Hamburg’s startup scene should pave the way to a more international Hamburg

Hamburg can be tough if you come here looking for a job without speaking German. I know because I often speak to internationals who moved to Hamburg, not least for my blog “Why Hamburg?”. A city as international as Hamburg – with its 250,000 foreign nationals – should be a relatively easy place to find a job if you’re able to do business in English. But unfortunately, too many people still have problems fulfilling their potential because they cannot (yet) speak German.

This is bad for a number of reasons. Firstly, on more of an idealistic level, because nobody should be denied success on account of their language skills, especially if they haven’t realistically had the chance to learn the language yet.

Secondly, because a city has much to gain from the different perspectives and experiences that foreign people bring to the table. Just as Germans abroad are valued – for their crap-cutting approach to meetings and their bias to action – international people here in Germany have unique talents too and we need all of them.

Or to put it another way: if you had a grand piano, would you always play the same octave?

Alex Ahom, founder of the co-working space Shhared, told me:

With my experience in technology, media, and recruitment, I thought Hamburg would be a great place to get a job without knowing how to speak German from the off. After all, there are many international companies with offices in Hamburg such as Airbus, Olympus and Microsoft.

After trying for a while, he was surprised by the lack of job opportunities for non-German speakers fitting his profile.

The startup scene needs internationals

Alex Ahom, founder of Shhared

Alex Ahom, founder of Shhared. (Photo: John Heaven)

Luckily, Hamburg’s growing startup scene is an opportunity to correct this. According to David Fogel – a startup advisor with experience in the Israeli, Spanish and German scenes – startups are by definition international: “Startups are about testing a product on a small market and then scaling it up globally. They need to be thinking internationally from day one.”

Lina Wüller, founder of Rebel At Heart PR, agrees: “We are working with a lot of tech startups and their first language is English … We’re also addressing a lot of tech writers and opinion leaders, who mainly write in English”

David Fogel (source: private)

David Fogel
(source: private)

As David admits, working entirely in English is easier said than done. Because of the large German-speaking market (the DACH region has around 100 million inhabitants), employees of German startups are inclined to speak the local language with one another. As you can imagine, it feels somewhat artificial if people who share a native tongue speak in a foreign language. However, startups will at some point have to start working in English: whether as a result of their own success in finding a model that can be scaled up and offered on a global scale, or because they exhaust the pool of investors in the DACH region and need to look to other countries for finance.

Non-German speakers can help here: by integrating new arrivals who do not yet speak the local language into their teams, startups are forced to work in English and are better prepared when they need to make international connections. The same applies to the Hamburg startup scene as a whole: David Fogel recommends all startup events should be at least bilingual.

Halaina Hills

Halaina Hills, PR advisor at Rebel At Heart PR (source: private)

We can see this happening already. Halaina Hills, an ex-ballet dancer from Australia who is approaching the end of her degree in Communications, relocated to Hamburg because her boyfriend was offered a job here. She now works as a PR advisor at Rebel at Heart PR, despite speaking only basic German when she arrived in January. Halaina says: “I really enjoy being able to help my coworkers, or people in the industry with their English when they’re pitching something. I guess I have an advantage where English is the language of the tech industry.”

A further possible advantage of internationalised startups and startup ecosystems is that they could help to counter the disadvantages of working in English whilst being based in Germany: whereas startups who communicate in English but are testing their ideas and products on a German-speaking target market may face problems due to the language abilities of their target audience, international employees and members of the startup scene and their networks may to some degree help counter this by tapping into English-speaking markets from day one.

The startup scene can lead the way to a more international Hamburg

So for people coming to Germany seeking a job with little or no German – perhaps because their partner has relocated, or because they have studied here for a year and want to stay on – the Hamburg startup scene should in future be their first port of call. Small companies including startups cannot afford to have the strictly-defined professions that, in the traditional industries, hold back internationals with more generic qualifications because the limited number of staff within smaller companies means that everyone has to roll up their sleeves and do what’s necessary. Further, people who found startups tend to be English-speaking, and are more likely to be internationally-oriented, meaning they should be more open to employing internationals.

Halaina’s Hills’ experience could be a sign of things to come, namely a startup ecosystem acting as a generator of jobs for internationals:

I didn’t come here in order to find a job in the startup industry, however since arriving as a foreigner my experience here has been quite remarkable and I am very thankful for how open and willing everyone has been in helping me adjust with not only the culture shock but also a brand new career.

Should we worry about an English-only bubble?

Having said all this, some people might be worried that we will be attracting lots of people who live and work in Hamburg but have not intention to stay here for the long-term, or to learn the local language. Should we be worried about a growing bubble of people who don’t speak the German, a younger version of the retired British ex-pats on the Costa del Sol?

Probably not. All the people I speak to for “Why Hamburg?” and for this article speak German to some degree and are in most cases actively making an effort to learn it. Of course it depends on the motivation of the individual, and how long they are staying here for. As Halaina Hills explains:

Since living here my German has developed exponentially! I do find it difficult when everyone wants to speak English with me, but I think there has to be a bit of give and take. It’s nigh impossible to be able to truly express yourself in a foreign language when your vocab is so small, so a little English here and there is actually very helpful.

Or, as Alex Ahom, says:

I believe 100% that learning a new language opens doors and the mind. That’s why I’m proud to say my children understand 3 languages and I understand more German than I’d admit. But when I get letters or telephone calls from the tax office, bank or whereever, I’m sometimes out of my depth.

Win-win situation

So to sum up: if we get this right, the startup scene can be a trailblazer to a more international Hamburg, the kind of Hamburg that so many people are talking about, and which can help Hamburg live up to its own claim to be Germany’s “gateway to the world”. Hamburg always has been a city of international trade and ties, and by making the city more accessible to those who do not – yet – speak the language, both the new arrivals and the startups employing them only stand to benefit.


About the author

John Heaven

John Heaven

John Heaven, originally from Birmingham, UK, has lived in Hamburg since March 2010. He is author of the column “Views from Heaven” and of the blog “Why Hamburg?”. John not only creates content himself but helps customers to manage theirs with Drupal, WordPress and other systems. Together with Ferdinand Weps, he offers this and other services under the brand Heaven & Weps. Since 2013 he has been co-organiser of the Social Media Week Hamburg. Before coming to Hamburg he studied Law, followed by a Master’s in International Studies, at Exeter and Saarbrücken and went on to work as a Graduate Trainee at Birmingham City Council. Find more about John!

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