Portrait Next-Gen

Werte / N° 21



Next Door

For entrepreneur CHRISTIAN VOLLMANN, the internet represents not only an opportunity, but also a duty to change the world, bring people together and create meaning


e are in a former factory in Kreuzberg, Berlin, with large rooms and whitewashed walls to meet Christian Voll- mann – a man who, judging by the laugh lines around his

eyes, smiles a lot. This might well have something to do with the success story that he tells us in the open-plan kitchen of his office loft. The story begins with his tranquil childhood in the Franconian village of Dormitz. “On Sundays, half the village would see each other at church. This was before the age of mobile phones and the internet.” His parents never had the chance to go to sixth form or university, he says. “But they did everything they could to ensure their children had that opportunity.”

Until Vollmann broke his scaphoid bone playing football, he wanted to be a doctor, inspired by his paediatrician during child- hood. This would all change after twelve weeks spent in a cast and a friend’s idea that they should teach themselves HTML, start a company and build websites for small businesses in Dormitz. It was also the moment when Vollmann began to believe in the enormous energy of the internet. He gained a degree in business administra- tion and, in 1999, did an internship at Alando, where he learned a lot from company founders Oliver Samwer and his brothers. “Whilst I was there, the company was bought up by Ebay. That’s when I understood how markets worked. I realised that the inter- net was going to change everything.”

He founded dating site iLove in 2003, MyVideo in 2006 and eDar- ling in 2008. A “business angel”, he has invested in more than 70 start-ups, mostly trusting his intuition. “The best founders are the ones who can combine big visions with effective implementation. And a willingness to take risks! That’s also the reason why we have fallen behind in Germany. There is a negative attitude towards en- trepreneurs in this country.”

After founding three successful start-ups, he realised he had lost his sense of purpose. “My understanding up until then had been: I am a founder and so logically I’ll soon be developing my next com- pany. But suddenly that felt empty.” He thought of Steve Jobs’ fa- mous phrase “dent in the universe”. What was Vollmann’s dent go- ing to be? “After 1999, I thought that we were revolutionising the world. The Arab Spring happened and I sensed how the internet

even had the power to bring down dictatorships.” But then the problems started – social division, rural depopulation, hate on so- cial media. “In these fraught circumstances, I felt that people needed to interact more, and that there should be more communi- ty”. And he realised that he himself wasn’t doing any better at this. He didn’t know his neighbours in Berlin, where he lives with his wife and three children – it felt hard to just go round and ring their doorbell.

Now he knew what his dent in the universe would be: a free neighbourhood network that brings strangers together. The idea is simple: If you arrange to meet up online, this makes it easier to meet up in person. Vollmann founded nebenan.de (nebenan means “next door” in German) in 2015. The network now has 1.5 million users, and employs 70 people working across two storeys of this factory. A charitable foundation financed by donations organises events, and there are now subsidiaries in France, Spain and Italy. Best of all, Vollmann has heard so many stories of people brought together by nebenan.de: from surrogate grandmas to hobby gar- deners. The network is financed by voluntary contributions, local advertising and partnerships with local authorities. Christian Voll- mann, who has now ensconced himself in a hammock, seems very relaxed as he contemplates his work: “I’m really happy, because these days I feel like I am making a positive difference in people’s lives.”

Text: Tanja Breukelchen

PHoto: Urban Zintel

Nebenan.de is a free website where people can get in touch with their immediate neighbourhood, help each other, swap or loan items and arrange to meet up. It is now used by around 1.5 million people, making it Germany’s biggest neighbour- hood platform. The start-up was founded in 2015 by Christian Vollmann, Till Behnke, Ina Remmers, Matthes Scheinhardt, Michael Vollmann and Sven Tantau.›