter's sky, Germany's urban art and cultural capital doesn't always live up to all the über cool expectations.

Below are a few important but not so glamorous points to take into consideration before jumping on-board the expat start-up bus to Berlin and if you're one of the highly qualified and adventurous wannabe movers and shakers then right here is where you get to know your Bockwursts from your Berliners.

Berlin's start-up scene is nothing like the rest of the city

Design agencies, classic bike shops and pretty much any type of digital service that can be abbreviated to a two or three letter acronym have all quickly found their feet in the Berlin start-up scene and if you're hoping to join in then all expats are readily welcome. And there in lies the first point: the Berlin start-up scene for expats is nothing like the rest of the capital and although you're bound to meet loads of cool hipsters and cultural gurus you're less likely to get a real feel for the city's permanent residents so beware of funky looking imitations.

Finding work can be a little depressing

Poor pay, unsocial hours and not much in the way of security definitely describes Berlin's expat start-up scene and if you're one of the 'oh so optimistic' bright young things that thinks that this is no way going to happen to you then be prepare to take a few knocks to your confidence along the way. That said, start-ups do happen and can work well in Berlin and although the city can be perceived of something of a bureaucratic nightmare, it's bark is often a lot worse than its bite. Note: until recently Germany didn't have a minimum wage however, this has now changed and if you're not offered at least 8.50€ for an hour's work then you might want to look more closely at your employer's ethical credentials.

Partying can become a way of life

Like most capital cities in Europe, Berlin's party scene holds legendary status and there's no group that loves the nocturnal life more than the expats which is why it can sometimes present a relatively unhealthy work life balance. With weekends stretching from Friday night until Monday morning and numerous weekday clubs opening until the wee small hours, there's definitely every chance of losing yourself and your savings down the party hole so just watch out for the pitfalls before you slide too far.

External influences can get diluted

The whole reason that most expats looking to start-up a business in Berlin is that they'll be challenged to integrate into a new culture and expand their mind and their enterprise in terms of experiencing a new and exciting environment. Hmm, that's just the thing. No sooner has anyone arrived as an expat then they become so absorbed by the city that they kind of forget that anywhere else on the planet exists. This introverted outlook on life is a wonderful Berlin-centric novelty to begin with but then, after a while, you might come to miss looking out as opposed to continually looking in.


Living can be easy

Any expats who have become established within Berlin's start-up scene will certainly testify that although wages can be low, rental accommodations and cost of living can be fairly low too. Although, it is starting to rise in some areas, especially those inhabited by expats. With this in mind, looking for a flat in the city can be a fairly affordable affair and more so if you're prepared to hunt around but, as always, having the right real estate connections is certainly a plus because it's often who you know that can make all the difference when looking for a place to live.

Start-ups can be slightly down on themselves

The whole thing about setting up a new company or business in a new country is that you're kind of going in with no real concerns for failure. There are plenty of factors that provide an easy escape route as to why a company hasn't succeeded and from the language barriers and the people to the weather and the food, start-ups in Berlin quickly become an adjective for poor performance which needn't be the case. Best advice for any new start-up company run by expats in Berlin is to treat the venture with the respect it deserves because although you might not plan to be there for a long time, who's to say you can't achieve success whilst away from home.

Getting to learn the language can be nigh on impossible

Unless you're prepared to root out the more elderly residents of Berlin, which can usually be found around sunrise queuing outside the bakeries, it's not that easy to pick up the German language simply by existing in the city as pretty much everyone has the ability to speak English. No sooner than you've opened your mouth to attempt to communicate in the native tongue than you'll be greeted with perfect English and if you're intending to stay within the expat start-up bubble then you might as well kiss your German language skills auf wiedersehen before they've even begun.

Making friends is easier than keeping them

As with all expat communities this sort of group is more transient than ducks in the winter and if you're hoping to make merry as you get involved with long, lasting and meaningful relationships then you might want to redefine your ideals. The Berlin expat scene is always changing and from people passing through to those start-ups that crash and burn in a blaze of glory, not many of the pals that you'll meet at the beginning will be there to wave cheerio at the end.

Final thoughts

So, if you've got the urge to join the start-up scene in Berlin then beware of the pitfalls that lie in wait and best advice is to try to think about what you want to gain from the experience before you dive head long down the rabbit hole – after all Berlin is truly an inspiring city.

PS: a great workshop by expath is held monthly at kulturspace: How to Become a Freelancer in Berlin more info

Justin Merino