On living in Berlin

Today Fortune.com ran a post about Spaniards emigrating to Berlin, where I was interviewed among others.

The article features a few personal stories: entrepreneurs taking part in the gold rush, young lads searching for better working conditions, etc. But there’s a lot more than just work life, so here’s my experience with Berlin.

How I ended up in Berlin

I left Barcelona a few months ago, hoping to live as a nomad until I get tired of it. My co-founder, Pedro, joined and we headed first to the Canary Islands, and then to Berlin.

At first I didn’t know what to expect from the city. We booked a hostel and airbnbs, and soon rented rooms in the eastern part of the city.

Time flies: I just realized I’ve been here for almost 5 months! I will move away next month, but I’m sure I’ll be back to this city.

Berlin is an adult playground

Life here has been simple, cheap and enjoyable. I’ve been living in a shared apartment, since it was easier than renting my own place and I got to meet new people. Every day I wake up without an alarm, head to a coffee-shop where we put hard work into 8fit. Sometimes I work out and sometimes I spend the night out.

It feels a lot like a holiday. You’re “away” for everybody back home, and the phone rarely buzzes. Being new to a city is refreshing.

I’m not in the habit of month-long holidays. Traveling this way feels more fulfilling: work becomes your storyline, and life is everything else that happens in the way.

The city, at least in spring and summer, is full of energy. Sometimes it feels like you’re being dragged down the stream by it. I found it easy to meet new people in parks and spätis, and the clubbing scene is friendly and fun.

The startup scene

"That sounds great", you might be thinking, "but I thought you were there for the startup scene". Honestly, no, not at all. I’m here for my project – a very different story.

I love building companies, but working on a project and “networking” are very different things. I really value the time to work on 8fit, and being able to cut all the interruptions.

People often spend too much time meeting other entrepreneurs, beyond the point of diminishing returns. It’s when networking becomes notworking. If you’re lucky, all your business needs is to ship good products, find new customers and make sure nothing breaks. As a small team, you can do all of that from a café.

As an early-stage startup, Berlin has a lot to offer: co-working spaces, great cafés to work from, cheap food and housing, and a vibrant culture. That’s everything I need right now.

Being an ex-pat

Working nomadically has been relatively easy. I still pay my taxes and health insurance in Spain, which covers me here. My companies are US-based. I’ve got everything set up to work online from anywhere.

You can really live here without ever learning a word of German, although learning it will help you experience it more fully. The city is 24-hours, bike-friendly and the public transport is great.

On average, I’d say I spend less than in Barcelona and significantly less than in San Francisco. I eat out practically all the time and hasn’t been a problem.

Spaniards in Berlin

Take a walk down Kreuzberg and you’ll hear a decent amount of Spanish in the way.

It seems like everyone I’ve ever met is moving to Germany. People from Barcelona, Madrid and California are either visiting or staying here, or planning to move soon.

I neither seek nor avoid Spaniards. If somebody’s in town, we’ll meet, but I’ve tried to avoid becoming an “ex-pat” hanging around with all the other foreigners. Every other nationality seems equally interesting.

Nobody likes a closed community of noisy ex-pats, and I think getting involved with locals is an important part of experiencing life in Berlin.

Artists and DJs

When I lived in San Francisco, it seemed like every conversation started with “where do you work at”, as if work was the defining part of your identity.

Not in Berlin. I called it an adult playground before, as I find a lot more people taking time off, trying to set up an art exhibition, or DJing at events, and they take it just as seriously as others take their “grown-up” jobs.

That character extends to the venues, also. Cafés and clubs have their own character: spacious, sometimes delirious and often with lots of outdoors space. Events are intense and playful.

The vibrant and diverse art community adds a lot to the city, much like it turned San Francisco into the city it is today.

Working for others

For those looking for a job, it doesn’t seem very hard to find one once you’re here. English will do in many cases, although German definitely helps.

Skilled jobs at startups and other companies seem to pay well. You might not get as many 0s as in London, but your money will definitely get you more in Berlin.

Cost of living and properties

Berlin used to be incredibly cheap, after being deserted in the nineties. It’s been changing little by little, as artists moved in and then other communities.

Kind of like San Francisco, the huge wave of young immigrants has been driving prices up year by year. You can rent a room for 350€, or sublet a studio for 650€, get a co-working space for 80€/mo, and even buy property for a bargain.

However, it’s quickly changing. Myself, I’d be happy to buy a flat if I found something nice enough.

