Chris Duncan on Gary Fisher|
Saturday, March 11, 2006
|Photo courtesy of bikeskills.com
|Chris Duncan with kids at bikeskills
Editor's Note: Thanks to Bikeskills.com for the interview with Chris...
Bikeskills: Chris, you've been working with the Fisher crew as well as Gary Fisher himself on new products, what can you tell us about the people, the process and the products?
Chris Duncan: Let me answer those questions LIFO… That's a fancy accounting term that I learned last week; it means last one first. To be more precise, last one in first one out.
As far as products are concerned, I've been talking to the people at Trek/Fisher (Trek is the parent firm of Gary Fisher Bicycles) for some time now. Initially I was communicating with their product managers about what a dirt jumping bicycle is in general, and more specifically, how to make what I feel would - and will - be great jumping bicycles.
Bikeskills: Chris, there are lots of people out there that love everything bicycle, are interested in the industry and the development processes you're talking about. So first of all, what is the person, the product manager, and what do they do?
Chris Duncan: That's a great question. Simply put, the product manager is the person that is responsible for making it all happen. While they may not get all the credit, they're the ones that start from the ground up - literally - to create everything from the geometry of the frame, make decision about components, right down to the paint schemes and, before I forget, establish pricing.
Bikeskills: So the product manager is the person that really determines what we get as consumers?
Chris Duncan: It would be nice if it were that simple. If the product manager were given the assignment to make the best possible bike for a given purpose it would still be hard, but you can imagine what he or she would come up with: we all have a pretty good idea of what the best frame materials are, the best components, etc. But for the most part, that rarely happens.
Instead, product managers have to deal with a three-headed monster: price, profitability, and production. The product manager first and foremost has to ensure that they have a product that people will buy in terms of its price. That said, that product at that price has to be profitable to the company. This is an area that most of us, whether we're riders, consumers, even dealers don't always see, understand, or agree with, but in the end, it simply has to be that way: if a company doesn't make money, they go out of business.
Production is often the element that messes things up because every production delay, extra or unplanned step, etc. adds costs which eats in to profitability.
Bikeskills: But I thought marketing was the "four Ps" not three?
Chris Duncan: Wait a minute here, is this a marketing quiz or an interview?
Chris Duncan: Fair enough; just so I know.
The four "Ps" are product, price, place and promotion. There are lots of places to learn about them. In fact, you can do a quick web search and find a great deal of information about what are considered the bare essentials of the "marketing mix." And while the product manager does have to deal with those 4 Ps - and lots more - my point is that figuring out how to rapidly build a quality product that comes in at the right price while still delivering profits to the bottom line is what the product manager loses the most sleep over.
Bikeskills: Okay, back to the interview. So what about these products and the product manager you're working with?
Chris Duncan: As I was saying, I had been talking to the product manager who was - and is - in charge of developing dirt-jumping bikes for Trek/Fisher going back to March of this year.
I take what I do very seriously. The bicycles and components I use not only have to be rugged and reliable, they have to be designed in ways that allow me to flip, invert, and make subtle corrections - in the air - within a very small envelope of time and space. My experience has been that some people in the industry responsible for designing these products understand this; unfortunately, others don't. From my first conversation with the people at Trek/Fisher I was hopeful that they understood.
The first step in designing a bicycle for a professional cyclist - whether it's Lance Armstrong's time trial bicycle or a dirt jumping bike for me - is pretty much the same - but not what you might expect. It's not experience in building bikes that counts nearly as much as the ability to have an open dialog, be able to listen and ask questions when what's being said is not 100 percent clear, not to impose the way they've designed other bicycles in the past, and - something that is rare in the bicycle industry - have the people that have both an understanding and skills at what they do.
Bikeskills: Most of that makes sense except for that last part, the part about people having an understanding "and skills." What do you mean?
Chris Duncan: Glad you asked. Most people know what skills are. A skilled welder lays down a bead that's often described as looking like a shiny stack of dimes or nickels. A skilled welder's weld will have proper penetration and he or she will always ensure proper surface preparation, use the proper settings on the equipment, use the correct filler rods, etc. On the other hand, it is both unfair and inappropriate to expect - or demand - that the welder understand the physics and metallurgy of the tubing, filler, thermal processes, etc. That's the description of an engineer's and or a metallurgist's education and training.
Bicycles and bicycle components are so complex now that in addition to fine crafts people, like painters, and welders there's an increasing need for people that do understand things like metallurgy, physics, and mechanical engineering. The key word being "understand." I feel I understand dirt jumping because I've been doing it for over 10 years and what I can do now is based on a progression which has been long, hard, and when I didn't take things absolutely seriously, painful!
One of the things that makes people like me and my friend, extreme skier Jonny Moseley, feel a lot more comfortable is knowing that there are really smart people ensuring that the things we depend on don't and won't fail. Trek/Fisher has those people.
Bikeskills: Okay, we're getting it: product managers are the key people to ensure that what person like you gets what you both need and want, and then makes sure that the "product" meets the production and financial requirements of the company that's going to make and market them; right?
Chris Duncan: Is this another quiz?
