As a brand becomes successful and well known, there’s the temptation – if not, the expectation – that the company will capitalise on their recognisable name and sell related merchandise.
This is not what happens at Bugaboo.
Visiting Sydney from Amsterdam, co-founder Eduard Zanen tells me in his pragmatic Dutch accent that Bugaboo is a stroller company, and they make strollers.
“It’s never about saying we need some money, so let’s create something. If we create something new, it has to be really adding something innovative, practical and useful to the market,” Zanen says.
That central philosophy is what drives the company today, and is precisely how it started on a piece of paper in 1994. With his brother in law Max Barenbrug who had recently graduated from design school, the pair created a concept stroller design, but were unsuccessful in selling the idea to existing companies.
Previously a medical doctor, Zanen changed careers and using the money from his first company which ran corporate first aid training courses, backed the idea for Bugaboo with everything he had.
“In 1997 we went to a trade fair in Cologne with the concept. It was just the raw design, and did not comply with any sort of standards. At the fair the feedback was incredible, but we couldn’t sell it yet. It took a further two years to redesign for the compliance and rules,” Zanen says.
While the process of getting the first product to market was arduous, working backwards was essential in order to break the mould.
“When you start with the standard, you get a standard product. If you start with blank paper, you end up with a completely different angle of how a stroller needed to be,” Zanen says.
The name itself was chosen to reflect its status as the ‘new kid on the block’ in the stroller market. Next to ‘bogeyman’ in the dictionary, and without a teddy bear in sight, Zanen and Barenbrug wanted Bugaboo to be a stroller that men would also be proud to push.
“We entered the market [in 1999] at a price-point that was previously unheard of, and retailers said it wouldn’t sell. Yet, they were sold out within two weeks. I think that’s because we were the first stroller in the world where men didn’t feel awkward to walk behind it. It is very technical and there is a story behind it – it’s not just a nice stroller – it performs extremely well and when people use it they really understand ‘Wow this is really different and efficient’.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing however, and the company faced a number of make or break hurdles very early on.
“We had issues immediately when we entered the market. Within two weeks we had callers saying ‘My Bugaboo broke’ and that was a nightmare as a startup company, to have breaking strollers. It had to do with the difficulty in dealing with the production in Taiwan – where we formally were, and due to that, two things happened. One was that we had to deal with customers who were amazed by the design, but unhappy with the performance. So we switched every stroller personally, and instead of going down, as a company it made us stronger because every owner of a Bugaboo told their friends and it became a talking-point, where people would great each other and say ‘Hi, I’ve also got a Bugaboo stroller, and it started to really gain a following’.
As with any company, Bugaboo also experienced its fair share of growing pains. But at the core, a commitment to independence and innovation is what has continually shaped its decisions.
“It’s strange when you start with two people, and now there are almost 1,000 people globally. We have our own factory, we do everything in-house, all the designs, the engineering, the marketing, and also at a global level that makes it quite a challenge. And while yes we are now a big company, we still try to stay close to our core values,” Zanen says.
Still privately owned by Zanen and Barenbrug, the pair has resisted any temptation to sell or relinquish control.
“We do that so that if we want to create a stroller with square wheels, we can do that. Also I think that it’s the strength of the brand. We are really keen on making sure that we have the freedom to make choices in any direction,” Zanen says.
Now manufactured in China instead of Taiwan, the brand is focused on staying true to its status as a mobility company. He hints that there are plans afoot to diversify, and is unwavering in their commitment to stick to what it does best: innovation.
“There are all kinds of accessories that connect to the stroller, but we are very careful in adding ‘stuff’. There are always private equity firms who want to add clothing, baby food, furniture, you name it. But yes, we make choices based on our current portfolio, and we’re looking into the future and making products outside of that. We are a stroller company and everyone knows us for being that, but in our DNA we are a mobility company and that means that definitely there will be products on the way that reflect this, but with a completely different angle. And that’s very exciting.”
With that in mind, it’s unlikely the market will see any Bugaboo branded t-shirts, fridge magnets, or random Bugaboo merchandise anytime soon.