Category Archives: Start-Up Ventures

Fitbit, IPO Superstar Struggling for Survival

Todd Benschneider, Qingqi Meng, Jesse Rubin, Lisa Velesko, Xueying Zou

University of South Florida
February 3, 2018

 Company Overview

Fitbit was founded in 2007 in San Francisco, California by James Park and Eric Friedman with a vision to help people lead healthier, more active lives by empowering them with data to reach their fitness goals. Since its founding, Fitbit has become the leading global wearables brand and its products have helped users track and get motivated for everyday health and fitness. Fitbit offers an innovative lineup of popular activity trackers including the Fitbit Surge, Fitbit Blaze, Fitbit Charge 2, Alta HR, Alta, Fitbit Flex 2, Fitbit One and Fitbit Zip, as well as an accessory line featuring the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch, Fitbit Flyer wireless headphones and Fitbit Aria and Fitbit Aria 2 Wi-Fi Smart Scales. Fitbit products are carried in 46,000 retail stores across 78 countries around the globe. Fitbit’s platform delivers personalized experiences, insights, and guidance through leading software and interactive tools. The success of these functionalities has grown the Fitbit social community to over 25 million active users in 2017. The International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasts that the wearables market will nearly double by 2021, leaving the door open for Fitbit to grow and continue its market leading footprint in this category.

Founders

James Park, who serves as the CEO and President of Fitbit, was a Harvard dropout with a computer science background. He was also co-founder of two tech startups, Windup Labs and Epesi Technologies, prior to founding Fitbit. His second startup, Windup Labs, an online photo-sharing company, was acquired by CNET Networks in 2005. James then went on to serve as the director of product development at CNET. James’s diverse background in tech startups also included a stint at Morgan Stanley where he built trading software and developed trading strategies for the bank.

Eric Friedman serves at the CTO of Fitbit. He was a co-founder of both Epesi Technologies and Windup Labs with James Park, and served as an engineer manager at CNET following Windup’s acquisition. Eric earned both his undergraduate and masters degrees in computer science from Yale University.

Neither Park nor Friedman had any manufacturing experience when they came up with the idea to create a wearable product that would change the way people move. They had attended and spoke at the TechCrunch50 conference in 2008, hoping to get 50 preorders. Instead, in one day they received 2,000 pre-orders for the product launching their idea into a true product that had real demand. They had spent several months in Asia looking at suppliers and, according to the founders, nearly crashed and burned seven times (Marshall, 2016). They were already serial entrepreneurs at this point, which gave them an advantage as they traversed the struggles of launching and perfecting a new product.

Financing History

After its founding in 2007, Fitbit went through several rounds of successful seed funding. Funding came primarily from venture capital firms to fund its high growth as an early stage fitness technology company.  The founders were able to raise an initial four hundred- thousand dollars from friends and family to get their idea up and running, but the cash ran out quickly (“Fireside Chat with Fitbit”, 2017). In October 2008, Fitbit closed on its first round of Series A funding, raising $2 million in venture capital from True Ventures, SoftTech VC and several angel investors. This was the company’s first round of institutional funding and the company reportedly met with 40 VCs only to be rejected by all of them (“Fireside Chat with Fitbit”, 2017). Two years later, in September 2010, Fitbit closed a Series B funding round of approximately $9 million. As the company continued to innovate and introduce new products to the market, its need for additional capital also continued. In January 2012, Fitbit raised an additional $12 million in a Series C funding round from its existing investors Foundry Group, True Ventures, SoftTech VC and Felicis Ventures.

A little more than a year later, in September 2013, Fitbit was looking to raise additional capital at a $300 million valuation and secured $43 million in Series D funding from Qualcomm Ventures, Sapphire Ventures and SoftBank Capital, along with its existing shareholders Foundry Group and True Ventures. Only six years after its founding, the company had grown exponentially and raised nearly $66 million in seed capital to fund its operations, innovation and growth and was on its way to going public. Finally, in June 2015, Fitbit completed its Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange at $20 per share, raising $731.5 million in capital. The IPO was comprised of 22,387,500 million new shares offered by Fitbit for a total of $447.75 million in fresh capital for the company and 14,187,500 million shares offered by the selling shareholders. This was the largest ever IPO at the time for a company dedicated to wearable technology. On its first day of trading, the shares of the company popped by 54% and again by 20% on the second day of trading on high demand and trading volume on the NYSE. It is important to note that Fitbit took advantage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) of 2012 and registered as an “emerging growth company” (revenues less than $1 billion). This action eased the financial disclosure requirements, thus lowering the cost of going public. Just five months after the IPO closed, Fitbit and its shareholders once again went back to the capital markets and registered a follow-on offering in November 2015.

Unfortunately, market demand for the company’s shares had declined when the follow-on was initiated, which led to the offering being downsized from 7 million to 3 million new shares plus 14 million shares being sold down by current holders. Fitbit was still able to raise $87 million in fresh capital at a $29.00 per share offer price to use for potential acquisitions, working capital and other general corporate purposes, including research and development, sales and marketing activities, general and administrative matters and capital expenditures. Fitbit has not raised any additional equity capital since 2015, but instead has seen its stock price slide to under $6 per share as of January 2018 and its market cap drop from over $6 billion at IPO to under $1.5 billion.

Board of Directors 

Fitbit’s board of directors is comprised of two insider executives and five outside directors. According to Investopedia, the average corporate board size is 9.2 members, so Fitbit may have fewer advisors on its board than its competition. It is important that the founders and company executives surround themselves by intelligent individuals who can help guide the company through its growth and a period of increased competition. Moreover, as the competition in the wearables space increased significantly since the company went public with the introduction of the Apple Watch and other comparable devices, the company will need sound advice for staying competitive. The following table shows the individuals that make up Fitbit’s current board of directors and the important reasoning behind some of their selections as a board member:

Board Member Joined Board Background Reason for Board Selection
James Park Day 1 CEO and President of Fitbit Chairman of the board
Eric Friedman Day 1 CTO of Fitbit Executive Officer of the board
Christopher Paisley January 2015 Executive Professor of Accounting at Santa Clara University. Christopher also sits on the board of 4 corporations in addition to Fitbit Extensive board and operational experience
Laura Alber June 2016 Current President and CEO of Williams-Sonoma Extensive retail industry, merchandising, and operational experience
Jonathan Callaghan September 2008 Founder and Managing Partner of True Ventures Extensive experience with technology companies
Glenda Flanagan June 2016 CFO Whole Foods Market Extensive experience with leading consumer and health-related brands and expertise and background regarding accounting and financial matters
Steven Murray June 2013 Partner at SoftBank Capital Extensive experience with technology companies

 

 

FITBIT’S GROWTH CURVE 

Fitbit’s formation in 2007 was inspired by the fitness potential of the 2006 release of the Nintendo Wii. Park theorized that exercise data could be harvested from the Wii game sessions and the resulting feedback metrics would create friendly competition among friends on metrics for health and fitness accomplishments, capitalizing on the social appeal of video game scoring. At eighteen months, the company had released its first fully functional prototype: the Fitbit tracker, which took second place at the 2008 TechCrunch50 conference. Because of the publicity of Fitbit’s second place finish among a field of respectable competition, the young company received a surprising 2,000 preorders for the $99 clip-on device. With those pre-orders, a successful track record from previous ventures and that technology award, Fitbit had gained enough credibility to attract a variety of venture capitalists (Marshall, 2016). 

The first $2 million in venture capital came within two months of the TechCrunch50 publicity allowing the founders to quickly select a production location in Singapore and contract a manufacturer to build the devices. Their initial prototype, a simple pen sized pod which collected motion activity through a gyroscopic sensor like the one found in a Nintendo Wii controller, contained an integrated Bluetooth transmitter and onboard memory. Park was confident this simple design would prove easy enough to mass produce. However, the design and arrangement of the components did not translate well into mass production, causing several complete redesigns before Fitbit had a product that was compatible with an assembly line manufacturer.

