Eli and I recently spent two days in Amsterdam, where we had the privilege of visiting the Bugaboo headquarters. The purpose of the meeting was to see some new products and lend our feedback. And while I wish I could talk about that, I signed a non-disclosure agreement, and violating it would be a heck of a way to repay them for the lovely trip to Europe. So instead, I want to talk about the real revelation of this trip – the Bugaboo I thought I knew versus the company I encountered in Amsterdam.
It’s easy to think of Bugaboo as snobbish. The strollers are expensive. The people who work there are beautiful. The people who push the strollers on the pages of magazines are especially beautiful. Everything about the brand screams exclusivity. So I was nervous about the trip. I bought a new outfit. I straightened my hair. I bought new mascara. I prepared myself to make a good impression on people who, I assumed, would be concerned with things like appearances.
As it turned out, I had it all wrong.
OK, fine. The people were beautiful (and dressed in jeans – why didn’t anyone tell me?!). But they were also brilliant, insightful, and more eager to listen than to speak. Fortunately for me, they did do some talking. We had a fascinating presentation from Raoul, the head of the Bugaboo Innovation Centre, about the design process at Bugaboo, which was the highlight of the trip (or the one I can talk about, anyway).
The birth of the Bugaboo brand is the stuff of legends. Max Barenbrug was a design student, and the Bugaboo Frog prototype was his thesis project. He never worked for a stroller company and didn’t know a thing about the industry. And it was a good thing. Obsessed with precision, he engineered his prototype from the ground up, custom designing every single bit and piece so that it all fit together just right. It looked the way he wanted it to, and it performed exactly as intended.
No one had ever done it quite that way before. Bugaboo is a company that values good design, but that turns out to be an understatement. Design is practically a religion at Bugaboo. They follow its principles with as much fervor and meticulousness today as they did ten years ago.
For example, one of the defining features of a Bugaboo product is “All the details fit.” And if they don’t, the designers go back to the drawing board. No ifs ands or buts. It’s one of their mantras, in fact. “No compromises. Only improvements.”
Throughout Bugaboo’s meteoric rise, many other companies have come out with their own “hybrid” strollers. I’ve always wondered why none of them can create a frame that is as seamless, as refined as Bugaboo. Why do the mechanisms on a Bugaboo operate so much more smoothly than on any other stroller?
Now I understand.
In a typical manufacturing environment, the designer hands off the project to the engineers and the factory, and it’s up to them to figure out how to produce the closest approximation of the design that will actually function properly. I know this is true, because I’ve seen the evolution of this process with other companies. The designer’s renderings are always a lot nicer than the final product.
At Bugaboo, the project’s designer stays with the project and “guards” the design as it moves through the engineering phase to make sure that no part of the design gets tweaked. If some part of the design doesn’t work right, the designer goes back to the drawing board to fix it. Raoul was the head designer of the Bugaboo Cameleon, and he talked about months spent in China working with the fabric factory to get the stitching on the seat exactly the way he wanted it. To demonstrate, he ended up doing the sewing himself.
That’s what it takes to build a better stroller, and that’s why a Bugaboo feels different from its competitors. The old saying goes “you get what you pay for,” and most of the time that’s true. Sometimes, when it comes to luxury goods, it’s confusing. Is a Lacoste polo shirt better than one from H&M? Who knows? But, as I learned in Amsterdam, Bugaboo isn’t a “luxury” brand, it’s a “performance” brand. So you do get what you pay for – and you’re supporting a great company at the same time.
I also took some video on our tour of the Bugaboo headquarters in Amsterdam. Take a look.