Opinion: Politicians and startups – time for entrepreneurs to ditch the skepticism

Angela Merkel at ResearchGate
Angela Merkel at ResearchGate

Angela Merkel at ResearchGate

These days, some people in Berlin ask themselves what to make of German politicians’ sudden love for the local startup scene. Notable recent events were Federal President Joachim Gauck’s construction site review at The Factory; Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Wooga visit and startup reception at Kulturbrauerei; and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler’s two recent Silicon Valley journeys.

As is customary among internet people, comments are often sarcastic, pointing out that it’s an election year and that all this may be a show stunt to be forgotten in 2014. Me too, I have been asking myself what sort of an impression the invasion of a huge tour group of startuppers from Berlin, in the wake of a politician, would leave on the locals – after all, guide-led tour group travel is how my parents (aged 84 and 71) do their vacations.

Startup visa disaster? A friendly local MP can’t hurt…

paperWell. A few weeks ago, an entrepreneur from Sri Lanka applied for the upcoming Berlin Startup Academy (BSA) semester, due to start July 12. He’s lived and studied in the US and been involved in several IT companies; to start his latest endeavour, he told me he wanted to move to Berlin. So on he went with the visa application, which involved me DHL-ing several documents over to Colombo (€63,80 for delivery within two days, if you’re interested).

Last Monday, it appeared that we’d hit a dead end. It turned out that application for a work visa requires three months anticipation, making it impossible to make the July 12 deadline. In addition it didn’t look like the visa process was ready to deal with an applicant who doesn’t have a job in Germany yet but wants to participate in an accelerator program and set up a company. While on the ground in Colombo, it seems difficult to get heard with one’s case. At the embassy door, an applicant has to talk to a security guard first. If that guard determines that due to the three months period it doesn’t make sense for the applicant to proceed, he won’t even be allowed inside.

This is when I contacted a group of parliamentarians I met at an event a few months ago. What followed was the quickest and most helpful reaction I ever got from any sort of public body or representative. Within the hour, MP Peter Tauber and his colleagues from Cnetz involved their staffers and pulled strings through the Foreign Relations Council to find a contact at the embassy and inform him of my applicant’s case. That was yesterday. As I write this, I’m sitting tight, awaiting news.

Klaus Wowereit at WoogaBerlin mayor Klaus Wowereit gets one-on-one with games maker Wooga

Politicians and startups: breaking down the insider clubs

Obviously, this is a bit of a random occurrence. I was lucky to have met some politicians on a personal level that gave me direct access. But looking at several meetings and events with politicians that friends from the startup scene and I attended in recent months, I think it’s important to appreciate that there are real opportunities. When, for example, GameGenetics’ Alexander Piutti at a recent presentation talked about the Silicon Valley tour he just participated in, he could not help but be excited and, yes, happy about the level of interaction and the quality of the work Philipp Rösler delivered on that occasion (and Alex is a straightforward guy who’s hard to impress). And this is what I hear from many people involved in that journey. Always with an apologetic smile though, because, let’s be honest, it’s not very cool to say something positive about a politician, is it?

But there’s more. In April, BSA graduates Momslink (who are building a dedicated job market for women and particularly mothers) got the chance for a one-on-one with and endorsement from Minister of Family Affairs, Kristina Schröder. In the same month, I was lucky to be invited to a symposium with English and German conservative MPs where, among other things, we talked about how to foster digital entrepreneurship in Europe. And again, I have to report that the sincerity and intensity of discussion with the Tory MPs was as pleasing and meaningful as any discussion we have “among us” – despite the fact that I made it clear that my political sympathies don’t lie with what I like to call “The Reaction” (I consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, which, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into voting FDP). Through friends, I happen to know the Social Democrats’ internet advisor Gesche Joost, and while I traditionally suspect the SPD of wanting to punish entrepreneurs with arbitrary taxes and give the money to the Betroffenheitsindustrie, I can say that she’s a most approachable and level-headed person.


Put aside the sarcasm, entrepreneurs – get excited

Resultingly, I think that it is genuinely worth it for any protagonist of the startup industry to put sarcasm aside these days and work with the practical chances offered by politicians of all colors. Because unlike in previous years, these offers are personal. They are not about attending party gatherings and declaring political allegiances; in fact, I think that the advisory circles that have recently formed (such as Philipp Rösler’s) haven’t been strategically planned but somewhat randomly formed through word-of-mouth, friends’ recommendations, and personal sympathies. Just like we network among startups.

As naive as that may sound, but all the politicians I recently met were a lot more idealistic than you and I – and the media – will ever give them credit for. They’re people who want to do the right thing with the power they’ve been given.

Lastly, I feel that all this doesn’t only help Germans. Back at the Merkel reception, there were plenty of foreign founders, and I’m somewhat miffed still that Vamos’ Swedish-Chilean founder Luis Daniel Alegria beat me to the money shot with the chancellor. In the Colombo case, part of everyone’s motivation was that we all do want to have entrepreneurial foreigners here with us, and not only talk about it but pick up the phone and make it happen. There is a momentum of “let’s get something done together” at the moment; this is the time and opportunity for entrepreneurs to build relationships to politicians that can move things forward.

Seize it, I say.

Image credit:
“excited”: Flickr user skippyjon


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