Specialized, Part Two.

So it seems as though my thoughts from last night have garnered a little more attention than the blog customarily does.  There’s been a lot of thought on both sides of the aisle–some supporting Specialized and some supporting Cafe Roubaix.  Here’s one typical ‘pro-Specialized’ comment from the main topic.

You have no idea how much Specialized does for the sport. You have no idea how small a percentage this blog, forum posters and anyone reading this represent. You really think you will get a response? And how exactly does any of this effect any of you personally? Imagine the world of cycling without Specialized? A lot less pro teams, a lot less product innovation and that much smaller the industry. Think about the big picture and put aside your personal feelings. This is a 40 year company that has grown and innovated beyond belief and you are ready to abandon that in a heart beat? OK, but I’d hate to tell you how the rest of the world works. Get off your high chair soap box and go start your own company, support this fragile sport/industry, build it up over 40 years time and then you can have a voice with regards to how that business is run.

There’s a surprising amount of vitriol in that comment.  I guess that’s what is most surprising about this issue.  Those who are defending Specialized aren’t really going after a legitimate defense of the underlying issues–they’re talking about the importance of Specialized.  Simply because Specialized is big and important, they should not be questioned?  That seems like it’s doing everyone–Specialized and the rest of the world–a disservice.  I’m not hating on Specialized.  Quite to the contrary, I want them to succeed.  They have a clear PR issue here, and they need to address it before it harms them (further).  To respond to the other points here:

  1. I do realize what Specialized does for the sport.  That’s why I’m saddened to see such self-destructive behavior.  The innovate or die slogan needs to apply to more than just bike design–they need to apply that to their corporate ethos as well.
  2. I realize just how small of a group of people read this blog.  That’s ok.  I’m not a corporate writer, and I don’t make any money off of this blog.  I write it to share my thoughts on bike related stuff, and living with Celiac’s disease.  No one has to read it.  I wrote what I wrote about Specialized because I wasn’t seeing anyone else write it.  People are focusing on “Specialized sucks”, or “here’s the underlying legal arguments”, neither of which gets to what I think the central issue for Specialized is.  They’re in a self-destructive spiral, it’s getting worse every time they engage in this behavior, and at some point, it’s going to have a major impact upon them.  Whether I get a response or not is beside the point.  (And no, I don’t really expect a response). My blog is for my thoughts.  People can read or not, and can agree or not.  My hope is that perhaps someone will read this and agree, and it will have some small impact on the conversation.  Over sixteen thousand people have read that post in about twelve hours.  It is resonating with some, and others are disagreeing.  And as an aside, I don’t see how suggesting that I am insignificant advances your argument.  Why does this have to be about attacking?
  3. How does this impact me personally?  I could do a long argument here about how negative actions by any major player in cycling has a trickle-down effect upon cyclists such as myself, but that’s not really the point.  The point is that I care about cycling and the cycling community.  I want it to be vigorous and healthy.  That goal is served by having a lot of very successful companies.  The way Specialized was formed is inspirational.  I don’t want to see that get harmed.
  4. I don’t want to see the world without Specialized.  That’s why I, along with many others, am suggesting that they need to change their approach to these intellectual property issues.
  5. I think you’re confusing my post with the writing of others.  I’m not suggesting that anyone should abandon Specialized.  What I wrote, and what I believe, is that this is happening in the world around us, right now (cyclists are abandoning Specialized).  I believe that’s a bad thing for Specialized, and in the long-run, a bad thing for cyclists in general.  I don’t want to see that happen, and I wish them success.  Attacking small companies in the fashion that they are, whether they are right or wrong on the legal merits, is disproportionately harmful to their public image.  It simply isn’t worth it.
  6. I’m not in a position to start a cycling company (I wish I was), but if you read this blog, you’d know that I work hard to support the cycling community, and have worked hard to help form and guide a local cycling advocacy not for profit that has taken tangible steps to improve our local cycling world.  I’m not on a soap box.  I wish I had the vision that Mike Sinyard had when he started his company–as I said, his story is inspirational.  I don’t want to see the empire he’s built be damaged by some short-sighted legal maneuvers.
  7. Finally, your last sentences show that you’re misunderstanding the changing world of cycling.  Thirty years ago, there were very few people who had the ability to have a voice in the world of cycling.  There was no internet, no blogging, no Facebook.  A story like this never would have seen the light of day, much less draw the attention that it has drawn.  The world is changing.  People like me do have a voice.  And frankly, there are a lot of people who are being a lot less reasonable about these issues–and they have voices too.  If you don’t believe in the power of crowds when they can instantly share information and thoughts via the internet, then you should become more of a student of modern history.  Quite frankly, I’m concerned that Specialized doesn’t see this issue more clearly…and that’s why I wrote what I wrote.

