Monday, September 16, 2013

The Business Moped Theory of New Product Rejection

So, you or your company invented something radical & new: congratulations! This has happened to me twice, once with PowerDNS and once with Fox-IT. Both times my products had unique features, and both struggled to gain market acceptance initially. Potential customers told us things that were wrong with our product, we’d fix them, and they’d come up with new reasons not to buy our stuff.

After a few iterations of this, I formed what I like to call “The Business Moped Theory of New Product Rejection”, and this theory has served me well (a moped is also known as a scooter or “brommer” in Dutch). In this post, I want to share the Business Moped idea, and how it spells bad news, but also what you can do with your new invention to make it sell better.

Commuting to the office

Back when I lived in Delft, parking my car was a big hassle, and more often than not I had to park it (semi-illegally) over a kilometer away from my home. If you live in a city center, this is quite common. Additionally, the office where I worked 10km away had 750 employees and 200 parking places, leading to similar drama there.

Now, I could go to work on my bicycle, but many of my colleagues lived too far away for that. But we had one guy who’d been commuting on a moped for 20 years now, and he was never late because of traffic and had no trouble parking either at home or at the office. Also, it was very cheap both in maintenance & fuel. He found a great solution, but nobody copied him.

And why not? Well, the honest reason is of course that it would look silly! You don’t go to your office in business clothes on a moped!

For evidence:


But when you ask people why they continue to spend an hour stuck in traffic and parking everyday, and not just copy the guy with the moped, they don’t come out and say “it would look silly”.

No, they’d say things like “the car keeps me dry in the rain”, “In winter it is too cold”, “a moped isn’t safe”. So, this set people thinking, as moped vendors had long been trying to crack the business market. So they addressed the concerns, starting with this attempt:

“Benelli Adiva”

With a roof, surely people will stop complaining about getting wet in the rain? Well, after 5 years of trying to sell the thing, Benelli gave up. I’ve never seen one in any case. But, the industry kept working on it, perhaps fixing the “rain” issue wasn’t enough?

Enter the BMW C1, which had everything:
  • BMW: A cool business brand
  • Roof
  • Safety harness, no need to wear a helmet
  • Heated seats!
  • Heated steering handles!
  • Storage for (rain) clothes

They even sold it to racing teams, police forces and other promotionally interesting customers:

So now that all customer issues were addressed, it should sell well right? Think again, they sold hundreds!

But, this is BMW we are talking about, they had the resources to fix whatever complaints were left & up the marketing even further. So, they also offered:

  • Anti-lock brakes
  • “Executive leather seats”
  • A navigation system
  • Powerful audio, with automatic sound volume adjustment to speed
  • An immobilizer system to prevent theft
  • A sunroof!
  • Glove box with power socket

“Executive edition”

So, now that every *possible* customer complaint was fixed, sales surely took off? Thousands were sold! And after 5 years of trying real hard, even mighty BMW had to give up.

As a last salvo, Italian Piaggio came up with this marvel, for the people who complained that they didn’t want a “bike that could fall over”:

Also, not ever

Why didn’t it work?

People want to buy what they’ve been used to buying. They don’t want to be too different. You can get away with selling something that is vastly more powerful than customers were used to, but still is fundamentally the same thing - as long as buyers trust your company. But even trust in BMW was not enough to convince people that the moped was suitable for taking to the office, no matter how hard they tried to get their scooter to emulate the features of a car. When people secretly want a car, they don’t buy a scooter!

When as an innovative company you are trying to do something that is too different, that is not what you’ll hear from your customers (they might say it, but hearing it is something else). No, you’ll hear specific complaints that you can address. The pitfall is that even when you solve those complaints, they’ll come up with new ones. 

If you are trying to sell something that is too different, fixing the superficial issues is not going to save you - even though your potential customers assure you it will. They are just dishing up excuses. They want something “normal”.

Not being too different from something they DO know

I formed this theory a few years ago, and lately something interesting has happened. While it proved to be impossible to convince people to get a weird looking moped for commuting to the office.. it was entirely possible to electrify the venerable bicycle, and keep it looking “normal”:

Note the discreet battery pack in the rear

And this is now taking off in a big way, without any excuses about getting wet etc. The issue was never with getting wet in the rain (they still had their cars as backups, right?). The issue was not wanting something too different from what everybody else had! And an e-bike is sufficiently close to a bike that droves are now using one.

So summarizing - be careful not to follow BMW in blowing a billion Marks on satisfying customers that aren’t telling you the real reason they don’t want your stuff.

