The epic startup story of Karl and Bertha Benz and insights for today
Karl Benz was born in 1844 in Mühlburg, Germany. The premature death of his father, a locomotive driver, left his mother striving to raise and educate him. Karl studied Mechanical Engineering and, since his early years, envisioned a pioneering vehicle that would change the way people move. The horseless carriage.
Bertha was born in 1849 in Pforzheim. She would prove herself a brilliant investor, entrepreneur and marketer.
In 1871, Karl joined the Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop in Mannheim, which went bad! Really bad! Bertha invested in the failing company (she was allowed to do so by the German law — because she was not married). Eventually, Karl and Bertha did get married and that turned out good for the couple but bad for business. She could not act as an investor anymore (because now she was married) and he had to turn for help elsewhere.
During that time, Karl Benz patented the speed regulation system, the ignition using sparks with battery, the spark plug, the carburetor, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator.
Still, the company failed!
Karl, along Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eblinger, built his own manufacturing venture, Benz &Cie, financed on their own means (mainly Bertha’s that is). And the first horseless carriage came to life in December 1885.
The horseless carriage
Karl was now officially an inventor. The Motorwagen was the first automobile entirely designed to generate its own power! Confident of his success, he went on to sell it. He attended one meeting after another, explaining all the nitty-gritty technical details to investors and buyers. The Motorwagen was great! It had electric ignition, differential rear end gears, water-cooled internal combustion engine, gas or petrol 4-stroke horizontally mounted engine, rack and pinion steering, speed at 13 km/h (8.1 mph), 3 wheels and a nice tubular steel frame! Impressive Specs!
Did they bring customers crawling to his company, waiting in line to get their own Motorwagen? Not even close!
Karl was crushed. His dream, his horseless carriage, was never going to sell. He was, with no doubt, certain this was something people needed. They just didn’t know it yet.
Bertha realized what had never crossed Karl’s mind. People were by nature reluctant to embrace change. They needed to be convinced. It was time for marketing! She arranged a huge public demonstration for the Motorwagen and took care of everything: setup, attendance, message … Once again, failure!
The prototype crashed on a wall because of instability. Karl became a target of laughter and bitter jokes. Trying to fix the problem, he updated the original car, making version two, three … no one seemed to want it!
Bertha couldn’t see Karl falling apart. On August 1888, she took her two sons age 13 and 15 and, without Karl’s (or even the authorities) knowledge, she drove the newly constructed Motorwagen a whole 106 km (66 mi) distance from Mannheim to Pforzheim, to visit her mother. What a journey that was! Having no gas tank, she had to make constant stops for ligroin (sold only in pharmacies). Used her garter to repair the ignition, a long, straight hatpin to clean a fuel pipe, a blacksmith helped her mend a chain, she installed leather in the brake pads because they were failing, machine’s water supply had to be filled at every stop …
But in the end, Bertha reached Pforzheim. She notified her husband of her successful journey by telegram, proving the feasibility of using Motorwagen to travel and generating great publicity. The rest is history.
A vision, a pioneering idea with the potential to deeply impact people’s life, does not come easily. Having both that vision and the ability, the expertise, to bring it to life, is a rather unusual combination. One would think that combination could be the ticket to success. No such luck! Karl was an exceptionally brilliant engineer, one ahead of his time. Where would his legacy be today if it weren’t for Bertha, the investor, marketer, growth hacker even?
Karl’s and Bertha’s story brought a different light to my own experience building Blendo. The ups and downs, the everyday triumphs and petty disasters, the million things that go sour at the exact moment you feel you’ve walked out of the woods…. And then there’s the comforting thought; there are not many setbacks that a little bit of marketing cannot fix. That or a person’s insight and persistence.