Despite promises that the 2,000 preorders would be filled by December 2008, the deadline proved impossible to meet and the first Fitbit’s did not ship until September 2009, nearly two and a half years after the company’s formation and nine months behind schedule. In the remaining months of 2009, 5,000 additional units were sold. In the first year of distribution, reports of software accuracy problems surfaced, several exercise researchers found that Fitbits activity algorithms greatly overestimated the calorie burn rates, resulting in low levels of weight loss success among Fitbits earliest customers. (Koch, 2016).

Core Vertical Operations 

Fitbit’s original business model disrupted a market of more sophisticated fitness devices, such as heart rate monitors from Polar, Garmin and Magellan. The fitness market of 2007 was served by complex sports watch and chest strap combinations, together they measured exercise intensity and estimated the calories burned by monitoring the electronic signals of heart rate and broadcasting the readings to a sport watch for data storage, then were uploaded by a micro USB cord to a PC for processing and storage. The technology in those heart rate monitors was evolving in 2009 as the Fitbit finally arrived on store shelves, with competing fitness trackers offering more precise GPS features to record distances traveled during exercise. Those emerging sports watches combined the distance data along with a user’s height and weight data and the resulting heart rate to provide workout intensity information and more precise calorie burn estimates (Koch, 2016).

The disadvantages of the heart rate monitor technology of Fitbit’s competitors was that the device sensors required a wide elastic belt to be worn around the chest, which many users found awkward and uncomfortable and regardless of how well these transmitters fit, they often lost signal during exercises involving twisting motions (Kerner, 2017).  Fitbit’s one-piece solution simplified calorie burn estimates by utilizing pre-calculated burn rates based on physical motion, factoring in the wearer’s weight and age, which was surprisingly accurate at estimating calorie burn rates almost as precisely as the more sophisticated heart rate system. It is through this minimalistic hardware and multi-day battery life combined with sophisticated software that Fitbit chose to build their first vertical.

A third area of Fitbits design advantage was its freedom from GPS and cellular connections, the competitors in the heart rate and GPS systems were only marginally accurate at measuring distances, and in doing so they consumed considerable battery power; in addition, most the competing GPS watches required an overnight recharge for every three hours of activity monitoring. The amount of hardware and sophisticated technology in Fitbits competitors also added to the costs with a 2008 price range of between $300 and $800 per device. The combination of awkward chest straps, inconvenient recharging times and high price limited the market appeal of those original GPS fitness trackers to serious athletes and extremely health conscious consumers (Seitz, 2016).

Fitbit’s superior solution simplified fitness trackers, because the designers realized that heart rate and distance were not an absolute requirement to estimate calorie burn for casual exercises. Fitbit’s proprietary technology used a more energy efficient pedometer that detected motions generated by walking and combined that multi-sport motion sensing technology. The Fitbit software could decode the detected movements and estimate what type of exercise was being performed, and estimate the number of calories being used, the wristbands were capable of storing days’ worth of data to later be uploaded to their website for analysis and initial studies found that Fitbit’s projected calorie burn was nearly as accurate at calculating the calorie conversions made by more sophisticated hardware used by Garmin and Polar (Huang, 2016).

In comparison, Fitbit’s simplified wristband motion trackers could also easily be worn around the clock to provide a more comprehensive overview of total activity, including sleep data. The system’s energy efficiency allowed the wristbands to last up to five days between charges and the accompanying fast-chargers could recharge the Fitbit in less than an hour. The comfort and convenience of this revolutionary design combined with the simple technology allowed the devices to sell for a fraction of the price of existing fitness monitors. Fitbit’s original business model also planned for an additional revenue stream created by premium website services such as long-term data storage, charts and analysis for an annual subscription cost of $50, this plan would allow sustainable income after market saturation was eventually reached. All of these competitive advantages created a new vertical product in the health and fitness technology market and Fitbit was the first name that any consumer thought of if considering an inexpensive and simple calorie and exercise tracker (Koch, 2016).

Building substantial height to its core vertical, Fitbit pioneered a corporate wellness sales division, a move that has kept the company ahead of its competitors in the workplace wellness marketplace. These partnership’s competitive advantages have been sustained by Fitbit’s unique customization of user data to comply with the recently passed Health Insurance Patient Privacy Act-HIPPA (Seitz, 2015).

Unmet Market Need Aim & Missed Opportunities

Today, Fitbit continues to face tough competition from the Apple Watch and new fitness technology that offers precision level EKG quality heart rate hardware. Apple was quick to acquire the company who created this technology, with hopes of integrating it into a new market of heart conscious consumers. The future possibilities for the Apple Watch include sending 911 notifications if the user’s heartbeat stops or sending an alert to a user when one’s pulse indicates a warning of an oncoming heart attack. The technology could also prove valuable in solving crimes by alerting authorities the precise time and location of a murder or fatal accident. If Apple pioneers such lifesaving technology in an affordable package with a multitude of companion features, it would be safe to assume a dimmer forecast for Fitbit’s market niche (Feel the Beat of Heart Rate Training, 2017).

Competitive Advantage 

Fitbit’s key early advantage was being the first wearable fitness tracker to market. James Park seized the opportunity to address the unmet market need, developing the first few models that set the bar across the market and Fitbit soon became a household name. The simplicity of the initial out of the box setup and continuous wear and convenience made Fitbit the device of choice with consumers looking for daily encouragement to reach personal health and fitness goals.

With over 25 million current Fitbit active users, Fitbit’s community has become the largest activity tracking population. New consumers are also attracted to join the Fitbit community to chat and challenge brand-loyal friends. Maintaining an active online community has been essential for Fitbit’s most recent technical developments. The more people who track their fitness, find opportunities for improvement and provide feedback, the better the next generation product can be. However, it didn’t take long for tech industry giants to catch up and surpass a device, which was once only a pedometer, with their own patented technology (Entis, 2017).

Today, Fitbit’s greatest advantage is its affordable price. Consumers can purchase a new Fitbit for only $100 compared to the lowest grade of the Garmin watch, the Forerunner, which costs $105 and the original Apple Watch priced at $179. This advantage will continue to attract people interested in tracking their health who don’t want to break the bank on GPS satellite accuracy and smartphone compatibility. As Fitbit adds new features to its product set, as done with its newest model, the Ionic, the price gap is slowly closing and the entrance of $25 rivals from several Chinese manufacturers is squeezing the profits in the market (Lashinsky, 2016).

An additional threat to Fitbit’s future growth is the entry of conventional watch companies such as Timex and Casio offering less expensive $30 competitors in addition to luxury brands such as Tag Heuer, Seiko and Ferragamo that offer integrated activity tracking sensors into conventional jewelry timepieces. The entry of the conventional watchmakers eliminated one common complaint of prospective Fitbit buyers, since many users do not choose to wear a simple rubber wristband in place of or in addition to a conventional watch (Seitz, 2016).

Unique Products and Services that Create Barriers to Entry from Competitors 

Fitbit has been able to defend its position as a market leader through its design simplicity. No competitor has managed to offer novice fitness consumers a smoother transition to integrate a tracking device into their daily routines. The loyalty of Fitbit’s existing customers is reinforced by the storage of historical weight and fitness history through the supporting website and phone applications. If a current user switched brands, they would lose the integration of historical charts and graphs comparing current fitness progress to their own previous levels. Additionally, Fitbit has captured the first mover advantage in corporate wellness programs and has maintained that position through a well-developed Health Information Privacy Law department that protects its corporate clients from employee lawsuits. The base model Fitbit’s simplicity also provides competitive advantages in the corporate wellness market, since its lacks GPS and heart-rate capabilities which eases employee fears of health condition discrimination or inappropriate employee location tracking (Farr, 2016).

Home Office and Distribution

Headquartered in San Francisco, California, the company has expanded its distribution around the world after nearly a decade of development. In addition to North America, Fitbit has a presence in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific with offices in large cities including Boston, Dublin, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, New Delhi and Singapore.

But how does Fitbit expand markets and sell their products in other regions? Take China as an example. Fitbit formally entered the Chinese market in June 2014, following its sales footprint in 42 countries around the world. But why did Fitbit choose to enter the Chinese market in 2014? Fitbit studied the research reports on the health status of Chinese consumers.

