A Lesson in Innovation – Why did the Segway Fail?

The Segway PT is a two-wheeled, self-balancing battery electric vehicle invented by Dean Kamen. It was launched in 2001 in a blizzard of publicity. Yet it has failed to gain significant market acceptance and is now something of a curiosity. In this article Paul Sloane takes a look at what lessons to be learned from the failure.

The product is very clever. It works well. The company, Segway Inc., had tremendous funding and resources. The level of press and TV exposure was astounding. So what went wrong? What lessons about the success or failure of innovations can we learn?

  1. Expectations were too high. The Segway was described as the future of transport. As an innovation it was said to be on a par with the PC or the internet. Inevitably it could not live up to this level of hype. PR exposure is generally useful but this time it was overdone.
  2. It was a product not a solution. The product works well but it lacked a support context. Where can you park it? How do you charge it? Do you use it on roads or sidewalks? Our cities are designed for pedestrians or speedy vehicles and this was neither so it had no proper infrastructure to support it.
  3. No clear need or target market. Who was the target market? Who really needed this? It was an appealing novelty but there was no compelling need for anyone to buy it – and it was very expensive.
  4. It was an invention rather than an innovation. The Segway was patented and kept under wraps until its launch. There was no user feedback or iteration in the process. Its inventors were then surprised when people criticised or ridiculed the design for being ‘dorky’ rather than cool.
  5. Regulation. The Segway fell foul of regulation in many countries where it was banned from sidewalks and roads because it did not fit any existing categories. This is a problem for a truly revolutionary product – but it was not properly anticipated.

Most successful innovations involve some degree of iteration, experimentation, openness and collaboration. They need an eco-system to support them. They target users who need the benefits they offer. A radical invention with ample backing still needs to gain market acceptance. It is an uphill path and that path proved too steep for the Segway.

By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane held senior positions at IBM, Ashton-Tate, MathSoft and Monactive.  He is the author of over 20 books which have sold over 2 million copies in total.  Titles include How to be a Brilliant Thinker and The Innovative Leader. He speaks, writes and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and lateral thinking.  He also facilitates innovation camps for major corporate clients.  For more information visit www.destination-innovation.com

  • Gerard

    Hi Paul,
    Correct, lack of marketing research.
    Where was the consumer at the pre launch stages.
    Very much a push rather than a pull strategy.
    Big ambitions but turn out to be a novelty item in the end.
    Knowing who their target market should have been a pre-requisite.
    Silo mentality versus a collaborative, open, co-productive approach basically did kill this product.  

  • Anonymous

    Most interesting story – here in Dresden the Segway is in growing demand, and can be seen everywhere in the city. eMobility on the move, and Segway may just one enabler to grow instant awareness.

  • Carol Cadenas

    Thank you for sharing your insight on what seemed a revolutionary product. 

    It’s unfortunate and surprising that all the points observed above  were not carefully evaluated as a team before the production and launching.  However, I can identify with the excitement of an idea, product, and/or service in the sweetness of dreaming to contribute to our progressive world in a small way or not.   Hope to see the Segway for recreational purposes going strong as our communities keep moving progressively in the environmentally-friendly direction.  It wouldn’t be so bad to see our cities/suburbs develop stations to recharge and park in a secured fashion.  

    I look forward to many other articles of revelation.  

    Have a great day! 

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  • John

    I can’t argue against any of your points, but I think in this case the biggest impediment has always been price; in fact the prices seem to be climbing with time. It wasn’t just very expensive, it was laughably expensive. Consider that you can buy a new bike from Walmart for $90. That makes the Segway approximately 90X to 100X more expensive than its competition. And it doesn’t even offer the exercise benefit that you get with bicycling. The good news is that we’ll see a lot of exciting innovation in this vehicle style when the Segway patents expire in a few years.

  • Manuel Hernandez

    Really good insights, thanks.

  • Jonas

    Straight to the point. Thank you.

  • nogoodnews

    I remember the first time I saw the Segway… and while it was impressive that you could “stand and go…” the problems I had (1) I wouldn’t be caught dead on it because it was VERY unattractive (I mean… gray … really?) .. and (2) where the heck do I put it when I reach my destination? (3) $$$$$ – bus is cheaper and easier – LOL.

  • tjejojyj

    What about the Chinese made clones that persist today? I saw an ad for some in the side bar of a page this evening. Segway maybe dead but the invention is not.

    I see electric scooters everywhere too which have a similar function but have less parking problems. They do have similar legal issues. I would have thought as cities build bike paths the intermediate running surface for them was also coming into existence.