Years ago as a young product manager I learned that there are three big mistakes that can limit, hurt, or kill a new product: price, spec, and quality. A pricing mistake can be addressed quickly, and if done so correctly, may have little or no long term impact on a product’s success. Spec’ing (selecting) the wrong item like tire width on a production bike usually takes longer to correct. The brand can make a running change to the desirable item or decrease the price of the bike to offset the wrong spec. Running changes can be confusing when the supply chain is mixed, and due to lead-times can take three to six months from decision to delivery. So changing spec is not nearly as quick as an overnight price change, but it can be as or more effective. And then there is the product quality problem. If it is truly a quality issue, then price and spec changes are not real options, and the timing and cost of re-designing the issue can be significant and daunting. The consequences can be “stop-sales” decisions, recalls, boycotts, and loss of customer confidence. These can definitely kill a product and even do serious damage to the brand.
No product manager is perfect, and no brand big or small, inside or outside the bike industry is immune from quality issues. From Shimano to Chipotle to Honda, it can happen to anyone — perusing the recall list on the cpsc.gov site can be depressing. With that said, some companies operate in a manner that decreases the probability of mistakes. At each company where I have worked, I have seen how the culture and operational mindset affect mistake probability. And as a whole, I have seen the bicycle industry mature from the go-go 90s to one that spends a lot more time on development and testing these days.
Here at Cane Creek we have had some missteps over our 46 years, but the one that hurt the most was the DB Inline shock introduced in 2014. The shock took the unique twin tube damping technology from the DB Coil/Air downhill shock and packaged it in a smaller, lighter shock for trail bikes. The shock promised a lot and many were excited during the development stage. One of those excited was the group of MTB developers at Specialized. Always looking for a way to one-up the competition, Specialized went big with the DB Inline, spec’ing it on several of its most popular bike models. But what should have been a big win for Cane Creek, was not. Packaging the twin tube damping into an “inline” arrangement was challenging, and unfortunately we did not do as good a job as we should have. The “win” of getting on thousands of bikes from one of the top bike brands in the world meant that too many riders had a poor Cane Creek experience. To compound matters, we really did not completely dial in the DB Inline until the fall of 2016.
Consequently, Specialized decided to not renew the spec for the next model year, riders were frustrated with sending in their shocks to have them rebuilt, and a hard-earned brand reputation was taking on water. The cost of losing the Specialized business was big. The cost to perform no-charge rebuilds was bigger. But the cost of the stain on Cane Creek’s reputation was the biggest of all. As I said at the beginning, price and spec can be addressed relatively quickly with little or no long-term damage. But a quality misstep can take a long time before it is overcome.
On June 8th, six years after the DB Inline was launched, we launched a significantly updated Helm fork. While I can be accused of being biased, it is a really good fork. Regardless of how good it is or that we have introduced other shocks and our first fork (not to mention a titanium crank that outperforms everything) that have proven themselves for years since the DB Inline, that stain on our brand has not fully faded to some – as a few helpful forum commentators like to point out. It’s a part of doing business, we accept the responsibility, and we will continue to develop cool and unique products that help make riding better and prove to you that Cane Creek is a brand to trust.