In fact, the future health of the Chinese people deserved attention. China’s overweight population has risen from 25% in 2002 to 38% in 2012 and this number reached 50% by 2015. In terms of body fat index, on average, Chinese are not as overweight as Westerners, but the incidence of diabetes in Chinese people is as high as 11%, similar to that of the United States. Furthermore, people categorized as obese now accounts for 11% of the total population. Fitbit can help Chinese consumers become healthier, because it has a lot of measurement functions, such as the number of steps walked, steps climbed, heart rate, quality of sleep, and other personal needs involved in fitness. Fitbit’s products function for sports, diet, sleep and weight management and include peripheral systems to help people build healthier lives (Koch, 2016).

In terms of sales channels, Fitbit understands that online sales in China are very important. Following Best Buy, which uses Jing Dong is its online distributor, Fitbit products have started distribution with Jing Dong.

In addition, Fitbit’s products are now manufactured in Shenzhen, China, an area that is quickly becoming the technology manufacturing region of the 21st century (Entis, 2017). Fitbit also opened a flagship store in Tian Mall. Additionally, conventional distribution channels such as Amazon, sporting goods stores and most large department store chains all carry Fitbit products. The primary mission of the Chinese team is to broaden Fitbit’s brand awareness so that everyone knows what Fitbit is, how it helps people live a healthier and happier life.

Diversity 

Unlike the wide array of applications, functionality and color provided by their wearable trackers, Fitbit is guilty of lacking diversity in the workplace. Like many tech software companies, Fitbit perpetuated a serious gender imbalance in favor of men. The firm took memorable heat from the press in 2015, as their all male Board of Directors generated attention. Even though women dominate the wearable activity tracker consumer base, Fitbit didn’t see it necessary to include females on their board or in leadership positions. The media isn’t the only source reporting misrepresentation. There is a clear consensus among employee reviews on job sites like Glassdoor and Indeed that expose the company as “extremely white-washed” with very little opportunity for growth for minorities that manage to make it in the door. Unfortunately, lack of gender and cultural representation is an all too popular trend in STEM industries and tech software companies in particular.

Recently, Fitbit has made notable strides to diversify its workforce. Two women have succeeded retired board members, while two more have moved up into Vice President roles. As for the inclusion of minorities, Fitbit has yet to demonstrate progress toward their promise to attain an ethnically proportionate workforce. We are hopeful that the firm’s welcome to fair hiring is genuine and Fitbit can create a more inclusive company and culture.

Sustainability 

Today’s most successful new companies clearly published policies and strategies to achieve the Triple Bottom Line results. Like their stances on diversity and global responsibility, Fitbit’s formal policies on sustainable business practices are also non-existent. We can conceive the attention extended to healthcare and fitness, but what about the well-being of the environment? From what we can gather on Fitbit’s consumer output, their products are relatively easy to recycle. Once users decide to give up a wearable tracker or upgrade to the newest version, they can either sell or donate the device. But soon, these old technologies will become obsolete. Their capabilities will prove to be outdated and inaccurate, rendering the whole device useless. In the case that the bracelets are not in reusable condition, there is no solution to keep them from piling up in landfills.

This is where a true opportunity lies for Fitbit. Like the Apple take back system, Fitbit can receive old devices at their end of their life to disassemble into separate, reusable parts. Though this prove an initial cost for Fitbit, they can deliver a new sustainability platform to their consumers and save on usable electronic parts in the long-term. 

Competitor

  • Apple Watch

Fitbit Ionic vs Apple Watch Series 3: Design

There’s no doubt that the Fitbit Ionic lacks a conventional aesthetic appeal; however, it won’t burn your eyes off. Recently Fitbit has been focusing on integrating style into their designs. The Ionic contrastes the Blaze’s angular look, and while we found it grew on us during testing, it’s sure to put a lot of people off.

On the other hand, the Ionic is impressive in how it crams a whole bunch of technology into a slim, lightweight case. You’ve got GPS, NFC, enough battery for four days of life and multiple sensors in a 50m waterproof square. Like the Blaze, there are three buttons on display here. You can use the display to touch your way around Fitbit OS, but if your hands are wet or if you’re in the water you may have an easier way around with some tactility.

With excellent clarity in both low light and glaring sunshine. You’ll get the Ionic in three flavors: a silver watch case with a blue/grey band, a graphite grey case with a charcoal band and a “blue orange” case with a slate blue band. But in case you’re not down with stock bands, you’ll also be able to purchase some nice accessories. There are two-toned breathable sport bands for purchase in three colorways as well as handcrafted Horween leather bands in midnight blue and cognac.

However, Apple watch keeps a design that’s nearly three years old, but the watch is easier on the eyes. Take apple watch series 3 as an example, it stills provide several models to users to choose. There are two different case sizes (38mm and 42mm), three different materials (aluminum, stainless steel and ceramic) and a whole lot of different colors. With the Series 3, you can get the LTE in the whole range, but non-LTE only comes in aluminum. There are also endless band options, from the low-end nylon and sport bands to high-end Milanese Loops and leather bands.

The major differentiator between these two is in the build. If you’re looking for something to complement every outfit in your wardrobe, and you have no problem with collecting an army of bands, the Apple Watch wins. Apple watch offers very limited styles for users to select, if people who want to have different styles smartwatch, Fitbit absolutely a better choice.

Fitbit Ionic vs Apple Watch Series 2: Battery

For as long as the Apple Watch has been around, it’s gotten about a day of battery life. Sometimes it’ll do less, but most of the time you get about a day – a day and a half to two days if you make deliberate efforts to avoid high consumption apps. With a mixture of both LTE and non-LTE features in the Series 3, you should still get around that, but using the call feature will cut it dramatically. In fact, Apple quotes only an hour of continuous talk time on the Watch.

The Ionic, Fitbit, will net people up to five days of battery life, or up to 10 hours when using GPS or playing music. That’s decent from such a slim device with as much power and many features as it has. If you have to make your decision based on battery life, the Fitbit is the clear winner here. Those extra days mean it’s much more viable as a sleep tracker too.

Fitbit Ionic vs Apple Watch Series 3: Price

The Apple Watch Series 3 has a wide range of prices, starting as low as $329 without LTE, $399 with the cellular connection, and then climbing up further depending on your choice of materials. It really depends on what you’re looking for, and how chic you’re willing to go. Bands will cost you at least $50, but again climb up into the hundreds. The Ionic, on the other hand, goes on sale for $299.99 on 1 October. You’ll also be able to purchase some bands for $29.99 to $59.99. Thus, Fitbit could easier to get access into market.

Fitbit Ionic vs Apple Watch Series 3: Fitness

There is usual standard of Fitbit fitness features, like Smart Track, VO2 Max and Sleep Stages. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, doesn’t officially recognize as many workout modes as the Ionic. For instance, it doesn’t have a mode for weights or interval training. The Apple Watch also doesn’t automatically track your workouts like the Fitbit does for running, heart beat tracking.

The Ionic is only the second Fitbit to utilize GPS, after the Surge, allowing it to match the Apple Watch in this regard. In our test we found the data of GPS to be pretty on the money, and it didn’t take too long to actually lock on either.

Finally, Fitbit is debuting Fitbit Coach on the Ionic. It’s basically a new version of Fit star, giving users a curriculum of workouts, the company says will tailor to your personal needs the more you use it. With watch IOS 4, the Apple Watch does some light personalized coaching, but it’s mostly on how to close your rings, giving Fitbit the nod here.

Fitbit Ionic vs Apple Watch Series 3: Smart features

Speaking of ecosystems, the Ionic is Fitbit’s best go yet at creating one. There’s an app store here, which Fitbit refers to as a ‘Gallery’. It debuted with just apps from Pandora, Starbucks, Strava and Accu Weather, but that has grown, adding apps from the likes of The New York Times, Nest and more. Apple has had a head start in getting developers in tow, and it’ll take a bit for Fitbit to catch up.

