LEGO executives celebrated the 10th anniversary of their successful MINDSTORMS robotics kit at the FIRST Championship in Atlanta. Soren Lund, Lego’s Sr. Marketing Director for product and marketing development, joined our Visionaries’ meeting to discuss some of his learnings from 10 years of customer engagement. In talking about the cultural challenges of opening up both your product development and your online presence to customer participation, Soren expressed it this way:
"Like every large company, Lego has a "must" culture - you must do this; the open source developer community has a 'can' culture - I do this because I want to, because I can. The value of the outside-in model is that it brings a different culture inside your company."
Soren Lund at the LEGO booth at FIRST.“As we launched Mindstorms,” Soren explained, “we thought, wouldn’t it be great if people actually talked about this. So we built a Web community and encouraged customers to engage. It wasn’t a mass marketing thing—we’ll tell you what to think. We wanted people to be able to write about what they thought of Mindstorms, etc. We should listen to our consumers. Corporate didn’t want to do that—they were worried about negative content. We did it anyway and were flooded. We were really excited about the response.”
Now there’s a relatively porous set of customer-powered blogs (Nxtasy.org), Wikis, and communities and LEGO-sanctioned message boards, communities, and blogs that have sprung up around Mindstorms and its different audiences: kids, teachers, adult enthusiasts, hackers, engineers, inventors, etc. “We get 15 million new visitors a month on our (official) Web site,” Soren explained.
Open APIs Have Attracted a Devoted Developer Community. What LEGO learned quickly when it launched the first version of Mindstorms 10 years ago is that adult hackers wanted to reverse engineer it. LEGO’s unusual response was to open up its APIs and to encourage this activity. “There was a lot of learning by doing, we had no idea where we were going, we just let the lawyers draw up the papers and leave the rest to us.”
10th Birthday hats next to the LEGO Mindstroms robotics kit used for the FIRST LEGO League competition.Then, LEGO engaged with four of these “lead users” in the design of its next-gen product, Mindstorms NXT. These lead users have remained actively engaged in the co-development of the next-gen product features as have their cohorts as the developer community has expanded. “We built an ecosystem so that consumers can take and run with it. We went open source with some of the stuff when we could, and it’s the best thing we did. Love and passion are the reasons these people spend time.”
Building the Mindstorms Kids’ Community through Global Competitions. Probably the best thing that LEGO did to spread Mindstorms’ religion was to partner with FIRST 10 years ago to create the FIRST LEGO League so that younger students could enjoy the challenge of competing in the robotics challenges that FIRST has held. There are now 115,000 kids from 38 countries who are known to be using Mindstorms kits to participate in these competitions. (There are probably other clubs and classrooms around the world who aren’t participating formally.) “All of this marketing is Word of Mouth (WOM); kids have fun and refer others.”