Closing thoughts

That’s been my experience for the last months here. I’m leaving now, escaping the winter, but I’m sure I’ll be back to this city.

And if you’re also wandering around, you should definitely spend some time here. It might not stay like this forever.

Buying time: How to automate chores

Starting a company means you’ll be wearing a lot of hats: product, marketing, support, design, accounting, agreements, data entry…

At first, it’s easy to handle. There are no customers, and your only focus is on building the product. But as the company goes live, your time is spread thin over too many responsibilities.

Your time is limited, and even if you have co-founders and you avoid distractions, you’ll soon be needing help if you want to focus on what you do best.

Here’s how we got our time back at 8fit:

1. Understand how you’re spending your time

Our team keeps daily reports of “achievements”, which is a simple list where we share our accomplishments for the day:

  • Completed feature X: 2h
  • Optimized Facebook ads: 30m
  • Replied to our users: 2h
  • Fixed horrible bug with upgrades: 1h
  • Updated our accounting: 1h30
  • Create 20 new recipes: 2h
  • Add pictures for recipes: 3h
  • Update our revenue spreadsheets: 1h
  • Cancel credit card: 20m

In this example, there’s a mix of high-value accomplishments and chores. Ideally, we’d want to either automate or outsource the chores.

2. Automate using product design

The first step to free up time is to solve issues before they’re an issue. In other words: use your product and backend to stop chores at the source.

In the example above, we were spending a significant amount of time replying to users. To reduce the load, we are building a feature that’ll serve as a non-human virtual coach fore free users, and we’ll keep human trainers for our paid customers.

Accounting, deploying servers, managing customers… If something is going to be recurring, we invest some time into building a good system that will take care of it. It’s always a good investment.

In the example above, we’d be reducing time replying to our users (2h in a day) with simple product changes. Your product should be efficient by design.

3. Outsource small chores to a virtual assistant

After automating whatever we could, we were still facing a lot of tasks that required a human.

Luckily, there are services like Fancy Hands that offer virtual assistants for a few bucks a month. Give them a task like “cancel my credit card” or “arrange a notary appointment in Berlin”, and they’ll set up everything for you.

That’s 20 more minutes saved on the phone, great for small companies without an office manager. Caveats: they can’t handle any specialized tasks.

4. Outsource projects or responsibilities to freelancers

Freelancers are great for whatever needs a specialist. I love the way ODesk works, where you can easily post ads, interview candidates and hire them without any additional paperwork.

Instead of doing time-intensive things ourselves, we outsourced whatever we could. That way we’re saving money (a freelancer is cheaper than our time) and get access specialists. Instead of putting 4h into a time-intensive task, it becomes a 30 minute review on our side plus 4h for the freelancer.

The first candidate for outsourcing was detecting bugs in new releases. Our QA person costs less than $10 per hour and is able to test the whole application, identify problems and file high-quality bug reports with screenshots and steps to reproduce. That turns 1h fixing a bug into 15 minutes, because we go straight into it, identify it and fix it.

After that, we started outsourcing our accounting, recipe creation, graphic material…

The result of well-oiled processes

Nowadays we are still putting the same effort into the project, without going insane with the workload, but we are getting much more done.

Here’s how a typical day looks like after optimizing our chores:

  • Completed feature X: 2h of our time.
  • Optimized Facebook ads: 30m of our time.
  • Replied to our users: 30m of our time (saving 90 minutes!)
  • Fixed horrible bug with upgrades: 15m (saving 45 minutes thanks to QA!)
  • Updated our accounting: 30m (saving 1h thanks to accountants!)
  • Create 20 new recipes: 30m (saving 1h30 thanks to nutritionists!)
  • Add pictures for recipes: 30m (saving 2h30 thanks to a photographer!)
  • Update our revenue spreadsheets: 15m (saving 45 min!)
  • Cancel credit card: 5m (saving 15 minutes thanks to an assistant!)

That’s a lot of hours saved that we can now dedicate to what we do best: build a great product for our users.

Expanding the team as a last resource

When every other channel is exhausted and you really need top talent, and only then, is when we look for ways to expand the time.

Hiring new employees is costly and a big commitment. We like to keep it as a last resource, to stay lean and keep our expenses as low as possible.

My PRK eye surgery

Since I was a teenager I started having myopia. At first it wasn’t a big deal, I’d just get closer or squint and that’d do.

I got glasses and hated them, because it meant having to carry them everywhere with me. And honestly, it wasn’t the same.

