The Third Degree: Jan Mechtel of KeyRocket

By Conor Rushby |

This week in the Third Degree, our regular Friday feature where we chat to Berlin’s best and brightest CEOs, we spoke to Jan Mechtel of KeyRocket about stinky wine bars, filling in Berlin’s dirty corners and how Lego changed his life.

SILICON ALLEE: If you weren’t the founder of a startup, what would you be doing?

JAN MECHTEL: I’d probably be a data scientist somewhere. I just love data – the more the better. That’s what I’d be doing at some big company, digging through their data.

SA: What do you like about Berlin?

JM: First of all this is my home town; I was born here, so it’s a tough question. I’ve lived in Paris, London, and Tokyo for a year, and they were just so busy. Berlin is busy enough to have some businesses and companies, but at the same time it’s so relaxed in terms of how you get to work and how you do your shopping and when you go outside. I think for me it’s the best of two worlds – it’s a big city but it’s not in a rush and not too crowded. When I talk to others they always talk about the art or music scene, and how that’s great, but I have a kid now, so I don’t enjoy that as much as I used to. But it adds to the appeal.

SA: East or West Berlin?

JM: I’m from East Berlin. I was seven when the Wall came down, so I don’t remember much except getting Lego for the first time. I remember that fact because when the Wall came down, Lego changed my life. I have to admit that as the East is my home, and Berlin is a large city so the districts are pretty different, if I go to Charlottenburg or Spandau, it still feels like I’m going to another city. My home is Mitte, Friedrichshain, maybe Kreuzberg nowadays, and Prenzlauer Berg of course. I don’t prefer the East as such, but I don’t know the West, it seems foreign to me, just as if I went to Cologne.

SA: When you leave Berlin, where do you like to go?

JM: I’m just the same as anybody else; I like to go to the coast, I like to go the mountains, do some skiiing, I hike a lot. Since I finished university and since I’m back from Tokyo, I’m almost healed from the urge to travel. Before that I was eager to see the world, but since I’ve come back I’ve settled. Right now I don’t have the urge to go anywhere. My son was  born recently, and I guess I’m not a traveller at the moment. I travel a lot with the TV. I love to see documentaries. When I talk about where I want to go next, it always comes to mind I’m a bit spoiled by TV – it’s so convenient that you see the greatest pictures, you can just press pause, and you have the nice narration.

SA: What do you like to do when you’re not working?

JM: A lot of my time I spend with my son. He’s 15 months now, so he’s started to walk, he can understand speech, you can play with him, and that’s all my free time at the moment. I used to play a lot of beach volleyball, and now I play once a month or something. I exercise a lot, I try and find time for that, but in general apart from my son it’s hard to devote to time to stuff. When he’s in bed I often go back to data science. It’s hard to draw the line when you’re not at work, of course when I go home I don’t do my tax returns in the middle of the night, but a lot of what I do at home other people would call work. In a nutshell, my son and sports – oh and video games, a lot less than before also, but I enjoy playing Heroes of Newerth. Its really competitive, really gives you a lot of adrenaline – you’re really high if you win, really low if you lose.

SA: What is your favourite cafe, bar, and restaurant in Berlin?

JM: I don’t have a simple answer, but I have an odd answer. The best I’ve ever eaten was on top of the Reichstag. It’s really expensive, we paid like €100, I took my girlfriend there for her birthday, but it’s worth it. It was crazy good food, and the wines were excellent. I’m not saying it’s my favourite restaurant because I wouldn’t go there every day, but if I had to pick a restaurant [I’d go there]. It’s called Kaefer’s and we were taken care of very well. I don’t go to bars that much anymore. I used to go to one that’s really excellent, Sorsi e Morsi on Marienburgerstrasse, it’s a wine bar and the host is just amazing and the wines are really good and afforadable. The only disadvantage is it’s a smoking bar, so nowadays I’m used to non-smoking bars, so you come home and your clothes are really stinky. It’s the only bar I go to; otherwise it’s just bars for business, and it’s more about the talking and less about the atmosphere of the bar. The same for cafes.

SA: If you could employ anybody, who would it be?

JM: I would go for Joel Spolsky. He has a company called Fog Creek Software and basically he’s just a notorious and very famous person. He invented Stack Overflow. His bread and butter company was Fog Creek Software, and they did a back tracker called Fog Bugz. He’s a really experienced software engineer and architect, a good writer too. He got famous with his blog talking about software engineers – hiring people, how to treat people. And now in the last five years he just proved he can get a lot of products out, and they are really successful and have turned into really large companies. So he has something I admire a lot, which is starting small, building it into something really big and now repeating it. At the same time he sounds really down to earth, not too extrovert, not too Richard Branson. I guess he could help us the most.

SA: How do you think Berlin as a city will develop in the next ten years?

JM: There’s so much space here and people are leaving as well. I don’t see it evolving much – we’ll see lots of the dirty corners disappear, every spot will be filled. The rundown industrial complexes you see here and there, they will all be renovated I guess and filled with something useful. It’ll just be cleaner – in terms of real estate usage. In ten years there won’t be as many abandoned properties than you see now. Apart from that I dont think it will grow a lot, also I don’t think from an industrial or company point of view there will be a larger economy or more business going on. One thing that’s interesting is that they always thought Berlin would be a hub for Eastern Europe, when the European Union expanded. It will be interesting to see if Berlin stops being Berlin – but I can’t see that happening. But then again, when you live here, you dont notice the change. In a nutshell, less abandoned property and cleaner.

SA: What do you think the Internet will look like in ten years?

JM: I can see it going two ways. One is government control, the other is non-government control. I haven’t thought much about this. My expectation is it will continue as it is now – we have the Internet of things, everything is online.

One thing I like to think about, which isn’t related to the Internet, but what I believe, is that the Internet and software add a lot of complexity to the economy in general and how things are constructed. I really think that all this technology splits society apart into people who understand tech and how to use and build it [and those who don’t]. What I’m fearing is that if we progress at this rate of adding technology to our lives, we will get to a point where certain parts of that tech will be considered magical for some people. It just works, sometimes there are problems, but you can’t really explain them. So I think tech will be become a bit mystical in the future for some people. It’s already like that for some people, but in the future the difference will be starker – I think that will be interesting.