January has kicked off with a crop of awards and events. This year, Berlin and its startup industry are getting more media attention than ever before. But is this new slew of ceremonies welcome, or indeed positive, for the tech and startup scene? Our resident commentator Christoph Rathke thinks perhaps not…
“Self-celebrating events and back-slapping protagonists”
Jan 15: German Startup Awards
Jan 18 & 19: hy! Berlin
Jan 20: DLD Munich
Jan 22: The Europas
It’s January 2013, and the Berlin startup scene is off to a bad start…
Some people think that 2013 will be a crucial year for Berlin’s startup ecosystem – a year that will have to show if there’s substance behind what has been publicly celebrated so much in 2011 and 2012. I’m one of them. And part of the reason why is the way in which 2013 kicks off with a bona fide onslaught of self-celebrating events and protagonists whose backs are still blushing from 2011 and 2012’s back-slapping barrage. The slapping itself is done by other protagonists whose palms are still hot and pink for the same reason.
I mean – four events within a WEEK! Of these four (despite being held in Munich, I’m including DLD because, from my impression two years ago, it’s a field day for the Berlin circle), three have no roots in and no meaning to the local ecosystem. And three of them hold startup competitions or “awards” while two of those don’t award anything to nominees or winners but a mention on their respective websites.
The pull of sheer vanity
Two of them are, if you break it down, not much more than someone creating a Survey Monkey sheet with a list of good-looking startups, posting the link around in a closed group of friends and then celebrating the outcome. The secret sauce here is creating such a huge amount of award categories, each of which of course needs a jury or a panel, that you can fill any venue just through the pull of sheer vanity – “I’m a nominee/in the jury/a presenter/on a panel/a sponsor, so of course I need to be there.”
The gap between business, people and appearances
Now you could say that all this is pretty useless but at least it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why not just let the children play? In my view, there are three reasons. One is what I see as the widening gap between business, people and appearances in the Berlin startup scene. The second is what I believe to be an unhealthy state of reporting and discourse. And the third is the focus on the wrong things that comes with the self-congratulatory frenzy that this year starts off with.
Let’s address these points individually. By and large, the biggest claim to fame that the shortlisted startups at abovementioned events have is not that they have reached profitability or paid back their investors; it’s that they got investment and built reach.
That is certainly laudable and takes a lot of talent and work – however, these enterprises have been showered with accolades and awards for that in 2012 already. And since they have built communities, they will easily win “startup competitions” that are based on public voting – and draw traffic to the event websites. So in effect, what the organisers of January’s events are doing is milk the statuses of these usual suspects for all they’re worth…
“The hysterics of the startup event onslaught”
…which is what, exactly? Because here’s where the first disjunct comes into play. On the one hand, a look at the website of The Europas makes you cringe at its “Amazing! Wonderful! Exciting!” shrillness, and at the pictures of a champagne-wielding Mike Butcher carried on the shoulders of his peers (tell me again – who, exactly, is this event all about?).
On the other hand, the founders of the companies that supposedly are in the centre of this humdrum are the opposite of all that noise. Anyone who has ever met the likes of Wooga’s Jens Begemann, EyeEm’s Flo Meissner or 6wunderkinder’s Christian Reber knows that these are the most decent, even modest, down-to-earth guys. The same is the case with just about any founder or CEO I know. Among ourselves, we roll our eyes at the hysterics of the startup event onslaught. Talking privately over lunch, it escapes no-one that these events mainy serve their organisers.
So in effect, neither the development of business nor the personality of the protagonists warrants raucous self-praise. But in full denial of that, the celebration of nothing even picks up steam as 2013 starts.
Which leads to the second point: what I perceive as an unsatisfactory state of discourse around this and other phenomena of the Berlin startup hype. A look at the English-speaking tech blogs reveals that our friends at Silicon Allee are giving away tickets to all the events but DLD. I checked with the new kid on the blog block, The Kernel, because I heard that they made a big splash about being different than the existing Berlin tech bloggery. But hey – they’re giving away free tickets to two of them, too, and naturally call The Europas a “must-attend event for entrepreneurs, VCs and others”.
Under these circumstances, can there be critical reporting? Is critical reporting even wanted at all? I noticed that German blogs Gründerszene and Deutsche Startups ignore all this new-year partying – not giving away any tickets but offering no commentary either. Which leads to a situation where people looking for info on January’s events either don’t find anything, or raving propaganda.
“Set cocktail glasses aside and get to work…”
Meanwhile, there’s one event that actually aims at helping would-be founders to get their idea off the ground: Startup Live on January 25-27, which is a three-day “idea hackathon” where participants present ideas and form teams around them, put in two days’ work with the help of mentors and finally present results which may lead to incorporating a startup. Reporting about this event, however, is zero
Which brings me to the last point – focus. In my view, so much of the media attention, the partying, the back-slapping, is directed at and performed by a circle of usual suspects, that it is in fact detrimental to what’s really happening in Berlin. For example, while massive amounts of coverage have feted Amen, a startup the purpose of which has never transpired to anyone I know, and which I don’t think will survive 2013, at the ground level there are teams that address real pain points and that deserve all the support they can get.
I occasionally hang out at friends’ incubators, like Benjamin Rohé’s makeastartup, Philipp Hartmann’s Rheingau Founders, and Burckhardt Bonello’s Found Fair; aside from this, my company Berlin Startup Academy is currently leading nine startups to incorporation. It’s looking at these companies and founders that maintains my certainty that Berlin is more than a hype.
Just to give a few uplifting examples: Foundfair’s Friendsurance disrupts the insurance business with a twist that is ambitious and pretty genius. Rheingau’s Itembase provides an after-purchase online repository that I would use tomorrow. Makeastartup’s BonaYou makes credit-card based gift cards that you can redeem anywhere in the world, for anything you like.
And as far as BSA is concerned: from Momslink’s “LinkedIn for mothers” that makes it easy for mothers to re-enter the job market, to Embraase’s real-time monetisation backend for game developers, to Voyageforhealth’s aspiration to become the global online destination for wellness travel, these are real, global-reach business ideas.
It’s all there: concepts that are simple enough to grasp with your common sense, disruption, monetisation, market access, credible attempts at revenue models. It’s just that when you look at what and who is being celebrated by whom in Berlin, you could almost forget that there are such teams and ideas.
I believe that 2013 needs to be a year to set cocktail glasses aside and get to work – otherwise, 2014 will be a year of devastating hangover. Looking at January’s event schedule, though, some people seem to view that differently…