Chapter Six: The Audience is On The Stage
The audience is not longer prepared to sit, watch, listen and clap. They want to be part of the action. Once passive consumers are becoming - at least part of the time - participants and actors. They do not want to be bystanders.
Where Did the Mountain Bike Come From?
There was a time when there were only two kinds of bikes. There were the clumsy, heavy bikes of the kind men used to ride to go to work in factories and there were racing bikes, as ridden by your elder brother and Eddie Merckx in the Tour de France. Racing bikes were glamorous and sleek, but uncomfortable to ride, with narrow saddles, thin tyres and handlebars that made you bend forward. Like greyhounds, they were too fragile for potholed city roads and for riding along country tracks. Then in the late 1970s, a new kind of bike started to appear, one with a robust frame; thick tires with a deep tread; straight handle bars with rubber grips; as many gears as a racing bike and ferociously tight brakes. They were mountain bikes. Like most great innovations the mountain bike was adopted so quickly that it soon seemed as if it had been around forever. But where had the mountain bike come from?
Standard economic and business theory would tell you the mountain bike came from a clever entrepreneur or innovator working in their garage who emerged one day covered in grease, with his new invention. Having spotted a gap in the market, an unmet need, the entrepreneur’s new product would have been hugely successful and attracted mainstream manufacturers in search of their share of the profits. But that is not how it happened. Nor did the mountain bike emerge from the well-funded research and development laboratory of a mainstream bike maker, after months of laborious testing and exhaustive market research to “find” and then “fill” a gap in the market. Standard business theory does not have much useful to say about the emergence of the mountain bike.
There was no lone inventor and no moment of birth. The mountain bike was created by groups of avid users – passionate, Pro Am bikers – not the manufacturers who were quite happy selling products they knew well, through familiar channels, to consumers they also seemed to know well. Bike manufacturers had no incentive to innovate. Mountain bikes were developed when young cyclists in northern California started to take their bikes onto mountain tracks in search of new challenges. Traditional commercial bikes were not designed for this kind of terrain, so the rider-developers put together their machines, mixing strong, old-fashioned bike frames, wider tyres to provide grip and drum brakes from motor cycles. These mutants were called “clunkers.” Only the riders really understood what they needed and had the skills to make a product that met their distinctive needs.
For several years Pro Am bikers built clunkers for one another in their garages. Commercial manufacture began in about 1975 but even then only on a tiny scale. A year later there were half a dozen specialist assemblers in a part of northern California that lent its name to Marin, the company that became the best-known mountain bike producer. In 1980 a leading mountain biker, Mike Sinyard, founded a company to bring the first mass produced bike to market. Perhaps two years later, almost a decade after clunkers first hit mountain tracks, the incumbent bike manufacturers finally followed suit. Soon mountain bikes were being used in cities as much as on mountains. As the mountain bike went mainstream so the rider-developers went in search of ever more dangerous environments in which they could test innovations, riding at night and in all climates. These lead users continue to develop their own innovations, which tend to spread into the mainstream industry between four and six years later.
By 2004, mountain bikes were big business. In the US alone mountain bikes and related equipment accounted for 65% of all bike sales. A category that did not exist thirty years earlier and which had been invented by passionate users was worth $58bn dollars. No one in the mainstream bike industry saw it coming. The biggest disruptive innovation in modern biking history came from the users who saw themselves as innovators, not from the boffins in R & D.
With hindsight it is not hard to work out which users were most likely to become innovators. They were the most passionate and the most knowledgeable. They had been riding off road for longer, spent more of their time with their bikes, rode in more challenging terrain, competed in races and acquired more technical know-how. They did not just ride bikes, they understood how they worked and welcomed the technical challenges of improving them. Not only did they have the motivation to innovate, they had the tools as well. Many of the early user-innovators were engineers and so able to deploy skills they used in their day jobs. Riding clunkers week-in-week-out meant they had a way to carry out experiments in real time. The costs of innovation were low and the pay offs high. They enjoyed what they were doing.
The mountain bike story does not fit into the way we usually tell the history of innovation as a string of heroic inventions. In this conventional history every invention has a moment of birth when it comes into being. The inventor can usually say what the invention is for and how it should be used. That traditional focus on invention as the source of innovation leaves us hopelessly ill equipped to understand not just the mountain bike but the rise of barefoot organisations – the likes of Linux, Wikipedia, Craigslist and many others - that succeed by mobilising masses of volunteer contributors and innovators. These organisations do not have research labs and yet they innovate at scale because they turn their users into creators, combining their many small contributions into larger complex products. Once we realise users can be innovators we have a different lens on how technology spreads, productivity improves, society changes and how we could organise ourselves in future.
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