Max Barenbrug

This is inspiration article by Laura Stevens (August 27, 2011) in the Wall Street Journal. Max Barenburg is the designer and founder of the Bugaboo baby transport.

The Boss of Big Bold Baby Buggies

Max Barenbrug has always been obsessed with creating things that move.

With four sisters—he refers to his childhood home in Arnhem, the Netherlands, as a “hen house”—he turned to the garage for escape and inspiration. His creations there ran the gamut from practical to comical, but they all served a purpose.

“I did ridiculous things,” says the blond-haired, blue-eyed, 46-year-old Dutchman, with a laugh.

When he was 10, he and his neighborhood friends made a 50-foot-long chain of bikes by taking off the front wheels and connecting them—much to the neighbors’ amusement. He figured out how to make his moped go backward at age 12. At age 14, he built his own small motorized cart, complete with a trailer hitch.

As a university student, he made money on the side by building loft-bed frames and by welding together about a dozen practice drum kits, selling them for more than $400 a set.

“All these things I built had a business element or were really funny,” he says.

And that business element is what led Mr. Barenbrug to invent the Bugaboo stroller, an international sensation now sold in 50 countries, with a retail price upward of $600 each. Mr. Barenbrug says he doesn’t waste his time on creations that don’t immediately differentiate themselves from other products in the marketplace.

He ponders creations in his head—often in the evening quiet of his water-front home in Durgerdam, outside Amsterdam, sitting in a comfy old George Mulhauser Plycraft chair with a drink—and rarely writes things down. Everything can be inspiration.

The more you write down or draw, “the greater the danger that you come up with something expected,” he says. “For me, the creative process is more between the ears.”

A multifunctional stroller “is not something that you draw. That is something that you grow in your head,” he adds.

While a student at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, he looked out his second-story apartment window and saw a woman struggling to balance a bike, a baby and a stroller as she tried to attach the stroller to the bike to get home. “I realized it has to be one movement” to fold up the stroller, he says. This was the moment of inspiration for the Bugaboo. He designed the stroller over the course of a few months as one of his final projects—the other was a stripped-down, more practical bicycle targeted at female consumers—and graduated with honors in 1994.

After marketing the stroller at a Cologne, Germany, trade fair in 1997, Mr. Barenbrug and his business partner Eduard Zanen sold their first crate. They officially founded the Bugaboo company in 1999. The company currently has three different models on the market, including the new Bugaboo Donkey, which converts from a single stroller to a double with three clicks of the handlebar.

Bugaboo strollers feature reversible and detachable seats, adjustable handlebars, a click-in car-seat holder, multi-terrain swivel wheels with suspension, plus a two-wheel mode that allows for easy dragging uphill or in snow. The design was so innovative that many other stroller companies were forced to try to copy it.

In a presentation room at his company’s Amsterdam headquarters, Mr. Barenbrug jumps up to demonstrate the circular, plastic-encased joint that allows the stroller to fold up with a one-handed flip of the wrist. He also made the stroller with a man in mind—an untapped market in the early ’90s. Strollers at the time were very female-oriented, and he saw market potential in a more rugged device. The stroller was designed to go off road and to have a more streamlined, metallic look.

It’s good to come to the process with an open mind and without any hang-ups, he says as he sits back down on a table, mentioning that he wasn’t yet a parent when he came up with the Bugaboo concept and had little experience with strollers.

Design is a form of problem solving, he says. (He has officially retired from the Bugaboo design team, shifting full-time to a supervisory and creative role.) He sees the creative process as many roads—90% of which end up in dead ends. Each time you hit a problem or flaw, it’s important to start fresh at the beginning.

“If we see that dead end is there, we have to start off on a new street and see if that leads to a dead end,” Mr. Barenbrug says.

Mr. Barenbrug says that he draws inspiration from a range of factors, including watching people with strollers on the streets, using his own product once he had children, and interpreting market research to see what consumers actually want—not just what they think they want.

That’s how the Bugaboo Donkey was born. In 2004, the sales team said that the company needed a double stroller to take advantage of growing market demand. In his chair overlooking the harbor, Mr. Barenbrug started thinking about a woman in her late 30s or early 40s who wants to have two kids in quick succession or who ends up with twins. He concluded that such a family would need a stroller that could easily make the transition from one child to two—or easily convert back and forth throughout the day, depending on the family’s activities.

Mr. Barenbrug’s key design insight was a handlebar for the stroller that telescoped out. He passed the idea to the design team, which worked with him to develop the entire concept for the Donkey stroller. During the sketching, they saw a space to the side of the mono stroller’s seat and decided to add a basket for storage. In the end, they came up with a 23-inch-wide single with a side basket that converts into a 29-inch double that can hold two car seats or two stroller seats facing in either direction. The product came to market this year.

“It’s easy to give the customer what they want,” he says. “But you’re more successful if you give them what they didn’t know they wanted.”

A Stroll Through the Design Process

Although his process is mostly ‘between the ears,’ Max Barenbrug eventually creates some sketches, like these for a stroller that converts from four wheels to two.

  • If Max Barenbrug gets too wound up while thinking about new products, he may head to his electric drum set and play for a while to release some energy and calm down.
  • When Mr. Barenbrug has come up with a distinctive starting point—such as the original concept for converting a four-wheel stroller into a two-wheeler—he grabs a postcard, a magazine, or any handy piece of scrap paper. “Then you start sketching,” he says. “And in the sketching, you solve the problem. You think about how we can do things differently.”
  • He next turns to his design team at Bugaboo. They continue sketching, then work out 3-D models on the computer. Mr. Barenbrug refuses to compromise—every dead end requires a fresh start. In the design process, “usually form follows function.” For him, Mr. Barenbrug says, “it doesn’t work that way at all…. You work toward a satisfying result.”
  • Great creative design takes time, Mr. Barenbrug says. A truly innovative product takes about five years of development, “and in a totally new market, make it one year extra.” He said he has a secret new Bugaboo product in the works—also in the mobility field—that should be released in the next year or two.

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