Dougal Squires talks to the founder of Givebox in Berlin, a simple yet wonderful concept based on the idea of “caring and sharing”…
Andy is a friendly, confident man, and particularly enthusiastic about the Givebox that he has founded here in Berlin. He wants to remain anonymous – hence the lack of surname – which poses a problem for me, as he was to be the central part of my interview.
But what has gone relatively unreported through the numerous articles about the Givebox over the last months, is that one of its founding team is a bit of a business whizz.
When researching Andy’s background I discovered three companies he’s previously founded. One of these companies, an online advertising agency, has over 1,000 clients, and currently has 35,000,000 hits per month on its pages. It goes without saying that Andy is one of Berlin’s success stories.
“My whole spirit influenced me to do business and to do the Givebox,” he tells me.
But Givebox isn’t about Andy. Over the first five minutes of our conversation, held on a dashingly autumnal day on Steinstrasse in Mitte — the site of the original Givebox (there are now four in Berlin alone) — Andy is at great pains to point out that he does not wish Givebox to be portrayed as a businessman’s pet project.
The Givebox is somewhere between a wardrobe and a garden shed. It sits, innocuously enough, near the end of the quietish Steinstrasse. Before Andy arrived for our interview a woman stopped in and left a pair of shoes, in a box neatly beside the other shoes available to be picked up by anyone. Throughout the half hour Andy and I talked by the Givebox people and families stopped and browsed its contents and chatted. It seemed like people at the local shop or the library – yet it has been here less than two months.
The Givebox motto is “Sharing is caring” a concept so simple that people get the idea straight away. It is a very easy, localised form of reusing and mini-philanthropy. Andy’s ownership of the Givebox evaporated as soon as it was opened. Its vulnerability – it is never locked, or guarded – is also its strength: the local community has taken it under its wing.
When I ask him about the whether the Givebox has ever been “robbed” or vandalised he tells me that it has never been totally cleared out (though this did happen to the Givebox in Neukölln) but it has been vandalised. He tells a story of finding the Givebox vandalised and on returning with tools, discovering it already repaired. Later he shows a newspaper article he pinned to the small notice board inside the Givebox. Not satisfied that the article would withstand the weather a local took the article down, laminated it and put it back up.
Andy intends to stay with the Givebox indefinitely, maintaining and improving it. He would like to start up a free DVD rental similar to Another Country’s honesty-based book rental scheme. He would also like to engage artists to work on the box itself. His enviable skill is to have good ideas and to execute them.
After the interview he tells me that he had the idea for Givebox and then three days later built it. Less than six weeks later there are four in Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg, Neukölln, Mitte, and Kreuzberg) one in Hamburg, one in Düsseldorf, one in Frankfurt and one in Vienna with Paris and Pennsylvania amongst an international group of sites likely to come soon.
“Two weeks ago we had only one in Berlin. Now we have four in Berlin and six internationally. I assume in one month we will have something like twenty all over the world.”
He assures me that setting up his businesses and setting up the Givebox are formulations of the same impulse: To have a good idea and then to put it into practice. The only difference being one uses a business model based on profit and loss, and the other use a non-profit model (a small and modestly overlooked loss for Andy and his cofounders). I believe him. One thing is for sure — the community is definitely richer for it.
[Click above to play an audio interview with the founder of Givebox]
About The Author
Dougal Squires has worked with Insight Radio in Glasgow and BBC Switch in London. He now lives in Berlin and has contributed to Artconnect Berlin and Slow Travel Berlin.