You left out two important parts of the equation: the dealer (or distribution network is the products are sold direct) and the customer! What I want and need, and the product manager endorses and makes happen, is like being in the on-deck circle in baseball: nothing's really happened yet. Prototypes, a perfect bike for me, etc. don't mean the company has either a marketable or profitable product, especially when you consider that a bike deemed "ready for production release" may have cost the company as much as a million dollars to make.
Often, product managers have a pretty good idea of what they want and or need based on marketing research. Some of that research takes the form of going to racing and competitive events, but these days, with less than 2 percent of all mountain bikers competing, more and more marketing research comes from the dealers which actually comes from what customers say, buy, etc.
So, while the product manager has to make sure their product comes to market on time, and at the right price and profitability, if the dealers and or customers don't want it, you may have a Ford Edsel. Personally, I have never seen a Ford Edsel but I read about how Ford built this car that they thought would be really great and, of course, everyone would want. They designed it in double top secret fashion and when they released it, it was a bomb, not "the bomb," but a total loser. Fifty years later the Edsel story is still a classic cautionary tale of "staying close to the customer." Make sense?
Bikeskills: Well, I think we've got the picture. Pretty complex and pretty impressive this whole product management process, how about bringing us up to date with where those products are, what you think of them, and what happens next?
Chris Duncan: Sure. That takes us mid-way through the process part of your first question because as you noticed, despite not having stickers on it, that bike I was doing a back flip over Gary Fisher's head was both very real and produced by the folks back in Waterloo (Trek/Fisher's headquarters).
As I mentioned earlier, I've been in communication with the product management people at Trek/Fisher for several months. I've told them not just what I wanted, but why I need it. The key word here is need. For example, when I tell them I want clearance between the tire and my feet, it's really that I need it in order to perform bar spin maneuvers. It's not a "nice" thing to have, something that would look good, it's an absolute necessity.
My experience has been that virtually every product manager at least appears to be listening to you when you talk to them about needs, wants, and desires. However, not all of them hear what you said, not all understand it and are able to translate it back to the design people, and all too often, product managers either can't or won't fight to ensure that what's needed is what ends up at the dealer's showroom.
Bikeskills: So, in this case - Trek/Fisher - what did happen next?
Chris Duncan: Well, I'd like to say that I was confident that the prototype bike Trek/Fisher built for me would reflect each and every specification and design aspect I'd asked for. And that I was cool, calm and collected. But if Rob Howard reads this, he'll tell everyone that I was jumping to conclusions, expecting the worse and an emotional wreck. While that was pretty much the case, I'd like to point out that I'm the one doing the back flips - not him!
Okay, so I was a bit nervous. But keep in mind what I do, how much depends on the equipment, and how many times I've been let down in the past. That coupled with this being those guys - those guys back in a frozen state whom I'd never met - first try at this.
When I pulled the bike out of the box my first reaction was "ooh..." The second was "ah." But like most people that love all things cycling, flawless harlequin paint over elegant tubes joined with perfect welds is like a Jelly Filled donut to Homer Simpson and the XTR hung all over it is like the sprinkles.
But as soon as I rode the bike around the driveway, I knew that if nothing else, those guys in Waterloo had been listening.
Bikeskills: So you take the bike out and boost some air... And?
Chris Duncan: First of all, what you don't do with a brand new, prototype bicycle is going out and go big! If you've ever watched a documentary on experimental aircraft, you'll notice that even though all those engineers and scientists have checked and re-checked everything, the pilot still does a "walk around" preflight because he's the one - not them - who's going to strap himself to that beast; not the engineers. I do the same thing: I check every single joint, weld, bolt, you name it. On a prototype, something could have been missed, not tightened, you name it. It doesn't matter whether a part or component fail 15 or 50,000 feet up or 15, the results can be disastrous.
Those first flights - and jumps - are the same: one step at a time. The pilot might got through a progression starting with just do a high speed taxi, then a "gear down" low speed, a short flight, only then to actually testing the aircraft's envelope many flights later. In a similar fashion I might perform manuals and J-hops around a parking lot for some time before I actually jump some small tabletops. Only after I'm both certain everything's right in the design, manufacture, etc. do I start doing the bigger jumps, and only after I develop a "feeling" and understanding of the bike do I start doing advanced maneuvers like flips and 360s.
It takes a lot of time to sort out a new bike. And while we're really busy at Bikeskills, I make the time, take the time, because the one thing none of us have time for is to be injured. Taking chances is not smart, and it's the antithesis of being a professional.
The bottom line though is that the bike was and is as good on the jumps as it was and is in the driveway!
Bikeskills: Hold on Chris, you went from being pretty emotional - the donuts and all - to "this product performs as intended." Sounds pretty dry.
Chris Duncan: That's a very good and accurate observation. Like I said, like most people that love bikes, I do get excited when I take beautifully crafted prototype bicycles out of large cardboard boxes. And the Trek/Fisher prototype was a fantastic looking bike. That said, my job was not, is not, to express my emotional feelings about their product's graphics, which ironically, will likely go through several iterations between now and when I product lands in a dealer's showroom. My job and responsibility is to assist Trek/Fisher in developing the best and most appropriate products for their intended use factors and markets.
