Upside-Down Thinking by Patric Fransko
by Patric Fransko
March 5th, 2014

Three Thoughts to Get Your Business “Rolling” in 2014

My first job out of college was with Schwinn Cycling and Fitness. The year was 1996 and Schwinn was trying desperately to shake the image of being “your parent’s bike.” Their market share was way down and several other major brands dominated the mountain bike trails, roadways, BMX tracks and bike racks on college campuses. The management team needed to act quickly to change the course of this legendary company.

During my time there, I learned three important things during that have stuck with me through the years as I have led and built multiple businesses. I hope these “lessons learned” can be of benefit to you also.

1. Be Willing to Take a Risk: In order to capture the attention of the target demographic, the management team at Schwinn had to be willing to break out of the conservative mold that had guided the company to that point. This meant trying some new and often controversial things. Everything was considered from edgy advertisements and product names (see the logo to the right) that got people talking, to off-the-wall trade show booths that were the buzz of the industry and finally, cool swag everyone in the industry wanted.

It’s easy to look back and see how all of these things worked to reinvent the Schwinn image during that period, but at the time these decisions were very risky. Schwinn had been in business for more than 100 years and had built its reputation over multiple generations. This new image could have turned off many Schwinn loyalists and still not resonated with the demographic they were targeting. However, the team stepped out of the comfort zone and that was an important first step to capturing the attention of the industry and the audience they were going after.

*Change will always feel uncomfortable, but it is often necessary to achieve your goals.*

2. Marry Tradition and Innovation: During this transition, the management team needed to understand all the reasons why their traditional customers bought from them. However, it is just as important to understand why people were NOT buying from them.

At that time, the people that bought a Schwinn did so because it was the safe bet. The brand loyalists had grown up buying Schwinn bikes and, if they were not enthusiasts, they felt comfortable with the brand. However, the enthusiast view of the brand was quite different. The product line was outdated from both a style and a technological standpoint. If that wasn’t enough, the brand was viewed as being anything but “cool” by those concerned about image. Schwinn was considered their “parents’” bike. The team had to find a way to retain their base customer while attracting the interest of consumers that, at that time, were not even considering the brand.

The solution came when the product team dramatically improved the bike quality and style. These new bikes were equal to or better than the competition both technologically and stylistically. This updated product coupled with the marketing team’s use of innovative advertising, flashy point-of-purchase displays, unique promotions, desirable SWAG and “Talk of the Show” trade show booths created a renewed buzz around the Schwinn brand.

These strategies played off of the rich heritage of the brand while spinning it in a new and fresh way.  This combination of great product with terrific marketing forced the entire industry to take another look at this brand they had nearly forgotten. Through it all, the leadership team successfully walked the line of keeping the loyalists while attracting a new market segment that had previously ignored them.

*In your efforts to attract new business, don’t alienate the customers you already have.*

3. Have Fun!: Probably the thing most of those in the industry remember from those years was how much fun the Schwinn team was having while redefining the brand. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of hard work, but we found time to enjoy the process. Not that I would admit it at the time, but there were days that I thought “I can’t believe that they are paying me to work here?!”

I think that much of the camaraderie and fun were the result of two important things. First, the management team hired people that understood the culture they were trying to create and embraced it. Second, the leadership painted a distinct vision of where they were taking the company and got the entire team to buy into that vision. Once we had the right team in place galvanized around a common vision, we were unstoppable!

*Enjoy the process! If you hire the right people and create a vision that they can embrace, reaching your goals will take care of itself.*

The chemistry of these three things helped Schwinn to eventually become the best-selling bike company in the United States. The management team re-invented the brand while never losing sight of what the brand represented. As a result, the brand became even more loved by the loyalists and highly respected among the enthusiasts.

I hope these three lessons I learned with Schwinn help you in your pursuit to achieve something special with your company.

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  1. Thank you Patrick for another influential writeup. I did also love your video “money follows passion”. Although we may all know this. Many often need a refresher or a moment to reflect on our goals, and what we need to do ourselves to meet them.

  2. Derreck,
    Thanks for the kind words. Glad you are enjoying the series!

  3. Regarding point number 2, I think it also really helped that Schwinn created the “Homegrown” brand to showcase their high end, technologically advanced bikes. It almost let them be their own thing, without disturbing the basic reliability past customers found comforting.

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