There’s 2.5GB of space for you to either store offline music from Pandora or from your own library. However, since the Ionic doesn’t have cellular capabilities, people can hardly stream music without your phone around.

Fitbit Pay is that company’s foray into payments, thanks to its purchase of Coin. You can take your American Express, Visa or MasterCard and link it up to Fitbit Pay, as well as debit cards from “top issuing banks”. You can link up to six payment cards to Fitbit Pay, while you have a limit of eight on Apple Pay.

While the Ionic plays some good catch up in the realm of music and NFC payments, the maturation of Apple’s ecosystem gives it a bit of a nudge here. However, as Fitbit gets more time to get major apps up and running, Apple may have a serious competitor to worry about, LTE or not, especially as more Pebble developers join Fitbit’s budding platform.

Fitbit vs Garmin

Both have their obvious strengths, but how do their wearable platforms match up? We’ve broken it down to hardware, features, apps, fitness and sports tracking to see whether it’s Garmin or Fitbit that comes out on top.

 

Garmin vs Fitbit The Hardware

Fitbit has actually been creeping into the world of smartwatches for a while now, with its Fitbit Blaze and Fitbit Surge acting as introductory “fitness watches”, but that doesn’t change that Fitbit got where it is today because of its fitness trackers like the Charge, Alta and Flex.

While the fitness trackers are the spine of Fitbit, its flagship is the Ionic. It’s a big riposte to the Apple Watch, with an app store that’s still growing, contactless payments and more. It’s the most fully featured Fitbit yet, as it pools together smartwatch-like features with both 5ATM water resistance and built-in GPS – features that previously were limited to select Fitbit lines. It’s also built for the future, intended to eventually have features like sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation detection.

As for Garmin, well, things are a little more complicated, such is the depth on offer. In terms of fitness trackers, the headliner is currently the Garmin Vivosport – its latest attempt to compete with Fitbit. While it’s got GPS, heart rate monitoring and VO2 Max, it’s also got a bit of a small and overly sensitive display. It also offers more basic options like the Vivofit 4 that focuses solely on those standard fitness tracking features. So steps, calories, distance and standing hours.

It’s the little things that separate these two. For example, Fitbit will generally provide users with more stylish wearables and much more customization, while Garmin’s devices tends to lean towards a masculine look. To offset this, of course, you’re given a host of physical options to choose from.

Garmin vs Fitbit: Sports Tracking

Not only can you track the likes of running, trail running, hiking, cycling, swimming, skiing, rowing, triathlon training and more, but you can also do this with the in-built GPS or Garmin’s UltraTrac, which conserves battery to keep tabs on your activity over longer distances. Heart rate is also a mainstay within the higher end of Garmin’s range, giving you ample insights into heart rate zones and heart rate variance.

Garmin vs Fitbit: Price

As always, price is something you have to consider, too. While the notable members of Fitbit’s range begin at $99.95 and max out at the $299.95 mark, that barely makes a dent in Garmin’s family. While there’s the $299.99 Vivoactive 3, if you want the latest from the Fenix or Forerunner series, your wallet will be roughly $500 lighter, and that’s a big financial commitment to consider alongside the ecosystem and general features on offer.

Garmin vs Fitbit: The Apps

Take Fitbit, which, while maybe not providing the most detailed after workout metrics in the business, still manages to offer one of the more rounded fitness platforms. This is particularly the case for beginners, who are able to dive into trends, dedicated workouts, sleep tracking and social aspects, such as linking with friends and challenges.

With the Ionic, Fitbit has also launched an app store. It was rough going at first, with only a couple of apps, but the store has gradually grown over the past couple of months, with the likes of The New York Times, Philips Hue, Yelp and more joining the fray.

As for Garmin, you’ll be dealing with Connect, the home of your activity, and ConnectIQ, the store for you to pick up apps and new watch faces. As with Fitbit, we have a comprehensive look on how to run better with Garmin Connect and a Garmin Connect IQ app store guide, but we’ll skim through the highlights here.

The companion app, which is compatible with all Garmin devices and available on desktop, offers you a place to plan, track and review your workouts. So, whether you’re preparing for a marathon and setting monthly goals or simply looking to beat other runners’ best times in local areas, the platform has you covered.

When compared to its Fitbit counterpart, more serious exercisers will find little comparison – Garmin gives you an incredibly detailed look at your activity once you dive past its handy Snapshots, while also allowing you to upload data to the likes of Strava and understand elements like heart rate zones. Even better, Garmin has recently updated ConnectIQ to be more convenient to use for beginners, with an easy-to-digest home screen filled with your stats and metrics.

 

Geographic area

Headquartered in San Francisco, California, the company has expanded its distribution around the world after nearly a decade of development. In addition to North America, Fitbit has a presence in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific with offices in large cities including Boston, Dublin, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, New Delhi and Singapore.

But how does Fitbit expand markets and sell their products in other regions? Take China as an example. Fitbit formally entered the Chinese market in June 2014, following its sales footprint in 42 countries around the world. But why did Fitbit choose to enter the Chinese market in 2014? Fitbit studied the research reports on the health status of Chinese consumers. In fact, the future health of the Chinese people deserved attention.

 

China’s overweight population has risen from 25% in 2002 to 38% in 2012 and this number reached 50% by 2015. In terms of body fat index, on average, Chinese are not as overweight as Westerners, but the incidence of diabetes in Chinese people is as high as 11%, similar to that of the United States. Furthermore, people categorized as obese now accounts for 11% of the total population. Fitbit can help Chinese consumers become healthier, because it has a lot of measurement functions, such as the number of steps walked, steps climbed, heart rate, quality of sleep, and other personal needs involved in fitness. Fitbit’s products function for sports, diet, sleep and weight management and include peripheral systems to help people build healthier lives (Koch, 2016).

In terms of sales channels, Fitbit understands that online sales in China are very important. Following Best Buy, which uses Jing Dong is its online distributor, Fitbit products have started distribution with Jing Dong. In addition, Fitbit’s products are now manufactured in Shenzhen, China, an area that is quickly becoming the technology manufacturing region of the 21st century (Entis, 2017). Fitbit also opened a flagship store in Tian Mall. Additionally, conventional distribution channels such as Amazon, sporting goods stores and most large department store chains all carry Fitbit products. The primary mission of the Chinese team is to broaden Fitbit’s brand awareness so that everyone knows what Fitbit is, how it helps people live a healthier and happier life.

Factors that Contribute to Innovation 

Fitbit’s products pioneered cross-brand compatibility with devices that seamlessly interface with nearly all brands of smartphones and tablets on the market, a key advantage which contributed to their early revenue growth. Today, many smart wristbands and watch products remain limited to either the Android or Apple systems, an obstacle which alienates those consumers who have both types of devices in their household, and while there are also many products that are compatible with both  the iOS  and Android operating systems, most fitness systems continue to ignore the Windows system users. Fitbit in comparison, has managed to build long-term loyalty by creating products that  can be simultaneously operated on IOS, Android and Windows systems, so that their consumers can be assured that the Fitbit app will always be compatible with their future choices in smartphones. The founders philosophy can is evident by their open source access to fitbit servers to allow third party developers to create unique interfaces to the users data files because as founder James Park stated “In an open market, we can better cooperate with local partners. After all, they know more about the local market than we do.” (McNew, 2015).

In addition to their hardware interface versatility, Fitbit’s strategy is aimed at encouraging an open software platform, because Fitbit believes that more innovative ideas can be better exploited through openness and absorption. According to a developer, Fitbits platform has a port opening of the application works in both directions, Fitbit users cannot only send their data through Fitbit to a third-party application. If a user thinks a third-party app is great, they can also send data from a third-party app to Fitbit. For example, a male consumer is very concerned about his diet. He found a great application for eating and drinking, and he was able to import third-party applications into Fitbit via its interface. He can see and record calories on the Fitbit and so on (Schwahn, 2017).

