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Fred Clements: Innovate, adapt and prepare to 'fail forward'

Published April 22, 2015
A blog by the NBDA's executive director.

Editor's note: Fred Clements is the executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. Clements' previous blog posts can be read on

Innovation doesn’t come naturally to human beings, according to Stephen Shapiro, author and keynote presenter at this year’s Bicycle Leadership Conference.

Referring to the work of Charles Darwin, Shapiro noted that human evolution is not driven by survival of the fittest. Instead, it’s all about adaptability, the ability to change. This has a direct parallel to business survival today.

He noted that Sears was once 10 times the size of Wal-Mart, but is now a shell of its former self. Pan Am was once the number one airline in the West, but failed. Howard Johnson’s restaurants were once everywhere, but not anymore. Closer to home, Schwinn went from prominence to relative obscurity.

All were once robust companies at the top of their games. They failed to adapt in various ways and for various reasons, relying on solutions that had worked in the past and being sure of their own expertise. “Expertise,” Shapiro noted, “is the enemy of innovation.” Or, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki (who did not attend the BLC), “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Shapiro advised companies to acknowledge that they cannot be the best at everything, so they should focus on their strengths. He suggested that you “innovate where you differentiate” by being distinctive, making yourself difficult to copy, being resistant to disruption, getting the word out, and making what you do desirable.

Most organizations, he said, spend most of their time dealing with questions that don’t matter. Instead of thinking “outside the box,” he suggested that innovators create a better box. Don’t just copy someone else’s ideas. Be unique in your box construction efforts.

Innovation was just one of the themes during the BLC’s two days of presentations, discussions and networking. Some highlights:

  • Consumers are identifying less with specific activities (being hikers, climbers, cyclists) and more are crossing over and becoming generalists. This is a trend that may help the industry get more people on bikes who are not “cyclists” per se. Helping people who are already active is easier than converting couch potatoes.
  • 2014 was a good year in bike industry sales compared with 2013, but the multi-year trend line is still flat.
  • According to NPD, online sales are growing at a faster rate than brick-and-mortar. Road bike sales continue to decline. Transit and fitness bikes are trending up, driven by people who do not self-identify as “cyclists.” Other growth areas are 27.5-inch mountain bikes, cyclocross, bike rentals and sharing, fat bikes, fixies and e-bikes.
  • Consumers are using products for specific activities in different ways. Yoga clothing has become more common in general use, for example, as has outdoor apparel. Bicycle clothing has not yet been able to make the transition, although the potential may be there, spandex “kits” notwithstanding.
  • Many people are focusing less on acquiring “things,” and instead want experiences. The sharing economy is growing. Giving people experiences is a good business strategy.
  • According to PeopleForBikes research, 53 percent of the U.S. population would like to ride a bike more often. However, 52 percent worry about being hit by a car, and 35 percent worry about other threats to their personal safety.
  • The industry’s opportunity may lie in targeted efforts to get infrequent cyclists to ride more, rather than getting non-cyclists to ride at all. Only 52 percent of Americans have access to an operational bicycle, according to PFB research.
  • Action items: 1) provide better places to ride; 2) promote existing safe places to ride and position cycling as a convenient way to get around; and 3) find ways to improve people's access to operational bicycles.
  • More action items: 1) an industrywide marketing campaign that promotes safer places to ride; 2) building and marketing more IBD-quality entry-level bikes; and 3) work together better for our own best interests. 
  • Running participation has grown significantly while cycling has remained stagnant. Why? Running has made an intentional shift and focuses more on fun than racing. In many events, “runners” actually walk and feel no shame. Fun is the key, not competition.
  • The running industry has worked on diversity and being welcoming to all. Running has also effectively reached out to women and broken down the walls of intimidation that are often still standing in the bike industry. Focus on fun in the use of language and industry culture. Reduce technical and price discussions. The retail experience needs to be service-oriented, convenient and fun.
  • Consumers are becoming more focused on health and wellness, as well as products that reflect their own values, in making purchase decisions. Examples from Nuun’s Kevin Rutherford included a reference to Girl Scout cookies that may not be the best cookies, but stand for something more. Toms shoes donates a pair of shoes to the needy for every pair of shoes sold. Ten Tree apparel plans 10 trees for each purchase: buy a shirt, plant 10 trees.
  • The “bought” economy has lost some momentum, and sharing is a continuing trend. Bike share may play to this trend and help introduce more people to cycling.
  • “Dieting” is passe in favor of healthy overall eating and healthy lifestyles (LOHAS: Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability). People are more conscious of where their food comes from (“farm to table”) and are more often looking for products and experiences that are “real” instead of artificially enhanced. Are Barbie dolls ready for elective reduction surgery?
  • Marketing: You are constantly on stage. Be interesting and memorable. “Never underestimate the value of a strategically placed sticker.”
  • And finally, embrace risk. “Risk is an inherent part of innovation and inspiration. … Have the institutional point of view that you can fail and it’s OK. … Sometimes fail, but fail forward.”

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