Do you need to be a startup to be disruptive?

Any discussion of a ‘disruptive’ technology or innovation typically conjures up visions of outsiders, operating their bootstrapped operation from a residential garage, and taking on the big players. This is not always the case.

Just as often, disruption can be born from well-funded entrepreneurs - with previous successes, or indeed, previous failed ventures. Disruption can also come from established players in the market - including enterprise and larger organisations.

What is disruption?

Disruption, broadly, is any innovation that eschews the established norms of a marketplace, essentially creating a new marketplace and displacing the traditional leaders.

In fact, an oft-cited real example of disruption came early in the life of the automotive industry - in the shape of the Ford Model T.

Model T

Prior to the Model T, automobiles hadn’t really had much effect on personal transportation, where the horse and cart was still the market leader. Cars were luxuries - they cost a fortune, with most being several thousand dollars, where the Model T was launched at $825. Within a few years it was being sold for just $260.

Henry Ford saw an opportunity, and he applied new technologies (mass production and other industrial innovations) and aimed at consumers that were not being served by the incumbent suppliers (i.e. the middle-income families).

As noted by Clayton M. Christensen,

Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously

This enables the potential disruptor to capitalise on the ignored customer, and eventually moving upmarket and eroding the incumbent’s market share.

Understanding this major factor, one can begin to understand that the ability to be ‘disruptive’ is not the exclusive domain of the startup - enterprise organisations can be disruptive themselves (and potentially even disrupt themselves), it just requires a new approach and an appetite for risk.

Risk taking is a big part of disruption. A mature business that has been operating successfully in a market for years is comfortable with the status quo. For them, innovation may be evolutionary - for example the addition of parking sensors to modern cars creates a competitive advantage for the first to do it. It could even be revolutionary - in the case of Tesla’s autopilot. Neither of these innovations could really be considered ‘disruptive’. Sure, they’re exciting and move the industry forward (who wouldn’t want a self-driving car?). Neither do they upset the automotive business model as ultimately, they’re selling the same core product to the same core audience.

How to be disruptive

So, what can we learn from Henry Ford? Whether you’re a startup or established enterprise organisation, there are some key activities and thought patterns that create opportunities for disruption:

Some of the core principles of how we at pebble {code} approach digital innovation and support these opportunities for disruption.

Avoid Waste - By embracing Agile delivery, you can iterate, adapt and pivot. Understand how an MVP can get you to market sooner (and for less money), and increase your power to learn.

Embracing failure - to succeed, you need to be able to fail fast, and expect to fail often. By ensuring you have an hypothesis, these failures become learning opportunities.

Be User-Centric - Listen to your users. Understand what they need (and know the difference between a want and a need). Deliver early, release often, listen to feedback and iterate.

By understanding these concepts - minimising risk, embracing failure and understanding users - any organisation can become a disruptor in a marketplace.

As a Digital Innovation Consultancy, pebble {code} helps businesses of all sizes embed these concepts, and we use the principles of Agile and Lean to deliver innovative digital products, transform businesses, and potentially enable them to become the disruptive force in a market. If you’re developing a product, or need to accelerate innovation in your business, contact us to arrange a workshop or hackday. We’re also holding a free Innovation event on July 13th - register here.