In addition, Technology is a key factor of Fitbit innovation. Since 2009, it has released 15 different products, each of which is an update to the previous one. For example, Fitbit One, released on September 17, 2012, is an updated version of Fitbit Ultra with a more vivid digital display. It has independent clips and separate charging lines and wireless synchronization. Fitbit One is the first wireless activity tracker to synchronize with Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth smart. Wireless synchronization is currently available on iOS and Android devices. Fitbit One can record several daily activities, including but not limited to the number of steps, distance, floors climbed, calories burned, active minutes and sleep efficiency (Jary, 2018).

Competitors in the same field are also important aspect of Fitbit’s innovation processes. Apple, for example, released the Apple watch series 2 in September 2016. The Apple Watch series 2 has better waterproof features, can be worn when swimming or surfing, and can support up to 50 meters of water pressure. Fitbit also took immediate steps. Fitbit Flex 2 was released on 2017, replacing the original Flex, the lowest end of the Fitbit wristband line. This is the first model that was waterproof with swimming tracking. The tracker can be worn on the wrist, pendant or carried in a pocket. When receiving a phone call or text message it provides alerts movement alarm and vibration functions (Jary, 2018).

Entrepreneurial Improvements 

To stay competitive in the wearable tracker market, Fitbit needs to aggressively invest in hardware research in addition to integrating additional richness to their software platform in order to maintain consumer loyalty. Low price is no longer a guaranteed winning strategy in the fitness market, with the differences between style and performance rapidly shrinking, Fitbit needs to enter another business vertical that sets its products apart. We recommend a steady progression into a closely neighboring market of medical devices. We propose Fitbit aim to align with various medical associations to discover best healthcare practices and create apps for physical treatments fighting illness and disease. If the highly accurate heart rate monitor can identify specific exercises performed by the readings of active heart rates, why can’t it detect palpitations and arrhythmias?

Along with alerts to potential health irregularities, Fitbit should develop software to allow consumers to easily share their tracked data with their healthcare professional. Organizing this data to be analyzed by physicians can open a dialogue with patients to work toward their goals in a safe, customizable fashion. Breaking into healthcare software opens the door to high potential revenue growth, if Fitbit is the first to curb this market.

 Unmet Markets and Missed Opportunities 

In 2014, just four years after Fitbit’s initial distribution, advancements were made in optical heart rate monitoring technology, now Garmin and Polar are producing similar activity trackers at a similar price points. While emerging technology would soon drive additional demand for wristband fitness trackers that increases the size of the pie, it will also breed new competitors who were better positioned to capitalize on consumers with special concerns for heart health along with athletes desiring deeper training feedback metrics.

These advancements in heart rate monitoring technology allowed those serious athletes and health-conscious consumers to abandon their chest strap transmitters for a single unit, rechargeable wrist monitor that integrated real-time pulse-rates along with 24-hour wear ability (Cook, 2017). As a result, Fitbit’s previous competitive advantage of one-piece simplicity was disrupted. To compound Fitbit’s new competing technology, they failed to license the technology in time to be the first to market with the new optical heart rate and activity wearables. Instead, a new competitor, Epson, led the optical heart rate integrated monitors a full year prior.

Fitbit’s first entry in the new market, the Charge HR, missed its planned holiday 2014 release date, instead arriving late to market with an underwhelming level of fanfare in January 2015 (Seitz, 2016). The Charge HR was quickly overshadowed by an improved Apple Watch only three months later. As with many Apple products, the features of their new watch were widely publicized through a big budget marketing campaign, which was the first to educate mainstream consumers on the benefits of wrist worn heart rate monitors. However, Fitbit did outmaneuver one of its main competitors, Polar, which lagged a year behind Fitbit in its release of a pulse monitoring wristband (Lashinsky, 2016).

Today, Fitbit continues to face tough competition from the Apple Watch and new fitness technology that offers precision level EKG quality heart rate hardware. Apple was quick to acquire the company who created this technology, with hopes of integrating it into a new market of heart conscious consumers. The future possibilities for the Apple Watch include sending 911 notifications if the user’s heartbeat stops or sending an alert to a user when one’s pulse indicates a warning of an oncoming heart attack. The technology could also prove valuable in solving crimes by alerting authorities the precise time and location of a murder or fatal accident. If Apple pioneers such lifesaving technology in an affordable package with a multitude of companion features, it would be safe to assume a dimmer forecast for Fitbit’s market niche (Feel the Beat of Heart Rate Training, 2017).

References

www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1447599/000119312515376713/d54385d424b4.htm. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Abrantes, Ana M. “Regular article: Developing a Fitbit-supported lifestyle physical activity intervention for depressed alcohol dependent women.” Journal of substance abuse treatment 80(2017):88-97. Web.

Cadmus Bertram, L., Gangnon, R., Wirkus, E. J., Thraen Borowski, K. M., & Gorzelitz Liebhauser, J. (2017). The Accuracy of Heart Rate Monitoring by Some Wrist-Worn Activity Trackers. Annals of Internal Medicine, 166(8), 610-612.

Compare Fitbit Ionic vs Nokia Steel vs Nokia Steel HR vs Withings Activite - Fitbit IoTeam Fitbitnic vs Nokia Steel vs Nokia Steel HR vs Withings Activite Comparison by Price, Specifications, Reviews & Features | Gadgets Now. www.gadgetsnow.com/compare-smartwatch/Fitbit-Ionic-vs-Nokia-Steel-vs-Nokia-Steel-HR-vs-Withings-Activite. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Compare Fitbit Ionic vs Nokia Steel vs Nokia Steel HR vs Withings Activite – Fitbit Ionic vs Nokia Steel vs Nokia Steel HR vs Withings Activite Comparison by Price, Specifications, Reviews & Features | Gadgets Now. www.gadgetsnow.com/compare-smartwatch/Fitbit-Ionic-vs-Nokia-Steel-vs-Nokia-Steel-HR-vs-Withings-Activite. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Cook, J. D., Prairie, M. L., & Plante, D. T. (2017). Research paper: Utility of the Fitbit Flex to evaluate sleep in major depressive disorder: A comparison against polysomnography and wrist-worn actigraphy. Journal Of Affective Disorders, 217299-305. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.04.030

Discrimination. www.2020wob.com/labels/discrimination. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Eadicicco, L. (2017). Fitbit May Have a New Way To Detect an Irregular Heartbeat. Time.Com, 1.

Entis, L. (2017). DATA WON’T MAKE YOU FIT. Fortune, 176(2), 33-35.

Farr, C. (2016). Fitbit at work. Fast Company, (205), 27-30.

Farr, Christina. How Fitbit Became The Next Big Thing In Corporate Wellness. 22 Apr. 2016, www.fastcompany.com/3058462/how-fitbit-became-the-next-big-thing-in-corporate-wellness. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

(2017). Feel the beat of heart rate training. Harvard Men’s Health Watch

Cnbc. FIT: Fitbit Inc – Stock Quote and News. 13 Nov. 2017, www.cnbc.com/quotes/?symbol=FIT. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. 

Fitbit. www.crunchbase.com/organization/fitbit. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. 

FitbitIncA.insiders.morningstar.com/trading/board-of-directors.action?t=FIT®ion=usa&culture=en-US. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. 

Fitbit Selected for National Institutes of Health (NIH) Precision Medicine Research Program with The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). investor.fitbit.com/press/press-releases/press-release-details/2017/Fitbit-Selected-for-National-Institutes-of-Health-NIH-Precision-Medicine-Research-Program-with-The-Scripps-Research-Institute-TSRI/default.aspx. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. 

Fitbit to Donate $1 Million Across Three Charities With FitForGood. investor.fitbit.com/press/press-releases/press-release-details/2015/Fitbit-to-Donate-1-Million-Across-Three-Charities-With-FitForGood/default.aspx. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. 