Then I discovered daily contact lenses. That was as good as it got, so far. After I got used to them, I could see perfectly. All I had to do is put them on in the morning and everything was crystal clear again. But that meant carrying around supplies every time I traveled, and keeping some in my pocket in case I slept somewhere else.

Finally at age 27 (a few months ago), I looked into all the pros and cons and decided to take the step. I underwent myopia reduction to eliminate completely my -4.5 prescription.

Here’s how it went.

Initial evaluation: Lasik vs PRK

At first I visited a doctor at Clínica Baviera in Barcelona.

They gave me a few eyedrops and after an hour, Dr. Manuel de la Iglesia told me he had good news and bad news:

  • Because of my thin cornea, I couldn’t use the Lasik procedure, which has a very quick recovery time and is painless.
  • … but I could do PRK, an older procedure, which takes about a month recovery time, but that’s better in the long term.

Apparently, in Lasik they are opening the eye, performing the laser cuts (which are very fast and you can’t even feel) and then closing it right away. That means your healing process is simply healing from a cut.

However, in PRK they are dissolving a layer of your eye to flatten the surface and perform the laser surgery. Your eye essentially loses that layer of cornea and you have to rebuild it.

Because PRK is a very aggressive procedure, you’re practically unable to see the days after and you need to use eyedrops for weeks until you can fully recover.

After reading other people’s PRK experencies, I decided it wasn’t that bad. After all, I’d get clear vision for the years to come!

So I paid 50€ for the initial examination and decided to get the surgery.

The day of the surgery

The room was full with a bunch of people, ready to fix their eyes. The nurse gave each one of us a few numbing eyedrops and a tranquilizing pill. Both of those were really effective. Soon we all felt very sleepy and had no feeling whatsoever in our eyes.

One by one, our names were called and we went in. The procedure didn’t seem to take more than 5 minutes per patient.

Finally, my name was called. Thanks to the Xanax they gave me I felt unusually calm.

I laid down in something like a dentist chair. Above me there were a few scary devices for the doctor and nurses to operate.

First they applied some instruments to my eyes to fix them. This was uncomfortable, but not painful. First they took one eye and applied alcohol and chemicals to it, kept it for a few seconds and then washed it with water. That meant the outer layer was dissolved and gone.

"Now we’ll turn on the laser. Please don’t move", I remember hearing. I had to stare at a red light ahead of me, which would make zillions of microcuts to my eye and carve it to remove my myopia. That lasted for a few seconds and it was completely painless. More water, and the doctor placed a protective contact lens over my corrected eye. They did the same to my other eye.

Immediately after they applied a few eyedrops and I was taken to a dark room, where I should stay with my eyes closed for ten minutes. My eyes felt like I had gotten some sand in them, and I had an urge to scratch them which I had to resist.

After that was over, I went out to each something. My head hurt a little and I felt weaker than usual, but there was nothing major. Light bothered me incredibly and I could barely open my eyes, even with my sunglasses on.

After that I went home with patches on both my eyes, and stayed like that for a full day. Audiobooks and friends kept me company.

Recovery

The first week, as anticipated, was pretty bad. I couldn’t see at all and I couldn’t use my phone or computer at all for the first 3-4 days. I could, however, go for walks when it was dark or meet with people.

My vision was bad in the way that it felt dirty or blurry. It was a different kind of problem than myopia: at some moments I could see very clearly (especially after wetting my eyes, or after sleep), but it would deteriorate quickly.

The biggest problem those days was that my eyes felt very dry. I used wetting eyedrops as frequently as I could, as that helped healing.

The second week I was already able to do email for a couple hours a day, and I recovered much faster in the 3rd and 4th week. After a month, I already felt like that was one of the best decision I’d ever taken!

Closing thoughts

The full surgery cost me 1800€. That’s not cheap, partly because PRK is pricier than Lasik, but also because I chose a clinic that’s been doing the same procedure for over a decade. I figured it was worth it.

I’m no doctor, and you shouldn’t take this as medical advice, but if you’re considering getting eye surgery, I would totally recommend going for an evaluation. My experience with it hasn’t been pain-free, but it’s been totally worth it.

Now, almost half a year into it, I’m still very happy! Being near-sighted seems like something that happened in a past lifetime. The dryness in my eyes is gone completely, I can do exercise, swim and even surf.

That’s great preparation to keep doing the workout programs we’re preparing for 8fit, which you should totally check out if you’re looking to get in shape!