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Let’s invent cars – not just faster horses.
21 October 2014

Let’s invent cars – not just faster horses. Why moving within your networks sometimes limits your horizon.

Let me ask you a question: Are you an entrepreneur? Or are you working in a startup? Do you plan to start up your own company soon?
Then maybe the people you share your ideas with are founders, startup employees or future entrepreneurs as well.
My next question: Are you based in Berlin? Do you go to various startup events? Is your intention to establish or even expand your networks? Do you want these new networks to contribute to your company becoming more successful? Then maybe the new relationships you establish are also part of the Berlin startup scene.
Do you see where I am headed? Do you get a glimpse of what I want you to see at this point? Well, the intention was to address you: a member of the Berlin startup scene who is constantly working on extending his or her network.

In doing so, we all share ideas, objectives and visions. Looking at various exchanges I had recently, I detected some themes that I would like to allude in the subsequent (anonymous) quotes:

  1. My dream is to become the next big thing. I actually want to become as big as Google or Facebook.“ (a founder, 2014)
  2. I really just want to work hard in order to achieve a huge exit and enjoy my life for a while.“ (another founder, 2014)
  3. I have been working in this area and I really wanted to improve the situation of my colleagues.“ (next founder, 2014)

Let`s look at quote 1. We hear someone aiming for a big startup; a startup that contributes to digital technologies, digital products and their development. The founder team takes its inspiration from existing companies in the adjacent markets aspiring for even better products or services. An example for a successful company in this regard could be LinkedIn. Inspired by an already known social network, they transferred that approach from a mainly private to a professional focus. They did so successfully counting 313 million+ members to date. They also operate on an international level, and are available in 23 languages and more than 200 countries. What we learn from LinkedIn: It is possible to become big. Really big.

Theme number 2 characterizes founders who dream of a big exit that allows them a wonderful life thereafter. When talking to these founders in more detail, we find that they are willing to work hard for their success. Countless working hours and lost weekends are expected parts of their lives. But they strive for wealth and in order to get there, they also want to found something that is going to be similarly big as Instagram. The founders sold Instagram to Facebook for 1 billion US Dollars. At that time, Instagram had a user base of 35 million worldwide. Thus, Facebook paid around 28 US Dollars per user. We see, an exit is possible, if only you got something to offer. In the case of Instagram, they offered a user base to an already huge digital network to help them increase their reach. (Wired, 2014) (We won`t talk about Whats App now, but it`s definitely worthwhile comparing the cases.)

Theme number 3: The founders consider an improvement of their colleagues’ lives as their startups’s ultimate goal. They have probably been working in that area for some time and they now intend to tackle the difficulties they had experienced themselves. Wunderlist founders, for example, noticed that someone had to do something about personal productivity. Therefore, the founder team aimed to improve everyone’s working routines with an app offering a to-do-list. Did they succeed right away? No, they did not. They needed various tries from Wunderlist to Wunderkit to Wunderlist 2. But eventually, they improved their products, had a 5 million user base in 2013 and persuaded Sequoia to get on board with an investment of 19 Million US Dollars in 2014 (6Wunderkinder, 2014).
Thus, being from Berlin, they especially showed the local startup scene that it is possible: Berlin startups can succeed. They can become big, make an exit and even contribute to better lives of others.

So, let us continue to be part of the Berlin scene, be part of all the networking events and let us share ideas, objectives and visions. Let us take some inspiration from what we see around us. But I want to emphasise some inspiration as I simultaneously want to ask you, me, all of us to sometimes take a step back and look beyond the themes we share. Because there is something we share which is called dominant logic or mental model (Tripsas & Gavetti, 2000). The dominant logic makes us exchange with similar minds in similar settings. As we noticed before: We are all somehow related to startups – either as founders, startup employees or future founders. We all are based in Berlin, go to similar events and meet people that share our ideas, objectives and visions. The dominant logic, however, can also become so strong that it impedes us to look beyond what we take for granted. The dominant logic enforces industries to belief in their eternal existence whilst they are already doomed to fail. To give you one example: Think of Kodak. Kodak was once the world leading company for producing film. They believed they would remain in their leading position, even when the digital photography had already entered their market. Thus, they failed to develop a competitive product that could compete with the new digital photography devices offered by competitors such as Canon, Nikon and others. Today, Kodak belongs to the past of photography. In sum, make sure your moving within the Startup scene, your exchanging with the people that are similar to you, does not become a theme that restricts your inspiration. Try to sometimes move beyond our frame of reference, try to open up to stimuli that go beyond what you already know.

I am thinking of Richard Branson in this regard whose overall vision to Virgin has always been to make the world a better place; or Steve Jobs who initially simply wanted everyone to have a computer. His intention was to provide everyone with a meagre interest to be able to both, afford and use a Mac. Going a little further back in history, we might think of Henry Ford. The engineer contributed greatly to our agile world by setting out to invent something that moved way beyond what people back then were able to consider within their frames of reference. Closing with the words of Ford: „Had I asked the people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.“

Therefore I am addressing you today. Dear reader, dear part of the startup community, dear founder, startup employee or future founder: Never forget, if you mainly focus on the people around you when looking for innovation, they might inspire you to invent faster horses, but maybe you need to look somewhere else to be able to invent cars.


Photo: Clinton Folger’s Horsemobile, Nantucket Historical Association

This post is part of a weekly series of articles by doctoral candidates of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. It does not necessarily represent the view of the Institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Martina Dopfer

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