Fitbit进军中国市场,如何做好本土化?. finance.sina.com.cn/leadership/mroll/20140617/084619434461.shtml. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Hendrickson, Mark. Fitbit Raises Healthy $2 Million From True Ventures And SoftTech VC. 10 Oct.2008,Techcrunch.com/2008/10/10/fitbit-raises-healthy-2-million-from-true-ventures-and-softtech-vc/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Huang, Y., Xu, J., Yu, B., & Shull, P. B. (2016). Validity of Fitbit, Jawbone UP, Nike+ and other wearable devices for level and stair walking. Gait & Posture, 4836-41. doi:10.1016/j.gaitpost.2016.04.025 

IDC Forecasts Shipments of Wearable Devices to Nearly Double by 2021 as Smart Watches and New Product Categories Gain Traction. 20 Dec. 2017, www.businesswire.com/news/home/20171220005110/en/IDC-Forecasts-Shipments-Wearable-Devices-Double-2021. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Imbert, Fred. Fitbit up 20%, nearly doubles IPO price. 22 June 2015, www.cnbc.com/2015/06/22/fitbit-stock-opens-up-more-than-10.html. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Ingber, Janet. Product Evaluations and Guides. www.afb.org/afbpress/pubnew.asp?DocID=aw170305. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Jary, Simon. Fitness face off: Apple Watch vs Fitbit. 25 Jan. 2018, www.techadvisor.co.uk/feature/wearable-tech/fitbit-vs-apple-watch-2017-3612954/?p=2. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Kerner, C. (2017). The Motivational Impact of Wearable Healthy Lifestyle Technologies: A Self-    determination Perspective on Fitbits With Adolescents. American Journal of Health Education, 48(5), 287-297.

Koch, P. (2016). No. The fitness tracker is not a fad. Men’s Fitness, (7). 94.

Lashinsky, A. (2016). Why Fitbit Faces Investor Skepticism Over Its Fiscal Fitness. Fortune.Com, 12.

Lawler, Ryan. Fitbit Raises $43 Million From Qualcomm Ventures, SAP Ventures, And SoftBank Capital. 13 Aug.

2013, techcrunch.com/2013/08/13/fitbit-43m/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Marshall, Gary. The story of Fitbit: How a wooden box became a $4 billion company. 9 Sept. 2016, www.wareable.com/fitbit/youre-fitbit-and-you-know-it-how-a-wooden-box-became-a-dollar-4-billion-company. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

McNew, Seth. Fitbit’s 7 Competitive Advantages Over Other Brands. 5 Sept. 2015, www.fool.com/investing/general/2015/09/05/7-competitive-advantages-fitbit-says-it-has-over-o.aspx. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

 Nielsen: 46 million people used fitness apps in January. 17 Apr. 2014, www.mobihealthnews.com/32183/nielsen-46-million-people-used-fitness-apps-in-january/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. 

Optical Heart Rate Monitoring: What You Need to Know. 12 Oct. 2017, valencell.com/blog/2015/10/optical-heart-rate-monitoring-what-you-need-to-know/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Pressman, A. (2016). Investors in GoPro and Fitbit Discover Hardware Is Hard. Fortune.Com, 1.

Rao, Leena. Fitness Tracker Fitbit Raises $12M To Market New Wi-Fi Enabled Smart Scale, Aria. 24 Jan. 2012, techcrunch.com/2012/01/24/fitness-tracker-fitbit-raises-12m-to-market-new-wi-fi-enabled-smart-scale-aria/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Schwahn, Lauren. Withings Steel HR vs. Fitbit Blaze. 22 June 2017, www.nerdwallet.com/blog/shopping/withings-steel-hr-vs-fitbit-blaze-activity-tracker-comparison/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Sedaris, David. Stepping Out. 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/30/stepping-out-3. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Seitz, P. (2015). Fitbit signs up 20 new corporate wellness clients. Investor’s Business Daily.

Seitz, P. (2016). Fitbit fall giving investors heart attack. Investor’s Business Daily.

(2016). SHAREHOLDER ALERT: Bronstein, Gewirtz & Grossman, LLC Reminds Investors of Class Action Against Fitbit Inc. FIT and Lead Plaintiff Deadline: March 11, 2016. Marketing Weekly News.

Smith, Craig. 37 Amazing Fitbit Statistics. 24 Nov. 2017, expandedramblings.com/index.php/fitbit-statistics/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Tsotsis, Alexia. Fitness Tracker Fitbit Gains Another $8 Million. 10 Sept. 2010, techcrunch.com/2010/09/10/fitbit-8-million/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.

Welch, Chris. Fitbit Blaze review: a ‘smarter’ fitness tracker is still kind of dumb. 15 Mar. 2016, www.theverge.com/2016/3/15/11225080/fitbit-blaze-watch-review. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018

Advertisements

Consumer Resistance to Superior Technology: General Motors Hybrids, Siri and Video Messaging, Why are We So Slow to Adopt?

Todd Benschneider

University of South Florida
Revised 4/23/2018

When I first wrote the foundation for this article on “Consumer Resistance to General Motors Hybrid Vehicles” nearly six years ago, I was hoping to make sense of the unexpected marketing challenges that we uncovered when Americans proved surprisingly reluctant to purchase the General Motors electric and hybrid option vehicles in 2012.

The market timing of 2009-2012 seemed ideal for electric automobile technology, with record high fuel prices, deeper understandings of global warming and the inevitable decline of petroleum production in the coming century.

On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable assumption in 2012, that industry projections for alternate fuel vehicles would become a reality and “most cars of  the future” (by 2020 was the expectation) would employ some form of electric or hybrid powertrain.

It is ironic how eight years into the future seemed limitless in its potential; but, eight years ago, feels like it was just yesterday.

How could anyone not want inexpensive clean energy cars; especially, ones that cost less than a dinosaur powered vehicle?

Few people would even argue that oil reserves could possibly sustain our current demand for gasoline for future generations.

The proposed electric car technology was reliable, those powertrains had proven their reliability for a decade of testing.

The price was certainly right, General Motors hybrid options for Buick Lacrosse and Chevrolet Malibu were priced the same as the gas versions and, as bonus, the hybrids were even more powerful and provided income tax credits.

How could that not sell like a syrup covered hot cake????

I still shake my head in amazement at how difficult it was to get rid of the hybrids we ordered in 2011 at our Buick-GMC store. Several sales managers would have probably been fired if our veteran inventory manager Sandy had not pushed back and insisted that we limit our initial order to six units rather than the twenty that I thought was a very modest forecast …. this was not her first rodeo.

Sandy probably saved my job and managed to dealer trade most of those six aged units from our inventory and I for one, learned a valuable lesson in product development: think twice before building a superior solution for customers who do not see a problem worth solving.

Since that realization I, like many in the industry, have concluded that unless government intervention mandates the phase out of petroleum powertrains, the adoption rate of electric-powered vehicles could take another two decades. Looking ahead now from 2018, I have adjusted my expectations down a few notches from back in 2012; now, I suspect that relying on the market demand alone to bring electric powertrains to full-scale adoption would be overly optimistic.

I find myself taunting the overzealous Tesla enthusiasts with history trivia that the automaker Detroit Electric nearly overtook gas automobiles in the early 1900s, selling over 13,000 electric cars that had top speed of 20 mph and a recharge range of 80 miles. A current Tesla 3 base model is rated for 220 miles of recharge range and with modern production capability has only recently surpassed 200,000 units sold. That seems like a miniscule amount of progress made across the 100 years of technology that evolved between the two.

It also seems unlikely that government intervention will mandate the phase-out of the internal combustion engine. Some assumptions could be made regarding the far-reaching economic disruptions to foreign trade markets, devastation to the economies of export countries, displaced petroleum workers, and the reallocation of every dollar generated throughout the gasoline supply chain, not to mention the economic impact to the plastics and chemical industries which rely on the waste byproducts of oil for cheap fundamental ingredients.

So, despite being a GM guy whose career was built on gas engine emissions and combustion technology, I must admit that I had been rooting for Elon Musk’s solar-powered auto revolution.  Mostly because, I hoped to avoid becoming one of those cynical old guys who fights progress, for no reason other than, maintaining a comfortable status-quo.

I am still optimistic that electric powertrains will become mainstream and that automobiles will convert to solar charged electricity before the rest of the power grid. However, I am imagining that the solar revolution will plod forward slowly for decades in a long-drawn-out guerilla war due to the lack of strong market pull for those alternative fuel vehicles while the petroleum industry survives long enough to support the codependent  plastics industry until renewable sourced manufacturing ingredients are developed.

