How Not to Break Your Neck as an Entrepreneur

According to Christoph Räthke, CEO of Berlin Startup Academy

This article was written by Connor Bilboe, correspondent for Silicon Allee.

“I will actively discourage you from starting a startup”

It’s Monday 26th March. The final beams of sunlight pierce through the horizon on Brunnenstraße, in the heart of Berlin Mitte. Christoph Räthke is about to commence the second rendition of his brand-new meetup, ‘Feedback’ at co-working space and café, Unicorn. It’s a continuation of his previous meetup series “G-Force”, which over it’s lifetime has seen over 2500 attendees, of which over 500 of them pitched and sought focused advice on their digital business ideas.

If you’ve been around Berlin for a while and worked in startups, you’ve likely met Christoph. He’s been at it for over a decade. He’s a character that takes over the room when he walks in, is not afraid to share his opinion or be confrontational, but is also one of the most genuine people in an often fickle and ruthless industry. As our group of aspiring entrepreneurs sit down to begin, confident to share our breakthrough business ideas, Christoph begins plain and simple, blindly telling us that he will “actively discourage [us] from starting a start-up”. One guest from Eastern Europe stops Christoph for a second, surprised, just to clarify that those were the words that really came out of his mouth. He confidently affirms.

Christoph isn’t messing around.

Let’s rewind. Christoph and I recently met up at our campus café, R/D, over coffee to catch up on the new endeavours that Christoph is setting up in 2018. He arrives on time, in from the bitter cold that clouds Berlin on a frosty Friday morning. As we shake hands, he removes his heavy-duty Wellensteyn jacket, praising it almost as if it’s battle armour from the harsh temperatures outside. Tactically, he only needs a t-shirt on indoors, reinforcing the no-nonsense demeanour that he proudly carries. His body language tells me he is determined and excited for the future plans he has in store as he clutches his latte.

“Feedback is just something that I want to give founders to be more successful, have fun with and see how it works for them” he tells me. Christoph runs a tri-weekly meet-up series which occasionally features international teams from Start Alliance, brought along by Berlin Partner, the city of Berlin’s marketing agency — so be sure to look out for these rare sessions. It is free of charge, for anyone who wants to pitch their idea and receive feedback from Christoph and the guests attending, on whether the idea can work or not. “I really want to tackle this process of turning people into founders or entrepreneurs, and I’m trying to take the fluffiness out of that” he tells me.

“I want to make them really think about it, like ‘will this be good for me or will I break my neck?’ Because that’s what I want to keep people from doing, breaking their necks by doing the wrong thing, with all their passion”

Christoph is brutal and to-the-point; but let’s not get the wrong idea here. He’s not just ripping into every idea aimlessly, as his motivations lie in constructive feedback. “It’s not that I made it my purpose to tell everyone they suck. I want to put challenges from my experiences of 20 years that they will need to solve eventually in front of them; that’s the market niche I found for myself in this meetup” he explains. This is evident at Monday’s Feedback meetup, where a guests’ pitch and presentation are dubbed “awful” by the experienced entrepreneur, but not without his fair advice and ways to improve. “I want to make them really think about it, like ‘will this be good for me or will I break my neck?’ Because that’s what I want to keep people from doing, breaking their necks by doing the wrong thing, with all their passion”, he continues.

A report from Berlin Partner’s Department for Business and Technology from October 2017 shows that 500 new tech start-ups surface in Berlin every year, with every fifth generating a turnover of over €1million, outlining the prominence of start-up culture here today. This in return has seen the emergence of a superfluous number of meetups and events for aspiring entrepreneurs to attend — but what is the unique selling point of ‘Feedback’? What makes it stand out from the rest? Christoph proudly tells me that he strives to serve early-stage and existing companies that still need a boost to find their edge in the marketplace. He stresses that: “Entrepreneurship is something that encompasses the entire society, and that’s how it should be dealt with. You can’t segregate it by putting students, corporate leaders, founders, locals and foreigners in separate places”.

This is clearly reflected in the audience that attended the recent ‘Feedback’ event, which sported a vast range of ages and professions in completely different stages of businesses, some attendees simply curious to see what new developments were in the works in the buzzing German capital and beyond. Christoph expresses that this melting-pot approach is something he believes in for success and always something that he pushes to amalgamate in all the work that he does. He tells me: “Whatever I do, I will try and work on an overarching platform that puts all these parties together and has them learn from each other instead of establishing their own individual projects”.

Christoph has not fallen short in this area of work, and has built up quite the rapport in Berlin; he is a sponge of information that eventgoers can squeeze out. He stormed through almost 70 G-Force classes at GTEC as Director of Education, as well as leading a vast array of other meetups and workshops. He is also well-connected with other well-known entrepreneurs, having collaborated on approximately 50 ‘open lectures’ alongside Knut Jørstad, Anita Schjøll and Ansgar Oberholz. He founded Berlin’s founder-run accelerator in 2012, Berlin Startup Academy, and has accommodated almost 40 teams over seven successful cycles. It is not only the 20 plus years of grounded experience in his home country that has stemmed Christoph’s expansive knowledge of entrepreneurship, but also with classes organised abroad from the Ukranian capital, Kiev, through Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, and to Belgrade, Serbia.

Beyond the confines of ‘Feedback’, however, Christoph urges all aspiring entrepreneurs to continue getting other useful responses, useful not being from family or friends. “You need to get out and get feedback as early as possible from real specialists, and people who have a commercial interest in what you’re doing”. He emphasises this during the meetup, with one guest pitching a cryptocurrency-based start-up that would place all cryptocurrency data from different markets into one place but has yet to land himself into the right professional circle of like-minded individuals, where he could begin to put his business idea into action. Christoph advised him build his professional network before continuing.

“we need people to discover tech investment as a clever way to invest and become part of the societal change that we are facing in the next decades”

With Christoph’s long experience in Berlin, frequently meeting new people with new ideas, and at one point owning two businesses at once — he has watched how Berlin has begun to blossom into one of the leading technology innovation hubs. It wasn’t always the same, as Christoph recalls how in the early 2000s Berlin had this consensus that you must leave after you graduate as a student and transition into professional working life because “there were no careers to be had by the Spree.” As great as Berlin’s ecosystem might look right now, Christoph still sees some room for improvement. He puts an emphasis on how financing should be injected into the technology sector in Berlin: “we need people to discover tech investment as a clever way to invest and become part of the societal change that we are facing in the next decades”.

Christoph believes that all the facts point towards Berlin when dealing with investments, which he predicts to shoot up in the next 5–10 years. He believes that the scalability of Berlin will increase, as well as the internationality of the German capital’s population. “I firmly believe that Berlin will become a great place, not only for people who were born here, but for the people who come here; the people who make a choice to come” he confidently tells me.

So, with Berlin set to grow only bigger and wealthier in the coming years, an influx of new businesses and optimistic founders are sure to swarm into the city as it continues to become the new hotspot for innovation. And Christoph Räthke will be there to knock a bit of a reality check into them all. You won’t leave Christoph’s Feedback meetup without your confidence knocked back a few steps — but for all the right reasons. In terms of ‘Feedback’s future, Christoph adds: “I have no idea if my structure is useful, but there’s only one way to find out…let’s see where 2018 takes me”.

‘Feedback.’ will currently run on a tri-weekly basis, but stay tuned for the next meetup and any updates on