This French drone company innovates by knowing when to ignore what consumers want

In this series, Perfect Company, we are examining pockets of excellence in the corporate world. No single company is perfect, but together they show what the corporate ideal could look like.

The platonic ideal

“Working harder, being smarter, investing more aggressively, and listening more astutely to customers are all solutions to the problems posed by new sustaining technologies. But these paradigms of sound management are useless—even counterproductive, in many instances—when dealing with disruptive technology.”—Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma

The practice

Parrot has spent the last 22 years creating devices that talk to smartphones, from drones and wireless headphones to car stereos and even plant monitors. It’s competed in an industry that’s prone to passing fancies—when a fad dies in consumer electronics, the companies that sprung up around it tend to as well. But what has allowed the French company to survive and thrive is its ability to adapt to changing consumer demands while remaining a maverick. Sometimes, its products don’t exactly hit the mark, but they give the company the knowledge to adapt the next generation, the next iteration into something customers love.

Henri Seydoux, a college dropout, and friend and financier to Christian Louboutin (with whom he made his initial fortune), started Parrot in 1994. He was a tinkerer and a coder, and wanted to create things he thought people needed in their lives. His earliest idea for Parrot was what he calls a “voice-recognition organizer.” It launched in 1995 as the Parrot Voice Mate, which looked like a cross between a scientific calculator and a 1990s cellphone, and was meant to help the visually impaired store information (like a PDA without a keyboard). But it’s also where he got the idea for the company’s name: “You talk to the machine, the machine talks to you. It’s like an electronic parrot.”

Parrot’s first product. (Parrot)

The first big hit for Parrot came a few years later—a Bluetooth hands-free phone system for the car. Pretty much since then, the company’s focus has revolved around objects that can interact with phones to some capacity. Over the years, this has meant car stereos, Bluetooth earpieces, wireless speakers, and more recently, headphones designed by Phillipe Starck, and smartphone-controlled drones.

Seydoux has a simple philosophy for what sorts of products he pursues. “A modern product is designed in three main parts: One is the device, one is the app that controls the device, and the other is the cloud.” Every product Parrot now releases has these components.

Getting there has its own process. Every January, Seydoux attends the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It’s a week-long bacchanal of new gadgets from the world’s largest brands, small independent factories across the world, and everything in between. He says that aside from any official Parrot appearances at CES, he always leaves himself one day to wander the halls on his own, to see what trends are on display. He wants to see where everyone is investing their time and money, and to see if he can figure out what’s missing, or what can be done better.

“This is how I start my thinking about new products,” Seydoux said. “When I come back to Paris, sometimes I have one idea of a thing that’s missing, and I come back to my office, in the open space, walking among the engineers, the marketing people.” He said he keeps his research and work on new products separate from existing product lines. Seydoux, CEO of Parrot, also acts as the company’s chief of design and new product specialist, pulling in people from across the company to work on his new idea and bring it to fruition. (He’s like a French Steve Jobs, minus the turtleneck.)

 “I treat [new ideas] as a kind of new startup in the company.” 

“I treat it as a kind of new startup in the company,” he said. “I create a new team, a small team, three or four people, and I start to speak with them and to tell them, ‘OK this is the new idea, and we will do something in this field.’”

Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Seydoux said his original vision for Parrot’s drones was entirely different from how the consumer market has evolved. A decade ago, he wanted to figure out a way to get kids who were addicted to video games outside. Instead of trying to convince them that the real world was more awesome than the digital, he thought of combining the two. He realized that everyone had a cellphone, so why not pair that with a flying toy that could attack friends’ toys? He envisioned a drone-based version of laser tag, where kids would fly around, trying to take down their friends’ drones in the park. The result was the Parrot AR Drone. “But it ended up, after listening to the users after doing the first AR Drone, that the drone is a very nice flying camera,” Seydoux said.

And this is really what most iterations of Parrot’s drones have been since the first. The company still produces toy drones like the AR. But now the way Parrot talks about the drones, including its flagship line, the Bebop, revolves entirely around picture quality and durability.

And these drones have been a success: Parrot is the second-largest seller of consumer drones.

“Sometimes I have no clue about the consideration of the user,” Seydoux said, “and sometimes, I am very, very sensitive to what the user asks, and even I can say the user is driving the reins.”

But in Seydoux’s mind, companies should not always rely on consumer feedback or market research. “When your idea is totally new, you cannot ask the user,” he said. He gave an example of an idea for a connected picture frame where he conducted focus groups for his work in progress. But the focus groups complicated the idea with all sorts of additional features they would like, to the point where he gave up. “If you ask people to dream with you, they not will understand with you, or the dream will not be serious.”

Yet when dealing with an existing market, like drones, Seydoux thinks that it’s key to engage with customers since they are the ones using the devices every day and will know best what’s missing. “So it varies a lot: Sometimes I am very close to the users, and sometimes I am only following my own dreams.”

The takeaways

Consumer electronics is a fickle industry. What was brand new and exciting a few years ago quickly becomes old hat. (Remember hoverboards, netbooks, or MP3 players?) Parrot has proven company’s future doesn’t hinge on the success or failure of one particular product. What might be a flop today could return like a phoenix a few years later. Right now, Seydoux and Parrot are mainly concerned with drones (next up: the fixed-wing Disco that can soar above crops and mountains for far longer than a quadcopter), wireless headphones, and what they’re calling “connected gardening.” (Seydoux wouldn’t confirm what new “startups” he’s created at Parrot, but recently hinted at connected clothing.)

 “I know in high tech, that nothing lasts.” 

Seydoux realized that while we may change our smartphones every few years, if he could create products that work with the thing that you already know how to use, like Bluetooth headsets or speakers, his products might be able to survive.

The consumer drone industry essentially didn’t exist a decade ago. And while Parrot has been at the forefront of the market since its first drones, what consumers are interested in today may well not be what captivates them tomorrow. This is what continues to drive Seydoux.

“I know in high tech, that nothing lasts. The success of the new Apple, when Steve Jobs came back, was the iPod. But now the business of the iPod is over. The largest tech company we had in Europe was Nokia. Nokia was the world leader for cellphones, and now Nokia is over. So I know this: I know that nothing lasts. If I do something smart, it is maybe for five or seven next years, but I have to find something new, you know? I ask myself only one question: What is missing there? What is not shown this year? What will be there in a few years from now?”

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