Disruption is everywhere now. People are staying in accommodation provided by a company that doesn’t own any buildings, taking cabs from companies that don’t own a single car and listening to music that they will never own.
The first wave of disruption saw big ideas take centre stage: Spotify, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, Halo, ZipCar—at the time all big deals and huge news stories for us all. It didn’t make sense that any of these business models would work, did it? It was absurd that they could gain the trust of consumers, wasn't it? It should all pass and we will be back to normal soon, shouldn’t it?
Welcome to the disrupted world. All you need to become the world’s payment providing, accommodation booking, car renting, insurance saving, house buying disruptor is an idea that solves a real human problem and a way to deliver it to the universe of service hungry consumers in a fast and efficient way.
Smartphones, we thank you for being the enabling factor for many of these little revolutions. As I sit writing this trying to work out exactly when on my journey home I will order food from a business that owns no kitchens, doesn't employ a single chef and relies on an army of self-employed riders to get my desired choice of cuisine safely and quickly to my house without me having to speak to anyone or put on my shoes, it is the smartphone that we have to thank.
Although I was not alive to know, I am sure this is just a faster version of the disruption the telephone bought us. Before the telephone it would have been impossible for a pizza delivery company to exist (without an awful lot of forward planning, at any rate).
With this new technology that can connect everyone at higher speeds than most home broadband connections and know exactly where in the world they are, we can do things never thought possible. We can start to solve problems and create propositions for consumers that are wildly better than the status quo.
The real meaning of disruption
The problems that disruptors are solving are not new. They have existed in the way we interact with businesses since the dawn of banks, taxis, hotels and media—we simply didn’t have the tools to solve them. To have a bank you needed a branch to visit (so that they could check you were who you said you were). To get a taxi you’d need to flag one down or call a number (because not everyone had a radio that could communicate directly with the drivers). You’d have to eat at the big chain restaurants (they either didn’t have enough take out business to warrant paying delivery drivers, or it wasn't their strategy). You’d have to go and pick up that rental DVD (or VHS, I am old enough to remember those) from Blockbuster or your local video rental shop because how else would that movie get to you in glorious technicolor?
Enter the disruptor, enabled by fast internet and mobile phones that can check your ID remotely; orchestrate taxis to arrive when and where you need them; deliver that movie direct to your 4K ultra retina capable device; and convince armies of self-employed students to deliver your fried chicken, pizza and chicken ramen in the pouring rain on a moped, bicycle or roller skates.
Are disruptors really, then, coming up with amazing new ideas—or are they just making the most of new technologies’ promise to solve old problems? I’m still just renting a film, sorting my finances and ordering take away. These brands have simply given me the ability to do these things with more control and less frustration.
Why can’t we allow people to call a taxi to their exact location and get them to the exact place they want to go, even if they don’t know where they are—without speaking to anyone at all?
Why do we need local bank branches when so much is cashless and many shops will offer cashback those rare occasions when we need cash?
Why bother with all the retail space needed to hold all those DVDs? Why ask people to travel all this way to find that the film they wanted is out of stock and they’ll be watching their second or third choice tonight?
Why ask people to wait on hold with a call centre just to pay a bill, give a meter reading or ask the most commonly dealt-with question when they can just do it themselves?
Why are we asking our customers to do so much when we are charging them to “provide a service”?
The best defence is a good offence
Really, disruption boils down to people being unafraid to break away from the norm and solve the problems in our lives that we have all become so used to that they have become almost impossible to see.
Many large brands now have innovation teams working on defending against the latest disruptive fintech, pharmatech, intech, techtech players and they are all suffering in the same way. Walk into their offices and you’ll hear them asking the same questions over and over again:
What’s my killer feature set?
How are we going to reimagine the whole experience?
How are we going to shift the paradigm?
These are all the questions that you want to ask yourself when trying to defend against a disruptor, right? You’re trying to be better than your attacker; to ensure you’re protecting your core business while delivering something that gen-Z are going to snapchat about. You need to totally and utterly reimagine and redesign. You need to have all your existing features and more. Right?
You don’t need to defeat the disruptors. You need to learn from them. You need to do what they’ve been doing, and do it better: solve the problems people have always had in ways nobody else has ever dreamed of. You need to question the existence of anything that isn't key to delivering value for your customers. You need to ask yourself: which things are we preserving simply because they’ve always been that way?
Too many brands are trying to fight with the wrong strategy. They are spending forever in their bunkers trying to develop, hone and assemble the perfect weapon for defeating the enemy. All the while outside the enemy, growing in number and armed with iteration 942 of their technology, are taking small but consistent chunks out of you.
We forget that many disruptors did not launch with the feature set they have today. Monzo launched a pre-pay card. Spotify was a simple music player. LoveFilm (Now Amazon’s Prime Video service) allows you to rent films online and they would be posted to you. To begin with, you couldn’t even pre-book an Uber! The barbarity!
None of these disruptors came to market with features that could stand up against the total capability of the titans they would be competing against. They came with a product that removed the “it’s-always-been” and replaced it with a better way and a promise to keep finding better ways.
The legacy of disruption
For disruptors, the product was never the entire threat. The organisational agility, core technical capabilities and lean approaches to running their business were—without them, any product will eventually become irrelevant or antiquated.
To be a real threat disrupters have to last the distance and keep going. They arrived with slingshots and started making dents in brands who thought they were too big to have to worry. Then they went on to iterate themselves, in some cases, all the way through to weapons that their competition see as capable of mass destruction. The story of Blockbuster, who had the chance to purchase Netflix for a cheeky $50mil, should serve as a warning to those who think they don’t need to worry.
If you want a good chance to survive disruption you cant hide away until you think you have all the answers. By then it will be too late, and those answers will be to yesterday's problems. You have to ask yourself the tough questions and solve your customers’ real problems. Most importantly, you need to launch something quickly that competes on the same level as the disruptors. Simple but well-executed features are a good place to start—then look out for opportunities to build them into something groundbreaking.
The world has changed and we can’t go back. This is the new disrupted world. Like it or not, we’re living in the technological arms race ushered in by the disruptors. If you want to survive and succeed don’t sit waiting around for all the answers. Get out there with a slingshot and start making an impact.