Berlin vies with London as the biggest start-up ecosystem in Europe. On a whistle stop tour of Berlin Siliconrepublic.com met six start-ups that are going the distance.
Once a byword for the Cold War Berlin has blossomed to become the warm beating heart of Europe’s start-up scene not to mention a vibrant and influential art and design community.
It is a go-to location for programmers, entrepreneurs and lately venture capitalists from the US and Asia for a variety of factors.
It has a catchment area that attracts software talent from Ukraine and Belarus and because of low rent, decent pay and good infrastructure it is a very easy place to live.
Ahead of the Engage conference in Prague we got to meet some of the local start-ups that are on their way to becoming global brand names.
Silicon Republic meets the start-ups of Berlin – video
Berlin’s best start-ups: OneFootball
Founded in 2008, Onefootball is the world’s No. 1 mobile football platform and the driving force in connecting football fans around the world. Whether you’re looking for the latest scores and news or want to connect with your football mates, Onefootball makes it happen.
Football has always been CEO Lucas von Cranach’s passion. After searching in vain for on-the-go live scores and news on his favourite team, 1. FC Cologne, he decided to take matters into his own hands and founded Onefootball – then motain – in 2008. He started out with a simple SMS service delivering live scores directly to the fans’ pockets. Shortly thereafter, Apple representatives shared early plans for the upcoming iPhone and its App Store. Onefootball, then known as THE Football App/iLiga, was among the first 1,000 apps ever released on the App Store. Now, only a few years later, Onefootball is the leading mobile football platform, providing more than 20 million fans with a comprehensive mobile football experience.
Originally OneFootball spawned 300 different apps on Java to serve various mobile devices which von Cranach remembers as a huge pain that was becoming unsustainable.
“You could call it entrepreneurial luck,” he recalled. “In 2008 Apple’s Steve Jobs decided to launch the App Store. If he decided to do it a year later I’m not sure I would have still been around.
“Our goal is to build the best football experience globally for our fans,” von Cranach said, pointing out that having a Java app that could be downloaded on millions of iPhones was a blessing.
His problems, however, weren’t over. When the financial crisis struck Europe in 2008 he was still raising funding in a market where finance had dried up. Sticking to his guns, he bootstrapped the company and raised angel investment. By 2012 he had the numbers to prove traction and raised insitutional funding from investors that include Early Bird and Union Square Ventures, investor in Twitter and Etsy.
“Our vision is to build a football network that provides consumers with engaging content that is socially interactive,” von Cranach said, adding that the company has succeeded in moving from being a publishing platform to a pureplay product company.
“Out of 60 people 85pc are focused on product and engineering.”
The product strategy has worked and OneFootball is the go-to app for football fans everywhere. It is used by 20m people and enjoys 50,000 daily downloads. It covers 400 leagues in 16 languages and pulls in content from 5,000 media sources and forges partnerships with leagues and clubs.
The company is targeting a global market that includes over 1bn fans out of whom 350m are on mobile devices. This, von Cranach says, is a €100bn market. “75pc of the world’s population have mobile devices and football is the world’s most popular sport. Understanding the fan is crucial.”
Again, as is the trait among German start-ups, the company is fully localised in China and is highly visible on Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Windows platforms and is currently hard at work on its Apple Watch app.
A deft strategy of analytics and user-generated content is driving OneFootball’s success.
“Data and statistics are the foundation of the company. We have to be the fastest for live scores on the market and we aim to assure fans that the first notification of a goal score comes from us.
“Opinion is the news – if Bayern Munich loses there are hundreds of different opinions as to why that won’t change the result but we are getting users on more and more as well as publshers with exclusive content so we are right in front of the right audience at the right moment.”
Berlin’s best start-ups: Wunderlist
6Wunderkinder is a young and innovative software startup that was founded by six friends in Berlin in August 2010. 6Wunderkinder designs and develops a cloud-based, cross platform productivity application called Wunderlist, which was first launched in November 2010.
Today, Wunderlist is one of the most popular productivity applications and is used by millions of people around the world and is one of a group of new productivity apps that along with Slack and Tableau will transform productivity over the coming decade.
The chief design officer at Wunderlist Benedikt Lehnert said the core point of Wunderlist is “to help individuals and teams to get stuff done.”
He continued: “We set ourselves a goal of building the producitivity tool that handles all the things in your life. We have transformed the to-do app and turned into a productivity platform that syncs with whatever you do or use in real-time.”
Lehnert explained that in the average working day around 1.2m to-dos are created by Wunderlist’s user community. In 2014 some 199m to-dos were created and so far a total of 770m to-dos have been created altogether.
