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  • Writer's pictureMatt Arnold

Bobby Pins, Drill Bits, and Buggy Whips

Here's a short story to illustrate the importance of understanding customer needs and goals, and putting those goals in the context of your business objectives. One of my favorite classes in high school was Economics taught by Mr. Sbragia. Mr. Sbragia told a story that has stuck with me for decades and help shape my early days of design and strategy.

A bit of context: I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. Rockford was known as the Screw Capitol of the world, as it was known for its numerous factories that produced small metal fasteners. For decades Rockford was a strong factory town with a thriving factory ecosystem. Sadly, the majority of factories (and factory jobs) have left Rockford. Changing business models, customer expectations, and economic realities have changed the landscape.

antique postcard from Rockford illinois.

Mr. Sbragia, told our economics class about one particular business in Rockford. It was a bobby pin manufacturing plant. Their bold goal of this factory was to be the best bobby pin manufacturer in the world. The business reached its goal, yet still went bust. While they produced great bobby pins, pins of the highest quality, hairstyles shifted away from the need for bobby pins. Shorter hair styles, the use of hair spray, the introduction of hair gels, all contributed to a dwindling demand for bobby pins - not matter the quality of the bobby pin.

Mr. Sbragia wanted us to see that the while the company was successful, a business needs to understand the goals and needs of its customers, as well as the context in which they're operating. If the factory was able to reframe their goals and mission to align with helping customers with hair style needs, perhaps the company would still be around today. Sadly, many companies rely on folklore and what they've done in the past to survive the present and try to be relevant in the future.

Understanding the deep needs of your customer needs to be central to your business strategy. Companies need to create and capture value by maximizing the overlapping space of company goals with customer goals.

There's a product management adage about drill bits - your customer isn't looking for a quarter-inch bit, they need a quarter-inch hole. But what about buggy whips? Similar story to the bobbi pin factory. You could be the best buggy whip maker in the world, but the world has little need for buggies and horse-drawn carriages. The deeper need wasn't the whip, it was controlling personal transportation and making that transportation more reliable.

When a company is deep into their lifecycle, its hard to see the problem from a perspective other than what they've done. Kodak eventually saw problems as film processing or chemical engineering issues. The bobby pin factory saw the problem as small fastener issue, focusing on production efficiency. Blockbuster saw video rental as an "in-stock" issue. However, people want to share memories, not focus the chemical processing of Kodak vs Fuji Film. People want help maintain their hair style, they are not interested in having the best pin. People want to be able to watch the content they want, when they want it; they're not overly concerned about stock. All of these companies were on to a customer need and thrived. But, they just didn't continue to focus on the deeper need and goal of their market. While context and expectations change, customer's deep goals and needs can serve as stable design targets.

Avoid the Bobby Pin Outcome

Spark can help your organization better understand your customers' needs and more accurately understand your market. Contact us today and see how we can help you reduce risk and drive growth. Email Spark or call us at 319-322-8737.


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