Thursday, June 12, 2008

Get on Your Bike: Success Breeds Complacency

Tom Kelley in The Art of Innovation shares this story and principle:

At its zenith, Schwinn, the leading bike manufacturer, sold a quarter of all U.S. bicycles. When mountain bikes emerged, however, Schwinn mistakenly wrote them off as a fad. That, despite the fact that some of the early mountain bikes—just north of us in Marin County, California—had first tackled the rugged mountain paths with souped-up Schwinns, partly because the bikes were so darned sturdy.

Success has a tendency to hamstring companies, to cause them to become complacent and neglect the risk taking that got them to the top. Though Schwinn adeptly picked up on the customer-inspired Sting-Ray trend in the sixties, somehow the company managed to miss out on an analogous mountain biking trend in the eighties.

When the dust settled, of course, mountain bikes proved to be much more than a fad. The public flocked to the fat-tired, easy-to-ride bikes for lots of good reasons.

Ten-speed road bikes, formerly the most popular style, were actually built for racers, not recreational use. Thin tires may be fast, but they aren't comfortable, convenient or especially safe. And, of course, there's the beauty and thrill of riding down a mountain. We all know that some of those mountain hike tires never even touch dirt, let alone steep mountain trails, but mountain bikes are far better suited for the average rider than the old low-slung ten-speed.

Specialized Bicycle Components… didn't have the problem of resting on its laurels. Originally a niche vendor of high-end bike parts, Specialized quickly capitalized on the mountain bike craze, popularizing the sport with races and clever promotions, while the old U.S. giant, Schwinn, slowly became irrelevant.

Today an amazing 70 percent of the full-sized cycles sold in the United States are mountain bikes. Based on its success as a mountain bike maverick, Specialized still uses its in-your-face slogan, "Innovate or Die," which is printed in huge white letters on the long black hearse the company takes to biking events. Not a bad motto to take to heart.

Source: Tom Kelley, The Art of Innovation: Lessons and Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm (London: Profile Books, 2001), 238-239.

A review of this fine book can be seen at Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: “The public flocked to the fat-tired, easy-to-ride bikes.”

Snowboarding: Fear Doesn’t Get You Down the Mountain, Stories For Speakers.