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.