by Guest Blogger
I moved from Atlanta to Berlin last summer to intern with a particular startup. But after nearly a year of working and socializing in what quickly became the cramped quarters of the startup bubble, I have lost a bit of the bright eyed naivety that led me here.
I have nothing but good things to say about my former employers and the friends I’ve made through startups, but having led one version of the typical expat’s life within the tight tech scene of entrepreneurs and endless hack days (who knew so many things could be hacked?), I can honestly say that all that glitters isn’t gold. And if you feel like your job/life lacks risk and thrills, I’d advise against yearning for the exciting life of a startup employee, because it comes at a cost, and so much of the hype is just that – hype.
Prior to my move, I read article after article, dug up every TED talk, interview, and minutiae of information that would give me insight into the famed Berlin tech startup sector. After being in it, meeting people at different companies, and seeing things up close, I came to realize that startups (at least in Berlin) are often times rampant with sexism, unprofessionalism, and confused 20-something boys in high-level positions – afraid to ask for help when they need it, and reluctant to take counsel or constructive criticism. Peacocking for investors and venture capitalists is what they do best – because their livelihood ultimately depends on impressing these people – and watching this pan out is like watching women dolled up for beauty pageants, sucking in and strutting around in uncomfortable gowns and unnaturally high heels.
Entrepreneurship and innovation are good! Technology is vast and amazing, much like the universe itself. But I now see startups for what they are – new business ventures that are fully reliant on investors, and are not yet profitable. This is why people work themselves into the ground, rarely leaving the office save for meetups, parties, and networking events… It’s not Hollywood, as some would have you believe, and these CEOs aren’t necessarily any smarter or more on the ball than anyone else. A great many of them don’t have a clue what they’re doing, and their worst fear is that you’ll find them out.
It’s not all good, and it’s not all bad. Taking part in startup shenanigans and seeing it all up close and personal has given me a more balanced perspective. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when Toto knocks down the screen, revealing the great and powerful Oz to be just a little old man with a control panel, the pageantry of startups in Berlin can be a bit of a sham and a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s necessary to pull back the curtain to determine who really knows what they’re talking about. Much of the time, these small companies are successful not because they are run by smart, talented, hardworking folks, but because they are young, beautiful, well-spoken Soho House regulars. Not to say that the two camps can’t exist within the same business, but in my Berlin experience, I’ve found the occurrence to be rare.
Do your homework
So, if you’ve made it this far and despite the disclaimer, you still think Berlin startup life is for you, my advice to the potential budding startup employees out there is to perform a background check on the companies you consider working with. Doing your homework means being thorough – befriend the startup gossips and get the scoop on everyone in the village. Despite appearances, it’s a small town, and it’s good to know who you’re crawling into bed with.
It’s true of any business, corporate or fledgling, that who you work with and for is crucial to your success and happiness within the organization, but especially in startups. When work is typically done in close quarters, teams are small and the line between work and home becomes seriously blurred, it’s important to join a team of people you trust, admire, and respect. A lot. So if possible, find their former employees, people who have been laid off, or who have moved on, and quietly find out what you might be getting yourself into. Simply perusing their press page isn’t going to yield the sort of answers you’re looking for.
Don’t be blinded by the free Club Mates and fancy espressos. Pay attention to who’s on the team. Age is just a number, but in some cases, it matters. A startup with the wisdom and leadership of someone (or a few someones) who’s been around the block a time or two is a huge asset, as there are no shortcuts to experience and maturity. They’re gained the old fashioned way – over time. A few tree rings means your startup of choice is run by insightful, intelligent folks who will likely value you and your skills. Be looking for female employees too, particularly in leadership roles. According to the research, teams with greater gender diversity generate more innovative thinking in problem solving.
Find a balance
Also, resist the urge to drink the Kool Aid. What I mean by this is simply to keep balance in your life. Actually have a life that exists outside the office. There’s something genuinely beautiful about the way many startup teams feel close to each other, like a family, and they spend most of their time together during their off hours as well. But the downside to this is that you will create a bubble for yourself, and sooner or later you’ll burn out. Find at least one hobby, group, or activity that you keep separate from work so that you don’t go crazy. And for heaven’s sake, try your best not to date your co-workers. Berlin is a big city, and there are plenty of fish in its murky sea. Better to throw a line in the Spree than in your own workplace.
That being said, enjoy your time working to create something you feel connected to. It will be perhaps some of the most arduous and soul-enhancing endeavor you’ve ever been a part of, working for a startup. If you’ve counted the costs and are in for the wild ride, why not give Berlin startup life a try?