The app integrates with tools like Snapchat, OneNote, HipChat, Zapier and Scanbot thanks to a new public API and the latest app to integrate with Wunderlist is Sunrise.
The Wunderlist can be bought by companies for US$4.99 per seat and around 90,000 teams worldwide use the app.
Investors in Wunderlist include Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom’s Atomico, Early Bird in Berlin, New York’s Thrive and it was the first Berlin start-up to raise funding from Sequoia in California.
The company has also approached the vital Chinese market in a way that is typical of Berlin start-ups, completely creating a localised brand and product from the ground up suited to China rather than merely translating or localising it. Key alliances with Apple, Google and Xiaomi have also helped Wunderlist to grow fast in Asia.
Currently more than 70pc of Wunderlist’s userbase is in the US and Europe.
Berlin’s best start-ups: SavingGlobal
Self-described as the “Amazon for deposits” SavingGlobal launched the first pan-European deposit-brokerage platform in German
Founded in 2014 by CEO Tamaz Georgadze, Berlin-based SavingGlobal launched the first pan-European deposit brokerage platform in Germany (under the brand “WeltSparen”) enabling German savers to access to the best interest rates from banks across Europe.
The company has forged alliances with banks from all across Europe, including AIB in Ireland, that will allow German savers to open deposits in overseas banks without having to leave the country.
Customers can open term deposits online with a number of European partner banks, after just one identification with SavingGlobal’s partner MHB-Bank. Customers can open term deposits from the convenience of their home without having to handle foreign language account opening forms or requiring any travel.
Since the launch SavingGlobal has gathered over 20,000 registered customers, collected over €350m deposit volumes. This year SavingGlobal will expand its offering towards customers from across Europe so savers in Ireland if they wish can deposit savings in other banks across Europe to take advantage of interest rates.
“We are targeting a market that is potentially worth €10 trillion that until now was restricted to customers being only able to deposit in local bank accounts,” explained Katharina Lüth, head of Europe at SavingGlobal.
“What we have created is a platform that offers cross Europe via single sign-on the ability from the comfort of home for customers to open one account that offers a consolidated overview of savings and access to documents in German and English.”
She said that after one year SavingGlobal has amassed 20,000 registered clients. “They earned €3.4m in additional interest income via the platform in 2014 and we are aiming for income of €10m for customers in 2015.”
The company’s investors include Index Ventures and it has raised €10m in venture capital so far.
So far there are 10 banks on the platform from around Europe, including Ireland’s AIB, and the company’s revenues are derived on commission it receives from the banks.
Right now SavingGlobal only serves Germany but this year it will open it up to English-speaking markets across Europe.
Berlin’s best start-ups: Navabi
Navabi is the global leader in women’s premium plus size fashion. The online retailer stocks a broad selection of more than 100 brands including designer collections from Elena Miro and Anna Scholz, and leading LA-based denim line James Jeans. Last November it exclusively launched plus size supermodel Ashley Graham’s eponymous lingerie line in Europe.
Founded by Bahman Nedael and Zahir Dehnadi the idea for Navabi came about when Nedael was helping out his aunt at her boutique: besides the growing market for online fashion, he recognised how the fashion industry ignored the potential for premium fashion for plus size women. Drawing on his experience and expertise in e-commerce, Nedaei launched Navabi in 2009 and later partnered up with his childhood friend and co-founder Dehnadi. Their mission was and still is to provide plus size women with premium fashionable clothing across the globe.
Nedaei was named as ‘Entrepreneur of the Year 2014’ and Navabi has also received the famous ‘Internet World Business Idea 2010 Award’. Furthermore, Navabi completed a €25 million funding round in January 2015 led by Bauer Venture Partners.
Nedael said that the fashion industry keeps pushing the dial towards size zero while in reality ordinary women are moving in the direction of size 14.
“Plus size is the biggest untapped e-commerce market. The average European size has shifted from 40 to 46. In Europe this is a €10bn market and in the US it is an €18bn market that is just being ignored. The industry wants to go to zero whereas the reality is 14.
“Fashion is a language and therefore we believe that over 50pc of women are not allowed to speak.”
In just six years Navabi has grown to employ 150 people and has attracted a world class team including Miriam Lagage, former head buyer at eBay, and Dan Barker who is one of the creators of the growth hacking concept.
His colleague Dehnadi said that Navabi is a pureplay online retailer that is selling to 30 countries where some of the biggest spenders are spending up to €35,000 a year online for their clothes. The company’s core markets are the UK, Germany and France.
“It solves a big problem that hopefully helps millions of women, making their lives happier, while we have the opportunity to build a global company. Women don’t like us. They love us.”
The company has expanded globally with no direct competition thanks to the fashion industry’s ongoing tunnel vision when it comes to plus size women.
