You might take Felix Petersen for a humanities grad student, a graphic designer, or a musician – on first glance not many would pick up on the geek genius who put himself in the top echelon of Internet start-ups.
The West Berliner first got in contact with the internet as a young boy in his parents’ living room in Zehlendorf in 1988. There, with the best kind of DIY mentality and an analogical acoustic coupler, he not only managed to paralyze the familiar phone line, but also discovered the fundamental basis for an undying fascination in regards to technology and its ever changing cycle.
Growing up in the 80s and early 90’s, Petersen witnessed at first hand the very turning point of the anarchic beginnings of the East Berlin Party Scene, which to this day is being celebrated. With an exception of a quick side trip into Sociology and Informatics, Felix continues to craft his own ideas and with the co-founding of his latest company Amen simultaneously is an essential element of the exciting, social changes in regards to the the youthful history of Berlin’s start-up scene – a place in which inside knowledge and technophiliac games shake hands.
Where are you from?
I am from Zehlendorf.
Were you aware of the city’s division as a child? Did it feel like being on an island?
Yes, definitely. When riding your bicycle as a child, eventually you would hit that wall and there was no going further. But I never was truly aware of the extreme idea behind the wall. I guess in a way I thought it to be natural, meaning perhaps other cities being divided by a wall, as well. But the military was very present throughout my childhood. Sometimes going to school, I had to wait for 20 minutes because an American tank was passing.
Back then, I lived quite close to the American Headquarters. Zehlendorf was an American occupation zone and we had a neighbour who was the German correspondent of the Financial Times. His sons were five years older than me and of course always had the coolest toys. They then would pass the toys on to me. PeEx was right around the corner, which was the shop for military members and diplomats. It was such a different time, much less globalized and the Burger Kind at the corner was an absolute highlight. There were products that no one could find anywhere else. But I think for us children it was such a different condition as for those who were present for the wall’s creation and could remember how it was before its existence. I still find it incomprehensible. Just imagine a wall being build now right on Torstraße…
Yes, it’s beyond comprehension indeed…
Another weird thing was that Lufthansa was not allowed to land in Airport Tegel, since Berlin was not an official part of Germany at that point. Only AirFrance, British Airways and PanAm had permission to land there. Berlin was under the allies’ administration. This was one of the reasons why death penalty was still official in 1989. When I would pass by the American Headquarters in Clay-Allee with the bus line 10, I could look over the wall and see the gallows.
Yes, it truly was a different time. There were also no German armed forces in West-Berlin, which was the reason why my father wanted to come here. He didn’t want to join the service.
Where are your parents originally from?
My father is from Flensburg and my mother from Berlin.
Can you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Yes, I was 14 and realized its great meaning in regards to global politics. I sometimes wish I had a time-machine so I could go a Saturday evening to the 1988 Prenzlauer Berg and get beautifully drunk at one of those corner bars on Eberswalderstraße. That would be amazing!
I want to come, too!
Back then, I thought how boring the East must have been, but now I think about how exciting it would be. I would love to check out the stasi-infested hotel bars and go to the Café Moskau and get drunk with a Bulgarian or Russian Diplomat. It’s just a bizarre thought to travel with the S-Bahn to a different country.
True. Very often now you fly around the world and it doesn’t even turn out that exotic…
I really should have used it more. But I was still so young. At the night of the fall, I stood on top of the wall by Brandburger Tor and took pictures with my small camera, which are on Flickr. Even though lots of people took photographs, there only a few original digital photographies left. I then jumped to the east side with my friends and walked for so long through it until the people’s police picked us up and brought us back. It was a crazy night.
But it probably took a long time for something cool to start in those parts, right?
Yes, at the beginning we went there with the family. But in a tourist kind of way. Then it was boring for a few years. I went to school in Chicago in 1992 and when I came back, so many things had changed. Before we used to go UFO and Dschungel and then since 1994 all these East-clubs started up: E-Werk, Globus, etc.. Until 1997 I was almost every night in the East.
When did you move to the East?
That took some time. I first lived in Moabit, Schöneberg, and Charlottenburg. Then I moved to the East in 2004.
And now you live right in the middle. How does one decide to move into Friedrichstraße?
Well, I live in a city because I like cities: heterogenity! Old, young, a great mix of people just like in the subway. Through the specific situation in Berlin, many places became unbearably homogenous. Everybody has the same demography in Prenzlauer Berg. There are many great cafés and stores, but it doesn’t provide the sentiment of a big city. When I came back to Berlin from Cologne with my wife Emmy in 2003, we first lived on Schönhauser Allee. It was still a little primitive with all these discount stores around. But it got cleaner and less interesting – I caught myself going to Hermannplatz in the afternoons with the U7 in order to relax and get some thinking done. I like the mix there. It reminds me of London and other big cities. Much better than the homogenous Prenzlauer Berg.
And you don’t plan to move, do you?
No, if anything then back to Schöneberg. But I don’t think much about these predictions of upcoming parts like Wedding, etc. These forecasts are always concluded according to geographical nearness, which is nonsense. Only because Wedding is close to Mitte, doesn’t mean it should be the next in-neighbourhood. It’s just like New York- as soon as you pass 110th street, you are in Harlem and not Upper East Side anymore. It’s the same with Bernauer Straße.
