Leave it to Jim to describe our bike as being like that hot-looking librarian, whose chunky glasses and tightly-bunned ‘do are doing a lame job of hiding how hot she really is. And it sets me on a theme of thinking about product versus perception, steak versus sizzle, and all that jazz.
Specialized certainly seems to have struck a chord with their Tarmac series. Specialized has a lot of (well deserved – many, many people will tell you what a good job they do) credibility, and the Tarmac is a great product. My wife loves hers.
A lot of Specialized’s credibility comes from their success in racing. Cancellara has been slaughtering people on their road and TT bikes, and they earned the top two spots (at least for the time being – what a mess) on the TdF podium this year. Some might say that they bought the top two spots on the TdF podium this year, and I think that tempers their credibility to a degree. Most people with an ear to the ground in pro racing know that it costs HUGE money to play in that venue, and only a very few have it. So it’s a “rich get richer” scene that’s pretty apparent.
Trek has more Tour wins than anyone over the past decade and change, yet they don’t have the credibility that Specialized has. Why’s that? Because they’re SUPER HUGE? Because Lance is such a polarizing figure? Because their credibility is so high among Freds? I mean, a recent episode of The Office took on Fred-ism in a way that the Bike Snob could only dream of. Trek featured prominently. I don’t know. So while the high-end Madone might be every bit the Tarmac’s equal, and their major credential is actually the same (the Roubaix is the big spring classics winner and whatever TT bike is legal this week is the one that wins those), the Tarmac has far more appeal to the afficianado (which may as well be spelled S-N-O-B for my purposes).
But after all, isn’t it the guy who cuts through the window dressing and admits to himself “good God, that librarian really is a smokeshow – let’s get her number straight away” who winds up with the bargain prize? Doesn’t he win?
We’re trying to build a brand, and we need to create a bit of that perfect storm of product and credibility. We delude ourselves that we’ve done enough to create some credibility, but in truth we don’t have the track record that allows any schmoe to take it for granted that we know what we’re doing. I’d posit that the biggest thing we’ve done to create credibility is to be 100% honest and transparent, and hopefully that’s been effective. A lot of people have told us that it is. As for our product (and in this case I am thinking primarily of our frame), it too lacks the track record to speak for itself. Fortunately, we’ve had several people test out our frame and confirm our suspicions that we’re really onto something good.
The first time I got a good ride on our bike, I knew I liked it. I’d ridden our wheels for a long time at that point so I knew I like those, but the bike made me excited to ride, and it made me want to go fast. Going out MacArthur with a friend one day, I just got down in the drops and started wailing away, and I mean wailing. The tactile sense was there in spades, the more I pushed the better it got. But I’m a crappy experiment, because, well, you go start a bike brand some time and see if you aren’t as excited as all hell to stomp on it when you first get to ride a bike with YOUR brand name on it. It could have been a pile of crap, and I would have known it somewhere along the line, but the excitement factor would have buried that. There were a bunch of things that told me I liked it for real, that it wasn’t just a face that only a mother could love, and I was that proud mother, but the shading was all obscured in the excitement.
But then we got some people out on them. One of my friends (in fact the friend who had been with me that day on MacArthur) got a nice long ride one day and announced his extreme surprise at how nicely the bike rode. As he described it, having ridden the best of the best as well as some rather more anonymous bikes, his expectations were in the crapper, and we exceeded them. Great, but we weren’t exactly looking to challenge your scrap heap expectations.
Now we’ve had more people out on them, people who’ve had absolutely no expectations about them, and they’ve been effusive. I wouldn’t use that word if it weren’t merited. They’ve been effusive. Which really makes me think we’ve got something of a tiger by the tail here, in terms of product. The thing is, if we do, it won’t be because we are some ridiculous carbon engineering team, and it won’t be because we took nine trips to factories and pored over a zillion details and used our decades of finely-honed experience to direct the process, and it certainly won’t be because the imaginary team we sponsor did some magical imaginary test riding on the thing and gave us magical imaginary feedback that allowed us to produce a better mousetrap. It will be because we went into it with no pre-conceived notions other than a bunch of parameters we wanted to stay within and a bunch of functions we wanted to meet, and we stayed disciplined about the process. We didn’t delude ourselves that we could do a 950g frame that would be stiff and meet our price constraints. We didn’t delude ourselves that catchy or unique geometry or tube shapes that allowed us to delude you about their magical properties were actually going to have any magical properties. We went off in search of a high quality, workmanlike race bike and that’s what we got. And as it turned out, people really like that. Some people might call it luck, and I’m not nearly stupid enough to realize that although we narrowed the hell out of the odds for product to turn up lemons, it could have. That makes it only slightly less gratifying to hear bike riders and racers who you really respect step off the bike and say, in effect, “holy cow, that thing’s amazing.”
So have we got a phenom on our hands? Not likely. Do we have a really (really) solid product about which I can feel great being an evangelist for? Absolutely. And if not that many people come to the party, I at least know that I’ll get to spend the foreseeable future riding on a bike that makes me feel like going.
Maybe we should have called our frame “The Librarian.”