Here’s another common theme in comments I’ve seen on the internet (and here):

I have not seen any one address Specialized statement regarding having to defend their trademarks. So the letter could have been written nicer like the JD one. But what if they didn’t defend the name in this case then another entity used the name and they could not stop them because they have a case where they did not defend. So where is the talk about two victims. It’s how our legal system works that we should be talking about. We should be saying it is bummer this name has to be defended. Maybe!

There is a lot of good writing out there about the underlying legal issues.  The Red Kite article linked in the original post is a great example of that analysis; here’s another article from Velonews.  Here’s the problem, though:

  1. The thousands of people tweeting about this issue and chanting Death to Specialized don’t really care about the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of intellectual property law.  I haven’t written about the legal analysis or my personal thoughts on the trademark claim–intentionally so.  This is an instance where the legal analysis is irrelevant; it’s a red herring.  Whatever economic harm Specialized would suffer as a result of Cafe Roubaix’s name pales in comparison to the adverse impact that this issue is having upon their brand.
  2. Assume that Specialized had to pursue this claim to protect their intellectual property.  (Disregard your own personal thoughts on the issue, and make that assumption).  They still have a PR issue with how they approach small businesses.  They are still perceived as a bully.  There will doubtless be times when they need to pursue an intellectual property claim.  They need to be sensitive in how they do so.  They need to be mindful of their image.  That means that they need to do a better job, up front, of analyzing whether someone else in the industry really presents a threat to their business and rights.  It also means that if they decide a threat exists, they need to be more reasonable in how they address that threat.  If they had to address Cafe Roubaix, they should have done so in a more sociable fashion, and followed the Jack Daniels model.

I’m not anti-Specialized.  I really like some of their ideas, I love the aesthetic of some of their bikes, and I’m inspired by Mike Sinyard’s personal story.  It just seems like they’ve lost touch with the cycling world, and are failing to see how their legal actions are impacting their public image.  They need to keep attracting new customers–and not just rely on Specialized’s established customers to defend them.  They need to innovate.  I wish them well, and hope that they see the error of their ways.


9 thoughts on “Specialized, Part Two.

  1. I love reading your blog and appreciate your level headed approach to talking about this. One thing that I think get’s skipped on this whole debate is that Specialized sent a private letter to the business owner and it didn’t stay private. Think about this. They didn’t give this shop notice by taking out a half page ad on Bikerumor.com, but that’s the way this shop owner decided to respond. I personally have a general issue with people deciding to just ‘give up all hope’ because ‘their only option was to contact the media’. I call that bullying, too, and even if I agreed that the initial letter constituted a bully tactic, 2 wrongs don’t make a right, as they say. The issue is, Dan didn’t have to provide all of the details around the letter he received. He didn’t even have to have any enforceable rights to defend and argue. All he had to have was a platform and a sympathetic audience. Now people are pressuring Specialized to react to a private matter in a public fashion, that no matter how they respond, sets a precedence. And essentially, they only have one choice in many people’s minds right now which is to back off all together – which really sets a precedence that jeopardizes their ™. I don’t disagree that there’s some real soul searching that needs to go on at Specialized to evaluate their IP defense strategy, but I don’t think it’s our right as consumers and the general public to demand anything of the company, especially a public response to this shop owner’s decision to air out their dirty laundry. We simply don’t have all of the information…we’re just responding based on a few anecdotal snipits of info and a ton of emotion.
    Finally, ideas become projects, successful projects become start-ups, successful start-ups become businesses, and successful businesses can become very big. Demonizing a business in any one of those stages is a form of prejudice and is currently running rampant across America to the extent that harassment is occurring. We can’t pick sides based on business size. And we need to be extremely careful to continue supporting the foundation of this system (property rights) above any one participant, regardless of size.