What did you want to be as a child or a teenager? Probably not what you are doing now, right?
I once had the idea to become a photographer. But I never really thought about it that much. It was a different time. Just yesterday a tenth-grader rang the office door and wanted to have tips for his start-up. It started with those young business kids who during their studies had planned already their successful internships and careers. But nowadays, everybody is a blogger or does different projects during his studies and already has a Tumblr before his high school graduation.
You once studied Sociology and Informatics, didn’t you?
Yes. But I only really started it and functioned more like an alibi. Actually, after my Abitur I indulged into the East-Berlin Party scene for a few years. And then someday that computer stuff started. My mother, who was part of the 68 generation, was completely against computers and robots. She said that it would destroy employment.
How did you come into contact with a computer for the first time?
My mother’s new husband was a Programmer and gave me an old PC. However, it didn’t even have a display card, so one could not play on it. But I learned how to tune the PC myself and very early on got my hands on an acoustic coupler, the predecessor of the modem. In 1988, I was online with this for the very first time.
Back then, you would connect through other people’s computers with a kind of ‘negative handset.’ And through the phone line you were then online. If I had had a cool game consule, I probably never would have dived that much into this. It was my first goosebumps experience and everything that came after that were only natural steps. After the mailbox came the mailbox network, and then the internet. Unlike the rest of West-Germany, to call was quite cheap in Berlin: every conversation was 20 Pfennig, no matter how long it would take. It was only a problem when we were online as kids and no one was able to reach us via the phone anymore.
How did it continue? Since when have you worked professionally with the Internet?
Since 1998, I installed and shaped websites with HTML. There was such a gold-rush mood, since every hair salon wanted their own website and not many people knew how to do this. Even though it was trivial, we basically disguised our service as a secret lore and made so much money. Towards the outside, my friend and I pretended to own a company named Kinderfield Incorporated with many employees in order to get the good jobs. But it was actually just the two of us and we then hired our friends. We would just sit stoned in our student apartment and did Sony’s online-appearance. It was really crazy. We then lead the German dependance of a Swiss agency here in Berlin, but it went bankrupt in 2001.
How did this happen?
Well, the first wave of start-ups usually consisted of these business kids, who probably gathered around a million venture capital, but didn’t really know where to go after that. Back then, start-ups didn’t build their own websites, but had like 70 employees and most of them were in the marketing field. It would be almost inconceivable to not build your own platform and product, but let it be outsourced by a company.
Did you ever work as an employee?
Yes, for 2-3 years I worked as a Creative Director in Agencies. First Aperto in Berlin and then Antwerpes in Cologne.
When was Plazes founded?
In 2004, I started the project Plazes on the side during my work at the agency and then a year afterwards I founded the company. This continued until 2008 when Nokia bought us.
There are people who see their work as a sort of religion, doesn’t matter if employed or freelancing. You are not that kind of person, right?
No. It depends what you are doing. At the end there is the term “freelance,” which allows you to work as much as you want in order to do what you really want to do. Art or travel, etc. It’s that kind of life design that makes it hard to switch back to a more traditional type of work, like being employed by someone. But it also is not the ideal set-up in order to move something. And if you want that, you give 100%. But I chose this and don’t consider it terrible not to lay on a Wednesday afternoon by a Brandenburg lake.
I think that the reputation and the general social roll of start-up scene in Berlin has quite changed. It seems to be much cooler and more relevant. As well, people outside this kind of environment become aware of this scene and go for instance to the SoundCloud Party in Prince Charles, etc. Do you notice this?
Yes, of course. There is always a cut between the ‘cool’ field of the arts, fashion, and the economy. Back in the day, this was maybe the film industry. There are new rules, as well as in regards to growth and relevance. And there are people who understand these rules and create things. In the old days, this would be some kind of business idea of some business students, but nowadays they are actually things that change our lives.
Since then, it also is considered something serious by the non-internet friends. People just understood that the internet is not only a place to buy your books and flight-tickets at, but as well a place where social interaction occurs. This is why it’s not only for nerds or e-commerce individuals, but for everybody. Everything that happens online, is also online. As well, the people who work on these start-ups are often part of the local cultural scene. For instance, in San Francisco it’s something completely different. There are the cool kids and the nerds, but the cuts are visibly much smaller.
What is the perfect weekend for you?
Well, I live between Grill Royal, King Size and Tausend. I like to go out. And if I go out, then I really go out – I don’t need to ‘show’ myself anywhere. Of course I spend the days with my two kids. We just finished building a little house on an Island in the Tegeler lake, which we visit very often.
When you get foreign visitors, where do you take them to in Berlin?
Nowadays, people are much more familiar with things through Google or Unlike, etc. But I like my “West-Berlin” tour a lot – the Corbusier Haus, Olympia Stadion, walking around the Schlachtensee, the flak tower in Humboldthain, the Bruno-Taut-settlement… Culinary-wise there are also lots of places in the West: Little Asia in Kantstrasse, Paris Bar, Florians…
Thank you so much for your time and inviting us to your home, Felix!
Find out more about Felix’ and his start-up Amen here.
Interview: Sarah Weinknecht
Photography: Lukas Gansterer