Bet you didn’t know that the invention of the kickboard scooter began with a sausage… the best bratwurst in Zurich.
Well, it did! In this Learning from InvENtors post, we’re going to highlight the inventor of the kickboard scooter – Wim Ouboter.
“I am a person who likes to be fairly comfortable,” says Wim Ouboter. “No more than necessary” is one of the winning formulas behind his products.
“My sister had a problem with her leg which meant it was 25cm shorter than the other one. When we were kids, she couldn’t ride a bicycle or go skiing, but she was excellent at riding a scooter so my parents really pushed us to use scooters. We got a new one almost every year. They would drive us up to the top of a hill and we would ride down.”
Wim Ouboter lays no claim to the invention of the kick scooter as they have been around for many years. However, he became inventive because during his childhood he had to struggle with dyslexia which took a toll on his formal education. He also picked up hands-on experience in mechanics and engineering while helping his father in his USA factory. He later went on to take a business course at Boston University before heading back to Switzerland.
One night in 1997, Ouboter was 30 years old and living in Zurich when he came across a problem. His favorite sausage shop was too far away to walk, yet not far away enough to take the car out of the garage.
“I called it a micro-distance.”
Brimming with enthusiasm for his new means of locomotion, Ouboter considered turning it into a commercial venture, so he asked three friends for their opinions. “They shot me down in flames.” They questioned his sanity and advised him against it. Such a hopeless project would only lose money. The prototype ended up in the garage – until his neighbor’s son discovered it and started to use it as a leisure scooter.
Normal children’s scooters have a longboard, or the “deck”, on which the rider stands. On Ouboter’s version, the deck was short. The tires on normal children’s scooters are filled with air, whereas Ouboter’s model travelled on fast inline skate rollers.
“Riding my scooter was simply more fun.”
So it was no wonder that children were lining up in the basement garage to race around on the scooter. When Ouboter saw how enthusiastic the children were about his scooter, he consulted his wife. Would she object if her husband were to earn his money from something as embarrassing as a scooter? She replied that there was no reason for her to cringe at such a prospect, and gave her approval.
Ouboter’s first startup was a mechanical parts distributor. He readily admits that he lacks any formal engineering or technical training. Despite this, he continued working with wheel sizes, wheel bases and scooter decks for his first prototype.
He asserts that he ‘put a few things together’, and enlisted the assistance of a welder. At the same time, he decided to capitalize on the robust, but low-friction and absorbent plastics that were being produced for in-line skate wheels.
Ouboter tried to keep costs as low as possible while still maintaining the income from his first business. When he developed the kickboard, his initial intention was to sell the idea to the Swatch Group. The renowned Swiss watchmaker was venturing into urban mobility solutions through the Swatchmobile, a smart car. Ultimately, Swatch wasn’t interested, but Ouboter still persisted with his dream.
The turnaround came in 1998 when the US sports goods firm K2 took up the kickboard project. They agreed to take up its marketing under their brand name, but wanted Ouboter to continue to deal with the production.
Ouboter says that he lacked the financial clout to venture into manufacturing and to minimize costs, he would have to do it in Asia. To which end, he ultimately came to an agreement with a firm in Taiwan that had production facilities in China. In this agreement, Ouboter agreed to share product distribution with him selling to K2, while his Asian partner handled the Asian market.
The kickboard arrangement with K2 provided Ouboter with the necessary foundation on which to proceed with the development of the micro scooter, which he went on to introduce at the Munich international sports fair. He also went on to found the Micro Mobility Systems company in 1998. At this particular time, the kickboard was selling well, but regular scooter’s sales were just beating them. Fun, fairly affordable and very practical, it rapidly became a craze. At the peak of its popularity, Micro Mobility Systems was moving 80,000 units on a regular basis.
He produced the two-wheeled Micro Scooter® as a variation on this theme – an innovation which exploded on the market in the year 2000 like a bombshell. Their wildest expectations were exceeded, with the press all over the world clamoring for the extraordinary story of the self-made man and his “bratwurstmobile.”
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but in the case of the Micro Scooter®, it was detrimental. Soon after Ouboter launched his Micro Scooter, the market was flooded with copies. Where Ouboter concentrated on quality and sustainability, the manufacturers of these plagiarized products were only interested in a quick, short-term gain which led to a complete market collapse due to the price pressure caused by cheap imitations.
“No matter what you do, you get copied,” he adds. Intellectual property rights are stolen shamelessly. “Although in China, that’s supposed to be one of the highest compliments you can pay.”
One such imitator went on to cause a serious accident when a user’s finger in the UK got stuck in a badly designed collapsing mechanism. The authorities quickly went to work and banned the product in Germany, a major market for Ouboter and his company. These products were designated as toys rather than adult items as their handlebars were designed for children’s use. Lacking the necessary safety certifications to counter this move, the industry rapidly collapsed.
“The most effective remedy is to maintain the brand and keep developing it consistently,” Ouboter comments. Branding is the best form of protection against pirates. “What people want is the original.” Micro’s good brand image is based on values such as Swissness, high quality, innovation and sustainability, and it is backed up by facts: for example, spare parts are available for a period of ten years.
Ouboter soon found himself bombarded with a large number of lawsuits, most of which were from retailers and distributors who couldn’t dispose their accumulated stocks. Even worse, K2 decided to opt for a cheaper supplier for the kickboard. Ouboter was by no means discouraged by this sad turn of events.
“That saw the start of a really difficult period where, in effect, we had to go right back to the drawing board again,” said Ouboter. “Despite this, we learned that, instead of simply taking on the copyists, it was more important to look to the future and concentrate on the rigorous further development of our products. We work passionately for our Micro brand, day after day.”
In 2003, he offered Hans Peter Belliger, a youthful salesman in Micro Mobility Systems, a 20% stake in the firm in exchange for him taking the role of CEO. By 2005, Ouboter had managed to redesign his products’ safety standards. Additionally, the turnover and morale of his company was given a boost by landing a lucrative contract for supplying the Swiss army with trolleys.
In the long run, demand for the micro scooter started to gain momentum. Ouboter found a new manufacturer, and negotiated for an infinitely more flexible contract, which allowed small production runs. He also started diversifying his products by altering the features of the scooter and the kickboard. Constant innovation, meant that he could always be a step ahead of the cheap competition.
Today, thanks to Ouboter’s visionary spirit, Micro enjoys a much broader base and is better positioned than ever today in the clearly defined Kids & Teens, Freestyle and Adults segments.
Micro has made a lasting impact on the development of urban mobility, with exclusive innovations such as the Micro Luggage, a case with a folding kickboard (approved as hand luggage) which has made day-to-day life considerably easier for frequent flyers.
Or the emicro one, probably the most compact and lightest e-scooter in the world. It looks like a normal scooter, but the hub motor provides electric support and allows the rider to reach speeds of up to 25km/h.
The latest coup is the Microlino, the mini-car that represents the first incarnation of Ouboter’s “Reduce to the Max” vision on four wheels. It will be available from the end of 2017.
Over 10 million micro scooters later, they are still an important part of Ouboter family life. Not only does Wim’s sister tell him she’s glad that his business came out of her disability, but when asked if his two young children use his scooters, he says, “Of course. Who do you think are my guinea pigs?
When asked what he loved about his job, Ouboter answered,
“I am extremely lucky to be doing something I’m passionate about every day. I enjoy inventing and designing products which help make fantastic differences to people’s everyday lives. With such a broad product range it means every day is different and I love the variety.”