Hamburg’s surprisingly successful startup scene and how “Hamburg Startups” is flying the flag

Hamburg has long been a wealthy city, going right back to the times when it headed the Hanseatic League. Much of this wealth remains in the possession of long-established companies and old families. Adhering to values going back generations, this inner circle of elders is said to be sworn to a codex of honesty and honour, is characterised by understatement, favour action over words, and tend to be sceptical of new ideas and people from outside their ranks. Against that background – the old money, scepticism of lofty ideas in favour of tried and tested solutions, the inner circle of trusted friends – it might seem implausible for Hamburg to become a paradise for startups, or a hive of disruption and innovation. People from abroad might be especially wary.

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Diversity is creativity

“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?

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Brightening up a gloomy city

Apart from the odd mention of gentrification on Wilhelmsburg, a river island that is home mostly to generations of poor immigrants and their descendants, the southern part of Hamburg is largely out of sight and out of mind. The Elbe, Hamburg’s industrial river, slices the city in two and is as much a psychological wall of water as a physical barrier, most of the attractions that constitute the city’s identity lying to the north. In recent years, the local government has been pumping money into projects to encourage people to make the “leap over the Elbe” and put southern Hamburg on the mental map.

I made the leap, taking the S-Bahn across the Elbe through Wilhelmsburg and Veddel to Harburg. After a short walk from the station I approached the red-brick university buildings, peering into the laboratories at the lab assistants in their white coats counting iron filings. The shaking platforms and centrifuges were gyrating and vibrating peacefully; the sterility a far cry from the gritty urbanism that this blog is supposed to be about. Seeing the Brightup logo I knew I had arrived at the Northern Institute of Technology Management (NIT) on the Technical University Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH) campus. The occasion for my leap across the Elbe: to meet Ana Cristina Agüero, a Costa Rican biotechnician, engineer, and entrepreneur. Ana showed me her office, introduced me to her colleagues (including the office dog) and we had a chat in the cafeteria below. My journey was nothing in comparison to her leap over the Atlantic.

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In Hamburg by accident or design?

Sihavann’s very first impression of Europe was the descent into Hamburg airport. The parks and gardens, the trees, the houses with their colourful roofs. “I couldn’t believe that the houses really look like that. It was just like I’d seen on TV. Really cute!” says the Cambodian design student.

A world away from the concrete jungle and surrounding paddy fields that he left behind in Phnom Penh, I met Sihavann – or Vann for short – in Eppendorfer Baum where we went for a coffee followed by a walk through the Isemarkt, a weekly market under an iron bridge.

I was curious to find out whether the design student is in Hamburg by – excuse the pun – accident or design. In other words: why Hamburg?

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Loving German culture

Seeing a jogger running around the Alster or along the Elbe for the first time might provoke a little giggle, if not bring you out in a fit of laughter. The tight, lycra trousers. Hair overflowing out of a headband like a neglected pot plant. Set off by a pair of steamed-up glasses, held perfectly in place by the practical headband. There’s no need to feel awkward in your amusement because the German jogger either won’t notice you laughing, or won’t care.

To put a positive spin on it: Germans are not usually worried about what other people think of them, but do what it takes to get the job done. At their best, they are non-conformist and persistent. Nearly every German job advertisement asks Durchsetzungsvermögen of its applicants: the ability to get your way.

Leticia Sigarrostegui García says she has grown as a person since coming to Germany, citing Durchsetzungsvermögen as one of the German character traits she has adopted. On top of this, I would say there is certainly something non-conformist about her story. Leticia lives in Hamburg, is the author of two books, teaches Spanish and Danish, has lived in Madrid, Cologne, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Hamburg, and works for XING, the biggest business networking website in the German-speaking world. Who better to tell me about German culture and the comparative merits of cities like Hamburg?

So in a café around the corner from her employer, I deprive Leticia of her lunch hour to find out: why Hamburg?

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“We’re glad we gave Hamburg a second chance!”

Crouching in front of María and Lucas, trying to get the perfect photo. The right composition, a bit of flash to lighten up the foreground. Using the flash limits the exposure time to 1/200s, meaning the aperture has to be as small as possible. Which increases the depth of field, but I can live with that.

The Spanish couple stands in front of the huge Kampnagel logo, smiling down into my camera; I negotiate with my Nikon, apologising with each release of the shutter. Presented with the finished object, you might be oblivious to the balancing act that goes into producing the photo, or the options that were discarded along the way.

Similar, you might say, to the decision for or against a place to live. María and Lucas, both from Valencia in Spain, live in Hamburg. But how did they end up here? What factors did they weigh off against each other? Or, in other words: why Hamburg?

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Mélanie came to an unknown city for work. Six years later she tells us why she loves Hamburg.

Mélanie was desperate to live in a city. A city – any city – would be preferable to living in the middle of nowhere. Having studied Food Industry in Rennes, most jobs that fitted her profile were anywhere but in the centre of a bustling metropolis. So when she had the chance of a job in Hamburg, it was quite literally a case of “any port in a storm”.

If, like Mélanie, you have lived in Lyon or spent time in Sydney, you are likely to have high expectations of a city. Your first night in a gloomy, rainy, northern German city – far from the Alps, not a sunny beach in sight, away from your friends and family – might be enough to make you turn tails and head home. Perhaps she would have, if her car hadn’t been towed away that evening.

Six years later, she’s still here. Either they haven’t given her her car back or there is something about Hamburg that makes it worth staying. So on a grey and gloomy, windy and wintery Sunday afternoon we meet up in a café next to the lake in the centre of Hamburg and I ask her: why Hamburg?

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Germany or Japan? The dog decides

Ayako Ezaki is originally from Tokyo, but moved to the USA to study. She lived there for several years, working in the field of eco-tourism. Spending time in Washington DC and Portland (Oregon) until her visa ran out, she met Ferdinand and adopted Mai, their loyal canine companion. Ayako, Ferdinand and Mai could have lived anywhere on the face of this earth. All the more reason to ask: why Hamburg?

I met up with Ayako at Balzac, which is a Hamburg coffee-chain, in Ottensen. Ottensen is part of Altona, one of Hamburg’s hippest quarters that has changed hands between Germany and Denmark over the years. Altona was an independent city before becoming part of Hamburg in 1938 and is the stage on which many controversial discussions about urban development are played out – and one of the City of Hamburg’s aims is to make Hamburg attractive to internationals, or the “creative class” to which Ayako undoubtedly belongs.

After drinking a coffee and briefing her a little, I asked Ayako to take me somewhere nearby that has some particular significance for her. On the way, she talked to me about why she chose Hamburg and I recorded the interview on my phone. Mai was happily trotting along a few footsteps behind us, with Ferdinand on the other end of the lead.

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