Bugaboo: the pull of a cool pushchair

August 20, 2013 5:09 pm

Bugaboo: the pull of a cool pushchair

By Emma Jacobs

max-barenbrug-nico-moolen-001

Bugaboo founder Max Barenbrug, left, and chief executive Nico Moolenaar. Photographer: Paul O’Driscoll. Man with a pram plan: Max Barenbrug wants substance not hype to be the reason a Bugaboo is bought by parents

O n Fridays, Max Barenbrug, co-founder of Bugaboo, the maker of expensive statement strollers and prams used by Elton John, Madonna and reportedly the Duchess of Cambridge, is found at home. This time is earmarked for his two children but as they are aged 10 and 11, for the most part they are at school and he is on his own. “At home I am totally Max, which is sitting silently and thinking. I like to be alone. When I am with the children I ask the girls, ‘do your thing, don’t bother me’.” The childcare strategy allows him freedom to ponder. “I don’t like to work extremely hard. I have never worked extremely hard.” Which is a rare statement from an entrepreneur. His philosophy is that products are “1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent transpiration. Transpiration can be outsourced, inspiration is where you make a difference and I focus on that. An idea should be in the head as long as possible.”His team of designers – 35 people, but he wishes it was more – are af­forded the same entitlement as the chief executive once they have a baby. It is not pure altruism, they are expected to work an extra hour the other days and it makes scheduling meetings easier if everyone has the same day off. Does an extra day with their child increase their ability to innovate products and functionality for infants generally?

“Yes and no. If you are not a [parent] you are more objective, which is a better basis for creativity.”

The Bugaboo was born out of Mr Barenbrug’s graduation project in 1994. While still a student – with no children – at Eindhoven’s prestigious Design Academy, he was inspired to create a prototype stroller after seeing parents struggling with their own.

After graduating, he and Eduard Zanen, a doctor and entrepreneur then married to Mr Barenbrug’s sister, tried and failed to sell the design to stroller manufacturers. So the two went into business together to make it themselves, finding a manufacturer in Taiwan. The first Bugaboo came on to the market in 1999.

Max Barenbrug on the role of designers

 Designers are underrated:“A designer should be on the board and have the final word about a product. The intelligence of designers is not used properly. They are often only used to coming up with nice-looking things, which is superficial. It is about more than design, it is about concept creations, an identity.”

● Not all customers care about design for its own sake:“We focus on performance but many people are not interested in performance because it’s rational and they are more led by [the] emotional – the fact that the neighbour has it or friends are talking about it. Yet our difference lies in the fact that we have this substance.”

● Designers should aspire to start their own companies:“The biggest brands like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Mercedes are all created by designers or engineers,” says Mr Barenbrug. Most of his designers “want to create themselves, they want to own a product”, he says, but adds that “unfortunately there aren’t many who can” – they do not have the entrepreneurial ability.

Mr Barenbrug, who can be deliberately vague when he chooses, says there is “a difference of opinion” on how much Mr Zanen put in to the company. “I think he invested €150,000.” How much does Mr Zanen think it is? “Double.” Nonetheless, Mr Barenbrug insists that it is not a source of tension between them, nor is Mr Zanen’s divorce from his sister. (“They both made stupid mistakes . . . They were both to blame and we’re all human.”)

Gangly Mr Barenbrug, bouncing about his press office’s chic, white meeting room like a Labrador, thinks the idea of owning a stroller as a status symbol is mad, likening it to “skyscrapers”.

“We have a lot of ignorant consumers [who] just go for a Bugaboo because their neighbour has one,” he says. The company’s top model sells for more than £1,200.

He is wary of the PR machine’s role in publicising the brand. “We give away strollers. I don’t like that . . . [It’s] hype that can easily [transfer] to another product. As a designer I try to give substance to the balloon that is created by our marketing department. You have to fill it with substance.” After all, he points out, “you don’t need to put your child in a stroller at all. You could carry it.” In fact, one of his designers does just that.

Design is everything to Mr Barenbrug.

The Bugaboo’s functionality was, he says, part of its early appeal to men. “When we were small, the early adopters were women [and] also men.” Now the brand is mainstream, he says, the male buyers have become less significant: “In general it is mommy doing the purchase and the man is smoking cigarettes outside.”

