Poor, but sexy

By Matthew Bostock on December 6th, 2012

If I forced you to put a price on your work, what would it be? If you’re comfortable cutting that number in half, you may be a fit for Berlin. It’s no secret that the average start-up salary here is low compared to other tech hotspots, which is why many decide to set up shop elsewhere. And that’s just fine. What’s not so fine, at least in my eyes, are the complaints about this “low pay” made by outsiders looking to get in.

Over in the US, we’re used to watching start-ups take humungous amounts of money, pay employees handsomely, and throw dollars around like no one’s business. So let’s get one thing straight: that kind of money and the willingness to chuck it about simply doesn’t exist out here. Your average start-up salary across the pond will bag you around $6,000 per month. The average startup salary in Berlin? Less than $3,000.

Many newcomers look at the gap as a reflection of how little Berlin-based start-ups value their employees. They’re wrong to do so. People fail to put this into context. The upshot here is that Berlin is insanely cheap. It’s a topic has been discussed to death, so, in the interests of brevity, let’s just say that your $3,000 will take you a long way. The amount isn’t put forward to make people feel any less competent than they are, it’s just sensible given the living costs. So take a tissue to those tears.

Some people also fail to put themselves into context. We have founders here who are on this seemingly low salary too. Are you really brazen enough to ask for more than your CEO? Are you that special? An aura of entitlement may be threatening to swallow Berlin whole. Instead of being out to know the price of everything, we should be out to know the value of some things. And the value here is a close-knit community, grateful for the collective camaraderie as we compete with other companies across the world that have millions more to play with.

And, of course, all the other benefits to living in this scruffy but super-cool city.

Of course, there are a handful of Berlin startups that do have excess cash in the bank. But this leads to another problem: talent wars. Newcomers perfect for any one of Berlin’s many start-ups, blinded by monetary incentive, are being sucked in by a select few. It’s creating an inbalance, albeit an unavoidable one, as we look to compete. As someone from the outside coming in, an insane self-evaluation can inadvertently starve these budding start-ups.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. I know many people that have been around the block more than once, and have amassed a great deal of experience. I also know people that have families to support and debts to pay. A higher salary is warranted in these instances. But for those that are young, maybe with a year’s worth of experience and without any shackling commitments, it’s wise to keep your expectations low.

For Berlin-based founders, having people that want to be part of a team and not just a payroll is something special. Granted, these founders will probably miss out on a few good hires, but at least their teams will be comprised of people willing to sacrifice some luxuries in order to put the vision first. They won’t necessarily think with their wallets, but they might with their hearts. Hunger can count for more.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that this average should stay the same for the foreseeable future. As the Berlin startup scene blossoms, and we see more capital rolling in and world changing products rolling out, I do hope it begins to rise. What I am saying is that, at this point in time, Berlin founders are simply being realistics. Prospective employees need to be, too.

So, yes, if you’re thinking of moving to Berlin, what you heard is true. The average salary here is low. Many of us live paycheck to paycheck. But it doesn’t matter: what matters is that we’re all in the same boat, and for the stability and future prosperity of Berlin’s tech scene, we embrace it. We might be poor, but we’re determined to stay sexy.