walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Active Users, Markets and Mountain Bikes

After describing the nomenclature of product adoption and how the people who use a product interact with the development of that product, Sims says (about 1839):

"Take the mountain bike. It wasn't invented by a person or company. In the mid-1970s, dozens of avid pro-am riders in northern California started making modifications ... The microtrend grew ever more popular amongst enthusiasts, such that, by the early 1980s, commercial producers had finally taken note. The market took off from there; by 2004, mountain bikes accounted for more than 65 percent of all bikes sold, or $58 billion in sales. Mountain bikes was an enormous idea and market waiting to be discovered. Anyone learning from those early adopters would have seen it coming."

This is tricky, because it's tough to point to any one aspect of this and say it is factually incorrect. However, I believe Sims has drastically misunderstood the shape of the mountain bike adoption curve and overlaid it with a separate adoption curve in a way that sort of "cancels out" with respect to the overall thesis. I agree with the thesis (active users interact with product development). But the vast stream of mountain bikes in 2004 included a huge amount going to kids riding on sidewalks and bicycle commuters who needed a more upright riding position. Once the production community had a better understanding of what people were buying mountain bikes (as opposed to "road bikes") for, they started branching out and making commuter bicycles, cruisers, and utility bicycles -- which is the same active user phenomenon, but a second curve of it.

But there is _no way in hell_ that anyone participating in the "mountain biking" trend (you know, actually riding up and down trails on hills, or possibly not on trails) per se could have predicted that the mountain bike would be chosen as a best-available-approximation by a largely unrelated market of people who wanted to ride their bike to work, school, the store, etc., and were picking the mountain bike because it had a more upright riding position, less aggressive geometry, and a slightly dropped top tube.

Not only would it be difficult if not impossible to predict the wild success of mountain bikes as a mountain biker (because of a failure to predict that the geometry would be adopted by an unrelated and larger group of people), I would argue that it actually wouldn't be easy to predict the second trend (the utility or commuter trend, which took off around 2007-8), _even if you were one of the people buying a mountain bike for these purposes in the year 2000_.

Yeah, that would be me. I ultimately went to the Netherlands a couple of times, fell in love with the Nexus internal hub (I cannot believe I just typed that), came home and said I wanted a bike with that and a drop frame. R. was convinced they didn't exist, _even tho in 2004, there were multiple brands available_. And that trend didn't really take off for another 3-4 years (which was a lot longer than I thought it would take).

Bicycles are a great market segment to see the active-users-influencing-product-development in action, mostly because there's a wide network of small shops with mechanics who can customize, which interacts somewhat minimally (but somewhat) with a broader network that cranks out bikes for the masses. But even if you are, like me, a second rank sheep (I'm no innovator, but whenever I look around me, I'm surrounded by a big herd of other people) and relatively well aware of that fact, it's _still_ hard to predict much less enact a business strategy based on that knowledge. Sims' superficial analyses and flip summations (anyone would have seen it coming) are Not Helpful.

All that aside, Joe Breeze _is_ really good at innovating and anticipating trends and building a successful business AND lobbying for good policy based on a detailed understanding of the mountain bike's story. And acting like what he did is something anyone can do deeply misunderstands him and his accomplishments. Summarizing mountain bikes without mentioning him is probably wrong, too.
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