Hopefully Tesla investors are long-range thinkers and have prepared for the long road ahead when consumer demand someday aligns with electric automobile technology. Recently Tesla’s investors had their confidence shaken when company stock prices dropped over 60% during the first week of April over a combination of news that was only slightly negative. If that bearish responsiveness is any indicator of the market, we could expect that a prolonged loss of investor confidence could snuff out the young company before they make it to the finish line.

Few people in the auto industry expect the Tesla plants to disappear or its existing cars to become obsolete. However, a sharp drop in Tesla market value will most likely lure General Motors or Toyota in to absorb the brand at a bargain price in the coming years. Unfortunately, if that happens, a Tesla surviving without Musk at the helm will probably see electric car technology being pushed to the back burner, adding several additional decades to reach full market potential.

It is times such as this that it becomes apparent that consumers (and voters) stated principals fail to correlate with their actions. This anomaly of consumer behavior manages to slow the adoption of superior technology for reasons that will remain a mystery.

My personal experience from being on the front lines, trying to persuade General Motors customers to buy the hybrid powertrain has burned this demand paradox into my view of most technological advances.

For now, we can appreciate how one man, Elon Musk, passionate about his vision for solar power has managed to get far enough to pose a serious market threat to all three economic super powers: auto manufacturing, petroleum and the global power grid. I tip my GM hat to the relentless visionary and hope he makes it to the finish line to prove the naysayers wrong.

tesla

As a matter of fact, back in 2012, I used to tell a similar story to this one about rates of technology adoption, it was my own story about the technology predictions of a decade earlier. In 2002, a full two years before Elon Musk joined Tesla, while he was busy building PayPal, I enrolled in an Automotive Technology program and was introduced to Professors suggesting that our class focus on the General Motors hybrid trucks and Chevrolet EV1 electric prototypes from the parking lot, since they would be the products in the market when we finished the program in 2005.

Not taking any credit away from the Tesla contributions, but electric and hybrid gas/electric models were well-developed by several large automakers and proven in field testing long prior to 2002. General Motors introduced the GM Impact electric car prototype in 1990 and revised it several times into the EV1 in 1996, adding the S10 EV truck in 1997, the duo sold around 1600 units from 1996 through 2002 when they were discontinued due to high replacement battery costs.

GM prepared the next generation of alternative fuel powertrains, this time using smaller batteries in combination with the standard gas engine, allowing drivers to select between gas and electric modes. The added value proposition to hybrid technology being that the hybrid optioned car could still be driven in standard gasoline mode if the customer chose not to spend the $10,000 plus to replace the batteries required for the electric mode.

In 2002, most of us in the GM world thought this hybrid technology would provide the company with the competitive edge needed to fend off the Japanese competitors in the global market. Inside GM, everyone seemed fully committed to the project and the service press even printed the repair manuals and training materials for an expected hybrid truck product release.

We were told that the first hybrids would release no later than 2005. Surprisingly though, with the exception of the quiet release of a small batch of hybrid tucks in 2005, General Motors delayed the marketing air campaign for hybrid offerings until 2009. The marketing launch failed to build the required buzz among consumers and even with $4 gas, the hybrids were seen by most as a dismal market flop. Some environmental critics claim that the marketing campaign was designed to flop with a hope of preserving GM’s previous investments in gas engine technology while also winning support of environmentally focused politicians.

Regardless of the motives of the ineffective marketing campaign, I was there when new customers came to our showrooms to test drive hybrid models, then agreed with the proposition of the revolutionary technology; but, when it came time to sign the finance contracts, the agreement fizzled out. Many of these deals fell apart in the finance office, when the customers began contemplating uncertain future repair costs, trade in values, warranty extensions and differences in insurance rates. It seemed like many feared that hybrids would be a passing fad and they could be stuck investing in a car that would have limited resale or trade in value.

In fact, from 2008 to 2018 the General Motors dealership I worked at sold around 8000 new vehicles and despite the huge bonus offered to sales staff and managers to improve sales of hybrids, the store sold a whopping total of sixteen hybrid cars in those nine years and nearly all of those were leases.

These thoughts came to mind earlier this week when having a conversation with friends about another ambitious prediction in tech news that, by 2020, over 90% of web traffic will be video rather than the text and image data of today.

Being jaded now by these types of predictions, I shared with them another related story, that just a couple of years earlier I had read a similarly optimistic prediction, that by 2020, few people would be texting and reading from their phones; instead, we would all be using Siri-like voice translators and listening to the replies of others through our cordless ear buds.

With the 2020 model year now only fifteen short months away, I realize that most of the auto manufacturing line equipment is currently tooling for that year’s production and my friends in engineering tell me that they are working from forecasts that fewer than 7% of GM vehicles sold in 2020 will be ordered with the hybrid powertrains.

With that fresh on my mind, I am sitting in the atrium lounge of the University of South Florida, surrounded by nearly a hundred of the youngest millennials and realized that they were all still texting from their phones and reading the responses. I will curb my enthusiasm for consumer technology adoption projections in the future…..  I am starting to see how old guys become so cynical

 

 

The foundation article from back in 2012, here is the research  on the state of fuel economy technology and the obstacles to adoption:

Continued Consumer Resistance to General Motors Hybrid Vehicle Technology  – November 7, 2012

EPA policies that affect the economy become front page news in an election year and the hot topic for 2012 is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) revisions, requiring automakers to improve average automobile fuel economy from 29 mpg to 54.5 mpg over the next 13 years. Agreements to these revised fuel efficiency standards were concessions made by automakers during the industry bailouts of 2009.

In the backlash of that federal bailout, critics have been quick to fault American manufacturers for their lack of long-term planning. However, in defense of management strategy, the automakers have for decades been doing what profitable businesses do best, responding to consumer demand (Vlasic).

The press often suggests that domestic auto sales recovery will depend on the fuel economy of the products that manufacturers can provide. These critics assume that consumers make purchase decisions using primarily math and logic; but, those of us in the auto industry experience firsthand that purchase motives are more akin to purchasing fashions or artwork. To most Americans, their car is a part of their self-image, not just a tool that converts dollars into miles traveled.

Journalists such as News-Herald’s John Lasko write articles that with opening lines such as, “With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, many are opting to trade in their gas-guzzlers for more fuel-efficient vehicles.” With news headlines like those, it is easy for the public to conclude that the US automakers lack of sales was due to its heavy reliance on gas guzzling models. However, those assumptions are based on popular ideas that the domestic manufacturers previously lacked the capability to produce fuel-efficient vehicles. In their defense, the simple reality remains, the automakers must make their first priority to produce those vehicles that sell well in the domestic market.

The critics overlook the 3 million Chevrolet Chevettes that were produced between 1976 and 1987 or its domestic counterparts, the Plymouth Horizon and the Ford Fiesta that provided fuel efficiency equal to most economy cars on the market today. For example, the Chevrolet Chevette was for nearly a decade, the American flagship economy car, selling millions by providing a real world fuel economy of 25 city/ 30 hwy, or with a popular diesel engine option reaching 33 city/41 hwy. The Chevette was sold with a base price, that inflation adjusts to about $11,000 in today’s dollars and consistently surpassed the fuel economy ratings of it’s main Japanese competitor, the Toyota Corolla by nearly 2 mpg for nearly a decade (fueleconomy.gov).

Compare those cost and fuel efficiency ratings to today’s most economical products available in the US, the Korean made 2013 Hyundai Accent with an MSRP of $10,665 that is rated at 29 city/39 hwy. The comparison of these cars in the context of the 25 years of technology that evolved between them should dispel assumptions that Asian economy cars have enjoyed decades of superiority in fuel economy (fueleconomy.gov). However, in the American car market, every one of those fuel sipping economy cars was discontinued in the late 1980’s when sales dried up as the pendulum of automobile fashion swung toward a return of larger and more powerful transportation, with the introduction Sport Utility vehicles and the return of V8 powered high performance sedans.

