By Andrew Hendricks
The story of Segway is an interesting one. A scooter and a company that once sought to revolutionize society and instead, settled into respectable company with name-recognition and over-all positive reviews. As someone who is regularly in San Francisco and laughs when the goofy-looking Segway Tourists zip past like joyful lemurs, however, it can sometimes be hard to think of Segway as a true success, and not a niche novelty.
Those of us who remember just how big the hype for Segway was may also have our opinions of Segway's success tainted slightly. Before Segway was Segway, the company behind the gyroscopically-stable electric scooter, it was “It.”
The new millennium was just beginning, and wide-eyed inventor Dean Kamen along with a handful of other tech backers (including the late hype-master himself, Steve Jobs along with Amazon's Jeff Bezos) were so confident of the impact their product launch would have, they actually thought this was a good marketing idea.
Codenamed “project ginger” throughout its development, mysterious advertisements begin to pop up across America about the revolutionary new project called “It” that would change the world. At the time, I was an 11 year old kid who has just seen the late 90's Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman action film, Chain Reaction which included the invention of a way to generate cold fusion. Let's just say as an 11 year old, my standards where high. If you say you're going to change the world, you better deliver!
A year later, when the Segway was revealed on Good Morning America to a less-than-uproarious response, I remember thinking it would be neat to own one, but I didn't see what the big deal was. The original Segway model did 12 miles an hour, used no brakes, and required the ride to shift their weight and use a manual turning mechanism on the handlebars. Models have improved significantly, and are now so reliable that Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak and other proud geeks have popularized the new sport of Segway Polo.
Though he may have misjudged what Segway's impact would be at launch, Kamen was right about one thing, and that is just how innovative his scooter was, and how much people would enjoy their experience with it. I personally have not met a single person who has ridden a Segway who wasn't overall impressed with the experience. Segway was a good product, but it wasn't the “It” of the new millennium. However, as obvious as it is in hindsight that no product will ever be good enough to merit an ad campaign predicated upon associating the product with the most common pronoun in the English language, the notion that Segway really was going to be a game-changer might not have been so ridiculous had it been introduced to the public in either a sensible manner or at a lower price. At its consumer launch in 2003, its original price was a whopping $3,000.
Just months after the unveiling of the Segway, a Guardian article spoke about the reasons behind Kamen's confidence in Segway:
“Mr Kamen has predicted that Segway will replace cars for short journeys, particularly in traffic-ridden urban areas, thus changing the urban landscape by introducing a smaller and more environmentally friendly alternative. Segway runs on electricity, with Mr Kamen claiming that six hours of charging time from a wall socket will power the scooter for 15 miles.”
Living in 2014, more than a decade later where fuel consumption is only barely beginning switching to energy efficiency and the electric car is only barely becoming more than a novelty... it almost feels like we have let down Segway's founder. Who among us hasn't driven countless, walkable errands when a more carbon-friendly scooter ride would have been just as easy?
But Kamen and Segway saw the writing on the wall and realized that their high-minded dreams of an all-electric society scootering as their main mode of transportation was not a realistic business model, and they innovated. From 2004 to 2006 Segway began partnering with a number of local police departments, security guard companies, and golf courses. The company's withering stock began to slowly rise, and in 2009 the then CEO of Segway retired and U.K businessman James Heselden took over as owner and CEO.
In a tragic irony, less than a year after taking the reigns, Heselden died in an accident while riding his scooter. According the a Wall Street Journal articled headlined From Hype To Disaster “Mr. Heselden’s body is found, along with a Segway, after a witness reported seeing a man fall off a 30-foot cliff into a river about 140 miles north of London.”
So with a unique history and a brand almost a decade and a half into its lifespan, Segway still has hurdles ahead of it to maintain its market share and not fall into obscurity. What Segway needs in its future is what Dean Kamen, Jeff Bezos, and Steve Jobs all originally saw as the scooter's future: general adoption. It saved the company that security guards, mail carriers, tourists, and other organizations uniquely benefited from what Segway had to offer, however, until the average Joe considers Segway a transportation staple similar to a bike or car, Segway will continue to fight against novelty and obscurity. And it doesn't bode well for Segway that on their own website, the page which explains in bullet points why you should own a Segway says quote: “You're a trendsetter. You don't care what people think, you know you're cool.”
Thus, Segway is currently—on their very own website—admitting that their ideal customer is someone who doesn't what don't care what people think. Segway, stop shooting yourself in the foot! If you want the every-man to become a Segway user, and if you want us to ditch cars for in-town travel and save the planet, for goodness's sake don't advertise just how dorky you know they make us look!
Yet, as stymied and self-defeating as Segway's marketing has been throughout their history, they are not poised to disappear any time soon, and maybe, just maybe, we could all stand to be a little bit dorkier.