So after my eye candy observations were over, it was - and remains - strictly business. Moreover, I can tell you with absolute certainty, that that's the way any good product manager wants it: they want constructive input, feedback, and most important of all, criticism: First define it then refine it.
Like I said, so far, the product is performing adequately, and meets the requirements of its intended purposes. How's that?
Bikeskills: Now we really get it. The whole process thing, the cooperation between the rider, product manager, market research, even the role price and profitability play in what we see as customers, but tell us a little bit about the people.
Chris Duncan: When you talk about Trek in general, you first have to realize that you're talking about the equivalent of General Motors - in the good ways - in cars. Like General Motors, Trek is the largest US manufacturer of their respective products. And like GM, Trek has several different brands and lines. GM has Cadillac at the high-end and Chevrolet is their mainstream brand with specialty lines like GMC trucks and Allison diesel and transmission. Trek has high-end lines like Klein, mainstream Trek, and specialized lines like Fisher Bicycles as well as components by Bontrager.
I'm not going to say Trek's products are any better or worse than anyone else's because that gets in to a quasi-religious argument. What I will say is that like GM, Trek has a lot of hard working dedicated people doing their best to make good products. And like any large and or successful company, has its detractors.
My sense of Trek is that they have a legacy of being in business for over 25 years, and something to be both proud of and protect. Secondly, they have lots of people, which can be a dual-edged sword. The good is being able to work with people with different backgrounds, skills, etc. The bad is the conflict and communication problems that can result when lots of people, places and distances are involved. So that's my basic impression of Trek.
But since I'm dealing primarily with the people at the Fisher Bicycle division, you can't talk about Fisher without first talking about the role Gary Fisher first played in mountain biking and continues to play at Fisher.
What I won't do is go in to the history of mountain biking or all the things Gary Fisher did or didn't do. That's been covered elsewhere and everywhere. I will say that he's amongst a handful of people that were there in the beginning [of mountain biking] and an even smaller number that are still there, and fewer still, that are actively contributing not just to mountain biking, but to the community via cycling in general and mountain biking in particular. And that means a lot to us at Bikeskills.
Bikeskills: It sounds as if there's this relationship with the product manager - albeit a business one - and a more emotional connection to Gary Fisher, does that sound right?
Chris Duncan: That's pretty close but I'd like to make it even clearer. First, I'd describe the relationship with the product manager as being more professional than business. The difference is subtle but important. Business, by and large is about profit and loss; increased sales, market share, etc. A profession on the other hand is about specific skills and knowledge. I'm performing specific - professional - tasks and assignments for Trek/Fisher and the same is true for the product manager and our relationship. Some form and level of "business" activity will result.
Regarding my relationship with Gary Fisher, that's a bit more complicated. First of all, there's something that I have to acknowledge right up front: I knew who Gary Fisher was long before Gary Fisher knew who Chris Duncan was. There are probably all sorts of psychological issues and elements to that, but what I'm getting at is the difference between mainstream and niche markets: there are some 15 million mountain bikers engaging in a sport that's been around for some 25 years. There might be 5 percent as many dirt jumpers in a sport that's been around - at best - less than half as long.
So in a way, when I met Gary it was similar to when I met Jonny Moseley: "hey, I'm Chris Duncan, we more or less do the same thing, have experienced many of the same ups and downs, and I'm going back to college at some point as well!" In other words, I don't have to ask Jonny or Gary if they've: landed on their heads one too many times emotionally, or physically, whether they've experienced tremendous ups and downs, wondered whether it would ever be worth it, but somehow each and every day wake up, put the uniform on and hit it. Call it a common past, solidarity, similar paths, call it what you want, to me it's simple: been there.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing my contributions to mountain biking to Gary's or my competitive results to Jonny's, but I'd bet money that we'd come to one another's defense that our journey's have been pretty darn similar. In the end, not only do I respect people like Gary, I know how hard it must have been to get where they are, and to stay there, that's another level altogether.
Bikeskills: We noticed that you've gone from Gary Fisher to Gary. Does that mean you two have a relationship beyond the interview, video, etc.?
Chris Duncan: That's an interesting question. I guess I'd have to say "yes" that we have a relationship beyond the pictures and the interview but not the kind or for the reasons you might think. As I said above, I'm virtually certain that our paths have been similar so there's been a relationship between what we've done, so it stands to reason that we can now relate to one another. What happens going forward is anyone's guess, but Mr. Gary Fisher (how's that?) is a very busy man that seems to be involved in a lot of things from his family, to Trips for Kids, that Gary Fisher Bicycles thing. In other words, my take is that I've spent some time with one of the more interesting and productive people in our sport, I'll meet and see him from time to time, and hopefully he'll remember my name!
Bikeskills: Sounds pretty fascinating. Thanks.
Chris Duncan: The bike industry is a lot of things and a lot of things that start with "F." To fascinating, add frustrating, faddish, fickle, and sometimes financially futile. But first and foremost, it is and should always be FUN.
Now go out and have some!