Berlin Needs to Work Together More with Eastern Europe

By Silicon Allee |

By Christoph Raethke

When people talk about the opportunities of Berlin as a startup heaven, they never fail to mention its proximity to Central Eastern Europe (CEE) as an asset. In that context, CEE is a mythical land few have visited, inhabited by a wondrous tribe called “technical talent”, ready to be discovered as a resource for Berlin’s promise.

Among those who have visited this place, Philipp Kandal stands out as someone who has built a successful company, Skobbler, one which is part-German, part-Romanian. Skobbler is the world’s leading open data based navigation app and has a developer team of 50 people plus in Cluj, historical capital of Transylvania and, for many centuries, a German-speaking city by the name of Klausenburg.

Today, Cluj is a center of nearshore software development outsourcing; there are several companies in town employing 500 and more developers each, which are the workbench of corporations like Microsoft and eBay.

Accordingly, Philipp lives in both worlds. He is helping founders in Berlin as a BSA mentor and is investing in the emerging Romanian scene at the same time – such as with last weekend’s Startup Weekend Cluj event. The Startup Weekend format has people pitch ideas and form ad-hoc teams around them on Friday, work on these ideas with the help of mentors on Saturday and Sunday, and pitch them on Sunday evening. Alongside local entrepreneurs, a group from Berlin, Cologne and Munich had the chance to chip in as mentors, too, among them Ibrahim Evsan and myself.

The turnout was very good – more than 150 people had registered, forming 17 teams, some of them consisting entirely of developers.

Ideas ranged in quality from “c’mon, give me a break” to the “well… maybe” to the “this could actually work.” In any case, from minute one it was clear that the work atmosphere among the teams and mentors would be exactly as positive and productive as we know it from Berlin. Nearly all participants spoke excellent English – well enough to not only convey facts, but joke around, pitch confidently and have some interesting discussions.

With so many teams, participants and mentors, a crazy schedule developed. Come Sunday night, the jury had picked three ideas and two honourable mentions, the latter for entertainment factor (“ – does your startup stink or float?”) and public support (the “Catwalk 15” team had managed to get 1,400 newsletter signups and a cheering crowd of groupies outside the building for their idea to build a Hot Or Not for fashion buyers).

And this is where we go back to the ideas that were developed during the weekend. One lesson I took away was that, for good or bad, people in Cluj were struggling with the same challenges of finding a credible pain point, defining a clear target group and answering the “who is paying whom for what?” question that we all do.

While some of us over here still see CEE as the bleak realms behind the Iron Curtain, with horse carts plodding potholed country roads and toothless Kusturica-style grandmas selling home-grown cucumbers on shabby village markets, reality for the 20-somethings that populated SW Cluj is that they are into the same stuff as we are. That means they take the same clues on what might work, use the same tools, and are as likely to come up with The Next Big Thing as we are – but not likelier.

But the winning idea, “Cloud Clipboard”, showed the direction things could go. Cloud Clipboard is an app that will transfer everything you copy on any device using the traditional CTRL+C key combination not only to your device’s cache, but also into a cloud folder.

From there, any other device can simply paste it in with CTRL+V. A geeky idea, and it’ll be hard to take this from being a feature to being a real product. But if you think of how the transfer of a phone number from, say, a PC to a phone works now (copy number paste into Evernote synchronise open Evernote on Phone synchronise copy number from Evernote file paste into desired application), doing all this by simply pressing two shortcuts is appealing.

AND: because the team was almost entirely programmers, by the end of the weekend they had made an Android, PC, Mac, and (of course) Linux versions of the program for this.

As we went out for final drinks on Sunday night and the participating geek girls had revamped into bombshells, the question remained how well ideas can be turned into startups in the ecosystem of Cluj, Romania in general, or even the CEE. There were guys about to start an accelerator in Sofia there, too, and I threw in a few observations from my mentoring in Prague and Krakow last year.

My message was, as always, come to Berlin. But from what I heard, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The big outsourcing companies in Romania and elsewhere are doing their best to sweep the plate clean when it comes to hiring the best developers. Some even argued that when it comes to salaries paid vs cost of living, the income gap between there and here is not that big anymore.

Still, I left the city with a feeling that both for Berlin (in terms of bringing in talent and ideas) and for our eastern neighbors (in terms of gaining experience, initial funding, and consumer access), the benefits of collaboration could be tremendous.

How about creating a showcase and workshop event for CEE founders in Berlin later this year? I would be in on the Berlin end, and I’m sure Philipp would be, too. Wouldn’t you?

This is a guest post by Christoph Raethke, founder of the Berlin Startup Academy.