Why Segway Failed To Reshape The World: Focused On Invention, Rather Than Innovation

In January of 2001, word began to leak that Dean Kamen was working on something amazing that would change the world. If you were paying attention to tech news, you may recall it was everywhere. There was some book deal about it, and we were told that it was going to change the way cities were laid out and would absolutely revolutionize transportation. It had the blessing of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and John Doerr and was amazing. But no one knew what it was. Hell, it didn’t even have a name. It was referred to either as IT or Ginger — and there were all sorts of rumors about what IT might be. Eventually, of course, IT was revealed as the Segway. And while it was sorta kinda maybe cool, it hardly came close to living up to its original billing. It was expensive and not really all that useful for most people. Segway, the company, has gone through a merry-go-round of new CEOs and new strategies, none of which have gotten it out of a niche market.

Recently, in talking about how the Netflix Prize helped demonstrate the value of openness and collaboration when it came to innovation, rather than hoarding and taking the “inventor-knows-best” attitude towards things, Mark Blafkin of the Association for Competitive Technology (a tech industry lobbying group who tends to be a patent system supporter) took exception to what we said about the value of openness and collaboration instead of focusing on patents, by noting that Dean Kamen has also put a lot of effort into collaboration and prizes to award innovation, but also is a strong believer in patents (and, actually, making them stronger).

In response, I pointed out that Kamen’s thinking on patents may actually explain part of the reason why Segway has struggled so much over the years. In believing so strongly in patents, it shows someone who tends to believe invention is more important than ongoing innovation, even as there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest the exact opposite is true. Invention is the original idea, but innovation is an ongoing process of taking a product and adjusting and adapting it to the market. And we’ve been seeing more and more studies that note the innovation part is so much more important in determining the success and the economic contribution of a product.

So it seems like perfect timing to see Paul Graham’s recent essay about why the Segway failed to change the world. He focuses mainly on the fact that the Segway basically makes people look dorky — and that a better design might have helped more people find it enticing. But at the end he notes:

Curiously enough, what got Segway into this problem was that the company was itself a kind of Segway. It was too easy for them; they were too successful raising money. If they’d had to grow the company gradually, by iterating through several versions they sold to real users, they’d have learned pretty quickly that people looked stupid riding them. Instead they had enough to work in secret. They had focus groups aplenty, I’m sure, but they didn’t have the people yelling insults out of cars. So they never realized they were zooming confidently down a blind alley.

Exactly. Again, this highlights the difference between invention (believing that you alone have come up with the perfect idea for a great product) and innovation (the ongoing iterative process of going back and forth with the market to test and understand what the market wants and how to make your product meet their needs). By focusing so much on the invention, Segway missed the real opportunity for innovation, and that’s caused all sorts of problems for the company.

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