Beyond the Copycats: Getting in Touch with the German Start-Up Scene

I had my friends Malte and Anthony over for the week: not only did the Web 2.0 Expo take place here in Berlin but their company, iliketotallyloveit, also had been selected as one of the top ten finalists in the Zanox Web Services Contest 2008 for 1 Million Euros. During the course of their stay I had the pleasure to attend several events with them which offered me a better grasp of the vibrant local start-up scene. Vibrant for the most part as the impressions I gathered seem to support Matt Marshall's view that a lack of capital keeps German entrepreneurs more conservative than they could be: Rarely are German start-ups working on a visionary, cutting-edge idea but more often than not fall into the copycat run. Many the conversations I had included the words "They already offer this/ a similar service in the US but we...".

It's not all bland and blatant though as the winners of the Zanox contest proved. Unfortunately iliketotallyloveit wasn't one of them but it would be unfair to say that the three victorious companies didn't deserve the attention:

Webtrakk – webcontrolling, helps to measure the performance, control and improve websites' commercial success and online-marketing campaigns Triboo – e-commerce and high definition marketing of some sorts... unfortunately I don't speak Italian Servtagnear field communication based mobile solutions which offers easy and quick access to independent product information; it also allows to share your shopping habits by feeding your shopping habits to social networks

In this Servtag is similar to another interesting start-up I came across after the announcement of the contest winners:

It turns your mobile into a barcode scanner and shows the information you demand e.g. by comparing prices, user ratings, giving information about ingredients of foods and their effects on your health (from the amount of fat to allergies), the carbon footprint of a company etc.

I liked these services for several reasons: – First of all it is an original idea which doesn't blatantly rip off existing sites but on the opposite has the potential to be successful outside of Germany. – I could immediately relate to it: Earlier this year I needed to buy a printer/scanner and was simply overwhelmed by the variety of options; here some orientation through easy to access on the spot information certainly would have been helpful. Another example: You're an eco-conscious shopper doing grocery shopping; with Barcoo you can base your purchases on how sustainable the suppliers' business is. – The idealism in case of Barcoo: Of course financial success is a motivation behind this project but from what I gathered the founders are also personally invested in that they supply a platform which supports consumers in making conscious choices they can identify with.

Servtag and Barcoo also go to show how potential future collaborations between the scientific community and start-ups might work: While Technical University of Munich is involved in Servtag, the Berlin based Humboldt University is associated with Barcoo which received funding under a European Union R&D grant – the tragedy which Matt Marshall laments, namely that Germany has a tremendous basic science research and some of the best engineering in the world but lacks the ability to connect engineers with company builders might still be a real one but as this example shows is none that's unresolvable.

One question remains though: Who would be willing to pay for such a service? While Servtag can monetize on affiliate programs and share valuable information about shopping habits with marketeers in case of Barcoo the industry might not be enthusiastic about too much transparency, consumers not about possible extra costs of a subscription model and an ad-based solution would cost a tremendous amount of credibility.

Whatever the answer may be, Berlin's scene will stay exciting.


The Obamafest in Berlin

Sorry for the delay, but some tummy bug prevented me from writing anything about the Obama visit in Berlin. Anyway, in case someone still cares, here're my impressions: From The Times

And so the Child told his disciples to fetch some food but all they had was five loaves and a couple of frankfurters. So he took the bread and the frankfurters and blessed them and told his disciples to feed the multitudes. And when all had eaten their fill, the scraps filled twelve baskets.

The multitudes were fed indeed as was their thirst quenched. Welcome to Obamafest. I made the mistake to start my pilgrimage a little bit too late with the consequence that I was stuck somewhere in the middle of 200,000 people, barely able to see (not even a screen). But at least I could hear what Obama had to say.

He had to appeal to two very different sensitivities: To the German audience and, more importantly, American voters. In this respect invoking to the shared past and its struggle for freedom was a good strategy. Ernst Reuter was cited, Reagan called upon, and indeed walls came down at least sixteen times during the speech: Not only in Berlin, but also in Belfast, between the rich and the poor, between races and religions.

Yet I couldn't stop wondering: Would the reactions have been as enthusiastic if a German politician – or, God beware, Bush – uttered those words? Probably not, Bush would have been laughed at, a German politician would have been criticised for a number of things. What one has to remember is that Obama did not only appeal to a shared past but also to the responsibilities of a shared future. For him this future, amongst other things, is fought for in Afghanistan. The deployment of German troops in order to rebuild this war-torn country is already controversial amongst the German left; possible combat operations would cause an even greater stir. Obama is going to pursue a more protectionist policy to counteract the recession, he supports the death sentence for child molesters, defends the right of Americans to bear arms. American policies under Obama will see more continuities than his German disciples probably wish for, albeit they chose to ignore it.

Where\'s Obama?

Something which also goes to show the naive romanticism of German sentiments towards the US. Not only would an Obama presidency mean a change in skin colour but also in world views; a sudden change in perception from anti-Americanism towards a promise of salvation, a world without climate change, without a war in Iraq, a dream that somehow must come true because this time one is on the good side (and Germans are especially prone to develop a certain spirituality when it comes to saving the world). McCain all the while remains the great unknown, the average German Obama fan probably doesn't know much about him except that, you know, he's the evil one and some puppet of the war lobby.

On a sidenote: I found it somewhat ironic to be in a crowd demanding "change" when the last time this nation was allowed to vote it opted for a grand coalition of Germany's two biggest parties which is mainly characterised by being extremely inflexible. But then again maybe it's exactly this yearning for modernity that German politics can't fulfil that makes (up) some of Obama's appeal. Cultural pessimism, promises to conserve the state of affairs, a desire for bygone days and clichés shape the political landscape; if Merkel was a man and therefore didn't embody a grain of emancipated modernity some voters probably would have died of boredom by now. Along comes a new icon, young, exciting, promising and somehow progressive, causing people to screen their unfulfilled desires on him.

And there's another argument for the young hopeful: In case Obama wins the presidency American tourists wouldn't have to pretend to be from Canada anymore to avoid being confronted about the alleged evil-doings of their nation by self-righteous Germans and their drive to save the planet by ruling out gas powered heat lamps.


BlogCampaigning is Back

Well, we've taken a bit of time off over the last few weeks. I've been busy enjoying the final days of summer, Jens has been trying to sort out his life back in Germany, and Espen pretty much went AWOL in Norway. But now we're all back, and you can expect more solid posts from the boys in Berlin and Oslo while I continue to edit their English and bring you the news from the Toronto side of things.

Also, I'll be playing around with the colors and design of the blog over the next few weeks, so let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading BlogCampaigning!