Starting up in Berlin

Negotiating the intersection of really cool and really weird

What if start-ups are just people, failure isn’t sexy and the secret to sanity lies in stories? We chatted to our friend Duncan Gough, artist, technologist and co-founder of Berlin-based start-up Somewhere – a ‘visual platform for sharing your work’.

LJ: Duncan, we've worked on various projects together for a few years now and what's always fascinated me about you is the way you manage to balance business-mindedness with an artist's sensibility, creating wonderfully technical – yet intuitive and emotional – things like Bliss, virtual identities and prototypes for playable stories. But your day job is all about solving practical problems in a start-up environment. Has it ever been a struggle finding a way to express yourself creatively in your technical work? 

Do you feel the two things feed into each other or do you try to keep them separate?

I couldn't commit myself to almost any other start-up idea. 

A better list making app, group calendaring, location based reviews, the internet of "things" – all technical solutions to social problems, or just solutions in search of a problem. I think startup culture has taught people to give up on the value of a good idea: "Anyone can have a good idea". Yet I really don't see many of them in the App Store, nor hear about them at conferences. I think good ideas are fucking difficult. I don't think everyone is capable of them. 

The shorter answer, though, is that I read fiction. If I didn't I would have burned out six months ago. Now I need other people to read fiction so that I can share. I need someone else to read Giraffe by JM Ledgard so that I can share that ending with another human being before I lose it. 
Good ideas are fucking difficult. Not everyone is capable of them.

So for me, Somewhere is a farm-to-table entrepreneurial experience. From a sketch in a notebook in my garden in London to an office in Neukölln with four of the best people I could wish to work alongside. We've taken Somewhere from London to Berlin to Copenhagen to Barcelona to Sofia to Lisbon to Jordan to Brooklyn and more. I couldn't be happier. Everywhere we go validates the importance of what we're doing.

We meet people offline, in real life, and you only have to see their reaction to know that we're onto something. We're solving a real problem, and figuring out the answer to tough problems means that it's OK if I find that the balance between my work and my side projects is off. Because it's ok to be fully invested in making something for myself which makes a difference. Everyone at Somewhere knows that we're not the ones doing anything special, our community is. The people we meet really do inspire us to keep going. We're just sketching out a map, revealing the communities around us. Tenzing Norgay is one of our most trusted advisors.

LJ: Do you see yourself as part of the start-up scene then, or do you feel it's become a negative influence when trying to develop ideas? You're based in Berlin – is there a different approach to entrepreneurship over there? 

As you say, it seems like London is focussed on being useful in a pragmatic way to the point where it's in danger of become self-involved. Can celebrating communities outside of the 'entrepreneur scene' offer an escape from the inward-looking spiral of start-ups?

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I do think it could be a poor influence on developing new ideas. The smartest developers I know can make anything, but they're often the ones to ask "why?" when it comes to making things. The whole "technical co-founder" thing just feels like another world.

I don't seem much happening in London which is making me excited either - startups that make status boards, the randomness of hits on the App Store, etc. I remember the last crash when everyone moved into advertising because startups were dying all over, and agencies had all the money. 

I think that had a significant impact and I don't know that there's a generation of smarter, younger people coming in to fill that vacuum. There are smart people out there, but I think they're getting drowned out by everyone else caught up in the rush to be a part of it all.

I don't know that there's a generation of smarter, younger people coming in to fill the vacuum

Berlin wouldn't stand up to the same level of scrutiny either, though. It's terrible here, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone of course...

Sure it's poor but sexy, but there's often a lack of experience here which is a different set of problems. If I start to worry that I'm becoming jaded, then Berlin is probably the perfect place to resolve that. 

LJ: Yeah, I have been thinking recently about there's something about the internet service industry that facilitates a sort of studious nerdiness, similar to the 'learnings' sense you mention. It's almost as if there are two parallel and conflicting realities: one in which people fail in spectacular, heroic and public ways, and then this private reality of all the time learning lessons, learning new skills and buckling down. 

There’s the showy “I might be going down, but I’m going down for something I believe in”, while behind closed doors a serious scrimping and calibration and the private admission one never quite works for oneself.

Do you think the number of new businesses moving to Berlin indicates a drive to get out of London? As you know, in 2012 I relocated to a northern city with far less cash but, I feel, hugely wealthier in terms of creativity. It seems to me there's a direct link towards money worship and the business motivations that accompany that, and the abolition of real, heart-felt creativity. I know this is simplistic, and of course not all poor areas are creative, but a lot of wealthy places are unbalanced – the artistic spirit is often co-opted and distorted by money

It's as though there is nothing left to make if you can buy everything and go everywhere. Like, someone else will do it. I can think of a lot of reasons why this might be a very unpopular idea, and there is no sense in which a lack of money is good for a place, but perhaps too much money, or too much focus on money, can divert one's priorities from the original motivation and reduce the levels of honesty in our work and interactions.

Are you enjoying the challenges presented by Berlin's lack of resources? Do you think they have an impact on business creativity and styles of working?

Right, overnight successes and hard workers are never exciting. It's a musical montage in the film of your life. That's why I'm on the side of the autotelics. It's us and them, and I know where they sit at the table.

I don't feel like I'm ready to enter into the London vs. Berlin fight, really, although I've tried. I think Paris is absolutely worth looking into, and I think Lisbon is where it's really happening. I do think London needs to push the government involvement to one side - that's been the most depressing change of the last few years. It's easy to criticise, though, but given I'll probably still be doing this when all the money's gone and everyone's fucked off, I might as well get a head-start.

You and I both tried to earn money selling concept cars and sugared water, and spent most of our time sketching out ideas for digital trees, dogs with jobs, anonymous social networks, helpful robots and puppet shows when we were meant to be working. I think it's ok to say we weren't motivated by the same desires as the industry we were in. And I think it's ok to say that positively too. I don't think we failed as a creative team at a digital agency, we succeeded in getting out alive and we succeeding in making meaningful ideas come to life, tackling difficult ideas and working on them over the longer term.

We were totally sweding it in the agency world.

We tried selling concept cars and sugared water, and invented digital trees and puppet shows when we were meant to be working
I think the financials of startups are always interesting. There's a great video from a talk called "The long slow SaaS ramp of death", which is really good for sharing real numbers and real experiences. It's a good watch, but you reach the ending, the point which you're meant to be inspired and reassured, and it's hard not to add up the amount of investment it took to make an email-circulars company solvent.

So when the city boys are quitting their jobs to run startups, and the photographers, writers, chefs and academics are joining Somewhere and
calling it home, I think I made the right choice. Sometimes it's good to draw a line.

I'm not sure the lack of resources have such an impact over here on creativity and styles of working. There's a lack of experience so maybe there's more of a junior and senior split that's evident here. Maybe that's the difference - London is suffering from middle-aged spread.

Duncan’s projects are on his website, and do check out Somewhere.