Canadian freelancer Rachel in Munich


Getting started in Munich as a person coming from abroad may not be easy. As one who did it with a lot of help from her friends and some advices for everybody who wants to make this step too, we asked the Freelance User Experience / Interaction Designer Rachel Ilan Simpson about her first steps in Munich and her opinion with Munich as a city for startups.

munichFWD: Rachel, what brought you here to Munich?

During my University studies, I spent a few months studying on exchange in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a small town near Stuttgart with an excellent Design University. That was my first experience living in Germany, and I learned a lot about Interaction Design which I felt would have been difficult to learn at my own University in Vancouver. After completing my Bachelor Degree at home in Canada and working for a short period as an Intern at a wonderful Vancouver Agency, I came back to Munich for an opportunity to work with a Design Agency here. Afterward this experience, I felt like my time in Europe was just beginning, so I decided to stay and pursue a career as a Freelancer. I’ve been here for about a year and a half now.

munichFWD: Why Munich? What is so special about this city for you?

Munich has the comfort and livability of a small town, but with the connections, industry and culture of a major European city. The accessibility that I came to expect in Vancouver is mirrored here – Munich has great public transport and is a great city for cyclists (so I’ve been told. I’m finally buying a bike here this summer.) It’s close to the mountains (great fun in the winter,) has the Isar culture in the summer, and has a more relaxed feel than major US cities. Munich has a reputation for being quite conservative, and while sometimes it can be, there are also some very impressive pockets of geeks and creatives. We just held the first Make Munich this year, and the response was astounding.

munichFWD: What were the most difficult things to manage when you get here?

Language and Bureaucracy.

Language is a major challenge because while most people here speak English exceptionally well, German is still the first language. Small talk at the office is conducted in German, as is chatter at parties, and you’ll need it for just generally getting around on a day to day basis. While handling the simple task in German is not too challenging for most, German is a very difficult language to master and communicate in, especially when you can so easily slip back into English with the help of your brilliant bilingual German friends. This is something I’m still working on.

On top of the language, I’m convinced that I’ll never completely get the hang of German Bureaucracy (with a capital B.) This stands out to me as being a key reason why anyone would be nervous about coming to Germany. While it was quite easy to get my Youth Work/ Travel Visa from the German Consulate in Canada for a short term period of stay, choosing to apply for a Freelance Visa for a longer term here was a completely different experience. There was a 3 month wait for my appointment with the person evaluating the Visa, for which one must write an extensive business plan in German, prepare a number of official documents and of course, purchase several different kinds of insurance. It’s difficult to get clear information on the requirements from anyone, and of course all communication around this process happens in particularly verbose German. (Without my German boyfriend helping my through this process, it would have been nearly impossible.) The positive side of this experience was that since translating my business plan was far beyond my capabilities, we asked for help from German friends via Facebook. A 30 page document was translated in about a week by close friends and people who barely knew me. That was pretty amazing and I’m still really thankful.

munichFWD: What’s the difference between working in Munich and working in Canada?

The main reason I was initially interested in working in Germany is specific to my industry. I find there is a high level of respect for the value of  excellent Design. Companies here are very willing to invest in a complete Design process and there are a wide variety of tech oriented companies that need the ongoing support of Interaction Designers. It’s a pleasure to work with clients who have a strong understanding of the process and trust the value of what they’re investing in, whether they are large scale companies or small and innovative startups. That said, Munich is a bit behind the curve of innovation one would see in San Francisco, for example. That’s something we’re be pushing for as we build up the community here.

One other big difference which applies to all auslander working here and that should not go unmentioned is the amount of  time off you are able to take. There’s a collective investment in leisure time- new employees in Germany can expect around 25 days of vacation per year. (Compared to between 10 and 15 days in North America, this is significant.) As a freelancer, I’m able to work as much or as little as I like, but I do see a difference in terms of stress levels and commitment to a daily schedule in the people around me. (There’s a time for work and a time for play.)

There are of course other logistical differences, in terms of how taxes are done and there’s paying VAT to remember, but that’s very manageable in time (I hope.)

munichFWD: Do you have any advice for freelancers from abroad when they want to come to Munich or already are here?

Learn German, buy some insurance, and make punctual your middle name.

Ok, besides that, living in Germany can be both fantastic and infuriating. I haven’t mentioned the cultural differences yet, but I’m sometimes blown away by things that seem completely rude to me as a Canadian, but push me to realize that I can be a tad indirect and over-polite in keeping with the Canadian cliche. It’s often nice to be living in a country that seems to foster low-ego as a public right, and where saying things as they are is not so shocking. I’m still working on this too:) Anyway, other more experienced and sophisticated people have written a great deal about German culture (and language – check out Mark Twain’s take on the German language next time you’re feeling frustrated.) This is quite a comprehensive list worth reading if you’re interested in moving to Germany:

My other main advice would be to attend some professional events (the IxDA here in Munich has some excellent ones, and Creative Mornings is really worth visiting,) where you might meet some German friends, but will also more likely than not meet some other ex-pats. Friends I’ve made who moved here before me have offered a lot of help and support in figuring everything out.

munichFWD: Do you think Munich has the potential to become a recognizable city for startups and why do you think that?

Yes, I do. There are resources, talent and drive here. The challenges I see are the same that a Freelancer faces when coming to Munich- Language and Bureaucracy. Despite that, there are some cool startups making headway in the city, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of them. I’ve only been here for a short time, but in the past year I’ve seen some dramatic changes in the pace of things. New conferences, events and workshops, co-working spaces, open device labs, and other signs make me excited and curious for what’s coming next.

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