There are what I would call “the usual suspects” of great companies that people talk about often, from Netflix, to YouTube, to Ebay, and so on, but most of us also have our own favorite companies that are less well known. This is the first of what I expect to be a series of posts about companies that not everyone knows about, but which I think most people can learn a few things. Today I am going to write about Concept2 (makers of rowing oars and rowing machines) which is one of my all-time favorites.
I have been rowing competitively, off and on, for more than 25 years, and when I started, it was wooden boats and wooden oars, and the coxswain, the person who sits in the stern calling out specific instructions (not “stroke! stroke! stroke!” as is commonly believed) and steering used to yell into a miniature old-fashioned megaphone with a headband that looked more like orthadonture than anything sports related, and the practice machine, the rowing ergometer, was a huge metal contraption that bordered on torture (in fairness some rowers might still view the ergometer as torture, but it’s more precise, scientific torture that more closely resembles rowing).
Today, while the coxswains are still small, and the workouts no less grueling, little about the equipment is the same. The oars and boats are mostly fiberglass, the coxswains now have an electronic device (the “cox box”) that is connected to speakers in the boat (so less yelling, typically) and there is an automated stroke rate counter, and the rowing ergometers are now lightweight, relatively portable with sophisticated computers.
Concept2 isn’t responsible for all of the changes in the rowing world, but they are responsible for some of the biggest innovations in the oars and the rowing ergometers. Moving the boat through the water is “what” rowing is about, and “how” it is done through training on the machines, and pulling the oar through the water are made better and easier by Concept2. So they have really great products, which is the first key to being in touch with customers. In the case of the oars, the rowing oar went through some minor changes over time, but as you can see, for over 100 years an oar still looked pretty much like an oar, only shorter. The people at Concept2, after figuring out fiberglass was a better material, also figured out that changing the shape of the blade (the part that goes into the water) to resemble a hatchet or cleaver, was a better oar. And while the first rowing machine they made (which was basically a bike wheel with black plastic flippers for wind resistance) was an improvement, today they are amazing. But Concept2 does so many other things that makes it easy to love them. They do all kinds of things for the rowing community. They have online ergometer records (times for specific distances, by age group) free rowing logs and to go with those, they frequently have competitions that you can participate in as an individual or as a team. For example, every year they have a Holiday Challenge to row 200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas (which is a GREAT way to fight holiday weight gain), and when you do it, you get a prize, and there are different tiers for different age groups and abilities. They also have million meter clubs where for every million meters you log on the ergometer, they give you a certificate and some sort of prize like free socks. All of the online logging is on the honor system and it think it’s partly the nature of the rowing community, but the honor system works. The other piece is that while some rowing clubs are well funded, most are not, and so I love how much Concept2 has done to keep their costs down to help keep their oars and ergometers as affordable as they have.
Finally, another test of a company I love, they continue to innovate and remain in touch with what their customers want as technology becomes more ubiquitous. For example, their rowing ergometers now have a card (like a credit card with a computer chip) that allows you to keep track of your progress, and when you travel, if you take your card with you, most gyms around the world have a Concept2 ergometer, you can just slide your card in and it will continue to keep track of all of your information (which of course you can also download to your computer) from stroke rate, to distance, to times, etc.
So to summarize, Concept2 is very much in touch with what their customer values and their continue to deliver better and better products to meet those needs, and they continue to make efforts to innovate, and build community, and help their customers afford their products so that everyone on, and off, the water can compete (or not) based on their abilities and interest. What’s not to love about Concept2?