Larry Kim, the founder of WordStream, posted an image and a question on LinkedIn that evoked around 300 comments.
The image, shown above, shows a classic BIC® Cristal looking identical in 1955, 1985 and 2015. Alongside the image was the question: ‘What’s the message here?’
Larry’s question appeared to irritate some people, prompting one to write: “What gives you the right to ask, …as if you’re the only one who knows the answer?”
Perhaps it’s a more complex question than it first appears, something I suspect Larry is very well aware of.
Some comments were witty (and spot-on): “Shooting spitballs in school never goes out of style.” Others were a little harsh, if not lacking in imagination, but implying they knew the only correct answer:
“Not thinking different”, “Not a penny has been spent on Research & Development for decades”, “No imagination”, “Laziness”, “Cheap and popular”, “a finger torture device for 6 decades and still going”, and so on.
The majority were variations on the same theme: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
But is that the right way to think?
The ballpoint pen was never going to fail
Hungarian, László Biró, invented the ballpoint pen and received a British patent for it in 1938.
A few years later he sold the European rights to Marcel Bich for the staggering sum of $2m (equal to roughly $30m today).
Bich was an established expert in writing instruments and a natural strategic thinker.
Consequently, he refined László’s original ballpoint design and launched the BIC® Cristal in 1950.
Prior to the pen’s launch, Bich had no premonition that his ultimate design would be beyond perfect. He didn’t know it would meet everyone’s needs, nor that it would endure, unchanged forever.
That didn’t stop one of Larry Kim’s responders writing: “Think of all angles before bringing a product to market”
Sound advice, but a somewhat naïve notion, as it suggests product designers should somehow know every feature ever likely to be desired in a product before launching it.
Bich was a smart man. He knew how to commercialise products, especially writing instruments. He also knew how to identify attributes that would lead to the success of a product.
What he couldn’t predict was the unrivalled and unprecedented success of the ‘biro’. Nor that its success would continue to the present day.
They say the BIC® Cristal ballpoint pen is ‘the greatest pen ever made’. In September 2006, BIC® reached the incredible milestone of 100 billion Cristal pens sold. Yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’.
The evolution of the greatest pen ever made
The future of an otherwise successful product lies in allowing it to evolve according to the needs of the market.
This means if the market isn’t asking for a better version, you probably shouldn’t create one. Doing so may well increase sales revenue but at the expense of higher production costs. Bich knew keeping production costs to a minimum was essential.
It would have been easy for Bich to acknowledge those who criticised the biro for its simplistic design and basic operation. He could have tried developing the pen further to ensure it remained contemporary.
But no. He kept the pen’s design as it was in 1950, pretty much as it is to this day, and used the feedback and changing needs of his customers to develop new, similar products.
Below is BIC’s® current range of pen products, some of which have been around for decades. The iconic Cristal ballpoint is bottom-left.
One man’s loss is another man’s gain
It’s a universal fact of life that everyone loses pens.
Even Bich, with his legendary forward-thinking, could not have predicted our ability to lose pens on a massive scale, but doing so has created one of the greatest consumables known to man, and a pen manufacturer’s dream product.
Billions of pens end-up in landfill sites because we can’t recycle them without separating the metal and plastic elements, but where do the rest of them go? Perhaps the late, great Douglas Adams of ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ fame had the right idea;
“Somewhere in the cosmos unattended ballpoints independently make their way through wormholes in space to a planet entirely given over to ballpoint life forms.”
It’s as good an explanation as any.
Don’t innovate for the sake of it.
Product evolution is natural and can often be a good thing. It’s not uncommon to see products relaunched as new and improved, but it occasionally happens with disastrous results.
Mobile phone companies are famous for the constant flow of sleeker, faster, better devices they bring to market, and early adopters rush to be among the first to own one.
August 19th, 2016, Samsung released the Galaxy Note 7 to succeed the Note 5 (version 6 never saw the light of day). Unsurprisingly, it included new features such as the futuristic ‘edge’ screen. Samsung hailed the Note 7 as its latest flagship device.
Unfortunately, the Note 7 had a habit of catching fire or exploding, destroying jeans, jackets and handbags along the way, and even, allegedly, a car. Airlines were quick to ban the Note 7 on flights, much to the intense frustration of the early adopters. Samsung responded with a mass recall costing them around £4.3bn.
Is the lesson here not to release updated versions of already-successful products? No, not at all. And definitely not if a failure wouldn’t cause the company to collapse.
The lesson is to only update or redesign if there’s a genuine need. In fairness, it’s slightly different with mobile phones as they’re technology-based and we have an insatiable appetite for new electronic devices that are sleeker, faster and better than the one we own already.
The BIC® Cristal did also evolve from its original design, but only in subtle ways and only by the minimum required. The barrel shape became hexagonal to improve grip, and a small hole appeared in the barrel’s side to reduce the vacuum created by the rotating ball, thereby improving ink flow.
Users welcomed the change to the barrel shape, whilst other minor changes went largely unnoticed, despite adding significantly to the long-term success of a pen that has remained fundamentally unchanged since the 1950s.
As one responder to Larry Kim’s post put it beautifully;
“Let’s not assume no innovation just because this one pen hasn’t changed.”
Six points you can learn from the humble BIC® Cristal ballpoint:
- Understanding why your product is successful, not just that it is successful, is crucial in knowing whether or not it will need to evolve at some point. The sprung wooden clothes peg we know today has barely changed since its invention in 1853, almost 170 years ago. Billions continue to be sold around the world.
- Diversify, but not at the expense of the original product’s success. Just because you’ve developed an incredible drone, doesn’t mean you should venture into electric car manufacture.
- A successful product could just as easily fail in the hands of the wrong person. Marcel Bich knew what he was doing, and he understood his customers’ needs.
- If a product doesn’t fulfil the basic needs of the masses, no amount of marketing or advertising will make it successful, not long term.
- It’s crucial to understand how your product matches the needs of your intended customers, and also the potential size of the market.
- Occam’s razor is usually spot-on; the simplest solution is usually the best solution. Try not to overcomplicate things.
Only you can decide how, when, and why your product should evolve into an improved or even radically new version of the original. Even then, consider that it’s possible a newer version might destroy your existing market.
Better to be a clothes peg than an exploding mobile phone.
Originally published on Medium