This blogpost was commissioned by The Guardian, appeared on their site on 25th October 2013 and was shared over 600 times. It caused quite a stir – more than I had expected – so see what you think.
Europe’s hippest city has a thriving startup ‘scene’, but beware, it’s not quite as wonderful as the media make out
I moved to Berlin in January this year and lived there for eight months, in which I gained and lost three jobs, two boyfriends, and one flat. Clearly, I had a whale of a time. Nonetheless, it’s not quite as wonderful as the media would have you believe. Here’s what I wish someone had told me beforehand:
1. The Berlin startup scene is a total bubble
It is without a doubt a ‘scene’: people value being part of it, they socialise within it, use startup buzzwords like UX and MVP, and in the process they cut off access to outsiders. Some people don’t actually know what startups are. Seriously. When I first got a whiff of the startup scene, I was intrigued, and I think I started emitting some kind of hormone and was quickly dragged into its orbit.
2. Wearing a tiger onesie to work isn’t necessarily a smart plan
This one I should have been able to work out for myself. Morale was low in the office as the future of our startup (Gidsy) was uncertain, and a tiger suit seemed like an excellent idea at the time. As it turns out, that was the day I was made redundant. So that was awkward. Lesson learned.
3. Nobody has a real job
Admittedly, people tried to warn me. Like a relationship with a dodgy new boyfriend, I said: “Oh but it’ll be different with me”. It’s not different. Proper, full-time jobs are few and far between, everybody else works weird hours for low pay, has various “projects” on the go which never materialise, and goes out on Sunday nights until 5am. It’s a totally unsustainable (if highly enjoyable) lifestyle.
4. It’s possible to fall down the party hole
Clubs stay open from Friday until Monday, so it’s no wonder that people don’t have real jobs. In fact, from my tireless field research, I’ve concluded that clubs are open all week too. Sometimes you find yourself coming home at 7am on a Wednesday, wondering what you’re doing with your life. Spotting a man with a syringe doesn’t help.
5. It’s incredibly inward-looking
Everyone living in it is very Berlin-centric. They talk about the city, they love it, they live and breathe it and they complain about it. They follow Berlin blogs, they post about Berlin on Facebook, they share Berlin moments like in-jokes. The very act of writing this is hypocritical because it’s all about Berlin. “Oh, how meta,” the hipsters would say.
6. Getting paid is a luxury not a right
There’s no minimum wage in Germany (land of plenty, yes, that economic superpower). Luckily, it’s possible to live even on the princely sum of €491 (£418) per month. Expats love to complain that rent is no longer cheap due to the flood of expats (!) driving up prices. However, my rent was €225 per month including bills. It wasn’t even a crack den.
7. Fail culture rules
Talk of failure is everywhere, and to be honest I would rather be winning. Startups choose to ‘fail fast, fail hard, embrace failure’, and so on. Sometimes this probably means: “We have no idea what we’re doing, but when we get it wrong it doesn’t matter because we’re a startup, and failure is awesome. The internet told me so.”
8. The independent bars and cafes are surprisingly similar
When I was a tourist in Berlin, I bemoaned the lack of indie cafes in London and preached to the uninitiated about the myriad places in Berlin. Living there made me realise that 90% of them have identikit mismatched vintage furniture, candles, and possibly the same playlist audible in the background. Still rather lovely though.
9. Nobody speaks German
That’s a slight exaggeration. However, despite spending time, money and effort grappling with the unwieldy German language, I found that I was surrounded by people from Spain, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, everywhere. So English is what you hear in the streets and the office, and Germans I met spoke it fluently. So all this “ich habe eine Schwester” business was frankly embarrassing.
10. Your circle of friends will be ever decreasing
Berlin is amazingly transient. When I arrived, I went to lots of networking events, and a friend who had been there for two years asked if I could take her along as many of her friends had already left the city. Fortunately, the constant shift means that people are very open and friendly, and you might leave with a different batch of pals than the ones you started with.
Ok, so it goes up to 11 … Hey, it worked for Spinal Tap.
11. The streets are not paved with gold
They are strewn with graffiti and crack-addled weirdos, but don’t let that stop you from visiting. A whirlwind weekend break in the city will leave you a little breathless and wanting more. I made the decision to break up with Berlin. We were in love, we fought a lot, and it was exhilarating for the most part, but I’m getting back together with London, my long-term love.
At the end of her time in Berlin, Lauren compiled a list of people to see, places to go, and more, in the form of the Berlin Startup Cheat Sheet.
You can see the original Guardian article here.