“Bits & Pretzels” nourishes lively Munich startup scene

For outsiders, the Bits & Pretzels festival in Munich must look like one big cliche – after all, it culminates in thousands of people, most dressed in traditional Bavarian clothes, chatting over huge glasses of beer and listening to traditional Bavarian music. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Listen in to the conversations, and you’ll overhear names such as Richard Branson and Kevin Spacey; look at the signage and you’ll see sponsors like Rakuten, Google and Audi – all of which will confirm that you are in fact at one of Europe’s most exciting festivals for tech-related startups.

Created in 2014 by entrepreneurs Andreas Bruckschlögl, Bernd Storm van’s Gravesande and Felix Haas as a platform for startup founders in Munich, Bits & Pretzels reached a new peak this year with some very high profile speakers (including the two mentioned above) and a total of more than 5,000 visitors.

Rakuten proudly sponsored this record-breaking meetup, and Rakuten.Today was lucky enough to catch up with Andi, Bernd and Felix to get their takes on the European startup scene, taking risks and growing up:

Bits and Pretzels and the Munich startup scene
Bits & Pretzels is held each autumn in Munich to coincide with Oktoberfest.

How is the European startup mentality different to the Silicon Valley mentality?

Felix: Sadly, many Europeans still tend to get intimidated by potential risks or problems, and don’t dare to establish their own company or make the step into self-employment. It’s very different to the mindset in Silicon Valley, where people are more willing to take risks and accept that they might fail. This is where we (in Europe) can and should really take a leaf out of the Silicon Valley book. After all, one can learn from mistakes. The same goes for openness towards new technologies.

That said, Europe’s startup scene doesn’t need to hide its light under a bushel – on the contrary, we’ve seen a vast number of innovative companies founded here grow into respectable businesses in the last couple of years. Germany’s strong economy is the perfect hotbed for startups, with many connections to established industries. And the growth of the scene continues – and not just in Berlin.

Bits and Pretzels and the Munich startup scene, Day 3, Oktoberfest, 27 September 2016. Photo: Andreas Gebert
Visitors to Bits & Pretzels relax after hard day of networking. Photo: Andreas Gebert

Usually startup scenes develop in Europe’s capitals. But in Germany, we see startups in Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Frankfurt and many more cities. Why is that?

Felix: Berlin is still the place to be for startups, and it’s become a true magnet for founders and digital professionals. The city willingly accepts its new role and supports the scene wherever it can. Other benefits include low living costs, many great universities with pools of potential employees and a huge existing network of founders.

But, Germany is a very versatile country with many economically strong regions, so other hot spots are naturally forming. One perfect example is Munich. Home to many leading high-tech, industrial and DAX companies, Munich has grown into southern Germany’s biggest startup hub. That’s why it’s not a coincidence that Bits & Pretzels is held here every year.

Is Munich underestimated as a startup capital?

Bernd: For sure. The Munich startup scene is seriously underestimated, but the Bavarian capital is catching up. Munich has a long tradition with technology companies and many of those established companies are investing in the startup scene. That’s a huge advantage, and many founders benefit from this commitment to shape the future. We’ve also seen many star investors and well-known founders finding their way to Munich, and we try to play our part in bringing together as many of them as possible to form synergies and strengthen the region in a unique way.

Bits and Pretzels and the Munich startup scene - Day Two - Image ©Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media.
Just some of the 5,000 visitors to attend Bits & Pretzels 2016. Image ©Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media.

Bits & Pretzels has come a long way in a short time, evolving from a Bavarian-style breakfast to one of Europe’s most exciting startup events. Have you reached your peak or is this just the beginning?

Andi: If somebody had told us two years ago that we would have Richard Branson and Kevin Spacey on our stage, we wouldn’t have believed it. Looking back on last year’s Bits & Pretzels, we are truly proud, because it was the result of many hours of work and dedication from a great team, and also a bit of luck. But our vision is and always has been to create the most awesome founders festival in the world. 2016 was a huge step for us, but 2017 is going to be even bigger. We’re already in the middle of preparations and have many exciting people on our speaker list and new concepts for even more effective networking in the pipeline.

Kevin Spacey said in his keynote that it’s sometimes worth taking a risk, and Richard Branson illustrated that it can be a lot of fun. You’ve definitely taken many risks, not only as entrepreneurs, but as founders of Bits & Pretzels. Was it worth it?

Andi: All three of us are founders ourselves, and that gave us the prefect foundation to start this festival. We knew what young entrepreneurs were interested in, what they needed and who to connect them to. Two years ago there was no real founders’ forum in Munich, and that gave us the idea to create our own place for the Bavarian scene. But from the beginning our plans were ambitious – we didn’t want to be just another digital expo – so we rented a 1,000-seat venue for our very first event. That was definitely a risk and, believe me, it cost us many sleepless nights. But, when tickets went on sale, we sold 1,700 in no time and even had to shut down the booking system. Since then we’ve always tried to make the event better, bigger and more relevant – and tried to improve every single part of it without losing sight of our core idea and our unique approach. So it’s really a new risk, a new project and a new chance every year – but I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world!

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