Rocket Science: Michael Metcalf
On Europe’s startup culture, his favorite German words, and the Iowa State Fair.
Michael is a startup founder based in Berlin by way of Yahoo, Salesforce, and BCG Digital Ventures. He is currently working on an app called Storied.ai that helps families record oral histories remotely.
What is your favorite wall decoration in your home?
It’s behind me right now actually. It’s wallpaper from abandoned Soviet barracks. After the Cold War ended, hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers pulled out of East Berlin and went home. Hundreds of military buildings were abandoned around Berlin, and many still are.
On the weekends, I cycle 20+ miles out to these abandoned barracks and wander around taking photos of the old Soviet murals or the more recent graffiti. But there’s also stuff that’s just falling off the walls, like the old wallpaper. This is a depiction of an old satellite that appears to be heading to the sun. It makes no sense, but it’s amazing that this was left to decay for almost 20 years. On the back, it’s lined with old Soviet newspapers.
I thought it was worth preserving, so I brought it home and framed it. I’m glad I did, since on a recent visit to the same building I discovered that it’s been stripped clean as they prepare to turn it into condos.
What’s become your favorite German word or phrase?
Probably the most relevant right now is “hamsterkauf”, which literally means “hamster buying.” Hamsters like to fill their cheeks with stuff and hoard it. And so hoarding is like hamster buying, basically. People going crazy at stores and buying all the toilet paper — that kind of thing. Though I think there’s only scant evidence that real hamsters hoard toilet paper, so it’s a bit unfair to them.
There’s a great sign (pictured below) from the grocery store toilet paper aisle that mentions “hamster.” Full translation:
This is Karl.
Karl shops normally.
Karl does not panic and also thinks of his fellow human beings.
Don’t be a hamster.
Be like Karl.
Also, I was thinking about this the other day, I was here three years before I recognized the word for “allowed.” I knew the word “verboten.” I mean everyone knows it’s “forbidden” because everything’s forbidden in Germany, right?
But then I saw a sign that said “erlaubt” and looked it up on Google Translate and I’m like, “Allowed. Oh wow, I’ve never even seen that on a sign before.”
You’ve worked with a lot of startups over the years. What’s a common trap you see them fall into?
I moved to Berlin for a role with BCG Digital Ventures because they wanted a product manager to build the team who had experience ranging from startups to larger international companies.
When you’re a Silicon Valley company and you’re going international, Germany is usually not the second market you’re going to attack. You’re going to anglophone markets, bigger markets, Canada … there’s a whole bunch of places to go before Germany unless you have a specific reason.
As a result, Germany has been somewhat underserved by new tech. Startups we take for granted in the U.S. didn’t get here very quickly. That left an opening for a lot of smart German people to “fast follow” or clone the more successful startup ideas from the U.S. and localize them to the German-speaking market.
Back in 2010, Groupon acquired its German clone, making the founders a fortune and arguably incentivizing others to pursue quick turnarounds aimed at exiting to well-funded Silicon Valley giants. Since then, there have been countless other local equivalents of Zappos, Uber, Bird, etc., some more successful than others.
Because of that fast follow model, some startups here don’t invest in core technology and engineering. Entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck rather than to scale globally or change the world don’t push software innovation. So the focus on localizing business models tends to undervalue engineering-led innovation.
It’s also worth noting that the venture capital market in Europe is much younger than in the U.S. The pockets aren’t as deep, so young tech companies don’t have the resources to plan for global domination.
Berlin startups don’t often give equity to employees, and people don’t expect equity the same way that tech workers do in the Valley. Some of these companies are smaller and more sustainable, but they may not have quite the same incentive, or funding, to dream too far into the future.
What’s your hot take on remote work post-COVID?
I really wrestle with this because of what I learned when I worked at Yahoo. I had a team in Taiwan doing front-end engineering, a designer in Seattle, and another team in India doing the platform. There were some advantages, but in general, the time zones and language challenges were brutal.
If you’re in the innovation phase of tech, I think it’s still preferable to sit together and just talk to people about what they’re working on. You overhear conversations, add to ideas, and solve problems in real-time without a meeting.
While I believe that there are great workers who can be productive working remotely, I still fundamentally believe that those side conversations can sometimes either help you move along faster or help you put the brakes on something that’s not going the right direction.
There are a lot of good reasons that remote work should work and could be better for the world, and I hope it works in some capacity. But, in high-innovation companies and startups, it feels like you’re probably going to be more efficient when you’re co-located.
What was the best thing about growing up in Iowa?
Despite some recent setbacks, Iowans take their place in the political process seriously. And the access to candidates is amazing… albeit a bit unfair to other states. I was visiting home back in 2007 and shook hands with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton on the same day. But that level of interaction with locals can make a difference: Obama won the Iowa caucus that year in a big upset.
But there’s also immense humility built into Iowans. I think you have to be humble and self-effacing when you grow up thinking about sweet corn and life-sized butter cow sculptures. It’s nice being from a state that prizes education, family, and open-mindedness, and though we may be the center of the political universe once every 4 years, we also know that it’s temporary. Nothing says it better than the Raygun t-shirt “Iowa: Wave the next time you fly over.”
Of course, as someone who grew up in Des Moines, I may be proudest of the fact that we are apparently the only city in America that requires Halloween trick or treaters to tell jokes before they get candy. This remains one of the great mysteries, as well as being a source of pride and bewilderment. It was until I was in my mid-twenties, living in DC when I found out that this wasn’t standard practice everywhere in the U.S. It rocked me to the core.
Is there a German TV show you’re fascinated by?
I have kids, I’m really interested in history, and I love stop-motion animation. And so, enter Sandman.
Sandman is an old stop-motion animation series that started in the ’50s in the German Democratic Republic. It’s on 10 minutes before 7pm every night on the local kids’ network, and it’s been playing since the Berlin Wall was up. Sandman just goes about his day, getting into innocent adventures. It’s usually not super political, but you can also tell it’s not the country we live in now.
It’s a piece of the country’s history that sort of became part of our family history, especially when the kids were younger. I could race home and have a goal of getting the kids ready for bed before the Sandman spread his sand for all the kids to be sleepy. So, I will always love Sandman. He has a famous bench he sits on, and we just visited it last week.