“Should we fear Google?” – the headline on a tabloid newspaper last weekend. I sighted it whilst queuing for bread at the local bakery. Indeed, there is little more quintessentially German than queuing for bread in a bakery (surprising for an economic powerhouse); the Angst about all-knowing, all-seeing internet companies, vented largely at Google, is becoming equally quintessential.
Tabloid journalism in Germany is very creative, especially when thinking about what could go wrong. Even the CEO of the German media empire Axel Springer is scared, as he commented recently – and he wants us to be scared too.
A few days later I’m sat opposite Jeremy Tai Abbett, originally from Minnesota. Jeremy is Creative Evangelist at Google and his job is to channel Germans’ creativity into thinking about what can go right, and how Google and its products can make life better for them. Of course I was interested to find out why someone would take on such an apparently thankless task. But what I’m especially keen to find out is: Why Hamburg?
As a design student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in the early nineties, Jeremy never could have imagined living in Germany. But as it happened, his uni had a partnership with Hildesheim, a town just to the south of Hanover. Students from his university regularly took a year abroad in Hildesheim, and in return German students would spend time in Wisconsin.
One of these returning exchange students was David Linderman, a good friend of Jeremy’s. David was very excited about Germany, and encouraged Jeremy to follow. So after some persuasion (and despite some reservations due to bad press around neo-Nazis) Jeremy bit the bullet, packed his bags and relocated to a town with a population of around 100,000. He moved over in 1992, not speaking a word of German, and stayed for a year.
I spent a year abroad in Hildesheim. It was nice and there were some good professors.
Jeremy first visited Hamburg with a group of German girls and a friend whom he had got to know in Hildesheim. They did the typical Hamburg things like visiting the Strandperle, a beach club on the River Elbe. The weather was great, much like the day I met up with Jeremy, and life was good.
When the weather is nice, Hamburg is nice. When it’s not, it’s not.
That could have been the first and last time Jeremy visited Hamburg. Although he was lucky with the weather, presumably the one-off fling with the Hansestadt was not enough to make him throw his life plans over board and emigrate. Jeremy moved back to the US in 1994, and that could have been the end of the affair.
Meanwhile, his friend David Linderman was living in Hamburg, working for what was then one of Germany’s most renowned advertising agencies, Springer & Jacoby. David put Jeremy in touch with the boss, who was so impressed by his work and that he brought him straight in at Art Director level, sparing him the gruel and grind of climbing the corporate ladder. Jeremy moved to Hamburg in 1995, only expecting to stay for around one year.
In 1996, he founded Fork Unstable Media with David. Their approach was refreshingly experimental:
With Fork Unstable we built new products as experiments, then sold them to customers. We were naive enough to think we would succeed easily, which is how startups often get founded.
Amongst their customers were Nivea, the Hamburg-based cosmetics manufacturer for whom Fork Unstable delivered the first consumer website, and Daimler, with whom they explored the future of transportation during Expo 2000.
Deciding whether to take Diana Tunnel Racer offline was a character-forming experience.
They achieved international notoriety for “Diana Tunnel Racer”, an online game in which players could drive a Mercedes through the tunnel in which Diana crashed. Slated by the British media for what they intended as a criticism of the hypocritical handling of Diana and her death, Jeremy told me that the decision to keep the game online was a formative experience for them.
Why (still) Hamburg?
We’ve followed Jeremy up to around the year 2000 so far, which was when he sold his shares in Fork Unstable to the remaining partners and left. But what has he done since then, and why is he still in Hamburg? Especially as Jeremy is involved in the startup scene, you might expect him to seek his fortune elsewhere; if nothing else, Berlin.
The main reason Jeremy is still here is family. In 2000 he married his wife Franziska, whom he first met shortly after founding Fork Unstable. He now has two children, and the couple’s family, professional and personal network is firmly founded in Hamburg. (He has three siblings back home, meaning that his parents are taken care of.)
Hamburg is a beautiful place.
Then there are the standard Hamburg things: the pleasant, green areas.