Instead, find people that DO have an open mind, or try being close enough to what your customers already know, while still delivering superior value. Another solution is to wait it out until sufficient people start agreeing that what you offer is just better. Might take longer than you have though!

Good luck!

PS: I’ve also been told that the BMW C1 was a pretty crappy bike. That never helps!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Boekbespreking: Doe eens normaal man (in 7 stappen naar een betere politiek)

"Doe eens normaal man (in 7 stappen naar een betere politiek)" van Kustaw Bessems en Dirk Jacob Nieuwboer

Laat ik beginnen met zeggen dat ik vind dat dit boek in 250-voud over het Binnenhof verspreid zou moeten worden, een exemplaar voor ieder kamerlid, minister en staatssecretaris. (Update: Dirk Jacob meldt dat alle 150 Tweede Kamerleden een exemplaar gekregen hebben!) Tevens zou nog een flinke oplage neergelegd kunnen worden in de diverse kamerrestaurants & toiletgelegenheden, voor het geval iemand het gemist had.

Van de achterflap "Hoe komt het dat politici zo gek praten? Waarom vinden ze het zo moeilijk sorry te zeggen? Mogen ze trots zijn op een compromis?". En dat raakt me. Ik kom uit een politiek nest, je kon in het verleden meerdere malen stemmen op mijn vader, mijn moeder en zelfs oma, voor provinciale staten, gemeenteraad en we hebben zelfs tweemaal een gedeputeerde gehad. 

Als kind stonden mijn broer en ik vooraan met prinsjesdag in het gebouw van de tweede kamer, omringd door de kinderen van kamerleden & andere kamermedewerkers. Dolle pret. Mijn moeder zette haar kooktalent (naast haar beleidsmatige werk!) maar al te graag in voor politieke doelen, wat resulteerde in dinertafels vol politici. Van huis uit was de politiek ons dierbaar, en iets van heel dichtbij. 

En daarom doen de afgelopen decennia mij zo'n pijn. Een politicus breekt een verkiezingsbelofte schofterig, en staat slechts uren later uit te leggen dat hij zo blij is met het resultaat. Er zijn grote fouten gemaakt en er volgt een excuus dat je van een peuter niet zou accepteren ("als ik mensen gekwetst zou hebben betreur ik dat"). Maar ook, een politicus presenteert een visie en krijgt kritiek dat ie geen concreet plan heeft, een andere politicus presenteert een concreet plan en wordt verweten geen visie te hebben. Het is ook nooit goed!

In "Doe eens normaal man" leggen Bessems en Nieuwboer (beide journalisten) uit hoe dat nou zo gekomen is, en uniek, ze bieden ook suggesties hoe het op te lossen. 

Het eerste hoofdstuk begint gelijk heel sterk, en ik denk eigenlijk dat dit als wortel van het boek zelfs nog wat onderbelicht blijft. Een politicus moet weten waarom hij of zij de politiek in ging. Als ie eenmaal aangekomen is in Den Haag moet ie het niet vergeten, en hij moet het ook duidelijk uit blijven spreken. Bij afwijking van de idealen mag je dat best zeggen. Met pakkende voorbeelden over Wouter Bos, Job Cohen, Diederik Samsom en Jeanine Hennis maken de schrijvers duidelijk hoe het (niet) moet.

Persoonlijk denk ik dat als je als politicus geen helder antwoord hebt (en durft te geven) op de vraag waarom je nou de politiek in wilde je net zo goed gelijk kunt stoppen. Dit is echt de wortel van het verhaal, wat overigens uitgaat van politici die oprecht hun best willen doen.

Het volgende hoofdstuk beschrijft het vermaledijde "draaien". Normale mensen veranderen, gegeven veranderende inzichten of omstandigheden, van mening. Bij politici heet dit gelijk "draaien" en is dat "niet eerlijk". Wederom met voorbeelden leggen de auteurs uit hoe je fatsoenlijk moet en kunt draaien, en dat als je het uitlegt je publiek dat ook zal begrijpen. Zo dom zijn die stemmers niet namelijk.

Volgende hoofdstukken geven gelijksoortige inzichten in het sluiten van compromissen (wees eerlijk dat het jouw keuze niet was, leg het niet zo uit alsof je toch gewonnen had), excuses aanbieden (oprecht en zeg wat je geleerd hebt), "geen commentaar geven"  (leg uit waarom je niks zegt, ontken niet dat je niks zegt!) en hoe normaal te blijven praten.

