The sweet smell of startup success – and failure

Berlin is Germany’s undisputed startup hotspot. Daniel-Jan Girl draws on his own experience as an entrepreneur to connect and support these young companies on behalf of the CCI

Daniel-Jan Girl © IHK Berlin

This man gets right to the point. With Daniel-Jan Girl, there’s no need for superfluous pleasantries and no time to waste on small talk about the weather and traffic jams. “Shortcut to me”, he begins, and tells the tale of a man who went forth to teach a city how to start companies. Indeed, Girl more or less had to invent the term ‘startup consultant’ to describe what he does. The 36-year-old provides advice and support to young founders on behalf of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI Berlin), thus passing on his own considerable entrepreneurial experience. After gaining his degree and completing a business apprenticeship, Girl joined his roommates to co-create a small company that quickly became the largest party community in the country. Fifteen years ago, the term ‘startup’ was still uncommon in Germany, as was the level of passion and hard work Girl and his roommates put into re-functioning their flat into an office and investing the money they had earned working in a supermarket.

“Back then, we learned how important customer loyalty is, and we soon started providing similar advice to others”, says Girl, whose gestures are as rapid-fire as his words. His next business idea was born out of that experience, and he soon founded the German Association for Multimedia Customer Loyalty (DGMK), of which he is the managing director to this day.

In 2008, Girl concentrated on a different project; he wanted to find out “how the process of remembering the Holocaust could be shaped on a continuous basis”. So he organised a concert at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin whereby audiences were invited to move freely among musicians spread out over the field of steles. A smartphone app lets today’s visitors experience that one-time concert as well: using their GPS coordinates, visitors move from one position to the next within the memorial to hear each different composition, just as if the musicians were still there. It is the first virtual concert of the world and is still available to every single visitor via embedded QR codes, which was also one of Girl’s ideas. His work on this project taught him how massive bureaucratic resistance can be, especially in a city whose leisurely pace of innovation is sometimes hard to bear.

And yet, Girl – a native of Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district – is convinced the capital can tap into the industrial prominence it enjoyed in the 19th century. In fact, he sees the city as being on the right track already: “We live in one of the most important startup hubs in the world. In Europe, only London is better equipped with venture capital for young companies”. However, Girl also sees problems in the weak entrepreneurial spirit of many of these startups. He admits that when he was young, he too thought entrepreneurs wore top hats and stood in front of old factories with smoke coming out of the chimneys. Girl would love to change this perception, which is why he’s been giving lectures at schools for years now – lectures about bold ideas, solid business plans and failure. “We need people who have experience with failure”, he argues. Girl wants to connect founders and their fresh new ideas with established companies who bring capital and experience to the table. The desire to found companies is growing, he notes. He sees it in the emails he receives every week in which people ask him for advice. And Girl always gives them one definite gem: “No idea is doomed to fail as long as you believe in it”. Indeed, he’s living proof of this statement.

Michael Sellge
Kluge Köpfe 2017