When Christian Vollmann despairs at world events, he sits down in front of his laptop screen and reads from his website. It tells him that last week in a neighborhood in Berlin, Laura wanted to borrow a sanding machine, Pia was looking for a partner to play badminton and Silke wanted someone to help her son with his computer. It also said that a local residents’ traffic calming initiative was inviting neighbors for coffee at 4:30 pm. Having read all this, Mr. Vollmann feels better about the world.
Just under two years ago, he founded Nebenan.de, a network for neighbors, a mashup of Ebay’s classified ads and Facebook, only more personal. Generally, digital solutions serve to make human contact superfluous. Mr. Vollmann’s algorithms are designed to get people to say hello to each other on the street again.
Mr. Vollmann is a well-known face in the Berlin start-up community. He was one of the first employees of the Samwer Brothers, who set up the now-listed Rocket Internet incubator, founded the video platform Myvideo, helped make the dating service E-Darling a success and has also been a big investor in start-ups himself. The likes of Klaus Hommels, the founder and boss of Lakestar and one of Europe’s leading business angels, and the Hubert Burda Media Holding company have trusted him with their money.
So far, Nebenan.de has collected a total of €5.5 million, or $5.8 million, in venture capital. That’s a lot when one thinks that to date – with the exception of the business platform Xing – no social network in Germany has succeeded in building up sufficient relevance to make a sustained profit. It isn’t much, however, compared to the $200 million in risk capital secured by Nextdoor, the U.S. start-up Nebenan.de was modeled on and which is currently in the process of trying to gain a foothold in Europe.
“We will see more services in the future that connect the digital and the real sphere with one another.”
The vision that Mr. Vollmann sold his investors goes like this. Society is isolated and disconnected. These days, even people in rural communities are watching Netflix and ordering from Amazon, instead of gossiping about their neighbors while out shopping. In cities like Berlin, singles are living alone in more than 50 percent of all apartments. The pedestrian zones are becoming deserted.
With Nebenan.de, people are supposed to loan each other lawnmowers again and go for a beer together. The young are supposed to go shopping for the elderly, retirees baby-sit and feed the cat. It is easier to ring a stranger’s doorbell when you know what the interests are of the person behind it, says Mr. Vollmann. The platform is supposed to be available for local political initiatives and communication between the residents and the authorities.
For Caja Thimm, professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Bonn, Nebenan.de serves a growing social need. “We will see more services in the future that connect the digital and the real sphere with one another,” she says. Nebenan.de isn’t earning real money yet. At some point, local merchants, handymen, utility and cable services will pay to be allowed to have attention drawn to them in selected streets. “The last mile is the holy grail in marketing,” says Mr. Vollmann.
He wasn’t always doing such nice things. For a while, he was responsible for online advertising at Jamba. The second Samwer brothers’ company sold ring tones via text messaging, most of them to young people, many of whom had no idea at all how much they cost. At the time, an aunt asked Mr. Vollmann: “Aren’t you the ones ripping off teenagers?”
Mr. Vollmann says they never even thought about things like that back then. They just worked like crazy. “It was always about doing something big.” It was the start of the millennium, he had just come from college. Today he has three children and is earning enough to be able to be home before eight in the evening. Now he wanted to do something that had meaning.
Nebenan.de could also have become a non-profit project. His co-managing director, Till Behnke, talked Mr. Vollmann out of that. Mr. Behnke had just founded the donation platform Betterplace. He realized that “when you’re dependent on donations, it’s difficult to get big.” Together they are Good Hood GmbH, which operates Nebenan.de.
Mr. Vollmann is more often the stricter of the two, says Mr. Behnke. Among his favorite subjects are data protection and general business terms and conditions. He can talk about them for hours. Not because he can then sleep better but because he believes his network only has a chance when it presents itself as the friendly alternative to the U.S. data-collecting giants such as Facebook and Amazon.
Only actual neighbors are supposed to read the messages on Nebenan.de. That is why new members must verify themselves with an official document or wait for a postcard with the access codes on it. Of course, Mr. Vollmann also wants to sell the access to his members. But for that to happen, it first has to grow. According to the site’s own information, the network has opened up over 2,600 active neighborhoods in 120 German cities. They have an average of 150 users each.
The marketing effort is limited. Instead of advertising, Nebenan.de is schooling its members. So-called super neighbors are encouraged to found groups that meet regularly and distribute flyers in mailboxes. These prompts have been increasing lately, one reason is because the U.S. rival, Nextdoor, is maneuvering its way into Europe. The Americans have already bought a local network in Great Britain and want to build one up in Germany. If Mr. Vollmann wants to take advantage of his head start, he needs to convince his investors to now focus on expansion.
Then it will be seen whether doing something good and making something big can go hand in hand.
Miriam Schröder is based in Berlin and covers the city’s start-up scene. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org