De rode draad in dit verhaal is dat als je een helder en eerlijk verhaal hebt, en je niet poogt te verstoppen achter Haags gekonkel of slimpraterij, je electoraat dat zal waarderen. En wat hoop ik dat dat waar is! Bessems en Nieuwboer zijn beide goede verstaanders en denken na over wat ze horen en lezen. Hun inzichten (ook buiten dit boek) bewijzen dat. 

En het doet hun pijn hoe politici vol met wijsheden als "in een vlek moet je niet wrijven" en "stilzitten als je geschoren wordt" steeds vreemder praten en schijnbaar nooit meer met minder dan absoluut succes uit een vergadering komen, en zeker nooit ongelijk hebben gekregen!

Ik ben er echter niet zeker van of de door de auteurs aanbevolen duidelijkheid (en ze geven vele goede voorbeelden die op mij erg overtuigend overkomen) ook aansluiting zal vinden bij het publiek en met name de media.

Het siert de auteurs dan ook dat ze zelf ook nog een afsluitend hoofdstuk 'media' opgenomen hebben, over hoe journalisten zelf bijgedragen hebben aan de vervreemding van politici. Met prachtige voorbeelden laten ze zien dat "het ook nooit goed is". De media zullen nieuwe duidelijkheid niet moeten gebruiken als excuus gehakt te maken van de helder pratende politicus!

Tussen de concrete hoofdstukken bovenstaand genoemd zitten prachtige epistels over het wisselen van zwakke ministers, vijf nieuwe "droompartijen" (ik zou erop stemmen!), de gevaren van tot laat door vergaderen en de onzin van bezuinigen op de politiek zelf.

Afsluitend, zoals eerder gezegd zou ik het geweldig vinden als ieder aanstaand kamerlid bij de eerste vergadering een exemplaar van die boek zou aantreffen op zijn of haar zetel. Samen met "Je hebt het niet van mij" van Joris Luyendijk (wat een stuk cynischer is) zou dit boek tot de verplichte introductiecursus moeten behoren.

En ik hoop van harte dat de media en het publiek de resulterende helderheid en duidelijkheid niet zullen afstraffen, maar waarderen.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The various factors behind the obesity epidemic

Over the past thirty years we’ve seen the levels of obesity explode in the western world - even in the face of lots of government & public health efforts to aid us in becoming thin again. Recently, many of us have become convinced we know why we got so fat, and that we also know the solution. However, in this post, I’ll point out that although we’ve come a long way, we aren’t there yet. This article is both for the people convinced “it is the calories, stupid” and for the folks who are sure “it’s the carbs/fructose stupid”.

I’m indebted to Yoni Freedhoff, Con Kolivas, Adele Hite, Denise Minger and Stephan Guyenet who’ve been thinking longer and harder about this issue than at least I’ve been able to, and who rightfully point out that dropping the carbs” is at best a partial solution, and can’t be the complete story how we got here.

So why do we get fat? Well, because we ingest more energy than our bodies are burning, leading to storage. And as much as we all hate the old dogma ‘just eat less and move more!’, this original statement remains true. Up till recently, the only reason why people thought you got fat was lack of discipline: otherwise you would just eat less and move more!

And of course, we now know this picture to be incomplete. Since obesity rates started to explode in the 1980s, there hasn’t been a massive decrease in willpower and discipline. However, in a real sense, the level of discipline is part of the equation. For example, someone able to permanently go hungry, and willing to spend hours a day on exercise, will most definitely be able to become as skinny as they want.

In the 1990s when I first read up on the theories behind obesity (since I was massively so), it was widely denied that people could have a propensity towards getting fat. Almost all fat people I know claim they eat less than their normal weight counterparts, and I knew this to be the case for me (at least mostly), but government education and popular scientific opinion at the time denied that: anyone ingesting less than (say) 1800kcal should be losing weight - with a narrow exception for folks with thyroid issues.

Since then, we’ve discovered that many people are insulin resistant, also known as ‘pre-diabetic’, and their bodies are “setup to get fat” given the low-fat diet typically recommended. There are also other reasons a body might “want” to get fat. So, the new chart becomes:

In this model, some people might be very resistant to getting fat, and only need a little bit of discipline to keep their weight under control, maybe say to lose some pounds gained over the holidays. Other people however could have a high propensity for getting fat and need to ration themselves strictly, closely monitoring what they eat and living a very active lifestyle.

We now know that the propensity to get fat is in all likelihood both an innate feature of an individual and something influenced by (historical) diet and lifestyle.

