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The Many Hats of the Bicycle Product Manager

Part 4: Cutting Edge Products
Problems and Opportunities

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles | Product Manager series part 3

John Neugent probably knows more about bicycle wheels than anyone else alive. Maybe more about bikes as well. He's spent his life in the bike business, at every level. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price. If you are in the market for a set of wheels, please, check out John's site. He really knows his stuff. —Chairman Bill

John Neugent

John Neugent

A common misconception is that people always want the newest and coolest products. There are many people who believe that if you come up with the next big thing, you will be wildly successful. If it’s cutting edge all the better. I once worked on a project with an industrial designer who told me in his industry developing a cutting edge product meant you would probably do a lot of bleeding. I’ve been on the cutting edge a number of times and can attest to that.

In fact, about 75% of venture capital funded projects are failures and a project has to be well-developed to attract venture capital.

New products, new technologies, and new brands have one major hurdle. They have to create their market. It’s for that reason that companies like Shimano and Sram often wait until a new product category is well advanced before they enter the market. Road disc brakes are a perfect example.

John Degenkolb

John Degenkolb riding stage nine of the 2018 Tour de France. His disc brake is the exception, not the rule in the pro peloton.

You have to convince a lot of different people that the product is good. The most important group is the consumer because, at the end of the day, they are the ones who pay all the bills. But you also have to convince everyone in the middle – the bike companies (should they use it on a bike), distributors, and retailers. The “middlemen” have no incentive to make your product a success.

On top of that are the patent issues. The US has a very strange patent system that says your idea is not protected until the patent issues – which could be more than a year after the application is filed (Europe protects it from the filing date). Patent applications are not published (in the US) so it’s entirely possible someone else has filed a patent before you, making your patent worthless.

Another major issue is quality. For example, carbon rims were much too fragile for road bike use for over 10 years after their introduction. The Teledyne Titan titanium frame's only claim to fame was that it is expensive. Its performance was horrible. And it was developed by the leading titanium fabricator of its time.

I have personally been associated with many of projects like this. Sachs (I ran the US division) was one of the first to introduce disc brakes in the early '90s. I worked for a year on an electric bike in the late '90s. I ran a company that developed a truly innovative bicycle saddle (based on the Herman Miller Aeron chair technology). These are a few personal examples. My biggest personal success only came after I decided to introduce my own brand of wheels – without any new technology. People knew they needed wheels, they didn’t think they needed disc brakes, electric bikes, or a new saddle – at least when I was selling them.

So, if there is anyone out there with a bright idea, my personal advice would be to be aware of the difficulties. Aheadset (the current headset on all quality bikes) is a perfect success story. The patent was licensed to Cane Creek. It took Cane Creek years to convince anyone that it was a good idea – even though Cane Creek was well known and well liked by almost all quality bike companies. Without the sales effort by Cane Creek, the inventor would have virtually no chance of success.

That being said, most large companies try to steer clear of licensing deals. They are aware that the most difficult problem introducing a new product is in creating the market for it. Most inventors are blind to that fact.

So the next time you see a brand new cutting edge product be aware of these issues. Aluminum frames were introduced in the '30s but it really wasn’t until they were hydroformed that they became great (with due respect to Klein and Cannondale, they were too stiff for many). Derailleurs offered a very small range of gears until Suntour came out with the slanted parallelogram in the early '70s.

And remember there is no enforceable law that requires any truth in marketing, so the vast majority of marketing claims are false.

John Neugent was was one of the first to establish quality hand building in Taiwan around the turn of the century. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price.