When you think of startups in Germany, the first thing that comes to mind is Berlin. What is often forgotten is Hamburg, the leafy, fiercely proud port city in Germany’s north west. A city with a vibrant history of trade and media is slowly and silently developing as a tech hub in its own right. More understated than Munich, a lot friendlier than Berlin, and with a strong regional character of its own, Hamburg has a lot to offer entrepreneurs.

berlin's startups

According to the Hamburg Startup Monitor, there were 500 innovative digital startups in 2014 in Hamburg. To celebrate Honeypot’s launch in the Hansestadt we mapped 157 startups onto Hamburg’s train system and categorised them by industry. Our findings reveal a burgeoning FinTech industry, an emerging eCommerce play set to challenge Berlin’s dominance and vibrant Games and AdTech startups thriving with support from the city’s more traditional industries.

Big Tech in Hamburg

In 2005, when Stephan Uhrenbacher founded Qype in Hamburg, Europe’s largest local review website, the German startup scene was small, very small. In Berlin, the Samwer brothers were just “emerging from the woods near Potsdam.” In southern Germany there were some larger, corporate tech companies. And in Hamburg there was dating site Parship and careers network Xing, and little else.

By 2012, when Qype was acquired by Yelp for $50 million, things in Germany looked quite different. Berlin was firmly established as Germany’s startup capital. But Hamburg had begun to assert itself as an important destination for “big tech”.

In April 2011, a year prior to Yelp’s acquisition of Qype, Airbnb opened their first office outside of the US, choosing Hamburg as the base. A year earlier, Facebook had opened an office in the city close to Google, who had been there since 2001. Microsoft, Twitter, Hootsuite and Dropbox all now have offices in the city.

technology companies in Hamburg

Hamburg’s IT industry generates just under $4.5 billion every year says Alex Ahom, Founder of co-working space and online platform Shhared, pointing out, “Very recently Dropbox opened an office in Hamburg and I’m sure the list of large tech firms will continue to grow in the city.”

The impact of the settlement of big technology companies in the city on talent has been positive, “few people would have considered moving to Germany in 2005, but I think that has changed. Germany - and Hamburg - has become more attractive,” says Stephan Uhrenbacher.

Hamburg has felt the spillover effects of skilled professionals moving from big tech to found their own startups and the scene is well and truly established. At the heart of the scene is hamburg-startups.net, a private initiative founded by Sanja Stankovic and Sina Gritzuhn with the aim of establishing links in the ecosystem through reports, events and editorial.

So what are the startup industries that people are flocking to in Hamburg? No report of Hamburg would be complete without looking at the city’s games industry.

Games in Hamburg

While big budget, console game development has been the focus of the British game industry, Germany - and in particular Hamburg - has grown to become Europe’s leader in free-to-play and browser game development. Gaming companies are the largest represented among our sample.

According to nextMedia Hamburg, the games industry employs close to 5,000 people, with the three biggest companies, Bigpoint, Goodgames and Innogames, having more than 760 million registered users worldwide. Hamburg’s gaming industry is well supported by local iniatitves including Game City, which attempts to build connections among industry players in the city.

games companies in Hamburg

Goodgame is one of Hamburg’s power players, employing over 1,000 people. The company’s founders - two brothers with PhDs in orthodontics and law respectively - seem like unlikely candidates to found and lead one of Germany’s biggest games companies. But Kai and Christian Wawrzinek, along with third co-founder Fabian Ritter, managed to grow the company from an initial €500,000 seed investment in 2009 to revenues of at €202 million by 2014. Empire: Four Kingdoms, a mobile game developed by the company, was the world’s highest-grossing app by a German company in 2015.

InnoGames another pillar of Hamburg’s gaming scene, has a total of 150 million registered players worldwide and reported revneue of $111.14 million in 2015 Founded in 2007, the company gained early success with browser games such as Die Stämme / Tribal Wars and more recently has begun to put emphasis on mobile games, including the popular Forge of Empires.

The success of Hamburg’s gaming industry has attracted foreign investment. In March 2016, Chinese game publisher Youzu acquired Bigpoint for €80 million. In May, Sweden’s Stillfront Group completed its acquisition of Bytro Labs, by buying the remaining 49% of the outstanding shares, furthering Stillfront’s ambition to become one of Europe’s leading indie game creators and publishers.

Aside from big game developers, the city is populated by independent studios, bringing innovation and diversity to Hamburg’s gaming landscape. RockFish Games, founded by Michael Scahde and Christian Lohr, formely of DeepFish Labs, specializes in creating Unreal Engine 4 games for PC and console. SinceIdea Games is also working with Unreal Engine 4 to create VR games.

