Without a doubt, San Francisco is one of the most innovative places on earth. But when I was there, I found myself irresistably drawn to a place that has actually shunned innovation for its premier product - and provided me with a fascinating lesson on how even the best innovation can fail.
The Boudin Bakery, the bakery that makes the delicious sourdough on Fishermans' Wharf, has been using the same sourdough starter since it opened in 1849. In fact, keeping this original "mother dough" was so important that bakery owner Louise Boudin risked her life to save it during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
I don't blame her. Their sourdough bread is incredible! I tried to eat my weight in it during the week I was in San Francisco.
During my tour of their bakery though, I was intrigued by the description of the delivery cart in the picture above. It's one of the Boudin Bakery's old delivery wagons - and it's fascinating because the text talks about how bakers actually shunned using automobiles for their delivery routes long after they became the preferred method of transportation!
At first glance, this really took me aback! Why would a business shun a new technology that requires less upkeep, works faster and more consistantly, and - ahem - doesn't necessitate constant manure clean-up???? Seems like a slam dunk to me!
As it turns out though, some mental ethnography reveals exactly why bakeries were so unimpressed by the "advantages" of the automobile for bread delivery.
To understand, pretend you're an automobile salesperson interested in selling your newfangled automobiles to the Boudin Bakery. You really want to make them your client, so you've decided to let the delivery boys try your automobiles during the delivery morning route.
Imagine your sales attempt goes something like this:
You show up at the crack of dawn to hand the lucky delivery boys their key to a shiny new car. They're thrilled: "You just hop in this thing, turn this key and go?" they ask with a big smile on their face.
"Absolutely!" You reply. "No more taking care of horses - all you have to do is turn it on when you want it!" And then the delivery boys are off!
While you wait, you sit down to enjoy a delicious sourdough loaf and chat with the bakery owner how much faster automobiles go than horses. He can barely contain his excitment - it seems he'll be saving a lot of time (and money) with this newfangled invention.
When the sun is fully in the sky, the delivery boys return and the bakery owner heads off to hear their report. You're feeling great - and are supremely confident that your automobile has sold itself.
Finally, the bakery owner comes your way. He tosses you the keys and says "I want nothing to do with those automobiles. I'd rather keep my horses!"
Wait! What? That's not how this story is supposed to go. The baker should be begging for the keys. Isn't the automobile cleaner, faster and more convenient than the horses currently being used to deliver bread? What in the world just happened?!!!
Sure there must have been a mistake, you convince the bakery owner to give your automobiles another chance. And just in case of technical problems, you'll ride along with a deliver boy the next morning. Here's how that went:
Early the next morning, you show up bright and early as the delivery boys are loading their horse carts. You jump in the passanger seat with the delivery boy who will be driving your auto, and off you go with an enormous stack of bread loaves to deliver to the bakery customers.
The ride-along goes great. You drive to the first customer's house, the delivery boy turns the auto off, gets out, and delivers the loaf. Then he hops back in the automobile with you, turns it on, drives to the next customer and repeats the cycle until finally the loaves are gone. Then it's back to the bakery - and you're totally mystified. It seems like everything went perfectly and the delivery was a success.
After the delivery, you sit down with the bakery owner and give him your sales pitch again. He signs and says, "Look: I love the automobile. I love how it takes less effort to get it ready and how I only need to pay attention to it when we're actually delivering bread. But it just doesn't work for my business."
He then explains that even though horsedrawn carts take more effort around delivery hours, they're radically more efficient during delivery times.
How? Because the horses learn their delivery routes. That means the delivery boy can set the horse on the route, and then jump on and off the cart to deliver loaves of bread to customers' doorsteps while the horse keeps slowly walking forward!
With an auto, the delivery boy had to start and stop the vehicle for every customer - which makes absolutely no sense when doors are less than 20 feet apart. With a horse, the cart never stops and advances just far enough that the delivery boy never has to backtrack. As a result, the loaves of bread get to their customers faster and more efficiently - which is essential for a business that has to deliver freshly baked bread just in time for breakfast!
Suddenly, it's clear why automobiles had no appeal to a bakery owner. In a business where speed of delivery was everything, horses were a clear winner.
Horses might require more upkeep before and after the delivery - but in the bakery, that didn't matter. Delivery drivers had time while the bread was baking to get the horses ready, and time after the delivery to unharness the horses and care for them.
Efficiency and speed during the delivery window were the bakers' priorities, and the automobile simply could not compete with their old method of delivery!
Luckily, as it turns out, bakeries were not the only target market for automobile manufacturers. And in the long run, autos did win out over horses.
But to me, hearing this story really drove home the point that it's absolutely essential to understand what motivates your target audience when you're inventing a new product for them. Automobile companies weren't targeting their product solely to bakery owners - but if they were, they would have had to focus on different priorities in order to make their product a success. Otherwise, we might still be driving to work in our horsedrawn carriages!