Jeremy is well known within the startup scene and it was at the Startup Day during the Social Media Week 2014 that I got chatting to him and asked him to take part in “Why Hamburg?”. He did the interaction design and designed the branding, user interface, and corporate identity for a startup called Stuffle, who brought out an app that can best be described as an online car boot sale: you can sell something quickly and easily straight from your phone by taking a photo and entering a few details, or you can look for bargains in your local area.
And although Berlin is generally more associated with startups than Hamburg, there are efforts to raise Hamburg’s profile as a startup-friendly city, primarily through the recently-founded Hamburg Startups, a non-profit working with startups and the city authorities to put Hamburg on the radar in this regard. They even flew the flag at SXSW in Austin this year.
Diversity is creativity and creativity is diversity
Since January 2013, Jeremy has been in his current role as Creative Evangelist at Google. What is a Creative Evangelist?
Google is well-known for technology, but my job is to ask: how can we get people more excited about Google and the possibilities that it brings?
He works together with advertising agencies and brands to do this. This takes the form of speaking opportunities, workshops, and generally inspiring people to make the most out of Google and its products.
As a tech-oriented company with two nerdy founders, Google has generally put more effort into marketing its offer to non-nerds in recent years, but following the outrage over Google Streetview in 2010 and various uproars since, Germany is surely a special case. How does Jeremy see German society’s reaction to Google?
German society is resistant to change, and most people are scared of failing, which hinders innovation and creativity.
Jeremy agrees that this makes Germany a less attractive place for creative people.
Germany isn’t as diverse as other countries. This applies to gender and ethnic diversity, for example the number of women and people of ethnic minorities on management boards.
In the US, people have more trust in companies than in government; in Germany, it is the other way round. This presumably makes his job more difficult: as I noted at the top of the article, in Germany there is a lot of fear surrounding what Google is doing, some of which no doubt plays into the hands of established media. Favouring the establishment, risk-aversion, fear of failing, invisible walls: these are traits that Jeremy notices in Germany generally and Hamburg particularly.
It’s not all bad
Jeremy told me about bureaucracy facing Americans and other non-Europeans around the time that he first lived and worked in Hamburg. There was one central office for foreigners to apply for and collect their documents, and the queue was always huge.
The Ausländeramt was in a sketchy area of Hamburg, and I had to get there for 8.30 in the morning and wait in line with about 200 others. Service has gotten better since then.
Some US citizens living abroad opt for citizenship of their host country because US law obliges them to report financial information to US authorities for tax-collecting purposes. Jeremy chooses to retain his US citizenship and has a permanent residency permit here.
Compared to the US or UK, says Jeremy, Germany bureaucracy surrounding application for permanent residency is less hassle:
Compared to the UK & US, Germany is super easy – depending on who you are, where you are from, and if you’ve got a job.
I asked Jeremy a few questions about differences between the US and Europe. Generally he is more comfortable with the way things are going in Europe: he says that in the US, wealth plays too much of a role in political decision-making. It’s very convenient that everything is available 24/7, which it certainly isn’t in Germany, but this convenience is accompanied by a creeping extremism, particularly around the gun issue.
To return to the topic of the blog, namely why people choose to live in Hamburg: Jeremy says diversity makes a city attractive, driving creativity, bringing new perspectives and ideas.
Here for good?
As John Lennon said: “life is what happens to you when you are making other plans”. Jeremy first came to Hamburg purely by chance, although he had homed in on northern Germany thanks to the persuasion of his friend, David Linderman.
Like many ex-pats, Jeremy never planned to stay in Germany, let alone Hamburg, for the long-term. Although he says he finds the prospect of living in Hamburg until he dies strange, realistically it’s a distinct possibility. Much as I welcome the mobility that modern world citizens enjoy today, I have to say I am glad that Querköpfe like Jeremy get bogged down in the city I call home, and I hope that he continues to stir things up in Hamburg and Germany for many years to come.
And let’s face it, Hamburg is a lovely to get bogged down in with its greenness, good public transport, rivers, proximity to the sea and thriving nightlife and cultural scene.