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What Every Entrepreneur Can Learn From the Bicycle

It started out feared and loathed. Then it became essential. That's how change happens.

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In 1896, the bicycle was a thrilling and newfangled invention. But not everyone was impressed. A writer named Joseph Bishop went around interviewing angry business owners, who claimed their sales fell as a result of the two-wheeler. “Before the bicycle craze struck us,” one barber said, “the men used to come in on Saturday afternoons and get a shave, and a haircut, and maybe a shampoo, in order to take their lady friends to the theater, or go out somewhere else in the evening. Now they go off on a bicycle and do not care whether they are shaved or not.”

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Booksellers said people weren't reading as much, because they were cycling. Saloon owners complained that they weren't selling as much beer, because bicyclists drank more refreshing beverages. The cigar trade was in a panic, claiming that it was shrinking at the rate of one million fewer cigars sold a day. Shoe-makers raised the alarm, because nobody was walking anymore. And hatters, Bishop reported, “say they are injured because bicyclists wear cheap caps and thus either save their more expensive ones or else get on without them. One irate member of the trade proposes that Congress be asked to pass a law compelling each bicycle-rider to purchase at least two felt hats a year.”

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Today, of course, the humble bicycle doesn’t seem to be very threatening. And yet, this hysteria should sound familiar to any modern-day reader. Throughout history, short-sighted companies have made the same mistake: They saw a technological change as a threat, not an opportunity. In the past decade, we've seen this in music labels that resist streaming, gaming companies that resist mobile, energy companies that resist solar, and many other short-sighted stands on increasingly shrinking grounds.

As I explore in this new episode of the podcast Build For Tomorrow, it was foolhardy to fight the bicycle. And yet, so many different kinds of people fought it over many decades. (You can listen in the embedded player above, or through iTunes or any other podcast provider.)

In looking back on the history of the bicycle -- and, importantly, the history of people freaking out about the bicycle -- we can take a lesson that every entrepreneur of every generation should embrace. When change comes, it cannot be stopped. You can either fight it and lose, or embrace it and win.

What did that look like for the industries impacted by the bicycle? Well, it’s easy to say that a hundred years later, we still have books, bars, cigars, shoes, hats, and barbers -- and that all of them have in some way served cyclists. Want a book about cycling? There are tons! Want a beer after your bike ride? Bicycling lists nine of its “favorite bike-themed beers."

But that’s just anecdotal. So, for the fun of it, I picked one category to dive deeper into: Hats. According to the market research firm IBIS World, the hat and cap store industry in the U.S. currently pulls in $2 billion dollars a year. Meanwhile, the bicycle manufacturing industry pulls in $849 million, and the bicycle dealership and repair industry pulls in $342 million -- which is to say that 121 years after the bicycle was supposedly decimating hat sales, the hat and cap store industry is nearly twice as large as the bike sales and manufacturing industries combined.

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Now, of course, the hat and cap industry isn’t just selling fancy felt hats, of the variety that our angry friends in 1896 were selling. That’s why it’s now the hat and cap industry. But you know what would have really behooved a hatter in 1896? Instead of whining to some reporter about how bicycles are cutting into hat sales, or trying to pass a law that protects his own economic interests, that hatter should have gone out and made the best damn bicycle hat he or she could -- because wow, there was a lot of money to be made there. There were fortunes just begging to be made! And you don’t make that money by sitting around complaining and trying to stop time. You make that money by evolving.

That’s the lesson the bicycle should teach us all. Hop on a bicycle and you’ll move forward, just like time and industries do. Forward. Always forward.

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