It is easily observed these days that for large fractions of the public, the level of discipline required is not sufficient to counter their propensity to get obese. But how did that happen? Enter the third part of the equation:

Our current environment is highly obesogenic. We’re surrounded by highly rewarding food and highly caloric drinks. They are everywhere, they are cheap and they are marketed heavily. It takes work to refuse the food since it is thrown at us at work, school & play.

Not all foods are created equally. Compare for example three large apples with one glass of apple juice. Both could contain the same amount of energy (if no extra sugar has been added to the juice!), but you could drink a glass of apple juice AND finish your lunch. However, try eating three large apples before you start lunch - you might no longer want it!

In the limiting case, in an environment dominated by unprocessed whole foods, you wouldn’t need discipline to stay thin, you’d need to work very hard to get fat! This is not our world however, in reality ultra-palatable highly caloric, nutritionally poor foods are far cheaper and more available than highly satiating nutritionally rich versions.

Similarly, historical obesity rates (pre-1980s) in The Netherland were three times lower than in the US. This may well be because The Netherlands is a highly walkable country where parking spaces are at a premium compared to the US (where most people get around by car).

In this way, an environment can be obesogenic based on what food is on offer, how heavily it is marketed and how much transport and work lend themselves to naturally getting exercise (which lowers obesity propensity).

There is one more step to go until the picture is complete:

You might have all the discipline in the world, but if the advice you are getting is wrong, you are expending that discipline incorrectly. So for example, if you are being told you’ll lose weight by avoiding fat, especially saturated fat, and you end up eating loads of highly processed ‘lite’ products high in sugars and refined grains but low in nutrients - you’ll have a FAR harder time losing weight than someone told to eat highly satiating whole foods lower in carbohydrates and full of nutrients.

Meanwhile, if you have little discipline, but you are getting great advice on how to make the most of it, this will get you a lot further. And if your advice is upside down (for example, if people tell you you must exercise off your excess pounds), the more discipline you have the worse it might get!

What this teaches us

Now that we have the picture complete, we can start drawing some conclusions. We know all four boxes are part of the equation: infinite discipline will lead to the desired result, as long as the advice is even slightly correct. An environment where calorie rich satiety-poor food is rare makes it nearly impossible to get fat. Finally, the propensity to get fat differs, and there are people that couldn’t get (& stay) fat even if they tried.

Meanwhile, we can consider the amount of discipline to be roughly constant. I know of no way to teach adults more discipline. I know discipline can be used for many things, and food and exercise are just two of them. Governments and media have already convinced us that if you are fat, getting thin should be your absolute #1 priority - you can’t make it any more important than that.

However, the obesogenicity of the environment can be tweaked, for example by no longer inundating people with (free or cheap) food everywhere they go, banning (for real) the marketing of food to kids, regulating the sugar content of drinks etc.

Also, we can improve the advice people are getting: the current message of low-fat eating and exercise for weightloss is just provably wrong. This means we are wasting the discipline that people proveably have!

Finally, the propensity to get fat is partially inherited (sorry!), but is also influenced heavily by what we eat today, and what we’ve been eating and doing historically. We can’t change the past, but by exercising more, rectifying micronutrient deficiencies, reducing carbs, avoiding sugar and more specifically fructose and oxidized and otherwise molested fats, the propensity to get fat can be reduced.  

Some perspective

In the paleo, low-carb, ketogenic blogosphere, there is a lot of anger about our government advice being wrong, and that removing sugar and reducing carbs will Solve Everything, since carbs drive insulin drive fat storage “qed” etcetera.

However, professionals actually working on implementing this modern advice find that while us folks all hot and bothered in the blogosphere are able to lowcarb & paleo it for the rest of our lives, it is not yet sustainable for the general population. And given the framework outlined above, we know why - if our environment is overly obesogenic, not everyone will have sufficient discipline to resist it - even given good advice.

Secondly, while the carbohydrate theory of weight gain is attractive, over the past centuries humans have eaten a lot of carbs - the larger question is why the propensity to get obese crept up so much, and to be honest, we don’t have the full answer yet. It is more than carbs. What gets us OUT of this mess (dropping the carbs) may not have been what got us INTO it.


To make serious headway into reducing obesity (or more importantly, improving our health results!), we need to do more than banish carbs. As Yoni Freedhoff has stated, the only diet you can keep up for life is one you enjoy. Serious headway has to come from all sides: better nutritional advice, less of the wrong food and more opportunities for naturally expending energy.