    Man, I did NOT mean to say so much…. 🙂

    • I understand your perspective, but Specialized should have seen this coming a mile away. With all of their IP issues of late, it was a matter of time before someone took it truly public (see Epic Designs, Epic Wheels, Stumptown, etc), and embarrassed them.

      Quite a few informed articles have been written showing that: a) this likely didn’t jeopardize their trademark; and, b) they had far more pleasant ways of intervening than a cease and desist letter. But that’s beside the point: the point is that they have a public image problem that they urgently need to solve.

      Everything is complicated in this instance by the fact that the fight is over the name Roubaix, which many cyclists don’t view as Specialized’s property.

      But again…my point is not to pick sides in the fight. My point is to talk about the problem that Specialized has, that they need to fix if they wish to remain a big, successful company. That the public would side with a veteran-owned startup over Specialized is not surprising. Specialized needs to see that, too. Please note that I’m not demonizing Specialized. They have a public perception problem that is coloring how this issue plays.

      • I should have been more careful; I don’t think you’ve demonized them. Unfortunately I can’t say that for a lot of other cyclists who are quick to ‘never buy another bike from them again’.
        Where I work, we talk about IP in 3 fashions: 1) if you don’t have enough money to protect it the value is minimal; 2) if it is easily designed around within the rules of deviation you’re just giving your competition a really good idea; and 3) strong brand value is the best IP you can obtain. In that vein, Specialized has already lost the IP to Roubaix as, I agree, no one believes they ‘own’ the name. I agree they currently have a public opinion problem that is coloring how this issue plays. My only point is that, unfortunately, part of the problem comes from the general negative view of larger organizations in the US right now. There’s an altruistic bias towards ‘small business’, which can be healthy, but a slippery slope. Thanks for your response.

    • In defending their “Roubaix” brand, Specialized harmed quite a lot their strongest brand which is… Specialized. Regardless of the outcome. They´ve been doing this for a while, it was only a matter of time untill this questionable behavior met internet and social media age.

      If Dan took this public all the better for him since it would never be a fair fight to start with. How many similar cases have never come to surface is to wonder… Whenever you decide to start or enter a fight, you have to assess what´s at stake. This was very, very poor judgement from Specialized all across the board. No matter who decided or why, they really screwed on the HOW.

      They won´t sink and I don´t wish that, but I´m not sorry for them either and in fact it would be good to see the big arrogant guy take a hit and back off for a good reason. I´ve been riding Specialized bikes since the early 90´s and still have and use lots of their goods.

      So I´m not burning my S gloves of crushing my S-Works helmet, and I don´t feel ashamed to use them either. But for the moment I don´t really feel like buying anything from them, I´m just glad I live in a world where we have OPTIONS. And in all honesty that´s nothing to do with all the negative posts and comments floating around at the moment. I just feel that way.

    Specialized if you are a good corporate citizen surely you can find a way to support a Canadian veteran who fought in the same theater as your veterans. The following from Edward Beckmann

    Putting aside the debate about trademarking a place name, surely granting Dan permission to use Cafe Roubaix in certain circumstances would help maintain the reputation of both Specialized and patent lawyers. If the trademark holder is obliged to protect a trademark, maybe they can be seen to do that whilst granting Dan a license fee of say $1 a year.

    It may have been a smart move to register the trademark, but I don’t see Specialized getting much admiration for it.
    By Edward Beckmann

  3. I resonated to this statement: “Much of what goes into the purchase of a high-end bike is buying into the ethos and culture of the manufacturer.” When I got back into cycling 5 years ago after a long hiatus, I found that there was no shortage of competently designed and built bikes, but Cervelo’s engineering orientation and innovative approach captured and held my attention. And I have been riding one happily ever since. You can count on seeing Specialized bikes every place you see people riding bikes to the point of being common. In its effort to get big Specialized got mean – they are tough on dealers and now they seem to be tough on the people who want to use a trade name that frankly, everyone believes belongs to the cycling community at large. I do hope that this episode causes the big S enough pain that they learn from it and turn a corner. But, I am not hopeful because arrogance almost always accompanies market power.

  4. Yep, I think you’re spot on here. The reason so many people are getting so worked up about this is precisely because we believed, or wanted to believe, that Specialized was better than this.
    I still really would rather believe that at heart they are not like this, but that somehow the legal department has got out of control.
    They have a lot of work to do though, and ‘damage limitation’ doesn’t really cover it. The response has to be genuine, not just window-dressing.

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