Germans in the Valley

Monday, May 27, 2013

So about a month after we visited the valley, Germany’s Federal Minister of Economics and Technology Philipp Rösler packed a few hundred German entrepreneurs into a Bundeswehr Airbus and visited the Valley, too. Of course, I’m not saying that they got the inspiration from us, but honestly, what’s the point of going to the Valley in pack of 100 people. They visited Google, Facebook, and others, but I doubt they really got something out of that trip besides being able to claim that you have been handselected by the German Ministry of Economics and Technology.

Imagine yourself working at some SF based startup, and being told to have lunch with a delegation of German guys. “Ugh, what a waste of time.” would be my first thought. “Hopefully it’s not going to be Weisswürste and beer” my second one. No offense, these are certainly all great guys, but this looks a lot more like a PR event than actual help for the German startup scene. That’s mostly also what German newspapers said (I’d like to put some links here, but due to the recent Leistungsschutzrecht legal issues, I’d rather not. You search Google News for “Philip Rösler Silicon Valley” instead): too little, too late.

These were more or less thoughts when I first heard about this and saw the numerous photo galleries from the trip, together with that nagging feeling of envy at not getting that chance, and also a bit of pride at having done the same thing on our own initiative.

But then another thought popped into my head: “Wait a moment. Isn’t this exactly the kind of German mindset that I’m always complaining about?” I fear it is, it’s the feeling that the world is a zero sum game, that another guy’s gain is your own loss, that there is not room for growth anymore.

A consequence of that believe is also that you erect guarded walls, and make sure all your buddies are in. In the Valley, on the other hand, people understand that there is huge potential for growth. If you find the right way, you can create entirely new businesses giving work to thousands of people. For that, you need to always be on the lookout for new talent.

I don’t really understand why Germans think like that (I’m generalizing, of course). A friend once said he really likes the German word “Gründerzeit”, originally linked to the industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th century, it seems to nicely capture that German sentiment that there was a time for founders, and it’s called the Gründerzeit, so we don’t do that anymore.

This also reflects the impression we got from some German investors who take not only a risk-averse, but a very investment-oriented approach to VC funding. You get the feeling you are selling some kind of building loan agreement. If your business plan guarantees 8% return after 5 years, everyone is happy. That seems to be much more important than the will to actually build something and disrupt the existing market.

Many of the big German companies have venture investment branches (and some of these companies were actually funded back in the Gründerzeit), but to me this is hardly the same thing as true SV-style ventures. When was the last time Siemens really disrupted the market the way Apple did with the iPhone? (Not saying anything bad about Siemens investment guys or Siemens per se. They have a great business, let’s just say they’re not known for questioning the status quo.)

So I reminded myself to sit back and relax. I guess the good in all this is that the German government is actually trying to raise awareness for German startups, which is always good, right?

I once complained to a few scientists about the way science is represented in the media. Stories in Wired and other magazines really like to focus on the one guy heading the group and depict him as that stereotypical stubborn outlaw genius who managed to create greatness against the disbelief of his colleagues. Whereas in reality, science is much more of a team sports and very few successful scientists can allow themselves to be isolated in that way.

But then they told me: “Mikio, you shouldn’t complain about that, because these guys at least manage to give science a face, something the layman can relate to, and that makes sure they will understand when they divert tax money to fund science projects.” Well, I guess they were right.

Still, Berlin in particular likes to see itself as the next Europen Silicon Valley, but I think there is still quite a way to go in terms of mindset and culture.

Posted by Mikio L. Braun at 2013-05-27 12:35:00 +0000

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