James Watkins: Test Driving the Berlin Landing Pad with startup Gnarles

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

“Having someone who understands a startup’s needs, the European market and is 100% dedicated to working for you is a massive help at this early stage of my business, and this is what the Berlin Landing Pad provides.”

Filmmakers find it difficult to find fresh licensed music. Artists find it difficult to get an audience. James Watkins decided to solve this problem, after accidentally on purpose landing himself in Berlin and setting up his brainchild, Gnarles.

Gnarles offers filmmakers a curated catalogue of music to use on their projects, while also creating an avenue for artists to get their music into the hands of the right people. Through a subscription service, filmmakers are able to comfortably use music and discover up and coming talent from artists all around the globe.

The Gnarles team have based themselves at Berlin co-working space betahaus – home to the Australian Landing Pad – an initiative that has helped Gnarles grow the business from concept to reality.

Can you tell us your story to how you wound up in Berlin?

It’s an interesting story. I first came to Berlin for a business trip for a company that I used to work for and I immediately fell in love with the place. It was right about the time when I was getting in to making music as a hobby, and coming to Berlin really opened my eyes to all the producers and musicians who were based here. Fast forward a year and I had quit my job and moved here for a few months with a friend. We started to make music and have some fun. After a few months, our money was running out so we approached some filmmakers we knew and asked if we could make some music for their films and projects. Over time, I came up with the concept of what Gnarles is today, and it’s enabled me to be able to stay in Berlin, a city I really love. It’s an addictive place. Over the past few years I’ve seen people come here for a week, which turns in to a month, which turns in to a year… it happens a lot!

Did you try and set up in Australia first?  

I did actually go back to Australia to try and start the business there first. After about five or six months I realised it wasn’t viable, Australia doesn’t have the startup ecosystem that Berlin does. There’s a big startup ecosystem here – hubs, co-working spaces and venues where you can meet other people doing similar things – a lot of entrepreneurs – and that’s just not as prevalent as it is in Sydney or Australia. When you’re here, you get a lot of support wherever you go. There are a lot of good networks you can immerse yourself in.

What ingredients do you think a startup ecosystem requires to be successful?  

I think it would be different depending on the business. Sydney is incredibly expensive and Berlin is a lot cheaper; the cost of running a business is one of the most important aspects when you’re bootstrapping a startup.

What was the impetus to start Gnarles? Where do you want to take it?

I originally started the company with a friend a few years ago under a different business name. My filmmaker friends were telling me they needed some new people to make music for some projects they were working on, so I listed something on Craigslist and before I knew it, I had over 250 responses with people sending me music – that’s when the lightbulb went off.

After I’d developed the idea, I wanted to streamline the process. That’s when we created something called "curation expertise" and launched our first beta website in August last year. It was a basic interface where a filmmaker would come in and give us a brief for their project, and we’d have our team of Music Scouts, with their own music library, help the client find the right music. We started getting customers using the service, and from there we got a lot of feedback to where we should take it. We launched the newest version just a few days ago, it’s more like a subscription based model – a curated soundcloud for filmmakers where they can look through a library and use as much music as they want for their films. It’s still using the same business model, using a crowd source solution to grow the library. It’s really scalable. It’s still very early stages, but we’re making a few steps forward. 

How has the Australian Government’s Berlin-based landing pad helped Gnarles, and other Australian businesses in Europe?

When I started at the Landing Pad it was just a team of two, myself and my Co-founder Alex. After two weeks, we suddenly had a team of five and now we are a team of seven people. Having the space at the Betahaus (where the Landing Pad is located) is extremely helpful for me to persuade people to work for Gnarles, especially when there is no money to pay them. The Betahaus has a really great vibe and is open 24 hours a day 7 days a week so the team would come here every Saturday and we would pack out the Landing Pad office and work on the product. 

The Landing Pad is a government initiative and Austrade are the ones who coordinate and oversee all the locations. Each Landing Pad has a coordinator and in Berlin we have Michael Bingel whose job it is to help the Australian startups expand operations in Europe. Having Michael by my side here has been incredibly helpful. I have seen him open doors for the previous startup, Flexegraph, and I have already been meeting with some of the biggest startups in Germany, including Soundcloud and Immobilienscout24, and that was just in my first week here! Having someone who understands a startup’s needs, the European market and is 100% dedicated to working for you is a massive help at this early stage of my business, and this is what the Berlin Landing Pad provides. 

What are the benefits to Gnarles being Berlin based?

The cost of living and access to the right people. I couldn’t really find anyone that could help me do this in Australia but in Berlin it’s very easy to find the right people that will want to help you create something. The most important part about having a business up and running is your team, and there’s no shortage of skilled people here, especially tech savvy people. The multiculturalism is also very beneficial to business.

Do you think the Australian Landing Pad increase in popularity?

Definitely. Even for myself when I first moved to Berlin, I had no idea about the city, and had no idea there was a big startup scene here. I think once there’s a few big success stories that have come out of the landing pad, there will be a bit of a gold rush over here.

What are some key cultural differences in Berlin that have become apparent pre/post Brexit?  

A lot of people are talking about Brexit, and I’ve witnessed people move here from Britain recently due to the uncertainty there. It’s going to be interesting to see where that goes. I do think Berlin is going to be the next biggest thing in Europe – the only problem I could foresee would be the available infrastructure here, and whether or not it could support an influx of people.