It all started in 2005 when two Industrial Design students, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, got frustrated about a debate over whether it should be mandatory for cyclists to wear helmets. They thought, “Why force people to wear something they don’t like? There must be another way”. Bicycle helmets had more or less looked the same since the ’70s, and the industry didn’t seem to be bothered about changing this any time soon.
As a part of their Master’s Thesis at Lund University, the two students set out to create a new product that was both safe and would let people feel the wind blowing through their hair while riding their bike. When asking consumers about what they would be interested in, someone said: “I want an invisible helmet”.
The resulting innovation was Hövding (meaning ‘Chief’ in Swedish), the concept of a helmet based on airbag technology. Worn like a collar, Hövding follows your movements and detects when you’re about to get into an accident. The airbag then inflates in 0.1 seconds around your head and supports your neck before you hit the ground or object in front of you.
Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin’s idea got a lot of attention, and the following year they founded their company. It took another five years and 75 million SEK ($7 million) in venture capital to develop the concept into an approved and certified product – the Hövding 1.0.
By the time Fredrik Carling took over as CEO in 2012, it was time to start selling the airbag helmets to consumers. He came from a background in the fashion industry, having previously worked at companies like Levi’s and Diesel, and brought with him a commercial perspective to the tech-oriented startup.
“The task was to take the product to market. When I started, it was all about research and development. But it’s not enough to just hire a few salespeople, you need to change the entire culture of the company. Today, we are driven by both commercial success and continual improvement to the product,” he says.
The road to success
Hövding’s office is located in an old chocolate factory in the Swedish city of Malmö. Around 35-40 people are now working at the company, selling airbag helmets to 16 markets in Europe and Japan. The product development team shares the space together with marketing experts, customer service agents and e-commerce specialists.
“The job is not done just because you have an amazing product. It’s not worth anything if people aren’t aware of it, or if they’re not able to buy it in a convenient way. So you need to put at least as much work into commercializing it in the best possible way,” Fredrik Carling says.
He has some advice to offer anyone who has developed an innovative product and wants to reach commercial success with it:
“Let’s say you have 100 dollars: don’t waste all of it on developing the product. You need to keep at least 30 to market and sell it.”
Still, the company’s roots are very much in research. The two founders encourage the spirit of challenging common truths about what can be accomplished.
“Our foundation is that nothing is impossible. We don’t give up just because someone says it can’t be done. We also understand the power of technology and AI to improve our product even further, when it comes to both safety and design.”
On the marketing front, Hövding has two major selling points:
- It feels like riding a bike without wearing a helmet.
- It’s safer than regular helmets.
Hövding has been shown to offer up to eight times better protection than traditional bicycle helmets, according to tests conducted at Stanford University in 2016. The company is keen to point out that their product is validated by experts.
“We’re proud that our product is performing so well in different studies, both from a commercial perspective and a product development perspective. Our product is almost too good to be true. Many people don’t believe that it actually works. That’s why we need studies to prove that what we’re saying is true.”
For Fredrik Carling and his team, the challenge is to change a concept that’s been around for ages.
“People have been protecting their heads in the same way for thousands of years. Just look at the Vikings and the Romans who also wore helmets. Now, we’re proposing that you don’t need to wear anything on your head. Of course people will be sceptical. We’ve noticed that it takes a while to get established in new markets. But when we get some momentum, it’s like a ketchup effect; we start to grow really fast.
Vanity is, of course, another big reason why people don’t like to use helmets – both among men and women. People don’t seem to like the way they look wearing them, or how their hair looks afterwards.
“In Sweden, around 30 percent of cyclists wear helmets. In Germany, that number drops to 12 percent. So almost 9 out of 10 are unprotected there, which is crazy. But it has a lot to do with tradition. Cycling goes way back and has been seen as a leisure activity. But today, it has transformed into a means of transport in the cities, which brings a lot of new dangers,” Fredrik Carling points out.
Riding on contemporary trends
There are a lot of current trends that are playing in Hövding’s favour. First of all, the growing awareness around global warming is leading to more people commuting by bike instead of using their car. Another big trend is the focus on personal health, which is encouraging more people to cycle. It’s also cheaper than most other means of transport.
“More people cycling, unfortunately, means more accidents. But that’s where we come in to help. The safety aspect is the basis of everything we do, but we’re also promoting cycling in general and all the benefits that come with it.”
Your strategy is to grow in “key cities”. What are the thoughts behind that?
“One reason is that we have limited resources, and need to focus where we see the biggest potential. Another reason is those big cities have a tendency to drive opinion elsewhere too. So if we succeed there, we have a bigger chance of growing in other parts of the country. Once we have reached a critical mass of Hövding users in a particular city, it’s almost like a self-propelled train with word of mouth and cyclists that influence each other.”
How much does the product sell itself?
“To a very high degree. Our users often become ambassadors, promoting the product to others. They are often early adopters who like using the latest products. Our technology is also a natural conversation starter. People are curious and want to know how it works.”
What’s the most difficult part of expanding to new countries?
“You will always be Swedish, no matter where you go. That means you will always have ways of doing things, and ideas of how things should be, based on how things are here. But that might not be true at all in other countries,” Fredrik Carling says, adding: “At the same time, you don’t want to adapt too much. Because then you’ll lose your company’s soul and identity. The trick is to find the perfect balance.”
How do you decide where to expand next?
“One lesson that we have learned is to not try to launch everywhere at once. A few years ago, we were really aiming for world domination. But we couldn’t keep up with quality. Now, we’re expanding at a pace that we can manage. That’s why we’re focusing on a few selected markets and really trying to do it properly there. We get a lot of proposals from retailers around the world that we say no to.”
From innovation to commercial hit
As of December last year, Hövding had sold around 150,000 airbag helmets in seven years. Almost half of them were sold during the last 12 months.
“We’re selling both through our own channels and through partners. In the beginning, most Hövdings were sold in brick and mortar stores. But now, e-commerce is growing much quicker. One explanation is probably that people have seen our product more and trust it enough to buy it online. In our mature markets, primarily Sweden and Denmark, more than 40 percent of purchases come from the web,” says Fredrik Carling.
Hövding sell their products both through their own webshop and through retailers.
“The competition is much more fierce online because there are so many retailers that are competing on price. And it’s so easy for consumers to compare. We don’t want to go in that direction with our own webshop. We want to compete with superior service and customer experience. But that means we lose some sales to other vendors.”
One thing that sets Hövding apart from most other companies is their truly innovative product. They have several global patents that are valid for many years to come, which gives them the luxury to operate in a class of their own.
“There are both good and bad sides to not having competitors. Today, we’re the only ones trying to change consumer behaviour. If there were more brands out there with similar products, it would probably happen a lot quicker. On the other hand, we have a big advantage of being the first mover. Half of our customers have never worn bicycle helmets before, so we can expand the market beyond those who traditionally buy helmets. To reach those people, it’s more about convincing them that buying a Hövding is a good investment,” Fredrik Carling says.
“I hope that other manufacturers will come up with new inventions like Hövding. I truly believe that in 15 years, the most commonly used helmet will be based on airbag technology, because it’s vastly superior to traditional helmets. But that also requires legislation to change in some countries. For example in the US, there has been a petition to change the law, but we can clearly see that other helmet makers are doing everything in their power to shoot it down. I think they should be more concerned about improving the safety of cyclists than fighting for their antiquated technology,” he adds.