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The (grossly exaggerated) difference between American and German founders, from an Earlybird VC Written by Ciaran O'Leary on 1. February 2012


Introducing the second of our Expert Opinion pieces. This week, Ciaran O’Leary of Earlybird gives us some insights on international founders and their relative merits…
There is staggering evidence that Berlin is attracting some of the best talent internationally. People are coming from far and wide and adding huge value to the native Berlin ecosystem. In the following – extremely exaggerated – dialogues, I will illustrate why an infusion of the international (and especially American) mindset is crucial to our continued growth in Berlin.
Note to readers: I grew up in Bavaria, which some people (wrongly) consider to be a part of Germany, so please (at least wrongly) view this as self-criticism.

Dialogue with German founder

Founder: [After sending an email to] (you have all read the social proof blogs) he writes “Dear Mr. O’Leary…”
VC: Please say Ciarán, Mr. O’Leary makes me feel old
Founder: OK so we’re building something that is in stealth mode
VC: Umm, we don’t really invest in military hardware…
Founder: Oh no, it’s just secret right now; it’s a proven US e-commerce model and we want to be the first here
VC: OK let’s meet over a coffee to discuss; how about tomorrow morning if you have time?
Founder: OK but we’re still working on our final slide deck and excel model…
VC: Don’t worry, you can skip that for now. Let’s just talk about it.
Founder: Really? OK let me check if my CFO has time

Dialogue with American founder

Founder: Hey Ciarán, X (awesome person I trust cc’ed) recommended I get in touch with you. It looks like your investment strategy fits our profile because of Y. We’re building a cool web service that solves problem Z and it’s going live soon.
VC: Great. Let’s meet tomorrow morning if you have time.
Founder: Ok see you 09:00 at the Barn and I’ll demo the alpha.
VC: [I’m thinking…these guys have an awesome coffee taste]

International founders tend to have much better social skills

While I may be vastly exaggerating, the main point I’m trying to make here is that international founders tend to have much better social and networking skills. They, in general, demonstrate higher proficiency in setting up meetings, making things happen, remaining focused without being too promotional.
And please don’t get me wrong, it’s not just German founders: the same applies for many German VCs – their social skills in many cases can also be described as slightly challenged (at least that’s what I hear from many international founders)…
To be fair, sparking up or building a relationship with a VC isn’t the easiest thing to do and arguably maybe significantly less important than other things in daily startup life.
We’re busy (OK, so are you – we get that), overwhelmed with good pitches and for the most part – unfortunately – only seem like a name and a photo on a rarely-changing team page. At the end of the day, your social skills with the VCs you approach won’t be the only winning factor.

Not just social skills – skills that can be applied elsewhere too

But this mentality delta I’m describing can be seen in many other more crucial elements of building a startup: shipping code quickly, learning with your customers vs German “Ingenieursmentalität” (I know that works for Apple…) – ie only accepting total perfection (will “Ingenieursmentalität” make it into the English language like Poltergeist or Zeitgeist?) – creating a hype, buzz & community around your products, etc.
So, my advice to founders in Berlin would be: Take some pointers from Germans, but take some pointers from the American set as well: Be more social. Be direct. Be more product alpha and less PowerPoint.

Moving forward – where do we go from here?

The awesome news is this: Berlin is combining the best of both worlds at a staggering rate. German diligence, engineering and execution skills go extremely well with more US/international rapid-fire mindset and community-building skills. Right now, the dialogues are still a little separate, but if we can continue to learn and adapt to new ways of doing business, the Berlin scene will be even more unstoppable.
An Earlybird’s view of Berlin: the good, the bad and the missing
Image credit: flickr user br1dotcom