As a child, he was always making things in the garage of the family home in Haarlem, northern Holland. While still at school, he made and sold beds on stilts to students wanting to maximise space: “I bought wood, steel and welded it together, and had enough money to [pay off] the investment for the drilling machine and have a good vacation.”

His mother was a housewife and his father worked for the retailer C&A: “A very old-fashioned company, very religious. My father was very religious too. I didn’t believe in God.”

His father accepted his decision to renounce religion at the age of eight, although his mother insisted on regular church attendance. Mr Barenbrug’s first degree was in government administration, which he stopped after a year before going to the Design Academy. “Part of me came to life, which was suppressed by my upbringing.”

Referring to himself as stubborn and occasionally scary, he insists he has only once shouted at an employee. Is that person still working with him? “No, he was fired.”

Mr Barenbrug describes himself as “designer”. He is disdainful of his formal title: chief executive. “CEO is a word that is American and doesn’t mean anything to me. I am in charge of the conceptual development and make sure that all the products have excitement and are better [than their competitors].”

However, there was a period between 2009 and 2010 when he was not chief executive and was utterly miserable.

Together with Mr Zanen, he had appointed an external chief executive to relieve the pair of the day-to-day minutiae of management. “We were entrepreneurs starting from scratch, learning by doing. Then you meet this professional person and are impressed by him. But you find out he does not understand all the things you are good at – entrepreneurship, having intuition, being prepared to move fast.”

So due to his “frustration”, Mr Barenbrug quit. During this time, he focused on his house in France, his boat and his “unhappiness”. “I couldn’t let go. The company is what moves me.”

Ultimately, due to declining product quality, falling profits and increasing personal misery, he returned to the post. Key to maintaining quality, he says, is owning Bugaboo’s factory in China, calling it the “basis for our success”. Previously Bugaboo had to “stand in line . . . bigger companies were prioritised”.

Revenues in 2012 were €94m, up from €82m in 2011. The company now has eight offices, employs more than 900 people and sells to 46 countries.

Now Mr Barenbrug is working on a new product about which he is annoyingly tight-lipped, except to say it is in the area of “commuting”.

As designer-in-chief, he sets the company’s direction. As he tells his designers: “If you want to be in my chair, if you really want to create as I create you have to do it yourself because, within Bugaboo, in the end it is me that decides.”

Bugaboo beyond the baby business

Founder Max Barenbrug and chief executive Nico Moolenaar discuss the 10-year-old Dutch company’s plans to build on its designer buggies

David Teather

The Observer, Sunday 20 September 2009

The founder of Bugaboo, Max Barenbrug, is admiring one of his prams, which happens to be entirely white, at the firm’s head office in a suburb of Amsterdam. Doesn’t it get terribly dirty?

“Yes, but that is beautiful,” Barenbrug enthuses. “I used this and everything became grey, everything became dirty. It is…” he uses a Dutch word and searches for the English, inadvertently making one up. “What is the word? ‘Smuggy’, that is nice. If you have kids, you soon find out that once they are in your stroller it will get smuggy anyway, there is nothing you can do about it,” he starts to laugh, “It doesn’t matter.”

He has a habit, he says, of approaching people in the street, if something on their Bugaboo isn’t connected properly. “I take all the crumbs and all the food and vomit and everything for granted,” he says. You have to embrace the vomit and the poop? “Mm hmm,” he says, nodding his head vigorously. “Mm hmm.”

You don’t need to have children to have heard of Bugaboo, you just need to know a middle-class parent. Actually, all you need do is open the paper, and there will be a celebrity mum or dad pushing the 4×4 of prams, which cost up to £660, along the pavements of Primrose Hill. There is a healthy resale market on eBay for anyone who can’t afford them new.

Barenbrug says the company is quite strict about not giving the prams away to celebrities. Madonna paid for hers, he says, as do members of the Dutch royal family, although he did give one to his favourite Dutch actress, Kim van Kooten. He does, he admits, “like it a lot” when he sees members of the A-list pushing his buggies. Others pictured with a Bugaboo have included Gwyneth Paltrow, Stella McCartney, Gwen Stefani and Matthew McConaughey.

