Bridging the gap between Hamburg startups and the international workforce

John Barré
From Maisons-Laffitte, France
6 years in Hamburg

Is Hamburg an easy place to start a business if you’re international?

Hamburg is a fantastic place to start a business. Germany is ideally located between Western and Eastern Europe, and Hamburg is only a stone’s throw from Denmark or the Netherlands. Apart from its geographical assets, Hamburg is a very dynamic city, with a solid economic growth and a thriving development, attracting people from all over the world.

From abroad, Berlin tends to be more under the spotlight, however, as an expat, Hamburg is friendlier. The startup scene is small yet very tightly intertwined. It is very easy to web a network of locals, whether newly arrived or born-and-bred Hamburgers, to find the support and the skills you need when you start a business. There are many co-working places such as Shhared or the Betahaus where you can meet these people while developing your startup ideas.

Speaking of network, Sina Gritzuhn and Sanja Stankovic founded Hamburg Startups some three years ago in order to connect and promote the Hamburg digital and startup scene. They did a wondrous job at shedding some well-deserved light on Hamburg and its hot start-ups. However, I thought this visibility could be broadened. Having news and reports about startups in Hamburg only in German was very restrictive. On my own initiative, I decided to start writing about startups in Hamburg, events, and news related to them – all in English.

I was very soon approached by Sina to join our efforts. While they keep on working on the German editorial work, I take care of the English version with the articles I had written so far, plus new ones, with the column “Pardon my French.” I review start-up ideas and products – a glimpse for potential international users, clients, or investors – with my own two cents. An upfront, honest opinion!

Can being an international also be an advantage sometimes?

It is never easy to fit in in a new country. It takes time to get to know the people, how they live and how they work, to learn the language and to find your way around town. It’s a challenge, but it can be used as an advantage. It is a great ice-breaker to start a conversation with people. They usually are very happy to tell you about Hamburg and share their inside knowledge.I found it disconcertingly easy to make friends in Ireland, both in Cork and in Dublin; it takes a bit more work in Hamburg. When mingling, I was mostly welcomed with what felt like a cold silence, as if I had to justify my being here, but it is just the way people are. The people of Hamburg warm up to you eventually.

Professionally speaking, it can also be an advantage: you just have to put yourself in a favorable light. Yes, it is tough to compete with German native speakers. Yes, your experience from back home is less convincing than having worked locally. But you also have something rare. Your native language can be an added value for marketing, sales, or localization. Your knowledge of foreign markets can bring in new ideas and insights to a German startup or company. It’s all the about the way you look at it and especially how you show it. Don’t make yourself less than you really are.

As a language enthusiast, can you tell us your favourite German word or saying, or language confusion?

I love all words! I could talk about any of them (and I actually do, I wrote a blog post about dowels… I really like how German allows the combination of words to create new ones. I sometimes abuse this system. I once used “Haltermöbel” (supporting piece of furniture) to say shelf when the word “Regale” works just fine. And much better even. I really should be more careful, not every word can be clicked in like a Lego brick.

There is also an awful lot of words in German with French origins that have developed a different meaning over time. I experienced a few entertaining situation from it. “Salopp” (laid-back) means something much less acceptable in French. “Politesse” (traffic warden) means courtesy in French. I think the one moment when I was struck with awe for a few seconds happened while reading a flyer for pizzas. There was a promotion on a pizza with turkey and tangerines, which read “Pute Mandarine.” I was so taken aback from reading “Chinese whore” on a flyer – it took me a little while to realize it was not written in French.

Just a few funny sounding German words I love to use:  Firlefanz, Fisimatenten, Kokolores, Schwuppdiwupp, Pumpernickel. Not easy to fit in a daily conversation, but still!

Keep in touch with John’s latest linguistic ponderings on his blog, or check out his articles on

Photo credits: Thorsten Barré

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