The Third Degree: Janis Zech of SponsorPay

By Conor Rushby |

This week in the Third Degree, our regular Friday feature where we chat to Berlin’s leading startup figures, we spoke to Janis Zech of SponsorPay about a bastard of a breakfast, going on safari and hiring Mahatma Ghandi.

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

JANIS ZECH: I would probably do incubation – I really like starting and building stuff, I’m very fond of ideas, and I like people and building teams. Starting companies is really what I enjoy doing, and obviously snow boarding and surfing and other fun things. Professionally I would always carry on with what I am doing now.

SA: What do you like about Berlin?

JZ: Not the weather. I think Berlin is one of the most attractive cities in Europe right now, though there are lots of other good places, so I don’t completely believe this Berlin hype. But for founding companies you have a lot of young really talented people in Berlin, or at least wanting to come here. You also have a really big art and design scene which I hope goes crazy and goes into starting companies without being completely rational as a consequence of how big the company gets. That might breed more innovation than what you see from some of the incubators just copying ideas. Outside of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, I think it’s an attractive city – great food, lots of things to do, whether you look at clubs, or theatre, or museums, or art, so it’s pretty awesome. It just misses the mountains or the sea.

SA: East or West Berlin?

JZ: I live in Kreuzberg, in the West, but I like both sides to be honest. I mostly spend my time in Kreuzberg, Mitte, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg. You got some good lakes outside in the West and good lakes to the East. I don’t really mind either, I like the whole thing.

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

JZ: I love sports, snowbaoarding, sometimes soccer or beach volleyball. I still like partying, so I do go clubbing, and music. Pretty standard stuff I guess. Outside of that stuff, I like art – recently I went to the Gerhard Richter exhibition right here in Berlin.

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

JZ: Currently I like to go to Halle where my girlfriend is finishing up her medicine studies. Apart from that I love visiting cities. San Francisco is a great place, but in Europe I really like Barcelona and London. I think my next trip though will be Africa, doing safari, and seeing wildlife.

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

JZ: My favourite breakfast place is Bastard on Reichenberger Straße in Kreuzberg. It’s pretty cool, and so is Nest close to Görlitzer Park. It’s a brunch place and very good. As for a restaurant, I really like Lavanderia Vecchia on Flughafenstraße in Neukölln. It’s Italian – you get a longer menu, the restaurant is family style, and they are very friendly people.

SA: If you could employ anybody who would you choose?

JZ: I can only think of Mahatma Ghandi, but he would not help our company much –  though for PR reasons he would be excellent! I have to say I don’t think hiring just one person would bring success to SponsorPay. If I could hire one person, but they would be really expensive, I wouldn’t hire them, but try and invest in the whole team. In this company we need a lot of different, very motivated people, and one person can’t do the whole job.

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

JZ: It is hyped – there were 30 per cent increases in rent in Neukölln last year for example, but I think the city will continue to develop well. I think the startup scene will continue to grow yet there are fundamental differences between the Valley and Berlin. From my own experience, one is funding. In Menlo Park, you have the Sand Hill Road where every big venture capital firm sits, and they raise not millions but billions. They are also much more aggressive, and much more visionary when it comes to supporting companies and making them into global leaders in technology. Stanford is unmatched when it comes to software engineering and the combination with entrepreneurship. You also have Berkeley which produces the most CEOs in tech companies. I think the universities here need to mix more with the startup scene, that’s important. And then, thirdly, platforms; Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook are buying companies and fueling this whole startup hype. It’s kind of a circle. If you make a lot of money as a VC you reinvest, and when you see successful founders creating companies that are doing something big, that fuels the whole ecosystem.

Everyone in the Valley actually considers himself or herself as being founders as well. In Berlin, it’s slowly becoming a similar situation but at a five per cent scale. That’s a good thing that founding companies becomes cool and hip, but nevertheless they also need to be successful to sustain themselves. Otherwise, it’s more something that it is cool for five or ten years and then it’s out because you are working a lot, you may not be the coolest person on the earth, and there might be cooler things than this.

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

JZ: The Internet started out as a research project to improve communications within the US army. So, the first and foremost aspect of the Internet that made it so big was this open approach, and it has gone much further than anyone expected – I think this will just continue. Internet will be everywhere. Your home devices will be connected; you switch on your car, put on the microwave, and start your washing machine with just your mobile phone. It will probably get much more intelligent – taking away stuff you don’t want, and doing real things you don’t want to do, like shopping. So there’s lots of room for growth, and many, many opportunities out there – so I think the Internet will spread further throughout our lives.