The Startup Guide Berlin vol. 4 is out — and GERMANTECH DIGITAL is on it!
Proud to be included together in this edition of Startup Guide Berlin with my latest company GERMANTECH DIGITAL
Since 2014, Sissel Hansen and her team have been compiling all over the world the best of startup ecosystems. Starting with Berlin and now available in 18 different cities, the Startup Guide is definitely a great source of knowledge about entrepreneurship, city essentials, data overview, spaces and more.
For the 4th edition of the Berlin Startup Guide, I’ve been featured together with other 5 selected Berlin founders to reflect on Berlin as a startup hub, and I present one of my ventures: GERMANTECH DIGITAL, the corporate company builder I co-founded with Ludwig Preller. Here’s an excerpt of my interview — you can read it in full in the printed version available here.
Benjamin Rohé has been founding companies since he was a teenager, and has played a prominent role in Berlin’s tech scene since its inception. With GERMANTECH DIGITAL, he’s using his experience and his network to help build the businesses that will shape Berlin’s startup scene’s future.
What does GERMANTECH DIGITAL do?
GERMANTECH DIGITAL is a company builder that aims to build the future digital businesses of our clients in a portfolio strategy over multi-year partnerships. We try to build at least ten companies at once in a given digital landscape that we define with our clients, and we try to make sure the companies complement each other — they’re all somehow related, and they add more benefits for existing customers and clients. And because we build so many companies at once, if one fails there’s still enough leverage among the rest.
These new businesses are sometimes very close to our clients’ core businesses, but sometimes very far; it’s really about creating new revenue streams and new fields of business where our clients haven’t been active before.
Can you give me an example of how that works?
We recently worked with EWE, one of the largest German energy companies. We’ve already started three companies for them, all in different fields. They’re an energy and telecommunications provider at their core, but the companies that we set up are not all in those spaces: One is actually neighborhood community, like Nextdoor. In our research we found that the biggest struggle in neighborhood community companies is user validation. But if you’re an energy company and already have several million households and names validated as your clients, it’s much easier to onboard them into a neighborhood community.
So that’s sort of the unfair market advantage we found over other startups that are trying to move into that space. It built on data and customers that EWE already had, but it wasn’t part of their core business — it didn’t even have a business model from the start. It was meant to create enough traction in the market to eventually become one of the dominant players, even as the main business remains in the energy and telecommunication sector.
You’ve been founding companies since you were a teenager. What got you interested in starting your own business?
When I was fifteen, I freelanced for an advertising agency as a web designer. But when I found out how much they charged their clients for my time, I realized that it might be smarter for me to charge them directly and cut out the middle man. So at seventeen I dropped out of school and created a web agency. Then I created my first tech startup. And I’ve been an entrepreneur in the tech field ever since. But there was no master plan or studies related to it, I didn’t even go to university. It was just the passion and the drive to create something on my own. And that’s kept me going.
Since 2007 I’ve spent most of my time investing as a business angel in startups. Then two and a half years ago I decided to start another company called GERMANTECH DIGITAL. I saw down with my business partner Ludwig, and we thought, “If we build another operational company where we’re involved in management, what do we want to do, and what are we good at?” And we realized we’re good at working with corporates and building companies — so why not combine those two? That’s how we got started with the company builder.
We also run GTEC, an entrepreneurship center, which is located in the same space. That’s something I created with our partners out of my university lectures and my work with all these different startups. I wanted to create a support infrastructure for entrepreneurs and innovators from all around the world to have better access to mentors, investors, and corporates; we also work a lot with corporate clients and partners on digital transformation and digital change, and help them interact with the startup scene and with founders. All of that is run by experienced entrepreneurs for the next generation of entrepreneurs, to pass on the lessons we’ve learned and the wisdom from the last twenty years in tech.
What do you think is important in creating an ecosystem like that?
We think there’s a lack of access to partnerships, whether with other entrepreneurs, with investors, with academia, or with corporates. We wanted to really create a platform that brings the three worlds — academia, startups, and corporates — into the same place. These three worlds speak three different languages, so the entrepreneurship center acts as the translator.
