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Thinking About Berlin: Unleashing a Creative Opportunity

Yellow newspaper bike On Saturday morning, I stepped onto continental Europe for the first time in just over 20 years.  I hadn't been here since I was 12, when I did a week long exchange program in Italy.  I'll admit to not being particularly well travelled--I've never lived outside the five boroughs.  I don't know any other languages.  It's not that I don't like new places--I've just spent a lot of time diving pretty deep into my own city and going all in on a career based off of being rooted in NYC. 

That's why I thought it was a bit of an odd choice to be asked to comment on the Berlin tech scene for the NextBerlin conference. 

That's when I realized how much of a beacon NYC has become for "Outside the Valley" ecosystems.  It makes sense.  If you're looking to create a new startup hub, you can't look at the West Coast to figure out how to do it.  They have a multi-generational head start.  You're not going to replicate the Valley, but you could certainly look to a place that went from essentially zero to the second most proflific startup communities in 15 years (or 8 years, depending on if you count the fact that we came back from zero again dating back to '04). 

I've spent the last few days touring the city and researching the startup culture here and I'm impressed on both fronts.  Berlin is a great place to be full of fantastic people--with a serious dedication to building an innovation community.  Yet, I couldn't help shake the feeling that I wasn't seeing anything particularly unique to the country of today--something organic rather than something rebuilt.

It felt a bit like the knock on the German startup scene that I hear.  You get a lot of cloning of US models, but not a lot of originality.  There are clones of Fab, Birchbox, Pinterest, etc., but I haven't heard much about a uniquely German service that didn't model after something else that had already gained traction.  If they are out there, others need to hear about them more--not in a pitch but in a better way to share cutting edge ideas.

Berlin has a fascinating history that seems to leave the city at a bit of a loss to figure out its identity.  The city of Berlin was nearly completely destroyed after World War II and it spent many years after torn in two between Communist and Western rule.  What you see today is an odd mix of neoclassical buildings rebuilt (cloned) to look like buildings of Germany's past and new glass boxes attempting to move the country forward--with some boxy Eastern bloc elements thrown in as well.  It's clean, well laid out, convenient and even fun to get around, but it lacks cohesiveness.  It feels like an attempt to create or find a history while embracing the future--yet at the same time not being entirely sure what to do with its troubled middle years.  It's tough to jump into the future when you don't know where you're jumping off from.

That was clearly embodied in the memorial dedicated to Jewish Holocaust victims--thousands of unmarked gray slabs of varied heights on a sloping plaza.  It's pretty open to interpretation as to what it represents--and yet, it still awkwardly crossed paths with its past.  Turned out that the company tasked with coating the stones in anti-graffitti paint was a chemical company with Nazi ties.  Here they were trying to come up with a solumn way to honor the victims of a terrible tradegy and the builders couldn't escape being tied into the tradegy itself.  When such an event is so pervasive, there are simply no perfect answers on how to deal with it or move forward.

Perhaps it's just safer to copy or to rebuild what came before.  You don't risk rattling cages or offending anyone.  On the outside, it's working.  Fab.com bought it's German clone and others will undoubtedly have to get acquired--but what does it do for the long term?  New Yorkers are passionate about Foursquare because it is something uniquely New York in it's local origins.  It's made for New York and we export it elsewhere.  It feels ours.  Twitter was a unique American concept that we exported elsewhere.  Even though we may not be the best builders--when you want to find an original idea (if there is such a thing) you come to the US.  Or, at least, that's the perception.

I think that perception is going to hold Berlin back--and unnecessarily.  There are a ton of fantastically creative people here.  How can we unleash their potential further--to make sure the next big startup idea that gets exported comes from here?  That's what will attract the best entrepreneurs here--an opportunity to push limits and explore the future of innovation.  It can't and won't be market scale or, in the near term, investment capital.

I don't think the Valley really took New York seriously until Foursquare rose up in 2009.  Despite a handful of investments from outside firms, I think you need an ecosystem capable of originality before outsiders seriously think about rooting here.  The fear is that its getting easier and faster to go global.  How much longer will the opportunity to clone startups for other cultures and countries last when we become more and more connected everyday?  As systems of communication and supplies get more and more connected, and you have more people with global business experience, the window of opportunity to clone an idea before the original launches in your country will disappear--and if that's all you're known for, it's going to be harder and harder to attract talent.  In places like India and China, you can avoid that with sheer scale--that even if you're a copy, you're building in an even bigger market. 

New York City has its roots in the financial industry--and while some people think that means we're risk averse, I actually think it means that more people are in the business of taking risk here than anywhere else.  That's what I'd love to see here more in the startup models.  You have amazing creative talent and ridiculously sharp entrepreneurs--let 'em go on some crazy ideas that teach us what the future of technology in our lives will be.  Invest in ideas that are going to change the way we live--not just reapply the way others are living to this market. 

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