Geek chic

Hip, young and rich: are start-up founders the new celebrity?

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Pablo Villalba (right) with 8fit co-founder Pedro Solá.

Hip, young and rich: are start-up founders the new celebrity?

A few weeks back, I was helping a friend find romance on Tinder. Swiping through Berlin’s eligible bachelors, it didn’t take long to notice a strange trend among the predictable hipster DJ pics and witty one-liners: the one word that so many of these potential matches were using to describe themselves. Founder.

As someone engaged to a musician, I really can’t be the one to judge. But do founders get the girls? When did tech become sexy?

I investigate at Berlin’s monthly “Hackers/ Founders” meet-up. Walking into a cool Mitte bar, I find a young – mainly male – crowd spouting buzzwords like “funding round” and “cloud storage”, and I know I’m in the right place. It’s a friendly atmosphere though, and I soon get chatting to a bright-eyed young guy from southern Germany. “Are you a founder?” I ask. “Not yet… but I want to be.”

It turns out that Basti has got an idea and the beginnings of a business plan, but little more than that. He’s not going to let it stop him, though. “I’ve always wanted to build my own company,” he explains, “and as I’m also into tech, founding a start-up is what I want to do.” He’s relocated to Berlin for its scene, to be close to the action. Listing Steve Jobs and Elon Musk as inspirations, there’s a sense that part of the appeal is the potential for stardom – as much as the hefty profits.

“It’s a glamorous concept: a world where you have an idea, meet with investors, and become a millionaire,” says Hackers/Founders community manager Megan Cape. “People have done it, and there’s a sense of, ‘Well, if he did it, I can too.’ But it definitely looks easier from the outside.”

Indeed, with 90 percent of start-ups failing, the odds of success are not great. “You really need to have an enormous amount of grit and resilience,” says Cape. Organising these meet-ups and talks means that she has heard her fair share of terrible ideas. “Sometimes I just zone out,” she admits. But on the flip side, the tech scene moves so quickly, she’s also seen companies come to fruition very rapidly.

Take Kreuzberg-based fitness app 8fit. Since Spaniard Pablo Villalba launched it in early 2014, the app boasts over three million users worldwide. Villalba claims it wasn’t the potential for celebrity that drove him to be a founder. “I haven’t seen any fan mail yet!” he says. “It was more about being able to create something and to be my own boss.”

Berlin has played a big role in 8fit’s growth – “it’s vibrant, it’s still relatively cheap and there’s a good pool of talent” – and while the cold winters might not appeal, they’ve found a workaround: a month-long migration of the entire team to sunnier climes each February. “We’ve just come back from Brazil! That’s a real benefit of founding your own company – you can really build and influence the working culture.”

For all its clichés of ping-pong tables and free snacks, the start-up culture is a big part of the appeal for many. “It’s so different to old-school working,” says Cape. “It’s more laid-back, you can work flexi-hours. It’s a generational thing.”

Nowhere is this shift more evident than at Berlin’s glitziest tech hub, the former brewery simply called the Factory. Home to the offices of Soundcloud, Twitter and Uber, the buzzing campus shut down its co-working space last June and switched to a “business club” model a la Soho House, where ambitious applicants pay €50/month for access to desk space, a packed calendar of events and all the networking they can handle.

“It’s really only very recently that tech has made it into the mainstream, with things like The Social Network,” says Factory CMO Lukas Kampfmann. “You’ve got kids who’ve become millionaires…” The average age of a start-up founder in Germany is 32. “People between 20-35 have an entirely different notion of what work means to them,” Kampfmann explains. “There is a romantic idea of founding a start-up. You’ve got your Club Mate and your headphones and it looks cool, but it can be an incredibly frustrating path.”

It’s like a casino. The risks and the stakes are high, but then so is the potential reward.

Despite the slim chance of success, enough people here want to try: there are reports that a start-up is founded every 20 minutes in Berlin. “It’s like a casino,” Kampfmann says. “The risks and the stakes are high, but then so is the potential reward.”

For all its hype, Berlin’s scene can’t be denied: today it’s estimated that the city’s combined start-ups are its fifth largest employer. In five years’ time it’ll be number one. What places like the Factory are doing is to help provide and grow the professional infrastructure to help home-grown Zuckerbergs make it big.

“The iPhone changed the world,” I was told at the meetup. I was skeptical when I heard it, but as I check mine I realise it’s true. Geek really is the new chic.