The Third Degree: Mark Henkel of Paymill

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 Mark Henkel of Paymill about avoiding Sankt Obherholz, hiring Pussy Riot, and the death of the Internet. 

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

MARK HENKEL: I would probably work for a mid-sized company, family-owned, because that comes close to a real startup feeling; where you are close to the product, where you can change things. I wouldn’t want to work for a big corporate company, where you are so far away from the product, where there are so many political issues with the company. That’s in business terms; in private life I would be a father, and I would be the husband of a rich woman. I would bring up the kids, and I would live the life of a down and out. But that’s not feasible, so a mid-sized company.

SA: As someone who has lived in both, what are the biggest differences in everyday life between Munich and Berlin? 

MH: Berlin is the capital and Munich is like a village, with an old centre, while in Berlin you have many centres. You’ve got Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Neukölln and so on, but in Munich you just have one inner city, and then you’ve got smaller hubs around that. I also think the people in Munich are different. In Berlin many people go to the city to find themselves as a person, in Munich, people are more settled. While Munich appears to be a bit more mature and pointy, the people there know what they want, though maybe they are a little more wealthy. Lastly, of course, in Munich there is very good football – the team plays in the first league – not the second.

SA: East or West Berlin?

MH: My old office was on Kurfürstendamm and I really liked it, but I prefer the eastern parts, like Mitte. I guess all in all it’s a mixture of both – if I was raising my family in Berlin I’d be the guy who lives in the West, but if you see me as a business man, who works 10-12 hours a day, and then wants a few beers, I’m more the East guy who likes the atmosphere in Mitte. But I’m not a Sankt Oberholz guy –  you need an Apple computer to go there, and I don’t like the style.

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

MH: Usually sports, I try to go to hiking in the Alps and if I’m not thinking of doing sports, then its taking time out for things like handcrafts. I have an old Vespa I’m trying to fix up. I also like to go to the theatre or museums -I went recently went to a Gunter Sachs exhibition.  The landscape of museums in Munich is really good, and also for opera – there’s a huge possibilty to extend your view and culture in Munich and Berlin.

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

MH: Everybody says things like they want to go so far abroad, like China or they want to see Australia and New Zealand. I always think, why do you travel? People travel to see different places, but at the same time it’s to learn about yourself. But you don’t need to travel that far – I like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France. I like cities like Copenhagen and Zurich a lot. These are places you can see yourself in a different way, because you behave differently, and you learn a lot about yourself. I don’t need to go so far away to get that, but then again I want to go to South America. I also like Africa, where you can see things which are really authentic, which aren’t covered by our modern world. People are really friendly, they take you as you are, they ask you if you want to have dinner with them, and they mean what they say without a hidden agenda.

SA: When you’re in Berlin, which bar and restaurant do you like to go to?

MH: If you want pasta, Spagetti Western on Torstrasse. It’s very unique, and very simple – places for me don’t need to be fancy. I like the Odessa Bar, it has nice music, cocktails, good drinks, and a good bartender. It’s similar to the famous Munich bar Schumann’s – with very good gin and tonic – I’m always starving for a good gin and tonic.

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

MH: Maybe some of the girls from Pussy Riot, for the PR. They tried to show the situation in Russia is wrong, and they gave ways to make it better, but they went to jail. That’s similar to us; we know the world of payment, but we know there’s a better way to do things. That’s not a good link is it? I usually look for interesting people, who have some characteristics aside from their performance in the job.

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

MH: I think it will never become a Silicon Valley, because Berlin comes from the side of the customer – when people think of something they want, and then they research a way to solve that problem. In Silicon Valley, it’s different. In the US and Canada, the people are more like business geeks and it’s easier for startups to get their  things into the market. In Berlin I think it’s a lot of hype; everybody wants a startup, but sometimes there is no market. The guys in Silicon Valley don’t care about markets, they care about solutions, they care about possibilites and products – afterwards they care about markets.

As a city, I think Berlin will never stop changing, but the habits of the city will never change, they will never be a fixed state. It was a melting point in the twentieth century, and it’s the melting point of Europe at the moment. When you think about London, what’s there is just money – it’s old economy. If you think of new economy, Berlin is on top. It will become the leading city over the next years, but again there’s that difference in approach with Silicon Valley.

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

MH: I hope the Internet is dead in the next ten years, in some ways. The Internet changed getting information and purchasing items which is good, but the Internet is changing the way people behave. I don’t like this – people are not communicating anymore, they compare prices over the Internet, they no longer go to stores where you talk to somebody who has handcrafted something. They say “hey this is so expensive,” but it’s a special product made by an individual – they just compare things without thinking and are not close to the product. People even communicate via Skype and Facebook and so on. In my childhood I played outside, and I played with my friends, and if I said guys lets meet on Saturday we met, we didn’t need to confirm on Facebook six times a week before. I hope it will become a friendlier place, where people meet, but I think now, it’s a place where people meet to pretend to be someone they are not. If you look at Facebook, it doesn’t reflect reality, it’s just a second world.

Don’t get me wrong. The Internet drives development and progress, it allows new ways of economy, new thinking and new ways of research. All in all I think the Internet is useful, but I don’t think it should be a place where people should live their lives, and which replaces the real world. It should be a place to help you live your life in the real world. In all aspects the human being should be centre stage. I have the fear my children will grow up with the Internet, but will not see real friends, and just think that Internet friends are enough.