“Getting the word out was a big challenge for us at first,” Nedael said.
“We had to be creative and use a portfolio mix and we were fighting from day one but now the landscape has totally changed and things have gotten easier for us.”
After raising funding from Index Ventures the company is planning to expand beyond Europe into the US in the near future.
“We opened the French market eight months ago and we are seeing double digit growth. But if you can make it in Germany you can make it almost anywhere in the world because it is one of the most difficult markets in terms of return rates. However, the top fashion brands have taken note and some of them are beginning to use Navabi as a vehicle.”
Berlin’s best start-ups: EyeEm
EyeEm is a photo community platform that is becoming one of the world’st fastest growing photography communities and which has just raised €18m in a funding round that includes investment from renowned Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel.
The community began in 2010 as a festival for people who took photos on iPhones and by 2011 the community had created a photography app.
EyeEm is currently building a photography community platform that will enable aspiring photographers to sell their picture to the press and commercial interests on a 50/50 basis with EyeEm. Users can earn US$20 for photos used by the press and US$250 for photos licensed commercially.
“There is a new generation of people coming through who are self-taught in terms of photography,” explained Severin Matusek, vice president for community at EyeEm. “They are inspired by what’s happening online and they are developing their skills by sharing photos. We are offering them a platform that is about more than sharing photos but a platform for them to develop skills and make some money. We give master classes online to our community.
“We want to enable this new generation of photographers to go pro,” he said.
Gen Sadakane, co-founder of EyeEm said the company partners with brands like Mercedes-Benz, The Huffington Post and Getty Images to send the community on missions to chase photographic subjects. Other brands working with EyeEm include Amnesty International, Saatchi Art, LG and Motorola.
“The key is to build a sustainable platform for photograpy in the form of an authentic community you can’t find elsewhere.”
Matusek said that EyeEm is working on a subscription model for publishers and sets itself apart from players like Instagram and Tumblr.
“The key differentiator is we focus heavily on the use of keywords to ensure the right images can be found in searches.
“We were originally a mobile phoen platform but now EyeEm is about photography generally. Our users are people who start taking shots with a smartphone and then move up to invest in cameras.”
Berlin’s best start-ups: GetYourGuide
Started originally in Zurich in 2010 by a group of students, Berin-based GetYourGuide collects and categorises all the world’s things to do so people research less and do more. Electric bike tours around Paris, skip-the-line tickets to the Vatican museums, cooking classes in Thailand, or double-decker bus tours of New York City, GetYourGuide covers every category of activity in nearly every corner of the globe.
The start-up has grown to employ 150 people and is the vital link connecting people who visit new cities to plan for activities like visiting the London Eye, the Statue of Liberty, Madame Tussaud’s and much, much more.”
“Basically the days of the printed guide books are numbered,” said co-founder and CEO Johannes Reck.
Attracted by the start-up ecosystem and the funding available Reck moved GetYourGuide to Berlin in 2012 the same year the company raised its Series A funding.
“We turn great trips into amazing experiences,” Reck said.
He said the market for travel activities is a US$100bn market opportunity and YourTravelGuide has no competitors in the US or Silicon Valley that can keep up with its edge in terms of connecting sightseeing travellers with attractions and actvities.
“The global champion for this category is being built here in Europe. No Silicon Valley company can do this. The travel market in Europe is bigger than the US – there are more locations, more destinations and more people moving around thanks to cheaper flights. When it comes to sightseeing, attractions and activities Barcelona, London, Rome and Paris beat New York and Las Vegas to the punch.”
Key to GetYourGuide’s activities is the use of content and the company has professional photographers, editors and videographers and also makes use of user-generated content like reviews.
“Content is becoming the edge for any marketplace today,” Reck said, adding that GetYourGuide is the biggest seller of tickets to the Eifel Tower and Madam Tussaud’s thanks to the growth of the mobile-toting traverller.
The company has raised US$45m in funding so far and is chaired by the former CEO of Booking.com Kees Koolen and also on the board is Fritz Demopoulos, CEO of Qunar.com, China’s biggest metasearch travel agency.
Reck said that data and disclipline are the hallmarks of GetYourGuide’s aggressive move into new markets. “I don’t believe in too many people’s opinions, I believe in data. People want great experiences that will be delivered within the first three taps on a device. The key to moving into new markets is hiring the people with the ability to execute on strategy – it is all about discipline. Entering a new marketplace is like operating an army.
“The other big challenge is getting suppliers who provide great experiences and help people get away from friction.
“Our job is to connect people with those experiences. In five to 10 years’ time there will no longer be printed guide books.”
Berlin Cathedral, via Shutterstock