Given the density of Hamburg’s games developers, the city naturally also has many thriving games publishers. Gamigo, is of the most established, releasing the first German language MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) in 2000. Today Gamigo has 100 employees in Hamburg, Berlin, Münster and Chicago and since 2015 has expanded into platform services, through the acquisition of various smaller companies, including Piraya GmbH, GameSpree GmbH, Infernum Games GmbH and Looki Publishing GmbH. Gamigo’s revenues hit €21.6 million in 2015. Other publishers have decided to focused on more niche areas: Intenium , for example, concentrate on female gamers. Many such as XYRALITY, combine publishing and development.

AdTech and MarTech in Hamburg

It should come as no surprise that AdTech and MarTech startups play a dominant role amongst our sample. Hamburg has long been a centre for media and advertising: 3000 press and broadcasting companies operate in the city, including Spiegel and ZEIT as well as Gruner + Jahr. On top of that, almost three quarters of Germany’s top 25 printed publications are produced in Hamburg and the city is home to about 6,000 journalists.

adtech companies in Hamburg

AdTech and MarTech tend to be complementary but target slightly different audiences. AdTech targets anonymous audiences, automates ad sales or offers more sophisticated ad-targeting, while MarTech enable better communication with and user experience for known audiences.

Smaato is one of Hamburg’s most established AdTech players. Founded back in 2005, it is the leading global real-time advertising platform for mobile publishers and app developers. Smaato have raised a total of $43.1M in five rounds from four investors.

martech companies in Hamburg

While not strictly marketing technology, Jimdo is one of Hamburg’s biggest successes and a great example of sustainable startup growth. The company, an easy-to-use website builder, was founded in 2007. Fuelled largely by organic growth, the company took on its first large investment in 2015, in the form of a €25 million minority investment from Spectrum Equity. Previous to that, Jimdo had successfully launched in eight languages and enabled the creation of over 15 million websites.

eCommerce & Retail in Hamburg

Hamburg has a rich history of entrepreneurship in commerce, not just because of the city’s famous port which trades 132.2 million tonnes of cargo each year, but also because of the legacy of legendary entrepreneur Werner Otto.

Otto moved to Hamburg as a refugee in post-war Germany and established a mail-order shoe delivery business which eventually grew to be the largest mail order service in the world. Collins is the eCommerce startup arm of Otto Group, led by CEO Benjamin Otto, along with Tarek Müller, Sebastian Betz, Roland Berger and Hannes Wiese. Launched in May 2014, Collins now counts 230 employees, two labels, plus an online eCommerce platform AboutYou. Another strong eCommerce contender is StyleLounge, a metasearch engine that lets you find and compare prices for clothing and other lifestyle products, who raised $2.53M Series A funding in August 2015.

ecommerce startups in Hamburg

Most other eCommerce startups in the city remain rather small. Nevertheless interesting initiatives like AvocadoStore , Germany’s largest eco-fashion platform, co-founded by Stephan Uhrenbacher, founder of Qype, and vintage marketplace, REBELLE, among others, show the variety of the industry in the city.

retail startups in Hamburg

FinTech in Hamburg

FinTech in Hamburg has grabbed the attention of Peter Thiel. And that is quite the endorsement of the Hanseatic city’s startups. Thiel is known as a straight-talking, serial investor with an eye for an early opportunity: he was co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, an early backer of Facebook.

Once quoted as saying “If you’re a slacker with low expectations, those low expectations are likely to be met,” in reference to European startups, his three investments in German FinTech companies over 2015 and 2016, suggest he may have since changed his mind.

Thiel first dipped his toe in the Hamburg waters in July 2015 by investing in Kreditech’s $100M Series C Round (his first German investment was in April in Berlin’s Number26). Previous investors in Kreditech include Blumberg Capital, Värde Capital, Victory Park Capital, Point Nine, Kreos and Global Founders Capital. Kreditech is an online lender using online data to analyze creditworthiness and according to Hamburg Startups, the fifth biggest employer in the city’s startup scene in 2015.

fintech startups in Hamburg

In 2016, Thiel invested €1 million in Deposit Solutions, as part of a €6.5 million funding round led by FinLab and German business angels Stefan Wiskemann (21Publish), Stefan Glänzer (Passion Capital) and Christoph Linkwitz. Deposit Solutions allows you to avail of multiple products from different banks without having to switch accounts.

Aside from Thiel’s investments, a number of other interesting FinTech plays are emerging. FinanzCheck, an online consumer loan marketplace founded in 2012, raised €33 million in Series C funding in 2016. The round was led by growth-investor HarbourVest, with participation by Acton Capital Partners, and existing backer Highland Europe. Since 2012, the company has brokered close to €1.3 billion in consumer loans.

