Berlin hype, immature startups and burritos – 10 Questions with Olga Steidl, Yandex’s ex-VP

Charmaine Li 2013-12-12 0

10 Questions is VentureVillage’s new interview column featuring someone from the Berlin tech scene… who’s not originally from Berlin. Why? To get a glimpse of what it’s like to work with startups, tap into what motivates people in the community and shed light on why people move to the German capital. This week, we speak to Olga Steidl about the Berlin bubble, why she likes working at a startup and where to get a good burrito…

Originally from a small town of about 75,000 people next to St Petersburg, Steidl has been working since she was 15. At the ripe age of 26, she became Vice President of Russian search giant Yandex. Now, 28, Steidl has lived in six cities and worked with a number of startups, including Talkbits and EyeEm among others. Her latest gig? The go-to person for marketing and growth for CRM solution Linko in Berlin. 

It’s a typical Berlin wintry afternoon: sombre, grey, wet. In Linko’s newly renovated office, Steidl is clad in an all-black ensemble and wraps herself comfortably into a bright red  chair that matches her nails – and our Officeschuhe…

1) What motivated you to move to Berlin? 

Long story short, there was a small startup that I joined during my studies. At that point, I didn’t know what a startup was… After eight months of working there, I saw – for the first time in my life – the burnout of a startup founder.

So, I switched to another company… and ended up staying there for six years. They became my family. We were creating user interfaces for device manufacturers such as Sony Ericsson and Huawei – the second product was mobile television. The company was split into two parts and user interfaces were sold to Yandex, where I became vice president. It was cool, I was 26 and VP of the biggest internet company in Russia. It was a learning experience – I thought I knew it all back then but now I think back and think, ‘What a stupid girl I was’. I feel like I’m more down to earth now than I was then… Afterwards, I was part of Talkbits, where I was CEO for one and a half years. I stepped out of the company in May.

After that, I was like, ‘NOW, I can finally decide where I want to go’. I had three options: Singapore, San Francisco and Berlin. Berlin became the first choice because of the EyeEm guys, they said, ‘Maybe you want to come over to Berlin to help us out for the summer’. It was such an easy sale because I was thinking, ‘Summer and Berlin? Perfect’.

2) What do you do at Linko? Do you have an official title?

I’m called Growth [laughs]. My official title is Growth Link. I don’t like to be called Chief or Lead or Head because I don’t think it doesn’t really mean anything. My responsibility is growth – so I have to deliver end-users to the app and figure out how to convert them to sales. Sometimes I call myself The Master of Disaster because at SPB Software, I was the noisiest person at the office – there were 120 people and I was the noisiest. Here, I compete with Mikko [founder and CEO of Linko] for that title. They also call me, ‘The Sister Who Knows Everyone’.

3) From EyeEm to Ding Dong, you’ve worked with (or have been linked to) several startups in Berlin – what do you like most about working at a startup?

That you can do a lot and decide by yourself. I don’t like micromanaging people and I don’t like when I’m micromanaged. If you’re in a corporate zone, you can hide yourself easily – you can delegate things, collect results from other people, etc. In a startup, if you want to do something you say, ‘This is my zone, I’m doing that.’ And if you suck, then you suck. You can’t really hide yourself and that’s what I like.

I also talked to Mike Butcher [Editor-at-large of TechCrunch] about startups and said to him, ‘You know we’re all crazy – people who work at startups’. He was like, ‘Yeah, and it’s so nice watching you all’. [Laughs] I just like the crazy people. You meet a person for dinner and you talk about ideas/products – it’s interesting. There’s kind of a bubble though. I mean, there’s a bubble of people who come here for their dreams. They come here because it’s cheap and they can try a lot of things. And they get into the trap of going to too many parties. Too many ideas and not doing much of anything. It’s really important to just start doing something – and not just be like, ‘Theoretically, that would be nice’.

4) What do you like best about living in Berlin?

I love Berlin because it’s so diverse. I would say that when I lived in Austria and Switzerland the downside was that I didn’t like to tell people that I was Russian because they don’t really embrace diversity as much. Here, in Berlin, I’m actually proud that I’m Russian because everyone is from everywhere.

5) What was the hardest thing for you to adjust to in the city?

The first thing you learn when you come to Berlin is that you can go to a club on Sunday at 7am [laughs]. Your mental age drops like 10 years. In Zurich, I felt like I was 60 and in Berlin I feel like I’m 15 – it was really cool but then there’s the hype around of Berlin. I was really like, ‘Oh Berlin! It should be such an amazing city,’ but when I came, I was a bit frustrated.

Frustration came from grownups not really finding a place in Berlin. I know a lot of senior managers who don’t know what to do here… It’s not because they’re not flexible with their choices, but more that companies in Berlin – sometimes – are quite immature. They’re not in the stage when, for example, former Sony guys can come in and scale the company. They’re still in the stage of trying the product – there are a lot of ‘trying companies’ and not as many companies who want to do it non-stop. I think EyeEm and I were a perfect situation because they figured out their product, where they wanted to go and what their next steps were.

Another thing is bureaucracy. German bureaucracy is a pain in the ass… and I’m fluent in the language. It takes much much longer just to settle here.

6) What do you like to do on your downtime?

I like to go to bars with friends. I did a tea project, so we’re trying to figure out how to create a tea machine. On the weekend, I also love to go for brunch, it’s one of my favourite things about Berlin.

7) Do you have any favourite cafes/bookstores/restaurants/etc?

The one thing I really need to find in Berlin is singing classes, I used sing when I was in Zurich, so I’m still on the search for that. Usually, I like to go for drinks at Mein Haus am See right by the office. Also, when you’re stressed, the best thing is going to Maria Bonita and getting a burrito. If you’re stressed, you go there – and then you’re fine.

8) What apps can’t you live without – why?

I use apps for everything. Right now, I’m trying to find new task apps. I use a lot of messengers, I can’t really live without Google Hangouts – even though it’s slower – because it’s available on desktop, Android and iPhone. I can’t live without SoundCloud and I Ding Dong like crazy.

9) You’re really good at connecting people. What are some tips you’d give to people on the shy side or who are not exactly well-versed in the world of networking?

You should really love people. There’s no secret. I’m actually genuinely interested in people – what they do, what they want to achieve and what their background is. The other thing I learned in the last couple of years is that, sometimes, you should be vulnerable. You shouldn’t be like, ‘I’m the best person in the world…’ I have problems, everybody has problems. If you want to share an issue with me, I’ll share one of mine with you. It brings it to a more personal level.

10) What’s a piece of advice you’d give to someone moving to Berlin?

Get a job before you come. For me, it was much easier to get into Berlin because I was at EyeEm. The team just made me feel so welcome in the city. It made it much faster to adapt. The other reason why I say get a job before you come is because then you kind of know what you want to do and you’re more focused – losing focus in Berlin is really easy. The other you thing you need to think about if you’re a foreigner? Your papers.

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Image credits:
bubble – flickr user Jeff Kubina
burrito – flickr user jeffreyw 

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