“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Alex Ahom took his first steps as an entrepreneur on the streets of Hamburg around Altona and the Schanze: walking from boutique to bistro to restaurant to record shop to café to cobbler to deli to diner to tailor, asking business owners – in English – to explain to him how to start a company in Germany. Many shopkeepers were happy to help; one shop owner in particular explained the different types of company provided for by German law, and how to go about setting one up, before directing Alex to the Handelskammer (the Chamber of Commerce).
So even before Shhared – Alex’ business idea – was a legal entity, it had become a reality. Alex’ persistence, his refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer, had yielded fruit:
Only by reaching out to the Hamburg business community was I able to found Shhared. I think of the shop owner who gave me those tips and others like him as the first members of Shhared.
If you think of Alex’ door-to-door work as a kind of prototype, the next step in his journey was scaling the model to make it work for many more people like him; taking the simple approach of creating a community of like-minded people and building a network of self-help and support.
At the end of September, he opened a coworking space under the Shhared banner, with a vision to be renowned as ‘the’ collaborative coworking community that enables dreams, ideas and plans to become successful realities.
I met up with Alex to find out what Shhared is, and, along the way, to ask him: Why Hamburg?
Alex moved to Hamburg in September 2013 because his wife, who is Dutch, was offered a job as Head of Marketing for a large pharmaceuticals company. Before the move, Alex was leading a team of business specialists at Apple. The couple was given a choice of several cities in Europe, America and Asia but chose Hamburg. This was because of the apparent cultural similarity between Hamburg and London – they reasoned that the second largest city in Germany with its trading links and many international companies would feel familiar to them. As parents, Hamburg’s education system made the city particularly attractive:
We heard from friends that the education system in Hamburg was good in comparison to some German states.
For internationals in Hamburg, says Alex, there are plenty of options. Unlike in many German cities, there are bilingual nursery schools, where half of the staff speak only German and the other half English and later on there are international schools.
The decision to choose Hamburg over the other options available was also partly a result of Hamburg’s growing startup scene.
Hamburg’s organic, authentic startup scene makes it a magnet for people who are looking to change things and make a difference, doing what they are passionate about.
Finally, the fact that the city is quite well connected by air to a wide variety of locations makes it attractive.
Alex and his wife drew the information on Hamburg from a variety of sources: from research on websites such as ToyTown and other online forums, to direct contact through Twitter, and friends and acquaintances who had lived in Germany previously.
Getting a job: not easy
Contrary to his expectations, finding a job in Hamburg was not easy.
With my experience in tech companies, media, and recruitment, I thought Hamburg would be a good place to get a job without knowing how to speak German from the off. After all, there are many international companies with offices in Hamburg such as Airbus, Olympus and Microsoft.
He was to be disappointed, finding barely any jobs where English was sufficient. This is in stark relief to his home city of London, where he says due to its international nature there are vacancies that require no English but fluency in other languages instead:
If Hamburg wants to remain an international city and attract investment, ideas and fresh perspectives like it always has, then opportunities to work here straight away need to be visible. I’ve been here a year now and I know first hand that learning a language takes time.
Alex becomes his own boss: Shhared
After a while looking for a job that matched his skills and experience, Alex decided to bite the bullet and start a business himself:
After unsuccessfully looking for a long time for a job that suited my skills and ambitions, I realised I’m not the only person in this situation.
His idea was grounded in his own knowledge and experience gathered as an Apple employee and his previous seven years’ experience working in recruitment as well as his experience in Hamburg thus far. It also tapped into a trend he identified whereby many people are choosing to pursue their dreams by founding companies dedicated to the things they love:
People are starting to take hold of their destiny and make changes – before they just accepted doing jobs they didn’t like but now people are taking sabbaticals, starting up small companies and even blogging.
His idea was to help these people help themselves and each other by providing a hub where they can work together and build a collaborative network with people who share their aims, values and outlook on life. He also wants to help eliminate the complexity around setting up a business using this support network. Having set up a business, he knows first hand what these barriers are.
Barriers to starting a business
Alex’ first steps in starting his business were to find out how this is done in Germany. He had no idea where to go for help, and didn’t speak any German, so simply asked in local shops around the Schanze area. At first it was a challenge, but he persevered. Eventually he found a shop owner who explained the whole process of setting up a business here. His next stop was the Handelskammer, the Chamber of Commerce.
The process of founding a company itself was not too complicated. The staff at the Handelskammer gave me some forms to fill out and some choices to make. After they showed me where I could protect my company name and logo, I was on my way.
He felt that the Handelskammer staff were there to offer the correct paperwork but often startups find personalised advice just as useful. In the end, Alex found the help and advice he needed but, he says:
It would be great if the way to start a business was clearly signposted – I feel many people would be encouraged by that. I contacted Sina and Sanja [from Hamburg Startups] for advice and they were really helpful, but if I hadn’t found them it would have been more difficult.
These are precisely the barriers that Alex wants to help other people, including internationals, overcome, but there are others. I asked him what he feels are the most common barriers to starting a business that people here experience.
Many people think money is a barrier but it isn’t. Expertise, ideas, and access to a helpful network are also huge factors for a new business. Don’t get me wrong: money is important, but many people have started a business ‘on a dime’.
Specifically to internationals, he cited lack of credit history in Germany, meaning it may be more difficult for banks to give loans. Although there are business angels and investors looking to invest in startups, he says that for people looking to start a smaller business – requiring say €10,000 or €50,000 – the options are sometimes limited.
The vision for Shhared
Put all this together – the experience in management and in recruitment, the difficulty in getting a regular job, the barriers to success – and you begin to understand how Alex came upon the idea of starting a coworking community with a difference. His vision is to change the way people see employment: from something we have to do, to something we enjoy doing. To allow everyone to reach their potential, for the common good. He sees so many people working in jobs they don’t enjoy, spending a major chunk of their time doing something they would rather not so that they can pay the rent, and wants to encourage them to put the horse back before the cart and to start doing what they enjoy and making a difference, whilst supporting them to make a living in doing so.
I’ve designed Shhared to be a nice environment and somewhere that people enjoy being. Why wouldn’t you want to work somewhere that is easy to get to, helps you meet people who are going through the same thing, is inclusive and serves as a support network for some of those startup barriers?
His vision is not only to talk about what the next step in coworking is, but to demonstrate what it is. He wants to take the next step in what he calls the “coworking journey”. He says his assortment of competences, picked up over the years through working in different jobs and teaching himself, make him the right guy for the job. This will surely be music to the ears of many internationals who have problems fitting in any of the strictly separated pigeonholes that German HR departments like to put people in.
Things are changing and HR departments are starting to value transferrable skills and the experiences people bring from working in different industries.
He cites people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, people who picked up experience and knowledge from different projects and applied them in new ways. His attention to detail and insistence on breaking the mould makes these comparisons especially fitting.
Germany, the land of opportunity
Alex Ahom’s very presence in Hamburg is a laudable example of how international people can bring fresh impulses to a city. In a society where gender roles are still more old-fashioned than most people would admit, he moved to a different country so that his wife could pursue her career. Once here, he decided against taking a mini-job, choosing instead to chart his own course. Despite being such a recent arrival to Hamburg, Alex is making headway on issues that affect all of us. He, and the community he is building, encourage those of us whose lifestyle choices, CVs and ways of working diverge from the norm to forge on and make progress.
Yes, he can be outspoken, but there is a big dollop of optimism, encouragement and motivation to go with it:
There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a land of opportunity.
Given that there will be ever more people like us in the future, he’s doing the city of Hamburg a great service by pushing for societal change that we will all benefit from.