Transportation, Travel Shipping and Logistics Startups in Hamburg

Shipping and trade have moulded the physical space and spiritual life of Hamburg. It seems natural then that Dreamlines, Europe’s biggest online portal for cruises, is headquartered in Hamburg. Since its founding in 2012, the company has raised $37.7M in three rounds from ten investors, including Altpoint Ventures, Target Global and European Founders Fund. Dreamlines were one of Germany’s biggest startups based on funding in 2015.

apps in Hamburg

In the same vain, logistics startups, inspired by Hamburg’s trading past, are popping up across the city. BorderGuru , backed by the Hermes Group, helps online retailers to deliver internationally from their web-shop or via marketplaces. Shipcloud are taking a cloud-based service for sending packages.

mytaxi and Wunder are two prominent transporation apps, popular in the city. mytaxi, founded in 2009, is a taxi booking app which also allows you to make payments and rate taxis. Wunder, founded in 2013, connects drivers with passengers who need a lift.

travel startups in Hamburg

Stephan Uhrenbacher’s latest project, FLIO, an airport app, aims to make life in the world’s airports a little nicer. On the app, you can find free Wi-Fi, discount on food and shopping, and everything from power sockets to train booking. Operating in the same building as Flio, TripRebel lets you book hotel rooms and refunds you the difference when the price drops.

Working and Living in Hamburg

The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has a long tradition of self-government and particularism and, as a city state, maintains a sort of medieval independence, breathing individuality into many spheres of public and private life. Outside of major industries such as Games, AdTech and FinTech, smaller startups are exploring innovative ideas in various other areas, including smart home and hardware startups, like BrightUp and Roccat, meeting tools, like Mindflow, fraud detection and security startups, such as Risk Ident, TeamDrive and Secucloud, and many more creative innovations.

startups in Hamburg

Ask anyone of Hamburg’s successful startups why they settled in the city and they will all start with the obvious: the quality of life. In a recent interview with Honeypot’s blog, Ubilabs co-founder and Head of Development. Martin Kleppe commented, “Aside from work, Hamburg is a nice city in which to live – it’s small and focused. Its super green. People are very nice.”

A sense of community pervades across Hamburg’s startup scene. Given its size, the community is very tightly-knit, with many people knowing each other. Hamburg Startups is the number one source for startup news in the city, covering events, funding and new founders. Numerous co-working spaces, such as Shhared, Betahaus, Mindspace and Werkheim are popping up across the city. Protonet, a project collaboration tool, recently teamed up with This is Hamburg to create a video giving a nice insight into the startup scene in Hamburg.

health startups in Hamburg

food in Hamburg

Is Deutsch necessary in Hamburg?

One worry for people moving to Hamburg is German. While certainly not as multicultural as Berlin, Hamburg still offers many opportunities in English. Stephan Uhrenbacher explained to us, “in my companies during the past 10 years, traditionally, more than 50% have spoken no German. And nobody ever complained about not getting by in Hamburg, which has a long international history due to it being a harbour. That’s a stereotype and I think it has to do with the lack of awareness internationally of how great Hamburg is as a city.”

For developers moving to the city, Hamburg has strong Javascript and Ruby communities, though many companies still bemoan the lack of developers in all areas.

music startups in Hamburg

real estate in Hamburg

HR in Hamburg

edutech in Hamburg

Venture Capital in Hamburg

2015 was an important year for funding in Hamburg. In May, Gruner + Jahr announced the establishment of a 50-million-euro investment fund focused on living, food and family and advertising technology. In the same month, nextmedia accelerator, an initiative of the German press agency dpa with the support of the mayor’s office of the city of Hamburg, launched to support media-focused startups. Otto Group also invested over €50 million in startups in the city in 2015.

Hanse Venturesis one of the more established VCs on the Hamburg scene. Led by Jochen Maaß, the firm was founded in 2010, together with two heavyweights of German media - former CEO of Gruner + Jahr, Dr Bernd Kundrun and the former CEO of Sony BMG, Rolf Schmidt-Holtz. Hanse’s investments include REBELLE, Geschenke.de and Vitraum. They also host eBizz talk , a regular lecture series for entrepreneurs.

While Hamburg’s local VCs continue to grow, international investment is also playing an important role in the development of the city’s startups. According to EY, startups in Hamburg increased their materially funding from $540 million in 2014 to $852 million in 2015. Let’s see what 2016 has in store for the Hanseatic city…

vc in Hamburg

UPDATE July 2016

Some lovely Hamburg startups reached out to us to remind us to include them! They will have full inclusion next edition, but for now, don’t forget to check out:

  • AddApptr: Mobile AdTech
  • eComCon: AdTech consultancy
  • esome: Social media advertising
  • Moebel.de: Furniture and interior design portal
  • Vinoa: Wine portal and magazine
  • radio.de: Radio streaming and search platform

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Emma Tracey

Emma Tracey

Emma is Co-Founder at Honeypot. Born in Dublin, Emma moved to Berlin after spending time in Colombia and South Africa. She is a former journalist and likes to write about team culture and diversity.