Colin moved from his role as Product Leader at Gusto, in San Francisco, to work in Berlin as the VP of Product for start-up, Zeitgold. With over 10 years of experience in Product Management in the U.S., Colin was ready for the exciting opportunity of a new challenge - in a new continent.
Why did you decide to move from San Francisco to Berlin?
“I was not specifically looking to move to Berlin, but I was offered a great opportunity to join a Berlin start-up that I couldn't pass up. After working at Silicon Valley tech companies for the previous 10 years, I thought this would be a valuable experience to work with different cultures and different types of challenges than I had in the past. Also, I've always enjoyed seeing different parts of the world, so living abroad has been on my mind for some time.”
“Berlin, particularly, was an easy decision for me as one of Europe's largest tech hubs. It's also a city that has a lot to offer outside of work including interesting history, music, art, a variety of cuisines, good public transportation and an appealing cost of living.”
How was the process of moving overseas?
“There are three main dimensions to this kind of relocation: the physical move (of your family and possessions), the immigration process (visa) and settling into your new life. Zeitgold, the company that I joined, was very supportive with every step of the process which made my move almost as smooth as a domestic relocation within the U.S.”
“The physical move is similar to what you would experience in the US, but since your belongings will likely be transported by boat it will typically take around three months to transport them door-to-door.”
“My wife and I also brought our cat, which was not especially complicated - besides the fact that he wasn’t as thrilled about moving as we were - but it required some additional planning (vaccinations, animal passport, airline spot, etc.)”
“I was fortunate to be eligible for a Blue Card visa, which offers some advantages: fewer work restrictions for a spouse, more flexibility to change employers, and a shorter path to establish permanent residency (if you decide on that route). Not everyone is eligible for a Blue Card; it depends on factors such as job function, salary, and educational background. Having an employer who will sponsor your visa and accompany you to the immigration office (where it’s expected that you’re already fluent in German) makes the visa process smooth. I didn’t find a need for relocation service in Berlin, but many good Berlin relocation agents are available due to the influx of tech talent moving here.”
“Getting settled includes steps such as finding an apartment, registering with the government to get your tax ID, and navigating the healthcare system. Importantly, some of these steps are dependent on others (such as getting your bank account before you can get your credit score before you can apply for an apartment). Again, having an employer or local German-speaking friend who can support you with each of these steps will make a huge difference.”
How does the start-up culture differ between Silicon Valley and Berlin?
“I experienced more similarities than differences. Berlin start-ups are taking on ambitious problems and attempting to solve them in innovative ways. start-ups here are trying to learn from a lot of the approaches that are being developed and refined in Silicon Valley, so you’ll find a lot of receptivity to the ideas that you bring. There's also a similar level of energy and levity in the office, and the work is complemented with social activities such as ping pong, kicker (foosball), and after-work drinks.”
“There are a few differences. The teams are more culturally diverse since people are able to move more easily across Europe. At many start-ups, you will be working with more non-Germans than Germans. Because the tech industry here is at an earlier stage, teammates will tend to have less direct domain experience than their counterparts in Silicon Valley. More commonly, they will have transitioned into tech from a different domain such as consulting or operations. One thing that I appreciate here is that there is less of a stigma about annual leave or time off than in the US. Teammates will take longer vacations and parental leaves, and even very dedicated teammates are more comfortable disconnecting during their time off. The work-life balance is better.”
How was the salary difference?
“While it is one of the highest-paying tech markets in the world, San Francisco is also a very expensive place to live. Berlin historically has lower average wages but also has a cost of living that’s much lower than that of similar-sized tech markets. I've found that some tech companies in Berlin are more anchored to the historical wages; however, there are also tech companies here that place more financial value on the experience that someone would bring from Silicon Valley and recognize that the job market is becoming more global. So if you find the right company and factor in the cost of living difference, it starts to make sense financially.”
“Similar to Silicon Valley start-ups, most pre-IPO start-ups in Berlin will offer equity, but it may be limited to the Engineering, Product Management, and Design teams. Also, the terms of the equity, such as whether you are still entitled to it after leaving, may also be different, so it's recommended that you read the fine print of your equity contract.”
“I wouldn't recommend this kind of move to someone who is currently working in Silicon Valley and is looking to maximize their earnings. But if you really value the experience of living abroad then the benefits more than makeup for the difference.”
How are you settling into Berlin life?
“My wife and I have lived here for almost two years now and we are still very much enjoying it. As an American, I find Berlin fairly easy to navigate because English is spoken by the majority of people who I interact with on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I have been slowly learning the language so I can be better prepared for the infrequent cases when English is not an option (often for interactions with government agencies or customer support representatives).”
“I've found travel easier than I expected. There are so many options from budget airlines to convenient trains or even rental cars. I'm used to travel being a big commitment, so I'm taking advantage of the fact that I can now get to much of Europe within a two-hour flight.”
“When I moved from San Francisco during my first Berlin winter, I quickly needed to update my wardrobe. I had been spoiled by living in a climate that remains almost unchanged all year round, so my light puffy jacket was no match for the Berlin winter. Now that I have the right clothing, the winters are much more manageable.”
Was there anything that surprised you about living in Berlin?
“There aren't any huge surprises but there are definitely differences from what I was used to. I've found the Germans to be incredibly courteous. My co-workers, knowing I don't speak German, would always change their discussion to English if I came by. I would sometimes forget I'm working in another country. Germans will also, without fail, greet you when you enter a shop and say goodbye when you leave.”
“I didn't realize how far North Berlin is so it was surprising at first to see that it gets dark as early as 4:00 pm in the winter. But on the upside, Berliners have long summer evenings where the sun will set as late as 9:30 pm, and during this time of year the city really comes alive as Berliners are eating outside at cafes or sitting in the parks.”
“I was also surprised to find how much more variety was available beyond German cuisine. There's a wide selection of food genres including Vietnamese, Italian, Turkish, Vegan options, and trendy coffee shops. I still enjoy a good bratwurst and sauerkraut from time to time, of course!”
“Berlin is a cash society, so you'll always need to bring your bills and coins to be prepared. And while more places are starting to accept credit cards, smartphone payments are only starting to be adopted. Once at a local cafe I tapped my phone to their credit card machine to pay, and after the payment was approved the shop owner thought I had a superpower!”
We’d like to say thank you to Colin for speaking to us about his experiences in Product Management in Berlin and the transition from The Silicon Valley to Berlin.
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