01 August 2018

What is a disruptor and could your small business become one?

In recent years, “disruptor” has been a much more widely used term. According to US entrepreneur and best-selling author Tony Robbins, business use of the term “disruption” really “took off with [Harvard Business School Professor] Clayton M. Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma”, which introduced the idea of “disruptive innovation”.

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Robbins says Christensen used the term when talking about how successful companies exceed customers’ current needs by anticipating their “unstated or future needs”. Disruptive innovation also explains how “small companies with minimal resources [can] enter a market and displace the established system.” Disruptive innovation can create a new market, disrupt an existing market and depose established market-leading firms and products.

Innovation versus disruption

To quote Forbes writer Caroline Howard: “Disruptors are innovators, but not all innovators are disruptors.” She adds: “Innovation and disruption are both makers and builders”, but “disruption takes a left turn by literally uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day.”

Writing for The Telegraph, Alison Coleman describes innovation as rational, while disruption is irrational. She quotes Shilen Patel, founder of business accelerator Independents United, who explains: “Hailo [a British technology platform that matched taxi drivers and passengers via its mobile phone application] applied technology using a very rational set of rules to achieve innovation. Whereas Uber’s irrational mind-set asked: ‘What if I could get everyone in London to be a taxi driver?’ They then applied technology to achieve that. Hotels.com is rational, Airbnb is 100% irrational,” Patel comments.

Changing the game

In her Marketing Week article – What does it mean to be a disruptor? – Charlotte Rogers writes: “Identifying gaps the incumbent fails to see and transforming the market with a game-changing concept are key to becoming a disruptive brand.”

Marketing Week’s 2017 list of “100 Disruptive Brands” included Copa90, a football website and YouTube channel that’s “tapping into demand for edgy, fan-centric content that differs from the standard fare pushed out by major football broadcasters”. Its chief strategy officer James Kirkham comments: “Being disruptive means setting the agenda for other people to try to copy”. He stresses: “Disruption isn’t just doing things in a different way. Being disruptive is about changing the game”.

Also quoted is Emma Chalwin of (cloud-based CRM software provider) Salesforce, who believes disruptors are those brave enough to take risks to “change the game long-term”. Disruptors, she says, also have passion, tenacity and vision. She describes Airbnb and Uber as “perfect examples of [brands that have] come in, disrupted and completely turned that industry on its head”.

Well-known disruptors

There are many well-known examples of disruptors. Netflix became a disruptor after launching its subscription-based film and TV programme streaming service in 2007.

The business was launched in 1997 by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph in California, selling DVDs and renting them out via its website. Netflix (ie the subscription streaming service version) became available in the UK in 2012, and is now reported to have 125m subscribers worldwide). Netflix totally disrupted the US, and then global, TV and movie industry and has been described as the “Ultimate Digital Disruptor”.

Amazon is another disruptor global heavyweight. The business was started by Jeff Bezos in 1994 to sell books, but grew to become known as the “pre-eminent disruptor of retail”. The business is now reported to be worth US900bn (£690bn).

Online marketplace for home sharing, Airbnb, disrupted the global hospitality/accommodation market. Formed in San Francisco in 2008, it now offers almost five million listings in some 34,000 places in 191 countries. In February 2018, Simon Calder in The Independent reported that Airbnb will be introducing categories on its website for B&Bs and boutique hotels, and offering stays in villas and apartments, with listings also for unique places to stay, such as “treehouses, castles, igloos and even an old school bus in a suburb of Nairobi”. More disruption is planned, it seems.

Could your business become a disruptor? Disruptors are fearless. They take risks; they defy convention; they rip up the rule book. They’re revolutionaries who usually win big when they succeed. True disruptors are rare. But, as Tony Robbins reminds us: “Not every successful business or product needs to disrupt.”

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