“I wish for a shift towards more social development, social entrepreneurship and sustainable business models in the digital field” – CEO and Co-Founder of re:publica, Andreas Gebhard
re:publica Co-Founder and CEO Andreas Gebhard met up with Silicon Allee in the heart of Berlin Mitte to talk about the origins of how one of Europe’s biggest digital conferences came to be, and where Berlin’s future is heading. From launching a co-working space of sorts 15 years ago, overcoming entrepreneurial struggles, to laying the foundations of Europe’s most established digital media discourse, Andreas Gebhard has watched the world adapt to the digital age, and will continue to oversee the digital developments of the future.
Hey Andreas! In short, who are you and what is re:publica?
I’m the founder and CEO of re:publica, this is one of the largest digital society conferences in the world, maybe the most important. My job is to bring together all the different backgrounds of people who are working in the digital field, but not only focusing on business, startups or technology. It’s a more holistic approach; we want to include all the staples from society into a huge gathering, so they can come together and discuss with each other.
I’m also the founder of several other endeavors in Berlin such as the famous and beautiful Torstraße Festival, (8-10 June in Berlin Mitte).
When was re:publica founded?
We started in 2007 as a conference for the German-speaking blogosphere and it really had an evolution over the last eleven editions. Now there’s a big focus on digital society and it’s a huge crowd with more than ten-thousand people showing up.
Who are your founders?
What inspired you to set up re:publica?
First of all, there was no large event for German-speaking bloggers – it was a gap between what happens in this blogosphere as there was no gathering for people to come together. We were very surprised that more than 700 people came to the first show and it was really clear from the first minute that we had to do it again!
There are thousands of events in Berlin; tell us about your competition and why you believe you are better?
I think there is no competition because we are very unique and that’s always a problem when people are asking me ‘okay, how can I compare it with another event’ and you can only say there is nothing like this because the approach and focus is so wide, we have people from sport backgrounds, education, health, so not focusing on one single target group. Also, we have very big companies working with us, we have public administration ministries, we have a lot of start up’s, civil society organisations, so this is a unique mix and we are focusing on getting everybody who wants to come to have a niche but they all have to follow our code of conduct which includes, for example, gender equality, inclusion, and a lot of other progressive approaches.
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs starting out in Berlin?
That’s a tough question because I think the Berlin that I knew when I arrived 15 years ago is now non-existent. With that said, I would say give yourself the time you need to explore what you’re really burning for and passionate about, and do not think so much about money issues. Today I would say there’s a new struggle with housing prices, you have to take a closer look at how to survive in this city but anyhow it’s still possible to find your niche, and maybe what happened 15 years ago in the center of the city is now more on the outskirts of the city center.
I’m keen to explore those parts of the city that are not hotspots, but where a lot of people are doing their work, where you can maybe get cheaper offices, and I say if you want to start something new that is really creative and sustainable, do not go to these start up manufacturers like WeWork because it is from my perspective the opposite of creativity. If you want to do something creative here, you have to start with a niche.
Berlin is packed with many interesting places, what’s your favorite spot in the neighborhood?
I love Chessboxing which is a nice sport invented here in Berlin, made from chess and boxing, where players repeatedly play a few minutes of chess and a few minutes of boxing, so a very interesting type of lifestyle. Their training location is in Gormannstraße.
re:publica explores where the digital era is heading. Where do you see Berlin in 5 years’ time?
There will be a new airport, there will be a new city castle, there’ll still be a progressive and local government and I think it will be very crowded in the center, you will see a lot of new skyscrapers in Alexanderplatz, people from all over the world will still be attracted by the city. Berlin will be wealthier than today – we will see more developments in the outskirts.
From an international perspective I hope that the digital ecosystem will develop further, not only focusing on the start up approach because I think there’s a huge gap in the opportunities for starting businesses which are not only focusing on a particular ideology or Silicon Valley ideas of growth, I wish for a shift towards more social development, social entrepreneurship and sustainable business models in the digital field.
Could you name a single group/individual or project that has influenced your time as a founder in Berlin?
The open source movement, the approaches to have a free and open digital infrastructure – because I still believe that man should control machines and not the other way around. If you have a transparent and clear structure on how technology has developed, for example, if you’re following free open source software, then there’s at least the opportunity to see how tech is working instead of a big black box like big companies we all know are using in our day. So this is still an inspiration that people are developing technology for society and not for profit.
We started up our own infrastructure and had a physical store for material goods starting in 2003 called newthinking store. It was like a co-working space years before someone invented this word, so people came together every day talking about digital things, creativity, technology, art and around this there developed a huge ecosystem which was kind of a pre re:publica foundation. So, I think the inspiration came a lot from people who also wanted to gather around progressive digital content.
Can you name one pivotal moment from your time doing business here?
A moment when I woke up and the pressure of money issues had disappeared. As an entrepreneur, you always struggle with how you can pay your employees, your rent, fulfill the requests of customers – and you take it very personally. After a few years dealing with this, I simply woke up and I could separate these money related issues from my personal happiness.
Has Berlin’s informal nature been a positive aspect of your time here in the city?
I think Berlin is the only German-speaking city where today there are still so many niches and foreseeable developments that you can act in a more hidden way compared to other cities, where every technology or artistic development is directly displayed. This is because there’s not so much development here in Berlin. You have all these niches and areas you may never go to if you lived here for 10 years but they’re existing and that’s totally different to if you live in Hamburg or Munich. After a few years, you will know every part of the cities’ development.
What’s your fuel as a busy entrepreneur, Coffee, Tea or Club Mate?
Good question, Earl Grey Tea.
Photo: Priscilla Tenggara