Interview with Eric Lange – Why I chose Berlin over the Silicon Valley
The international startup scene is growing by the minute, and in addition to major hubs like Silicon Valley, other cities are developing to also become major startup strongholds . While loads of talent are still trying to make their way to Silicon Valley, others are choosing instead to go to Berlin. We spoke with Eric Lange, an experienced leader in product and tech, and co-founder and CPTO of a new startup in the finleap ecosystem, about Berlin, building products and the glue that holds it all together. He shared his views with us on why it’s great to work in Berlin, and how the city compares to the likes of Silicon Valley and Bangalore.
Eric Lange, an experienced leader in product and tech, and co-founder and CPTO of a new startup in the finleap ecosystem.
Eric, you have lived and worked in three leading startup cities in the world – Berlin, Bangalore and Silicon Valley. What are the main differences between these cities in regard to building products?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to work in some of the most vibrant tech startup scenes on the planet. These locations have certain things in common: a concentration of young, smart, entrepreneurial people; strong technical education systems; access to capital; and support from local governments with regard to immigration and incentives. At least two of them have great weather. I will let you guess which two …
Where they differ can be a bit more subtle. The culture is often derived from the most successful businesses that spawned their respective industries. The employees of those companies then start their own businesses and take that culture with them and so on. It is from this natural process that every startup centre derives its own identity. The Silicon Valley, for instance, is a very advanced ecosystem which, while rooted in innovative technology, has over the past several decades developed an equally product-driven culture. Bangalore, I think, is making a similar shift. Historically, Bangalore was a centre of outsourced IT development, and thus its culture was engineering focused. The vast majority of the entrepreneurs there have an IT background. What I experienced, however, is that this shift to product-first thinking is beginning to take hold. Berlin has taken a different path to this point, and is a much newer ecosystem. The city’s clear early successes have been in the eCommerce industry, which by their nature are heavily operationally dependent. Thus Berlin’s spike has been disproportionately operations or business-driven in its technology development, and the background of many of its entrepreneurs reflect that. The community of product leadership is more nascent and less developed. But that seems to be changing. I see new product-driven startups launching and gaining traction rapidly. Nowhere is that more evident than in the area of fintech.
What brought you to Berlin?
I have been a professional nomad for much of my adult life. Even in my home country, the US, the Silicon Valley is 3.500 km from where I was born and raised. Each successive move was driven by a desire to be close to the “action” in the technology industry. In addition to my work in San Francisco, Chicago and India, I also lived in China while the market was heating up there. I just love this industry and couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Berlin is no exception. It is an amazing city. It is affordable, international, has great infrastructure and the industry is booming. It is at the base of its S-curve, and I want to be here to watch it grow. My family and I would also like to stop moving and Berlin provides the perfect mix for the long-run: a vibrant startup scene, a livable major city, and a high quality of living. What could be better?
You have worked in a lot of different industries such as e-commerce, food delivery and media. This is your first gig in the fintech scene. What was your motivation to go into fintech?
When I think of my “industry”, I think of technology, not any specific business. In addition to those businesses, I have also worked in microprocessors, music, conference telephones, airplane entertainment systems, CRM, video, payments and advertising. Anywhere there is a technology problem to be solved through superior products, I consider this to be my industry. And I have a particular passion for consumer-facing products solving everyday problems.
Fintech is a natural next step in my journey. The foundations of consumer finance are rooted in very old industries. Many of these institutions have had difficulty transitioning to the realities of a digital future. Products and processes can feel very ancient and out-of-step with how consumers, especially young consumers, interact with other aspects of their lives. I see an opportunity to bridge this gap through great products and superior technology. This is what I bring.
What does Berlin offer that the other cities don’t have?
Berlin is a small city. That sounds strange to say for a city with nearly four million people, but in terms of its accessibility and the relative size of the industry, it is easy to navigate. San Francisco, the city, is very small, but the greater Silicon Valley is a massive sprawl without good public transportation options. It takes hours to travel from one end of the Bay Area to the other. The same is true of Bangalore. Although there are some startup centres in the city, like Koramangala and Indiranagar, since the entire metropolitan area is made up of IT companies, there is a huge spread but poor infrastructure to bind them together. In Berlin, on the other hand, it seems like you can get from anywhere in the city to anywhere else in 30 minutes or less. Public transportation is efficient and safe. This, and the relatively small size of the industry, makes the community aspect stronger as it is easier to bring people together.
What are the advantages for startups in Berlin over Bangalore or the Silicon Valley?
Berlin has distinct advantages, but they are different for Bangalore and the Valley. In relation to Bangalore, Berlin is substantially more diverse in terms of both ethnicity and gender in tech, which just leads to better, more diverse products with greater international appeal. Bangalore is also almost entirely focused on India, which makes perfect sense considering the size and growth of the domestic market. But it has not had overwhelming success yet with its products reaching outside its borders (with some notable exceptions). As for the Silicon Valley, Berlin has a massive advantage in its cost of living. Berlin is by no means cheap and is getting more expensive every day, but compared to San Francisco, it is very affordable. This allows startups to put less capital at risk due to personnel costs while simultaneously allowing its employees to live comfortable lives with short commute times. This enables a higher quality of life and higher risk tolerance, enabling startups to experiment, innovate and thrive.
What is the main differentiator between Berlin, Bangalore and the Silicon Valley in regards to building products?
This is a difficult question to answer without making broad generalisations, but I will give it a shot. Berlin does not yet have a very developed product culture compared especially to the Silicon Valley, but also to Bangalore. I was a little surprised to learn that product management, as a function, is largely seen as just the interface between business and engineering. “Business” sets the strategy and product epics, while engineering builds it. Product management is the layer that translates one into the other, spending the majority of its time pushing tickets. It is seen as an operational role, rather than a strategic one. This is very different to most product-driven organisations in the Valley. Product management is a strategic function that owns the P&L and strategy, and ensures execution. It is the glue that holds it all together. That is an area where I think there is an opportunity here. Building truly great products starts from the customer. Obstacles only exist as items to be removed or worked around. They do not define the product. The vision and customer do, and everything else works itself out from there. To achieve that, you have to give outsized responsibility to the people defining the product, not relegate them to organisational tasks. This requires a shift in thinking, not only among product managers themselves, but also the organisation at large. This is something that we are committed to in my new venture.
What is it like to live in Berlin?
Berlin feels like home. That is a statement I do not make lightly. I have been a foreigner for several years all over the world, and I immediately feel a sense of belonging. It’s a great, international city with a world-class culture and a long, sometimes rocky, history. It’s edgy. It’s hip. It’s friendly. It’s hard. It’s young and makes me feel young. What’s not to love?
What advice do you have for people moving to Berlin to work at a fintech startup?
Find the right cultural fit for you. There are so many great things happening, it is easy to get swept up in the excitement. But in the end, make sure you:
- believe in the mission
- are in awe of the people you work with
- are solving real problems for real people
- understand how you fit into the larger organisation and are happy with it
Interested in a change of scenery? Check out our open positions, and be sure to apply right here. Let’s reshape the future of finance, together.