Segway: what is all about?


The Segway story is incredible.

It is the year 2001, when the worldwide media is beginning to spread rumours of the arrival of something extraordinary and unique, possibly even revolutionary.

Insiders are talking about a pioneering transportation system that they call IT or Ginger.

Its creator, Dean Kamen, has declared that “it will be to the car what the car was to the horse”.

I vividly recall how excitement about this invention grew over a period of many months.

Moving forward to December 3, 2001, when the “invention of the century” was introduced. It eventually came to be known as a Segway, a transliteration from the Italian “segue” (meaning “it follows”). The initially declared annual sales target for 2002 was a minimum of 50,000 units.

The Segway is technically a vehicle equipped with two parallel wheels, secured to a base on which is mounted a shaft surmounted by a handle, and keeps balance thanks to a complex system of gyroscopes. It can reaches a top speed of 20 kms per hour, running on battery power, and the battery life is fairly long.

Certainly, this is innovative… but does it really merit the rumoured investment of $ 90 million?

In my opinion, the countless problems that characterised the Segway’s history since its market launch are entirely due to a fundamental lack of initial planning.

As early as 2002 , at the time of the market launch, legal problems begin. The city authorities raise the question: To which category should this transportation device be assigned?

Can you use it on the sidewalks? And in pedestrian areas? And isn’t it more like a bicycle or a motorbike?

Some U.S. public authorities develop into good advertising channels, like the U.S. Postal Service that allocate some models to the postmen. Disney buys some Segways for use at its theme parks. In November of the same year, Segways also begin to be sold on Amazon at a price of $4,950 (not really an entry-level price ).

In 2003, a spectacular piece of negative publicity.  President George W. Bush tries a Segway for the first time… and many of us will remember the image of his taking a tumble.

President Bush fall down the Segway

Would you trust to spend $5,000 on something that knocks the President of the United States flat on his face?

In September 2003, the manufacturer recalls all 6,000 pieces already sold (compared to 50,000 planned sales) due to a serious technical problem: when the Segway battery was low, there was a risk to the driver of loss of balance.

In 2004, the coffers are empty, but Kamen manages to collect another $31 million from new investors and continues his efforts to launch the beast, but his losses are huge.

In the period between 2004 and 2006, many attempts are made to sell different Segway models: for golfing, for the police, for long distance runs. Sales increase a little, but we are still a far cry from the 50,000 pieces targeted in the initial sales estimate (we achieve sales of about 10 thousand pieces per year).

In 2009, the ongoing crisis and failure to reach a viable production level lead to the sale of the company to James Heselden, a British entrepreneur and owner of Hesco, a military equipment manufacturer.

However, in 2010, at a location a few hundred miles north of London, Heselden is found dead next to a Segway, at the bottom of a cliff, due to a fall apparently sustained while driving it.

Today, the Segway is mainly used by some police forces and small tourism companies, who use it to organise city tours (sigh!).

But what, in my opinion, were the mistakes made, and especially the lessons that can be learned?

  1. Creation of excessive expectations: it was defined as an innovation comparable to the advent of the PC or the Internet. Good public relations are useful, but this was overkill and damaging.
  2. It was a product, not a solution: It works fine … but where can you park it? Where can you charge the battery? Can you use it on the road or the sidewalks? What is the need for which it provides an answer?
  3. Lack of planning: Many of the problems already seen would have been avoided with proper advance analysis and programming.
  4. Absence of a clear target market.
  5. It was an invention, not an innovation: The inventors were surprised to receive negative feedback after the launch.
  6. The technical problem of 2003 when the company recalled all the products sold. Loss of confidence just when could have seen a positive upturn.
  7. Inability to handle relations with the public authorities: Could be part of step 3, the lack of planning.

The most successful innovations always require a certain degree of interaction, experimentation and collaboration with a support system. And it is necessary to identify target users with a need for what you are creating. Furthermore, if it is a radical invention, it must gain market acceptance.

Otherwise, it will always and inevitably failure.


Italian version of this article here.


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