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We know that arriving in a new country to work can be a daunting prospect. In addition to potential language barriers, you may also find yourself faced with an unfamiliar work culture with new business norms and office practices.
In the spring of 2016, Radish Lab, my socially focused Brooklyn-based digital agency, which I founded in 2012, was offered the unique opportunity to spend three months in Berlin exploring new business here. We’d been selected as fellows for Start Up Germany and Median Board’s residency program, in partnership with the IFP Media Center.
Realizing that even if the experience was a bust business-wise, there weren’t really any downsides to spending springtime in Berlin, we decided to go for it. Starting your own business is hard, but one of the best things about it is that you get to choose who you work with. Radish Lab’s strategic director Adam Ludwig also happens to be my partner of 10 years, so the two of us packed our bags for the Berlin reconnaissance mission, leaving our extremely competent Brooklyn team to hold down the fort.
Alana Range and her partner Adam Ludwig.
We weren’t really sure what we’d discover. We were tremendously lucky that in addition to travel expenses and a stipend, the fellowship also provided us with an apartment, coworking desks at Betahouse in Kreuzberg, and a series of fortuitous introductions to talented and helpful people in our field, who have since become our key contacts in the city.
About three weeks after we arrived, we realized that we’d need to set up a German business entity, something we had previously thought we’d be able to avoid, mostly because we didn’t think we’d actually win any business in our 12 weeks here. But it was a little bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation, and it became obvious that without a German company, few local organizations felt comfortable engaging with us. StartUp Germany introduced us to their legal and accounting firm, who helped us set up the German version of an LLC (Unternehmergesellschaft, or UG for short). We also had to set up business and personal banking accounts.
With the legal stuff in place, we started to take on small jobs, and were able to pitch for projects as a firm with two locations, something that definitely seemed to appeal to potential clients. About halfway through the fellowship, Adam and I decided that after years of talk about wanting to live in Europe, we had finally stumbled on the golden opportunity. With the added encouragement of steadily gaining business traction in the city, we decided to formally open a Berlin office, and move to the city when the fellowship was over.
I’m about to tell you about some of the things we’ve learned during this process, but first I should contextualize our experience by pointing out some things that made it much easier for us, which we were very lucky to have and that I realize not everyone has access to.
The first is that I’m a British citizen which (for the time being) has made living and working in Europe relatively straightforward. The second is that we had a ton of support getting momentum here and we were extremely fortunate to have a three-month trial period to explore opportunities, both business and personal. Finally, Adam is a German speaker, something that is extremely handy when dealing with bureaucratic chores and getting settled.
With those things in mind, here are a few things we learned in the past couple of years about working and setting up a business in Berlin.
- Germans (maybe Berliners especially?) have a very different approach when it comes to work/life balance. Namely, they believe in it, practice it, and honor it. It was shocking to me that we’d go to parties and no one would ask me what I did for a living. In New York, my work defined me. It validated me and gave me purpose. In Berlin, we were suddenly tasked with defining our identities outside of our work. This also manifests in other great benefits like respecting people’s vacation time (no one expects you to answer email or check in), giving families great paternity benefits (for men and women!), and generally having a workplace culture where the day ends at 5 or 6PM (for real).
- Our ‘Americanisms’ have strangely helped us break many barriers we didn’t even know existed. Germans tend to be more formal (this may have to do with the language having a formal and informal form of ‘you’), but with only a vague cultural sensitivity about how that worked, we’d walk into meetings, call people by their first name and give them a hug when we left - all of which I imagine was shocking to our German clients. But it also weirdly worked in our favor. My advice here is to be yourself. We didn’t move to Germany to start a German business. We moved to German to bring our New York business to Berlin, and with that came our New York sensibility, something most people are interested in.
- Most people in this city are willing to meet for coffee and you can pretty much connect with anyone you like in Berlin if you offer to buy them a cappuccino. Networking and meeting people in our field over the first year really helped us get a lay of the land and understand how our industry was connected. Our tolerance for caffeine is pretty high now, too.
- One of the best things about Berlin is how inexpensive it is. But that also means that budgets for the kind of work we do are smaller, salaries are lower, and organizations are harder to lock down for project work.
- It’s also been harder for us to find projects here. We work primarily with non-profits and cultural organizations and the system for posting and finding creative projects works differently than it does in the US. We’ve still got a lot to learn, but my biggest tip is that in-person connections matter most.
- Things move a little slower and people generally take longer to email you back. In New York, if I haven’t heard back from someone within 24 hours of sending an email, I usually follow up. We’ve found that here, it’s not unusual for clients to take a week or more to get back to us.
- Get a good accountant as soon as you can! German tax law is not for the meek hearted. It’s also impossible to navigate for anyone who doesn’t speak the language. We’ve been tremendously lucky to work with an awesome firm who’s held our hand through the whole process and who we trust to just tell us what we need to do (and where to sign).
- It’s very helpful to have someone German-speaking on your team. Google Translate doesn’t count. Most organizations we’ve worked with have teams that speak English, but in the event they don’t, being able to communicate reflects better on your business.
- The hiring, firing and benefit laws are really different here. Employees and their protection come first, and the social welfare system is both comprehensive and expensive. We believe that the system is fair, but it is not the way business operates in the US, where laws favor businesses, making it easy for employers to offer crappy benefits, little time off, or fire someone quickly and easily with little notice. This makes start-up costs low and gives small businesses lots of flexibility as they’re growing. Because the laws require business to be more circumspect with human resources in Germany, it’s trickier to hire someone if you’re small and lean. Interns can be a good way to test the talent pool if you can’t commit to a full-time contract.
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