January 16, 2017

Two weeks in Berlin: my first (biz tech) impressions

It's been two weeks since, with the dawn of 2017, I moved to Berlin. Not long enough to settle anywhere, even less so when you are joining a new company in a city you are not familiar with, where you do not speak the language and know nobody (plus the weather - two cloudy and snowy weeks - and short days do not help either).  But I am taking baby steps each day, slowly but confidently, supported by a couple of acquaintances - how important it is to have friends who can "refer" you anywhere - and a warm welcome at work.

By looking at these past 15 days I can already point out a few local behaviours that have surprised me in areas where technology has been (and is expected to continue) playing a significant part. 

1. Cash is king
After having lived in New York for a long time I got used to paying 90% of anything with debit/credit card (I feel like Spain, or at least Madrid, has also evolved a lot in terms of accepting this payment means in the last years), as I find it convenient and it works great to track my expenses via apps, etc. 

That is not going to work in Berlin, I am afraid. Big bummer. Multiple places - not talking just about the doner kebab shop around the corner - do not accept cards and paying in cash is the only alternative. The same limitation goes for the Stripes of the world. Plus it kind of strikes me that, in particular in a city that has positioned itself as a top European tech hub, payment technology - one of finch darlings - is so detached from the day-to-day.

2. No Sunday shopping 

I typically do not have time Mon to Fri to buy stuff, other than groceries. When it comes to clothing, furniture, personal care, etc, it is Saturday and Sunday for me. 
Realizing that shops close on Sundays in a major and touristy city like Berlin has been a surprise. 

At a time where people are increasingly buying stuff online, this just gives people another reason to continue to do so - for instance, German online retailer Zalando keeps increasing sales vigorously quarter after quarter. I do not see that trend stopping around here (competition isses with Amazon and others left aside). At the end of the day you can buy online any day at any time.

3. No food delivery wars?
In the last few years a lot of money has been poured into food delivery companies such as Deliveroo, Just Eat, etc., just as other players such as Uber launched businesses (UberEats) to get a piece of the action. 

In two weeks I have just seen riders - and not a lot I must say - who work for one company: Delivery Hero's Foodora. I do not know the reason but I must admit I was expecting more activity and more players in the battle field. 

4. Berliners do not like their banks...either
Obviously I needed to open a bank account for my daily operations in Germany. I asked people around and there was no consensus whatsoever about what bank to pick. The consensus was actually on how disappointed most people were with their respective banks.

So, I have decided to give a shot at N26 (formerly Number26), the new German challenger bank backed by Peter Thiel and other VCs. I will be able to provide more info in a few months but I must say that the whole process of opening an account and of getting my cards and activating them was easy, seamless... and all online!

5. Car-sharing is hot
Before arriving in Berlin I had heard stories about how much Berliners use their own bikes - I have not seen a Citibike-like service such as the one in New York - to commute to and from work. Totally true, even if it is -8C outside and snowing. But public transportation - a great network of S-Bahn, U-Bahn, trams and buses is in place - is also very much used. Another thing that has somewhat suprised me is that traffic flows rather nicely when compared - based on my limited perception to date - to New York or Madrid. 

But one thing that is really hot in here is car-sharing. In addition to Mercedes Benz-owned Car-2-Go (which I already used in Spain - the same app works nicely, which is great), BMW has also its own car-sharing service called DriveNow.

There is a lot is to be learned when you relocate to a new country and keeping an eye on how things work is enriching. The European Union may be one single market, but at the end of the day, the differences among country members and their citizens are still very relevant. And I do not see that changing in the short and medium term, it is in each country's DNA.