Who’s Who in Berlin: The German-American building a digital media incubator

Aljoscha
Aljoscha

Aljoscha Kaplan grew up in Tuebingen, a town near Stuttgart which he guesses has 60,000 residents. At age 10, he moved to the US (Colorado, specifically), so his father (an American and comparative literature professor) could make use of his phD. “In Germany at the time, 1989, there wasn’t enough opportunity for non-Germans.” When we meet up at Fabisch this afternoon, he arrives on his bike.

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After studying economics and statistics at George Washington, Aljoscha headed to Ernst & Young, where he helped build the company’s new survey practice. “When Monster.com first started, they had no idea who their customers were,” he tells me, recalling the state of his post-university years. “We helped them find out.”Aljoscha doesn’t have a German accent. But he moved back to Germany after school. “When I’m in Germany, I like to talk about the good American things. When I’m in America, I like to talk about the good German things. I switch back and forth in arguments.”

Good American things: “The best American trait is this optimism which leads to openness and friendliness which leads to adventure which leads to an ability to forgive and overcome failures. Berlin is a dynamic, energy-rich environment, that gives you the feeling of optimism. But it’s sort of better being an American optimist in Berlin, because you stick out a bit.” I agree.

Good German things: “As much as the German angst (pessimism) is frustrating at times, I think I’m predominantly German and not at all pessimistic. One really good German trait is that they say what they mean and think, much more than Americans do. When they do say something, you can put a lot of stock into it. When you become friends with someone, you’re stuck with them for life.”

Traveling back to Germany for a job that was cancelled before he got there, Aljoscha found the homeland

“I went back to Germany to work on a project that got cancelled before I came there,” he laughs. “So I basically had to come with my own project. A couple weeks in, I marched into my boss’s office with three options. He picked one. Luckily.” In the audit and consulting branch at Ernst & Young, Aljoscha ended up integrating statistical analysis techniques into the toolset available to the auditors. He taught it to the local staff, and ended up bringing it the global firm via an American channel. “Of course. Cause they’re the optimists, remember? They make things happen.” He as 22, on a plane heading to Cleveland to say, “Look, guys, you got to do this.”

After 3 1/2 years, Aljoscha went in search of narrenfreihit (‘fool’s freedom’)

He ended up getting a masters in management science inBerlin at Humboldt Univeristy. “It’s like a combination of economics and an MBA. In theory, it’s really useful. For me, all the experiences around it were much more useful,” he tells me. “The cool thing about going back to school–and I highly recommend this to anyone and everyone–is…in German there’s a word called narrenfreihit which means, ‘fool’s freedom.’ So, the freedom to act like a fool.” During this time, Aljoscha tried out everything. “I worked freelancer as a consulting firms, consulted startups, worked at the German Economics Institute. in the entrepreneurship department…I also waited tables and worked at bars.”

Then he helped create a book on the science of entrepreneurship: Simply Seven

“My dean introduced me to Erik Schlie and through him I met Niko Waesche and Alando founder Jeorg Rheinboldt, who were working on a book about internet business models. “For me, I was in DC, in the US, during the new economy and saw these things happening. Suddenly we were able to order movies and cigarettes and condoms online and they’d arrive in two hours. I totally slept through the bubble, though. I was in a corporate world, driving big cars and working for corporate clients. Wearing suits. All these things that aren’t important in life, but…I was into it.”

In Berlin, Aljoscha started hanging out with the Berlin artistic crowd. “Down-to-earth, design-style people. Bibsters, you know,” he tells me. “Working for this book was an entrance into the startup scene in some ways.” He was organizing the team’s meetings, doing research, and on top of all that learning more about future objectives. (“We spent weeks and weeks on each of these seven categories. Actually it used to be six. The last model was the financial model.”)

On the 30th of April, 2008, Aljoscha took off his motorcycle and road to Eastern Turkey. 

With an offer from Ernst & Young in both Australia and Germany, he contemplated his options. “Spending the next 50 years as a manager was totally uninteresting to me. I decided to do something fun.” Aljoscha joined Joerg Rheinboldt’s investment firm, N10, as an entrepreneur in residence, where he stayed for the next six months. “I kept thinking about different projects–seeing people going off and doing things (TeachStreet, for instance)–and came out of it with a catalogue of the ten things that makes a startup interesting to me.”

Now he’s building an incubator aimed at the future of the moving image

In the fall of 2010, Aljoscha had a meeting with the president and VP of Leuphana University in Luenburg. “They had a received 100 million euros from the EU to build an incubator. The fund was developed with the incentive to sustain the future of regional development… bridges, highways, etc. The VP, this inspiring guy, decided that the future of regional economic development isn’t bridges. It’s knowledge-based economy like digital media.”

In the late summer of 2010, Aljoscha joined the incubator to help build its digital media initiative (it also has health economics, and renewable energy subsets). “It’s not like an incubator here in Berlin,” he tells me. “Because it’s a state-run thing, there are positions. The goal is to create anywhere from 20-30 spinoff companies within the next three years, all aimed at the digital media space.” Can people in Berlin apply? “It’s not that teams apply. We scout talent and bring people on board for specific projects.”

What companies has the incubator launched so far? 

One, called Explainity, was recently featured in CNN. It also won the German economic media award. Its mission? To simplify complicated topics like the euro crisis and the housing crisis for a 70% news-illiterate population. Another startup he’s launching is helping firms to communicate among their various branches internationally. The most exciting is another company they’ve launched called Ilses Weite Welt (Ilse’s Wide World), founded by an ex-Playboy model whose grandmother fell ill with dementia. “After her grandmother died, she decided to create a company that helps people,” Aljoscha tells me. “Ilse was her grandmother.”

“Ex-Playboy model builds videos for dementia patients after her granny died? That sounds like a really bad PR story.”

He laughs. “They basically created two-hour videos of hypnotic scenes, designed for people with dementia (the same shot of a deer, over and over, for instance.) “It’s two hours of footage for two hundred hours of entertainment.” (Editor’s note: We will have to look into that.)

Since summer 2011, he’s been building his own company

GMPVC (Germany Media Pool) is a media for equity fund that pools offline media and makes it available to entrepreneurs and high-potential companies in return for equity. “We have three media partners: N24 (the German CNN), WallDecaux (a subsidiary of the world’s largest billboard advertiser), and a radio holding called RegioCast. They provide advertising space to us.” The company has in the double-digit millions to provide advertising to selected startups. It pools different media types and provides independent support to startups. They’ve already made three investments and are looking to make three or four more this. “Our first two investments were 9Flats and Urbanara (luxury home textiles). Both super cool companies.”

And for the next few months? “I want to spend a lot of times sailing.”