An American in Berlin
All Things Venture #073
I think one of the things I enjoy most about working in early stage startups, tech, and VC is that there is this overwhelming belief in the possible. Building a successful venture backed startup is an absolutely daunting task. It’s Sispheyan in nature where your reward for doing fantastic work is ultimately just more work, the vast majority of variables are outside of your control, and (depending on the category) you will have competitors who are quite literally trying to eat your lunch. That being said, in no other professional environment (outside of sports) have I encountered more enthusiasm, passion, or belief in the possible.
The job can also take you to some pretty cool places.
Last week I had the opportunity to go to Berlin for a few days to attend an in-person board meeting for one of our portfolio companies, Sastrify. Simply, Sastrify helps companies save money on their SaaS spend. The team, led by the amazing Sven Lackinger and Maximillian Messing are laser focused on saving their clients time and money by negotiating SaaS contracts on their behalf, while building software to automate different aspects of contract and vendor management. I’m extremely excited about their opportunity to be a billion dollar business, but what I wanted to share with you all today is an experience I had while meeting with other investors, founders, and operators in Berlin. The night before I came back to the states, I got invited to a dinner. And before anyone asks, or thinks, no - I didn’t go to Berghain. I did hear some crazy stories about it though…
I was lucky enough to get invited to this dinner where there were a few other investors, founders, and operators. These dinners happen all the time in the US, but the main difference between my experience in Berlin and what usually happens here at home was how multicultural it was. Sitting across from me at the dinner, there was an Italian guy who has gone 3 for 3 in working at fintech Unicorns. Next to him was a Brazilian-German founder who spent his time between Sao Paolo and Berlin. Other attendees were from Spain, or Switzerland, or Iran. It truly was a world stage. Now, as an American who probably speaks a little too loudly and has demonstrably less style than all of his european counterparts - I definitely stuck out, but the common thread that united everyone at that table was what I mentioned earlier, the belief in the possible. There was a palpable energy at the table from all of us. Everyone, in some shape or form - was focused on building, focused on the future, focused on putting a dent in the long arc of the universe.
So in addition to talking about all of the above, we did talk a little about the US. Where our country is at in it’s current state, the average American’s relationship with work, and our position on the world stage. Sadly, I don’t think anyone at that table (myself included) disagreed with the fact that America is in decline. We have too much internal conflict (i.e the fight over abortion, the gun violence epidemic, the polarization of our political parties) to fully focus on or compete with external conflict (i.e China’s decades long pursuit to steal technology IP, the war in Ukraine, etc). It was strange to be in that position, especially when the diet you were fed growing up is “U-S-A, U-S-A, We’re #1! We’re #1!”, or more succintly “Americaaaaaaaa - Fuck YEAH!”
As the dinner continued on, and after I was admonished a little bit for getting on a transatlantic flight for a two day trip, the Italian friend I made pointed out that he thinks American work culture is much more about appearing productive, than actually being productive. In a way, he was pointedly critical about how we approach work and on a broader sense how most Americans live to work, rather than work to live. And I don’t think this guy is wrong. He’s worked for three different fintech unicorns (one of which has gone public), trys to cap his work hours between 9 to 6, and takes months long vacations in Spain every year. He has clearly been productive in his career. Meanwhile - a month long vacation for an American is a sabbatical, most high achieving graduates view 100 hour work weeks as a badge of honor, and I can count on one hand the number of colleagues I know that have batted 100% when it comes to working at fintech unicorns.
More or less - my Italian friend, in so many words was telling me,
“Silly Dez - can’t you see? Less is more”
And I think in a lot of ways… he’s right. BUT the other conversation that sticks out from that dinner was also the overwhelming agreement that there is no better place to start a company, or entrepreneurial mindset, than in the US. At one point in the dinner the Brazilian-German founder was retelling his frustrations with starting a company in Germany, and the asinine notary process they have associated with some of their legal documents. Basically in Germany there is a requirement for major legal contracts to be reviewed and approved by an external lawyer, the notary, where the notary is essentially duplicating work on behalf of the state and taking a hefty fee along the way. Notably, the notary process is done in person so all in all - it just sounded like an expensive time suck that could easily be digitized. Now is this painful? Sure. Is it a death knell for innovation in Germany? Probably not. But as he talked about it more, the Brazilian-German founder went on to share his belief that, “If it weren’t for the internet, the German government would have trapped technology innovation in the 80s.” He felt that overall, in addition to the notary process, the social safety nets (it’s super hard to fire people in Germany), GDPR requirements - the German government’s approach, and most European countries’ approaches toward innovation, is to stifle it. He posited that maybe because the countries are older, and have more history the burecratic position of the state is more wary of change. Whatever the reasoning, the sentiment (and agreement at the table) was clear, while aspects of the US are in decline - our culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and the influence that has on the world is not.
Silicon Valley, as I’m learning, is as much of an idea as it is a place.
It’s an unique American export that is collapsing the world into software and pushing the boundaries of the possible. Which is what, I think, all of this is about. What can we dream up that changes the world? How can we make an impact, a positive impact, in ways that transcend our brief time on this Earth? Who can we help? And how can we do well for ourselves, while doing good for the world?
Thinking back, it’s fucking exhilirating, excuse my french, to have an opportunity to work on these big ideas, to have a seat at these tables, to take a shot at putting a dent in the universe. It’s an absolute privilege to focus your energy in this manner, and I love that I have an opportunity to share these stories with all of you, and I know for damn sure I’m not going to let this go to waste.
That’s it for this week everyone - will be back next week with a Startup Spotlight.
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That culture of adopting change is also super prominent in China! On a walk in Bejing, you can find everyone ages 2-90 all typing, texting, on smart phones and gadgetry! Great read. I’m excited for next week.