Startup Crawl Offers Clues to Perfect Office Balance

By Conor Rushby |

“Put the key of despair into the lock of apathy, turn the knob of mediocrity slowly and open the gates of despondency – welcome to a day in the average office.” David Brent from the UK version of The Office was certainly negative about workplaces, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true for tech companies. Google’s offices around the world, for example, are designed to portray the image of a dynamic company. With bean bags, meeting eggs and even slides, they are certainly different. But what about Berlin? Germans are not usually known for being quirky – but that stereotype might need rethinking.

That was the impression left after the Startup Crawl, which took in a whistle stop tour of startup offices including 9flats, FAB, Delivery Hero, and SponsorPay – four very different companies with very different work environments. On hand were senior figures from each organisation to impart some wisdom, and talk a little about the business set up.

Startup Crawl used the free event to test the concept, a similar one to the FridayatSix Tours. Among the 20 or so attendees there were Polish founders, looking to see how Berlin startups operate, as well as students and those looking for tips on how to best expand their own business. Organiser Clarissa Steinhöfel now plans to take the tour to Krakow, to give Berliners a taste of the Polish scene.

The first stop was 9Flats, a platform for renting out other people’s apartments for city breaks which has been live since 2011. It now has 50,000 hosts in 120 countries and a rapidly expanding team, which caused them to leave their old office in Kreuzberg and head to a bigger place in Friedrichshain.

The building is reminiscent of David Brent’s from the opening credits to The Office, although a quick tour dispelled any notion that this workplace is as chaotic or as drab. The vibe was homely, with cake on offer, the heating cranked up, and large sofas in the staff room.

Co-founder Roman Rochel said the having a good workspace was vital to functioning well as a startup: “What’s cool with a startup is you can try different things, though always focused on specific figures and goals, but if you make a mistake you can talk about it, and that’s the culture we have at this company. We try a lot of different things and we try to modify every time our processes.

In contrast to the serious, hardworking 9flats workplace, FAB’s office is, well, fabulous. Which is what you might expect from a company specialising in home furnishings and fashion retail. Like 9flats, it has also grown rapidly, snapping up floors of the building they had occupied – and what a building. Tucked away in an unassuming East Kreuzberg yard, the building has high ceilings, huge windows allowing in plenty of light, large open spaces, and a roof top garden. Also impressive was the basement kitchen, where fresh food is served up.

Sascha Weiler, VP of internationalisation and marketing, showed us around. FAB, founded in July 2011, actually acquired Sascha’s own company Casacanda in February this year, and at that time had 40 people. Now there are 180 people and rising. In fact, earlier this week they moved into two new floors of the building. With the main office in New York, Sascha helps run the whole European operation – serving 24 countries.

There is a very positive atmosphere in the workplace. The tour stumbled upon roles being delegated for an upcoming FAB project and each appointment was greeted with cheering and applause, while the spacious architecture and bright colour schemes made the ideas seem to bounce off the walls.

Sascha explained that creating a good office vibe is key to the company’s work culture. He said: “We do all kinds of stuff – tomorrow is mini golf, we went go karting, we have parties, we have dinners.” But there is still no way to guarantee the loyalty of your employees – Sascha also told tales of staff leaving at short notice for companies like Rocket Internet.

The third stop, Delivery Hero, again offered up an entirely different experience. Another company which has expanded at breakneck speed, it is based in a huge building on Mohrenstrasse in Mitte. Known as Lieferheld in Germany, the firm has 25,000 restaurants on its books globally, with 18 different brands in 11 different markets.

Fabian Siegel of Delivery Hero

And this brand is very much reflected in their office. The sofas are bright yellow and red – the company colours – while pictures of superheros adorn the walls in every room. Despite this light touch, the Delivery Hero office is a serious place. Without the shared space of FAB, each department like customer service, legal, and finance occupies different rooms.

With their efforts now focussed on user acquisition, and with most of their European activity concentrated in Mitte, there is a babble of different languages in the workplace. Co-CEO Fabian Siegel said: “The reason why we are investing in users is because our industry is a land grab market. Most people haven’t ordered online, they’re still using a paper menu.”

The final stop on the whistle stop tour was to SponsorPay – around the corner from Rosenthaler Platz in a space formerly home to MTV’s Berlin office. Like FAB, it’s tucked away in an unassuming yard, but boasts period Prussian arches together with sleek modern furnishings, plus the mandatory plush sofas. Unsurprisingly the company doesn’t want to move despite its recent successes and growth, so it has branched out into surrounding buildings, creating a little SponsorPay cluster.

Having started out offering micro payments, the company now focuses more on advertising. Online game users opt in to watch an advert or fill out a survery, in return for virtual currency or unlocking new game features. The platform hosting the advert gets paid, with SponsorPay taking a cut.

With 24 languages, the office follows the Berlin startup trend of having a mash up of tongues. And the key to a good working environment? Projjol Banerjea, VP of marketing told the tour: “It’s all about company culture really, you want to make sure you get the right people, and get the right values instilled.”

That was a common theme on the Startup Crawl – and with more tours planned, perhaps it could be a useful tool for founders to learn what makes a happy office tick.