Where the wild start-ups are

Between Betahaus und Social Impact Lab: in Berlin young enterprises are working in special office buildings.

Foto: Reto Klar

Just minutes ago the founders of the start-up einfach.de have shown how they want to revolutionize the service business in Berlin. They gave a short talk about their idea to approximately 80 listeners. Now it’s Sonja Philipps and Martin Thiels turn. However the two 27-year-olds from the start-up 6people have a problem.

They do not want to reveal too much of their idea. Martin Thiel only says: “We want to put a new drink on the market that has a specific function.” It should contain no alcohol and should not taste like the famous uplifting drink “Club Mate”. Even the color of the drink they do not want to share. But Martin Thiel promises: “Whoever shows up tonight to play our market research game, shall know more.”

Speeches like that are heard often in “Betahaus” in Kreuzberg. Every Thursday morning they host a talk for the community in the office building at Moritzplatz, start-ups can tell more about their projects. There are croissants, jam, coffee and lots of good ideas. Madeleine von Mohl Gummer is one of the founders of this house and has often heard presentations by people who keep even more about their idea a secret as Martin Thiel did.

On the other hand, the idea of Betahaus is about sharing knowledge with each other, since sometimes in these meetings you will find stars of the scene in the audience, who simply want to look at the things, young people are up to at the moment. For nearly four years now this breakfast has been a regular meeting place for young entrepreneurs to get advice and to discuss pressing issues. Then most go into the offices that are situated on the four floors behind the café, where they continue working.

“Ah, so everyone brings his own typewriter?”

In April 2009, when Betahaus was opened, Madeleine von Mohl Gummer could not have foreseen the success of her project. At that time most founders were sitting around tables in cafes in Mitte and Kreuzberg, working on their laptops. “When we started”, says the 31-year old, “no one knew what that was, a co-working-space.” They were pioneers in the field of community office buildings. “When I told my great aunt about it, she asked: ‘Ah, so everyone brings his own typewriter?’” says Gummer von Mohl. And in a way her aunt had been right: in co-working spaces many people are working on different projects, sitting together in a large room. There can be in one hall lawyers, journalists, graphic designers, bloggers, translators and video artist. Some founders still remain working in the Berlin cafes, but many are already sitting in real offices now.

For Martin Thiel from 6People this was exactly the reason to move into Betahaus. Until then his team sat in another co-working space in Prenzlauer Berg. Every neighbourhood in Berlin has such office buildings now. “But there we were not part of a community like here,” Thiel says. Everybody more or less worked for him or herself. “Here I was irritated in the beginning how often we were asked if we need anything else.” Now he thinks that is actually good, also for the project. His colleague Sonja Philipp also knows how hard it is to work completely alone. She worked from home when she wrote her master's thesis. “So you wake up to your alarm clock every morning and you have to motivate yourself to go to the desk and to not take another break after five minutes." At Betahaus she enjoys to be surrounded by a pleasant bustle that also inspires her.

Free coaching, mentoring and counseling

One of the first co-working spaces like this was the “Building 20” at the Massachusetts University “M.I.T.”. The cramped, dark and confusing building was meant to be demolished after the Second World War. It was old, standing far away from the big banks and did not even meet the fire protection standards by the time. But then in the 1950s the administration put in small research offices of people that had no place at their institute: so linguists had to sit next door to physicists and acousticians. They would meet during lunch breaks and bump into each other in the hallway. This was the birth of interdisciplinary research of many kinds: the microwave and high speed photography was invented there, and it was there, where engineer Amar Bose met his colleagues that later helped him creating the now famous “Bose” speakers.

The “Building 20” eventually was demolished in 1998, but the concept can now be all over the world – also at Betahaus in Berlin. “Just yesterday”, Madeleine von Mohl Gummer says, “there was this girl in the office next door who asked me about the copyrights of videos on a web page.” She did not know the answer but quickly found somebody just one room further: a lawyer, who is writing her doctoral thesis on media law.

