The Scenic Route (To Doing Business)

The Scenic Route

One Aussie startup’s journey from Berlin to Dublin.

Where I’m from (northern Australia), business tends to be conducted at the pub, where one of the more valuable tools in the entrepreneurial skillset is the ability to shoot the breeze across a wide range of subjects. Pitching is what you do on the street when you’re waiting for a taxi at the end of the night.

The best entrepreneurs I know are the best storytellers, and there’s a collective finesse that comes with sitting in a pack of world class chatterboxes – working out when to run with a narrative thread, and, more importantly, when to pass it along to the next raconteur. Good leadership comes from this: communication, self-deprecation, the ability to read an audience and improvise accordingly.

For the past couple of years, I have been bootstrapping a startup in Berlin. We took the lean approach, built a minimum viable product, found an audience, made a small amount of money and a lot of mistakes – bad decision making, ill-advised road trips, encounters with unimpressed VCs – all of which were dutifully incorporated into the company’s ‘story’. The way we play the game back home, the narrative potential of an Epic Fail is so much better than a plain old, garden-variety fail, to the point where we feel obliged, as storytellers, to juke the stats on our own misadventures. It’s a cultural thing. We’re optimists.

This approach absolutely does not work in Berlin.

Germans have finely-tuned senses of humor, and ‘execute’ a particularly dry type of irony where you have no idea if they are being ironic or not (the jury’s still out on this – my feeling is more yes than no). They work hard, play hard and drink beer like Australians, but they don’t do failure under any circumstances, and they sure as hell don’t talk about it, at length. Failure is like Fight Club.

And we all know the first rule of Fight Club.

Here, admitting mistakes is a definite no-no. It makes people nervous. In football mad Berlin, early stage startup hardship is expressed via the brisk, scripted language of the post-game TV soundbite: “The market was formidable, the competition was tough, the team pulled together to execute a Big Win via the implementation of disruptive, low capex, highly-scalable business models.’ I had been operating this way for about eight months, telling very boring stories, thinking the problem was me, not the environment, when fundraising circumstances motivated me to pick up the phone and start calling Irish Angels. Enterprise Ireland had lobbed a brick of cash in our direction, offering us the chance to relocate to Dublin.

The thing that sealed the relocation deal for me personally, was the awesome quality of chat I was able to engage in with Irish people on the phone. Like most people, I tend to get nervous when asking strangers for money, and will veer off script no matter how many talking points I have on my computer screen. It’s like I have Tourette’s. Or, more plausibly, learned wildly digressive communication skills in Brisbane pubs, drinking beer with guys who now run Queensland.

The Aussie line of scenic-route phone chat would appear to be right in the Irish conversational wheelhouse. I’m sure I’m talking to very busy Irish Angels, locked in to same cruising speed as the Autobahn-fast Germans, but I have never been aware of the meter ticking in the background when I’m talking on the phone. I do a lot of laughing, mostly at my own jokes, which is reciprocated, appreciated, occasionally matched and raised, and I have never, ever, ended an Irish conversation thinking. “Wow. That went really badly.” Networks are offered easily. Advice is freely given. Time is taken to understand what we are doing, and the struggle is acknowledged.

So, awesome as Berlin is, I’m stoked that our team will transfer to play for Team Ireland. The thing with Australians and our weird positivity – weird, perhaps, given the spectacular hardship of our origins – is that we visualize ourselves kicking the winning goal at the end of the season. Why would you play otherwise?

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