Finding company when you’re a freelancer

Freelancers and entrepreneurs tired of working in their pyjamas or nursing a cold cappuccino are coming together in communal offices. David Sharp reports on the hot trend among Germany's self-employed.

Finding company when you're a freelancer
Photo: DPA

On the second floor of a renovated factory in Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg district, an eclectic bunch of freelancers and entrepreneurs hunch over laptops in a peculiar hybrid of a traditional office, a home workspace and a coffee shop.

A row of alphabetized pigeon holes serve as mailboxes for the “office” workers. People mill around the small kitchen area chatting and brewing coffee. Groups of young professionals, collaborating on shared projects, gather around desks pushed together like a flotilla of pontoons, while lone-wolf freelancers tap away on their laptops at separate work stations.

The space gently hums with a laid-back, convivial hubbub of activity. Welcome to a new way of working in Germany. Welcome to the Betahaus.

Everyone she passes greets Madeleine von Mohl with a cheery, “Hallo!” The genial thirty-something, from a small town northeast of Hamburg, seems to know each one of the 150 people who rent desks at the Betahaus.

Von Mohl is one of six like-minded entrepreneurs who co-founded the pioneering venture in April 2009, the first of its kind in the German capital. But now such “co-working spaces” are popping up all over the country, from Berlin to Stuttgart, Munich to Cologne and beyond. Von Mohl hit upon the idea when she wanted to find a better environment for herself and her friends to work and collaborate.

“Five or ten years ago, the most freedom anyone could have was to work at home. It was the ideal scenario. Everybody wanted to have a home office,” von Mohl said.

Not anymore. These days, a growing tribe of self-employed laptop nomads are looking to get out of the house and back into the world at large.

Both telecommuting professionals and footloose freelancers are discovering that working alone at home, in a lonely office, or in a coffee shop isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are often too many distractions, too much noise; and working in isolation can cause motivation to dip.

No more napping

People find they become less effective, less productive in such working environments. They yearn for the social interaction, professionalism and synergy found at a traditional office, albeit one with a modern, maverick spin.

“We think we combine the positive sides of a traditional company – you have colleagues you can say, ‘Good morning’ to, every day – with an infrastructure that works,” von Mohl said. “And we’re open to all: we don’t say to specific people, ‘You’re not allowed to enter.’”

Co-working spaces are providing a 21st century techie twist on the old idea of shared artists’ studios. It’s cheaper than leasing traditional office space. And it rescues people who might otherwise sit in their pyjamas at home all day or find themselves in cafés nursing a stone-cold latte macchiato.

“Having a consistent, reliable place to go to work is good for keeping your head straight,” says Stefan Müller, 31, a freelance software developer from Frankurt. “It helps me separate home from work and I find I can focus better here.”

Stefan rents a “flex-desk” at Betahaus at a monthly rate, which allows him to work at any available desk in the building.

Depending on their needs, other people rent fixed desks or team desks. The fourth floor houses a new area dedicated to nascent firms. Betahaus runs a competition called “Betapitch,” which invites aspiring start-ups to put forward their business proposals. The winning pitch receives six months’ free office space in the Betahaus.

Like most co-working spaces, Betahaus offers everything you’d find in a traditional office – internet, printers, lockers, the use of meeting rooms – and a few unconventional extras. A hairdresser will be on site every Friday for those needing a quick trim ahead of a weekend of Berlin partying or for that crucial business meeting. And a Hong Kong tailor will sometimes swing by to measure up fashion-conscious Betahausers for bespoke suits.

Every Thursday morning, in the ground floor café which doubles as a meeting place and foyer for the Betahaus, von Mohl hosts the “Beta breakfast,” where members gather to shoot the breeze away from their desks over a spot of Frühstuck. An informal presentation provides the weekly entertainment and offers an opportunity to network and share ideas.

In the summer of 2010, Betahaus opened its second branch in Hamburg’s hip Schanzenviertel district. A third space will open its doors to Cologne’s transient workforce on May 1 this year. But the expansion plans don’t end in Germany.

Betahaus is renovating a house in Lisbon (where von Mohl studied at university and met fellow co-founder Christoph Fahle) that will serve as new premises. A suitable location in Barcelona is also being sought. Eastern Europe is next, with Bucharest already pencilled in.

“We sometimes think we’re the winner from the economic crisis,” von Mohl said.

Diff’rent strokes

A different kind of co-working space in Berlin is Wostel, located on the cutting-edge of Neukölln’s burgeoning creative scene. The ambitions of founders Marie Jacobi, a designer, and Chuente Noufena, a graduate in business management, are more local than Betahaus’ Europe-wide franchise.

“It’s Neukölln. It’s hot right now. We’re in the middle of these changes here,” Jacobi said. “It was important for us to be on street-level. We want to be connected to the life on the street: otherwise you’re just connected to the internet.”

Their philosophy is closer to the spirit of the original movement started by computer programmer Brad Neuberg in San Francisco in 2005, whereby creating a community of co-workers with shared values was more important than profit.

“We wanted people to have a special place to work; not like the other places which are a little Ikea,” Noufena said.

Unlike the ramshackle corporate interior of Betahaus, Wostel has the elegant ambiance of a 1960s classroom from the TV show Mad Men. It contains a hotchpotch of mismatching desks and chairs and retro knick knacks in classic Berlin style and plays host to a changing cast of itinerant coworkers.

The dimly-lit “red room” at the back of the Wostel – with blood-soaked décor straight out of a David Lynch movie – has proven popular with freelance writers who need a quiet space to concentrate.