Barenbrug produced his first Bugaboo as his final year project at Eindhoven Design Academy, 15 years ago. The original idea was to make a pram that a man would like, and the chunky design and solid colours owed much to the aesthetics of outdoor gear used for climbing or camping. “It had to be tough, it had to be multifunctional, it had to be used outdoors. Like you want a car, you want this stroller,” he says. “The parent that buys this buys it for themselves.”

People, he says, don’t suddenly change because they have children. He yanks a model from the shelves and energetically turns it into a two-wheeler to show how it could be used on the beach. The one-piece handlebar, allowing dad to steer with one hand, the ability to switch the seat from front-facing to parent-facing and its modular design, as well as the use of more fashionable fabrics, made it different, he says.

He tried to sell the concept to a pram manufacturer for a number of years but failed to spark any interest. His then brother-in-law, Eduard Zanen, invested some money and they made the buggy themselves, from a factory in Taiwan, displaying them at an industry fair in Cologne. That attracted huge interest, including an offer for the company. Instead they decided to go it alone.

The first Bugaboo came onto the market in 1999. Today the company employs 800 people, Bugaboos are on sale in 50 countries and the company has annual revenues of €70m (£63m). Eight months ago, Barenbrug hired a chief executive to run the company, Nico Moolenaar, allowing him to focus on design.

The design has evolved in the past decade. The tread in the tyres has changed because customers complained that dog faeces got wedged in, and the suspension improved after Barenbrug had his own two daughters. The company also launched the Bee, a smaller, lightweight version. Nurseries in west London had started banning the Bugaboo because they were taking up too much space. Another key moment for the brand came when one was used on Sex and the City, before it was available in the US. It got a huge amount of press coverage.

Before Bugaboo, the market had been “very backward” Barenbrug says, with manufacturers simply trying to make prams as cheap as possible. It is a feat, though, to convince consumers they should pay four or five times what they ordinarily would for a product. It is like Starbucks convincing us to spend £2.40 on a coffee. Barenbrug doesn’t like the comparison. “Starbucks I don’t like. They don’t give value for money, period. I take a big circle round to avoid Starbucks,” he says, walking in a big circle. A better comparison, Moolenaar says, is Bang & Olufsen, the high-end stereo equipment. Bugaboo does especially well in Spain, Holland and Britain, although it is not so strong in the US, where Barenbrug says price remains the main driver in the market.

The status attached to a Bugaboo has brought it equal adoration and loathing. “People buy it because the neighbour has it, this I don’t like,” Barenbrug says. “What I like is when people really like this product for what it is.” But there is undeniably a snob value. “Well, this is true, but what can I say? I continuously say in interviews that the product is worth it. You get value for money.”

The company is still 50/50 owned by Barenbrug and Zanen, who is largely a sleeping partner. Moolenaar has been brought in to make the business run more efficiently and to drive its expansion. One plan is to put the Bugaboo name onto other “mobility” products, from bicycles to bags and walking frames for the elderly and disabled. Another is to speed up production of new models.

“It is like any other company that has been going for 10 years, you go from the pioneering stage to the more mature stage and you have to revisit your structure and policies and management,” Moolenaar says. To mark its 10th anniversary, the company said it would donate 1% of revenues to Red, which battles HIV and Aids in Africa. The company is also launching a website at the end of the year to sell its products.

But it feels as if Barenbrug is straining against the corporate bit. He confides that he is thinking of moving the design team from the corporate headquarters on an industrial estate back to the centre of Amsterdam. He wants, he says, to have better lunch options. “This is catered, I don’t like it,” he says, wrinkling his face.

He also tells a revealing story about the Bugaboo name. He came up with it when he looked up buggy in the dictionary and saw the word bugaboo. The definition, he says, was a little goblin or ghost. “I liked the name because it was teasing. An annoying little ghost. But our PR agency started going through all the dictionaries in the world to give it a more ‘proper’, positive meaning and found one. It is something to do with striving or continuing. I wasn’t happy with it.” You preferred the original? “Of course, yes, but you have to let go sometimes. We are a big company now.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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