The Hamburg Entrepreneur
Interviews Emma Tracey
If anyone knows what it takes to build a successful startup in Hamburg, it’s Stephan Uhrenbacher, CEO and now Founder of FLIO - the global airport app. Uhrenbacher previously founded Qype, Europe’s largest local review site. He sold it to Yelp in 2012 for €50 million and has since founded short term lettings platform 9flats.com and Germany’s leading eco market place avocadostore.de.
What are the advantages of founding a startup in Hamburg?
There are two major advantages: the professional heritage and the lifestyle. I work from London a lot but London is incredibly stressful, incredibly expensive, and people are always a little bit desperate about making their rent. And while I like Berlin, I always found it difficult to access people with exactly the right spirit I wanted to work with. For me it was mostly a lifestyle choice. Hamburg is large enough and it’s growing like crazy. There is not so much competition from other startups and there is a very solid base of professional people who have been trained in official media. We have a big heritage of ex-Google and ex-Facebook people and a large network of Rails developers. It’s a much smaller scene than Berlin but there is more focus on creating something which is commercially viable. There is a lot of talent here. Having said that, I still think that you have a big advantage if you are tapped into the network in London or Berlin.
How has traditional industry in Hamburg impacted the startup scene?
We have lots of tech and media companies, making Hamburg a fertile breeding ground for people. The AdTech sector in Hamburg is probably more established that in Berlin and I think the traditional industry is the reason for that. I think we have a world class AdTech sector.
Given that Hamburg is a smaller ecosystem than Berlin, is German necessary to succeed in the city?
No, I don’t think it is necessary to speak German. Hamburg is not like Berlin Mitte, where English is the first language and where Spanish and Italian are fighting for the second position, but there are certainly lots of people in Hamburg who get by only speaking English. We have a lot of employees in the company who only speak English. In my companies during the past 10 years 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 The German-focus is a stereotype and I think it has to do with the lack of awareness internationally of how great Hamburg is as a city.
Why did you found Qype in Hamburg and not Berlin?
You have to put Qype in perspective. I started working on that in 2005 and the main push was in 2006. At that time, Germany was very different. There was not much of a Berlin ecosystem, apart from maybe the Samwer brothers, having left the woods near Potsdam with eBay and starting their own company in Mitte. We had a couple of large internet companies in Hamburg (Parship, Xing was already a success), while Munich was still the top destination for US tech companies like Expedia.
Similarly, finding money for something new was very very difficult. We didn’t have many meaningful German VCs, probably around five, four of which were in Munich and one in Hamburg. So there never really was this stark choice between Hamburg and Berlin. In fact, I had to travel a lot and in the end I got French and English investment and only three years later I got German money. For me, the early years of Qype were very much between Hamburg, London and Paris, first to get funding and secondly to make sure we cover my most important markets - UK, Germany and France.
Was it difficult to recruit international talent to join Qype at that time?
At the time, we recruited people from France and the UK into leading positions in Germany and yes it was quite difficult to get these people to Hamburg, as Hamburg was not that well-known at the time. Few people would have considered moving to Germany at all then, but I think that has changed a bit. Germany has become much more attractive.
What are the most popular programming languages used by startups in Hamburg?
Qype was one of the first companies in Germany to be built on Rails and I made that decision when we were on Rails 1.0 so it was a super risky decision - but a good one. Since then, a lot of development has shifted to Rails. I think it’s hard to judge technology by geography, but in Hamburg, I feel there is still a relative shortage of good frontend developers - aside from the games sector of course.
One thing I can say about Germany more generally is that over the last ten years we have made gains on a core structural weakness - our historical lack of user experience designers. Outside of the dials of car, Germany does not really have a good history of strong UX. In the US, whether you walk into a museum or onto a beach, there is always some sense of UX. Whereas in Germany it’s much more common to see a sign telling you what not to do! I think that’s a cultural thing. With this history, it is fantastic to see that both Berlin and Hamburg are developing a stronger skill base in UX design.
Are there any startups operating in Hamburg which you are excited about?
I tend to work in a tunnel when I work in my own startup. I like Deposit Solutions, a FinTech company I believe will do very well. Also, in our building we have an interesting company called TripRebel. I still think Wunder is a surprising company because they have managed in a terrible regulatory environment and they still do a lot of business.
Can you tell us a little about your most recent project FLIO and what you have planned next for the company?
Airports are fantastic commercial opportunities, mostly in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, not so much yet in the US, where many airports offer much less choice. However, the time passengers spend at airports so far has been overlooked as an opportunity to support them with a great mobile product.
FLIO is offering exactly that - allowing users to gain instant WIFI access in airports, to access discounts and book lounges or trains and just generally have a more pleasant trip. You can see the full potential in the big airports: in Heathrow, Frankfurt, but we cover more than 900 airports. We are just at the beginning, with lot’s of work ahead for indoor mapping, integrating partners but mostly to streamline the user experience for past and future trips.
This will require a reasonable amount of work on the frontend side, but we have a lot of ambition.
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