Monday, December 27, 2010
Vibram and the First-Mover (Dis)Advantage
There's no question about the fact that Vibram staked out a commanding early lead in the market for shoes designed with barefoot-style running in mind. (An substantially accidental lead, to be sure, but I've always said that it's better to be lucky than to be good. Vibram's been a bit of both.) It's natural to assume that their early lead will create an advantage in the market that other players will find tough to overcome. In fact, in technology-driven markets, the smart money says that early leaders will almost always find themselves out-performed by cannier competitors who enter a market in its second wave.
The examples are legion. The Altair 8800 Computer and Radio Shack's TRS-80 models, VisiCalc spreadsheet software, Wordperfect word processing, the Netscape web browser... and on and on. These are all examples of once-dominant technology leaders that are now little more than footnotes in the industry's history.
Which brings us to Vibram. Like these other companies, Vibram's moves to follow up on its early success are not exactly impressive. The company seems to think that its insistence on toe compartments is part of the key to its success. In my opinion, the opposite is more likely the case. Vibram aficionados like the shoes in spite of their difficult-to-don toe design, not because of it. There are plenty of things Vibram could have done for its encore act: shoes that are easier to put on, soles that are thinner, designs that accommodate irregular feet are just a few example. Instead, the company did none of them.
The Bikila, in particular, looks to me like a large step in the wrong direction. They're more like regular running shoes (apart from the still-hard-to-use toes compartments) and less like the shoes that barefoot running demands. Vibram seems to fundamentally misunderstand its market and four page full color inserts in Runner's World are unlikely to help. (I'll give Vibram this much credit, though: "Bikila" is an awesome name for a running shoe!)
So, who will win the minimalist shoe war? It's tough to say right now. There are several impressive entries on the market already and I suspect that more are just around the corner. If I were a betting man, though, I'd put money on the field, not the leader. Vibram got out of the gate pretty fast but I see no signs of staying power.