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Five Years On

Posted by Natalie in Events - 2 September 2014

When you live in the same place for a long time, it’s easy to lose track of the months as they blur into years. We arrived in Berlin in June 2009, and have lived in the same apartment for pretty much the whole time. It’s almost impossible, with so much background consistency, to look back on those years and accept that half a decade has passed.

One thing that still defines our very first month or so in Berlin was our time working at Betahaus. Misled by an expat on Craigslist (I know), we ended up in an overpriced sublet with no wifi, despite promises to the contrary. As remote workers, the Internet is our bread and butter, and Betahaus saved our bacon. At that time, it was merely a warehouse with a few tables and chairs and a decent wifi connection, but that’s all we needed. (Perhaps the loquacious parrot who then resided in the same building and liked to mimic a telephone ringing with tinnitus-inducing enthusiasm was slightly superflous though…)

So when Betahaus announced their fifth birthday party, I was stunned into some reflection. It also seemed like the excuse I was looking for to reignite this blog, which has been on the backburner lately. Saturday night was the first time I’d been inside Betahaus (apart from the cafe) since that month in 2009; suffice to say, lots has changed. The cavernous, industrial space is today a warm and welcoming coworking complex whose vibe and approach has been imitated across the city and beyond.

The event attempted to cram in a month’s worth of workshops into one day, a goal it achieved with impressive efficiency. I missed out once again on the hugely popular Concrete Design session, but hope to finally have a go at that this autumn. Other highlights included the Guided Rave, which saw participants vogue their way through some dancefloor classics with the help of an instructor, and an interesting (and much more serious) session on the potential of online learning.

I also caught up with Max, one of the co-founders, for a quick look back at the highs and lows of these formative first years. Finding a balance between idealism and practical economics has been among the team’s toughest challenges, a symptom that must surely affect many a start-up, regardless of their location. “We started with six co-founders,” explained Max.  ”But since the start of 2011, only three of us have been running the company. In the beginning it was all hands on deck, but after a while six people became too much for a business like ours.”

Expansion has also been tricky. Betahaus has pulled off some pretty impressive empire-building, with branches in Hamburg, Sofia and Barcelona. (Indeed, at the party there was talk among Berlin Betahaus users of making European coworking tour). But in 2012, they had to close the space in Cologne, after things didn’t quite work out. “Having created a European network which provides an international service to our customers is awesome,” said Max. “Now, we’re focusing on growing slowly and sustainably.”

I guess we’ve all become a bit more pragmatic and less idealistic over the last five years. Risk and failure are part of becoming established within the wider community, and I can testify that, certainly from a personal perspective, this continues to be one of the greatest challenges of putting down roots and building something meaningful in a large, international city.

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