“It might not last,” Jacobi said. “Maybe people will want to work alone again? Return home!”

Do you have any other German workplace tips? Add them to the comments section below.

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What we know so far about Berlin’s follow-up to the €9 ticket

After weeks of debate, Berlin has settled on a new budget ticket to replace the €9 ticket for a limited time. Here's what know about the travel deal so far.

What we know so far about Berlin's follow-up to the €9 ticket

So Berlin’s getting a new €9 ticket? Cool!

Kind of. Last Thursday, the Berlin Senate agreed to implement a €29 monthly ticket from October 1st until December 31st this year. 

It’s designed to bridge the gap between the end of the €9 ticket deal and the introduction of a new national transport deal that’s due to come into force by January 2023.

The Senate still hasn’t fleshed out the details in a written decision yet, so some aspects of the ticket aren’t clear, but we do know a few things about how it’ll work. For €29 a month, people can get unlimited travel on all modes of public transport in Berlin transport zones A and B. That means buses, trains and trams are all covered – but things like taxis aren’t. 

Wait – just zones A and B. Why’s that?

One of the sticking points in planning the new ticket was the fact that neighbouring state Brandenburg was reluctant to support the idea. Franziska Giffey (SPD), the governing mayor of Berlin, had annoyed her neighbours and surprised her own coalition partners by suddenly pitching the idea at the end of August – shortly before the €9 ticket was due to expire.

At the time, the disgruntled Brandenburg state premier Dietmar Woidke (SPD) complained about the lack of advance notice for a proper debate. He had previously ruled out a successor to the €9 ticket in the state. Meanwhile, the CDU – who are part of the governing coalition in Brandenburg – slammed the idea for a new cheap ticket as a “waste of money” and an attempt to “buy votes” for the SPD.

The blockade meant that plans for a Berlin-Brandenburg ticket run by transport operator VBB had to be scrapped, and the monthly ticket has instead been restricted to the two transport zones solely operated by Berlin’s BVG. Since zone C stretches into Brandenburg, Berlin couldn’t include this zone in the ticket unilaterally. 

Berlin transport zones explained

Source: S-Bahn Berlin

The good news is that zones A and B cover everything within the city’s borders, taking you as far as Spandau in the west and Grunau in the southeast. So unless you plan regular trips out to the Brandenburg, you should be fine.

However, keep in mind that the Berlin-Brandenburg BER airport is in zone C, so you’ll need an ‘add-on’ ticket to travel to and from there. It’s also not great for the many people who live in Potsdam in Brandenburg and commute into Berlin regularly. 

READ ALSO: Berlin gets green light to launch €29 transport ticket

How can people get hold of it? 

Unlike the €9 ticket, you won’t be able to buy it at stations on a monthly basis. Instead, the €29 ticket is only for people who take out a monthly ‘Abo’ (subscription) for zones A and B. If you’ve already got a monthly subscription, the lower price will be deducted automatically, while yearly Abo-holders will likely get a refund. 

You can take out a monthly subscription on the BVG website here – though, at the time of writing, the price of the ticket hadn’t been updated yet. According to Giffey, people will be able to terminate their subscription at the end of December without facing a penalty. 

What types of ‘Abos’ are eligible for the deal? 

According to Berlin transport operator BVG, people with the following subscriptions are set to benefit from the reduced price from October to December: 

  • VBB-Umweltkarten with monthly and annual direct debit
  • 10 o’clock tickets with monthly and yearly direct debit
  • VBB-Firmentickets with monthly and yearly direct debit 
  • Trainee subscriptions with monthly direct debit

People who already have reduced-price subscriptions, such as over-65s and benefits claimants, aren’t set to see any further reductions. That’s because many of these subscriptions already work out at under €29 per month for zones A and B. 

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train in Berlin

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train at Zoologischer Garten. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Can students with a Semesterticket get it as well?

That’s one of the things that still needs to be clarified. It’s possible that universities will choose to refund part of the Semesterticket price like they did with the €9 ticket. The Local has contacted BVG for more information. 

Can I take my bike/dog/significant other along for the ride? 

Once again, this doesn’t appear to have been ironed out yet – but we can assume that the usual rules of your monthly or yearly subscription will apply. So, as with the €9 ticket, if your bike is included in your subscription, you can continue to take it with you. If not, you’ll probably have to pay for a bike ticket.

In most cases, monthly BVG subscriptions allow you to take one dog with you for free, and also bring one adult and up to three children (under 14) with you on the train on evenings and weekends. These rules are likely to stay the same, but we’ll update you as soon as we know more. 

How much is this all going to cost?

According to regional radio station RBB24, around €105 million is set to be put aside in order to subsidise the temporary ticket. However, this still needs to be formalised in a supplementary budget and given the green light in the Senate. 

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

OK. And what happens after the €29 ticket?

That’s the million – or, rather, billion – euro question right now. In its latest package of inflation relief measures, the federal government said it would be making €1.5 billion available for a follow-up to the €9 ticket.

The ticket is set to be introduced by January 2023 and will rely on Germany’s 16 states matching or exceeding the federal government’s €1.5 billion cash injection. So far, it looks set to be a monthly ticket that can be used on public transport nationally, with the price set somewhere between €49 and €69.

However, the Greens continue to push for a two-tier model that would give passengers the option of buying either a regional or national ticket. Under their proposals, the regional tickets would cost €29 and the national tickets would cost €69.