It’s a very efficient platform, and we’re able to bring interesting people, young entrepreneurs, together with those who have been there and done it to share their experience, time, mentorship and guidance. And we bring those experienced entrepreneurs into the corporate world to help innovate and create new businesses.
“People coming to Berlin come here to follow their purpose and their own dream, which makes it unique and special — you have so many passionate people in this town.”
— Benjamin Rohé
With all the startups you’ve worked with, what are some of the mistakes you often see?
I think one is not thinking big enough, or giving up too early. It’s something I see quite often when a startup experiences its first failure.
Also, not every business needs to be a venture-financed company. There are a lot of great ideas that can be run as capital-efficient and profitable companies, but a lot of entrepreneurs try to make a venture case instead of making a small but profitable business. And they struggle with their business because of that.
You’ve been working in startups your whole life. What do you like or dislike about the lifestyle?
I think the grass is always greener on the other side. I remember when my first company filed for an IPO, all my friends who were with me at school were saying, “Oh, this is so great, I want to be like you, I want to do this.” But I was looking at them partying every day and hanging out in the sun and enjoying life, and I was like, yeah, but your lifestyle is pretty neat too!
So I think it’s very difficult to see that. It’s a big sacrifice going for the entrepreneurship life. It definitely has the benefits of being your own boss and making your own decisions, but it comes with a great responsibility for yourself and your employees, it comes with sleepless nights and a lot of hours in the office and a lot of crazy travel and little sleep. So I think the freedom and the lifestyle are often over-rated when it comes to entrepreneurship.
I remember in the late 90s when all the investment bankers went into the tech world because they thought they’d become rich faster than if they stayed in investment banking. They were wrong, because you really have to be in for the long game.
I think when you really love what you do you don’t see it as work as much as if you’re employed somewhere. But you still work two or three times as much as someone who just works a regular job. You age faster, definitely.
When you’re building new businesses for companies, what are some of the assets they often under-value?
Definitely data. I spent three weeks last year on a speaker journey through the United States. I was in eight different cities to talk about how data is the new oil. It’s the same situation in Europe, and I think everywhere. Companies don’t see the value of the data that they have, or the data they could gather, or how much they could do with it. It’s the number one opportunity for digital growth that they overlook in their day-to-day business.
How is Berlin as a city to found a company?
I moved here in 2001, which was the nuclear winter of the internet era. Everybody moved back in with their parents or went into consultancy or investment banking. And over the last seventeen years, I thought about moving away several times. But every time I listed the pros and cons, I thought Berlin dramatically beat other cities and other hubs.
In the end, one key thing for me is the mindset of people here. Most people coming to Berlin come here to follow their purpose and their own dream, which makes it unique and special — you have so many passionate people in this town, and regardless of whether people come from Russia or Sweden or Brazil, they immediately become Berliners. It feels like a very strong community of people.
And even though Berlin is in Germany, I always say Berlin is not Germany. It’s a very unique place, and you’d have a harder time recreating it than Silicon Valley. It’s very strongly rooted in its past, and a lot of opportunities in the city have been created out of what’s happened here in the last thirty, forty, fifty years. And that makes it truly international. In many streets you can’t go into a cafe and order without speaking English. Almost all startup events are done in English. It draws people from all over the world to the city.
From a startup perspective, availability of talent and capital efficiency are important, and in terms of both I think there’s no better place to start your company than here.
If you fly an hour and thirty minutes from Berlin, you get to the Nordics, Eastern Europe, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Austria. So you have a lot of talent you can draw into the city. Compare that to Silicon Valley — if you fly an hour and a half, you’re either in the ocean or a corn field. That’s the biggest opportunity. That’s also why Berlin as a city grows so fast, people are coming here from all over the place.
You can read more insights and find more about me in the printed version of the Startup Guide Berlin vol. 4, available here! I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts about Berlin: if you disagree with me, let me know in the comments — happy to open the debate.