Why product ideas scale (a lesson from bicycle brakes)

If you want to know how to make your product reach all of humanity, you need to think about God, bicycles and viruses.

Richard Dawkins didn’t believe in God but he did coin the concept of a meme, a cultural idea that spreads like a virus through human society. If you work in marketing or advertising, you’re in the business of meme propagation whether you know it or not — at core, you’re trying to make an idea spread like wildfire, at first with paid advertising but eventually, you hope, organically, until everyone ends up wearing miniskirts or their baseball cap on backwards because, well, everyone else is doing it. The history of ideas that suddenly seem everywhere is long and often silly: Hula hoops. Men’s neck ties. Women’s lipstick. Religion. Yes, God is a meme, and he’s been the longest lasting one.

What’s interested is how such individual ideas first take root. The photo here shows an upcoming product meme — an evolution in bicycles called disc brakes. If you ride bikes infrequently, you may laugh at cyclists with their obsession on design nuance (and whacky bright-colored clothing). But look closer and there are reasons for cyclists’ madness. Skin-tight shorts actually stop chafing and keep cloth from flapping around their delicate parts. Bright colors prevent them from being hit by cars. And bicycles with ever-more-sophisticated lightweight frames make a big difference when you cycle for 3, 4 or 5 hours a pop. It may seem ridiculous to consider spending $4,000 on a child’s scooter-toy, which is about what high-end bikes cost, but once you move to carbon fiber that propels like the wind and absorbs nasty vibrations from the road in hour 6, you’ll never go back.

This month Bicycling magazine predicts disc brakes — that little round wheel near the hub in this photo — will soon be on most road bikes. Disc brakes have been used for years on high-end mountain bikes, where they work extremely well in allowing controlled descents on rocky terrain, but most road bikes still use the older “caliper brake” technology: two little rubbery flaps that clamp down on the outer rim of the wheel. Trouble is, high-end bicycle wheels are made from carbon, the pressure from those rubbery brake pads can cause carbon to fail, and those traditional caliper brakes work like crap in the rain — sometimes causing the rear wheel to lock up and the cyclist to skid to pavement. Disc brakes work dramatically better than those stupid rubbery calipers, even in the rain, giving a cyclist effortless control.

OK, so now you ask, “duh, why didn’t we get better disc brakes before?” Well, it turns out disc brakes have problems too — they weigh more, put stress on the frames so frames need to be redesigned, and if you really crank down hard on them they can overheat and cause total failure. Not cool when approaching an intersection at 40 mph.┬áBut disc brakes will come, because manufacturers will begin pushing them and working out the kinks in the technology, until someday soon everyone who is into cycling will feel the need to upgrade.

Product scale starts with a formula

Why do entire product categories go through such fits and starts until their meme scales? Because, like any marketing message trying to break through, the idea (meme, rhymes with “gene”) must overcome the formula for going viral:

Viral spread = (Message propagation rate – Absorption rate) * Cycle time.


V = (M – A) * C

As we’ve discussed before, this simply means more people must pass the idea along than those who stop passing, or absorb it. Cycle time (unrelated to bicycles) is simply the speed of each stage of potential message passalong.

This is why it takes a long time for new product ideas, even brilliant ones, to scale. Markets of established products have enormous absorption rates, because the entrenchment of older product designs raises passalong friction. For instance, there is a reason you likely have not bought an electric car, even if you hear they are faster and cleaner, because every street corner has a gasoline station and you’re not certain where or how to charge an electric car’s battery. And admit it. You also are worried you’ll look like a geek. You are unlikely to be the first in your office to wear pink neckties, but if next year pink power ties come back and 10 people around you don them, you’ll be tempted to join the throng. The sheer mass of other options creates a high absorption rate that blocks the new meme from spreading. But if the idea can break through, and gather momentum among the contacts surrounding you, the perceived absorption rate falls, creating a virtuous cycle of adoption.

You are more likely to pass a new idea along if you are less worried about peer pressure. New product ideas scale only when they achieve critical mass that allows non-early adopters to feel more comfortable in spreading the idea. If M in the formula above increases enough, it begins to lower A, which makes M get bigger and bigger until A all but disappears. This is why you wear pants and not a kilt, and why most people in your local community belong to one or two similar religions.

All of this means when the guy next door whom your wife thinks is kind of cute buys a new road bike with disc brakes, you’re going to rush out to buy one too.

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