The San Francisco of Europe

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Miles of graffitied walls, dinner at 9pm, a plethora of bars, cafes and restaurants composed of less than four tables, male ‘bratwursts’ painted on the walls (including my office above), indoor treehouses, bicycles, a diverse and chilled out population, 170 museums, beards in management and more bicycles. Landing in Berlin, you instantly feel that much cooler.

For those that haven’t visited before, the above may seem contradictory to the typical German stereotype. That is, a rude, sense of humor lacking, conservative, but efficient, beer drinker that drives a BMW. While they do like their beer, Berliners don’t seem to fall into this taxonomy. However, so have we been told, Münchers maybe more so. For a city (and country) that has been at the center of so much conflict in the past, even reduced to rumble in the mid 20th century, the city has been reborn. The city has embraced its history, put it on show and interwoven with its modern culture.

For my GMIX experience, I am based at the Axel Springer Plug & Play Accelerator (PnP), a joint venture between Axel Springer AG and the Plug & Play Tech Center in Silicon Valley. Like most accelerators, PnP offers a 3-month acceleration program that provides co-working space, mentorship and workshops for approximately 12 start-ups per round. They are provided some seed investment as well, exchanged for equity. Axel Springer itself is Europe’s largest media-publishing house and has the highest-circulation newspaper in Europe, Bild, with over 14 million daily readers. With that size leadership the newspaper has become a powerful influencer of public opinion. So much so that Angela Merkel is only a phone call away. While Axel Springer does have some edgy brands under its umbrella it is very much still a conservative entity. That being said, it has pioneered the digital switch where other industry participants haven’t, despite the profitability of print media at the time. Axel Springer’s movement into the digital age has been so notable that our own GSB has recently published a case study about it, as an example of strategic leadership (http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/case-studies/axel-springer-2014-strategic-leadership-digital-media-transformation).

The single decision to move from print-to-to have transformed the company, including its culture. With a very active early-stage investment agenda, internal incubators, venture funds and start-up accelerators does not sound like the stereotypical German corporate. The different cultures inherent of large corporates versus agile and innovative ventures seem to be functioning under one roof. This feature of cultural contrasts living harmoniously seems not to be a characteristic unique to Axel Springer but instead a congruent disparity inherent of the wider city. During my time here I hope to tease this out further as I continue to peer under the proverbial dirndl.

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