But when the team gets bigger than ten people, many founders want to move to other, more private offices with a door that can be closed. Most of them at this stage would leave the Betahaus and go to specialized co-working spaces, so-called incubators. There founders pursuing a similar goal are sitting together and can help each other with their ideas, additionally they will be supported by experts. One of those incubators is „You is now“ of Immobilienscout24 at Ostbahnhof, another one is the „Social Impact Lab“ close to Kottbusser Tor. Norbert Kunz is the Managing Director of IQ Consult, the operator behind the Social Impact Lab. „We offer a free workplace“, he says, “and free coaching, mentoring and counselling.“ Teams have to apply with their idea and get those benefits up to eight months. About 25 teams are currently working there. IQ Consult encourages young companies to develop social innovations, the profits of those are reinvested in new concepts. In Social Impact Lab – just as in Betahaus – there is a large kitchen, where the different teams come together. Apart from that they also fix dates every now and then where they can meet with other people from the “scene” to network. “The teams also are responsible for cleaning the kitchen,” says Kunz.

A door is a door

This new working environment has nothing in common with the offices of the 60s, where people worked in plastic cubicles on their project. In all these new office spaces, the rooms are bright, the desks are particularly large and the WiFi is available everywhere. Madeleine von Mohl Gummer from Beta House knows many of these incubators and has been an interior designer for some of them like for „You is now“. „There are always developements in this field,“ she says, „which I learn about at conferences of co-working spaces.“ For example she has noticed recently that the „Silent Room“ in Betahaus, in which people must not use their telephone, was used not as often as predicted. Now, the room is called „No Silent Room.“ If you need rest, you could also put on the headphones of construction workers that keep out the noise.

Ultimately, these large office spaces require rules. There is for instance this one rule: If somebody has both earplugs of headphones stuck in his ears, he or she does not want to be talked to. If only one earplug is in the ear, the questions have to be important. No headphones mean: ask me! There are other rules concerning the consumption of coffee (flatrate available for EUR 25 per month) or cigarettes (outside only). The most important law for these generally so open offices is this: A door is a door. If it is closed, knock!

Benefits of the new office culture

Just as the rules change as they go along, the work places change constantly. Simon Schaefer is a 35 years old entrepreneur who is going to open a Co-Working Space in Berlin, that will take the issue of co-working to a different level. He wants to turn a former distillery on the Brunnenstraße in Mitte into an office building called „the Factory“. It is going to be six times larger than the Betahaus, already now around 100 people work there, from big Internet companies like Soundcloud and Mozilla. When it is done, it will be a total of 12,000 square meters filled with desks, a basketball court, a fitness room and a canteen. Smaller start-ups should be given the opportunity to network with the big names. That is the philosophy of the „Factory“. Regarding the interior design, they got inspiration from the office buildings of its partner Google and also looked to the headquarters of Facebook and Youtube.

To see what this means, one only has to go to one of the rooftop terraces of the complex and the 35-year-old Simon Schaefer starts to rave about the benefits of the new office culture: „We have moved our staircase to the outside,“ he says, „so everyone on every floor has the opportunity to go outside and talk.“ But even within the offices there will be opportunities to have meetings, in either one of the ten smaller or three large rooms. They also thought about private Skype-desks, so colleagues can be connected even if they work in India or the United States.

Betahaus as part of the business plan

The official language in the hallways of most co-working-spaces is English, like at the breakfast of Betahaus, too. For Martin Thiel, Sonya Philipp and the other four members of „6people“ this was a bit of a surprise in the beginning. They did not think about it when they developped their marketing game – the game through which they learn more about what their secret new drink is gonna be about. But on that morning at the breakfast they only asked for German speaking participants. „But on the other the co-working space is virtually a part of our business plan,“ Martin Thiel says. For now he and his colleagues moved in for six months. Whether they will stay here, or move into larger offices, or start working from home, or just go back to that famous start-up café at the Rosenthaler Platz – all that has to be discussed later, behind closed doors.

>>>The german version of the article can be found here<<<

>>>Die deutsche Fassung des Artikels finden Sie hier<<<