By 1990, it became increasingly unfashionable to be seen in fuel-efficient cars, American auto style entered the age of the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, offering a taller ride height for a better visibility in traffic and providing the owner with a sense of safety and rugged capability. The Grand Cherokee became the benchmark to measure style popularity, marketed with an image of recreational outdoor travel and adventure rather than previous trend for economical commuter transport. These mid-sized all terrain Sport Utilities grew especially popular with female buyers in northern states, at the same time four-door 4×4 pickups became increasingly popular with young male buyers seeking that “Eddie Bauer” outdoorsy image.

Critics often ignore the strategic decisions that allocated research and development funding away from fuel economy and directed budgets to safety, performance and durability to meet the consumer demand curves. Over the past 15 years the average vehicle age alone has grown by a third to 10.8 years old with advancements in vehicle durability (USA Today). Additional progress that was made during that period to improve braking distances and implement crash avoidance technology reduced accident frequency and cut the percentage of crash fatalities in half. In an effort to appeal to consumer demands for more powerful accelerator pedals, 0-60 acceleration times have improved by over 40%. And to counter the reliability critics of the domestic cars from the 1980’s, the inflation adjusted annual maintenance costs have dropped by more than 80% (NADA.COM).

Today even after the industry collapse, American manufacturers once again dominate automobile industry technology development, General Motors again was ranked the 2011 No. 1 innovator in automotive patents by US patent board (Tuttle). However, consumer demand trends in automobiles are similar to those in fashion, with opposing trends recurring in 10-year cycles, such as style trends toward skinny jeans from bell bottoms and short carefully styled hair to today’s bushy headed natural hairstyles. Sociologists attribute 10-year style cycles to be dependent on the needs for generational self-image, as each generation makes fashion and identity statements to differentiate them from the previous generation.

Business Times writer Brad Tuttle suggests that the fuel economy trend that began in 08 will continue to gain momentum:

“A new True Car post traces the average miles-per-gallon rise among new cars sold
in the US… all of the top seven automakers posted dramatic year over year
increases in average miles per gallon. In 2011 the average new Ford got just 17.3
mpg compared with 22 mpg in February of 2012 … the rise comes primarily as a
result of Ford doubling sales of small cars such as the Fusion and Focus”
However, despite increases in economy cars sales, auto sales as a whole have risen, the demand is also increasing on 5-year-old full size SUV’s.

According to industry writer Nick Bunkley,
“Retail prices for five-year-old full size S.U.V.’s are 23 percent higher than a year ago
according to Edmunds.com, an automotive information Website. That is more than
double the average price increase of 11 percent for all five-year-old vehicles.”
One constant in the automobile industry, vehicle selection is an emotional decision more than it is an economic one. Customer buying motives first and foremost are influenced by how the vehicle makes them feel, a vehicle becomes one with the driver, it can allow them to feel bigger, more secure or more powerful. I recently encountered a perfect case that really defined the influence of self-identity on vehicle selection.

Carolyn, a 60-year-old widow and retired guidance counselor arrived at our Buick-GMC showroom in a well maintained, three-year-old, luxury four-wheel drive truck. Carolyn had gotten a letter from our used car department that high demand for trade-ins like her truck had currently driven trade-in values up thousands over the previous year. The letter encouraged her to consider upgrading soon, to take advantage of current trade in values for used 4×4’s.

The timing of the letter was perfect for Carolyn, since she had recently moved to Florida from the Midwest and no longer had the need for wintertime four-wheel drive; to further complicate matter the garage of her new condo also couldn’t accommodate the truck. She explained when she arrived, that she really wanted to reduce her fuel budget and downsize into one the new hybrid Buick Regal sedans she had been reading about in the newspapers, rated for twice the fuel economy of her truck.

Over the following week Carolyn test drove over a dozen of fuel-efficient sedans from ours and different dealerships including the Hybrid Regal that she initially planned to purchase. Despite our best efforts to persuade her to choose our last remaining hybrid, she instead opted to buy the high performance Regal T Type, performance sedan, that ironically provides an only a slight fuel economy advantage of 15% over the truck she was trading in and was priced thousands higher than the $28,000 hybrid version.

Carol admitted that when driving the cars rated highly for fuel efficiency she felt as if she had sacrificed the power that she was accustomed to and those low powered cars made her feel old and slow behind the wheel, she insisted that she “wasn’t ready to feel like an old lady toodling down the right lane, holding up traffic”. Carol’s time behind the wheel of the Regal Turbo made her feel young and put a smile on her face every time she pushed down on the accelerator pedal. For the sake of “feeling young” she was perfectly content to pay an extra $90 in monthly car payment for the high-performance engine and luxury options and disregard the $65 month in fuel savings that the hybrid version offered.

Think of the vehicle choices by comparing it to an airplane selection; imagine choosing between airplanes, where you could select a 2 seat Cessna that might make you feel like buzzing mosquito, or for another $150 a month, you could pilot the F-16 fighter jet or a Boeing 747 to work, ….to you, which of those options excites you? The difference it capability seems huge and imagine if the difference in increased fuel costs was only an additional $100 a month. The thrill of becoming something larger and more powerful and the status that comes with that ownership has an attraction beyond what can be measured in simple terms of transportation costs per mile. American buyers have consistently demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice a larger part of their income to enjoy vehicles that provide them with excitement.

Current sedan trends are influenced by the fuel-efficient designs from Asian manufacturers, designed to handle the high taxes on Japanese gas and the shortage of open roads and parking space on the islands of Japan. Understanding the American tastes requires us to understand the differences in our driving habits and the luxuries of smooth, open roads that Americans can enjoy, foreign drivers are often limited in their ability to appreciate American tastes for size and horsepower.

However, in Australia, with road systems similar to the US, a huge market still exists for large SUV’s, trucks and big engine cars. A market that was penetrated in the 1990’s when many Japanese automakers began to design vehicles to cater to the American influenced market, with large gas guzzlers like the Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia and Honda Ridgeline ensured import survival during the SUV years, and most notably even those Japanese trucks and SUV’s suffer from slightly lower fuel economy ratings than the American SUV competitors.

It has been easy for the press to fault American automakers for their lack of vision in developing economy vehicles, and to blame management for not remaining competitive in fuel efficiency technology. However, despite almost a total lack of advertising dollars for large engine SUV’s, compounded by the handicaps of stale, aged-out designs and a decrease of sales incentives offered, the demand for large SUV’s is climbing back to nearly 2008 levels despite continued fuel cost nearing $4.

Over the past 30 years American consumers have voted with their wallets, fuel economy was considerably less important to them than size, safety, reliability and performance. The challenge that lies ahead is not to build smaller, less powerful cars as much as the need to direct energy-saving technology development at the powerful SUV’s and spirited sedans that consumers demand (nada.org).

Because for many Americans the automobile is more than transportation, it is a fashion decision as much as a financial decision, and many Americans have proven for decades that are perfectly willing to pay a premium to enjoy a few more smiles-per-gallon.

 

Work Cited

 

Bunkley, Nick. “As Car Owners Downsize, the Market Is Strong for Their Used S.U.V.’s.” New

York Times. 07 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

“Side By Side Economy Comparison.” fueleconomy.gov. US Environmental Protection Agency,

07 2012. Web. 7 Nov 2012.

Lasko, John. “Gas Prices Have Car Makers, Sellers, Buyers Looking at Fuel Efficiency.” The News

Herald. 30 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

. “Guidelines.” nada.com. National Automobile Dealers Association, 07 2012. Web. 7 Nov 2012.

Tuttle, Brad. “Even with $4 Gas, Few Drivers Choose Electric Cars – Or Even Hybrids.” Business

Time. 12 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

Vlasic, Bill. “U.S. Sets Higher Fuel Efficiency Standards.” New York Times. 28 2012: n. page. Web.

7 Nov. 2012.

“Our Cars are Getting Older, too: Average Age now 10.8 years.” USA Today. 01 2012: n. page.

Web. 7 Nov. 2012.