Since I am a techie at heart, I always get excited when founders pitch their new innovation as “disruptive,” meaning that it is so unique that it will create a new market and disrupt the existing value network, displacing established products and markets. Unfortunately, I have learned that investors and customers are wary that big changes will take a long time, and cost more money.
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Therefore I always recommend to entrepreneurs that they use the term cautiously, but I never discourage their focus on disruptive innovation. In fact, in the greater scheme of things, it’s the best way to gain a real competitive advantage, and maximize economic value. Linear thinking is a good way get started as an entrepreneur, but paradigm shifts are the route to a big legacy.
As examples, everyone should be able to relate to Steve Jobs with the iPhone, Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook, and Elon Musk with Tesla. These didn’t happen by following the conventional paths of entrepreneurism. In my experience, you need to follow some best-of-breed guidelines that will keep you ahead of the crowd, and improve your odds of success in making the big step:
- Focus first on solving a real customer problem. Business success always relates to how effectively you satisfy customer needs. Big technology breakthroughs don’t always correlate directly to the mind of customers, so your challenge is the translation. Investors and customers want to see how these become a positive value proposition for all parties.
- Take advantage of big data and modern design tools. Passion is a good start, but there is no substitute these days for real data and powerful tools to confirm the value and quality of specific features and customer trends. Your goal is to minimize the delivery cycle, and reduce the number of pivots required to find the sweet spot of your market.
- Find a way to highlight elements of social responsibility. New markets are often found as a result of culture changes, new economic realities, and emerging geographies. People want to help build a sustainable environment, and improve the well-being of others. Make that a way to bridge a big technology change to customers and employees.
- Assemble a team willing to think and act outside the box. A new technology usually needs a business model that is also a paradigm shift. Make sure your whole team is willing to take risks and explore new options on pricing, marketing, and manufacturing. Your challenge is to provide the visionary leadership to stay ahead of the pack.
- Exploit disruptive opportunities all along the value chain. Key elements of the value chain include distribution, suppliers, sales channels, and reliance on coopetition. New technologies often allow innovative marketplace entrants to eliminate whole stages of the value chain, for example dramatically reducing capital and infrastructure costs.
- Continually expand your team competency into new areas. Nokia had a deep competency in cell phone technology, and owned a major share of the market, but they were slow to expand into the software and accessories of smartphones. As a result, Apple was able to leapfrog their lead, and Nokia was never able to recover.
- Plan on disrupting yourself before competitors do. Cash cows can be your downfall in this rapidly changing world. You need to constantly attack your own existing business model, and plan to replace it before customers start looking at better alternatives, and competitors leapfrog your solutions. It’s hard to recover from a hemorrhaging business.
- Look around the corner for the next real breakthrough. A single disruptive technology is not enough to assure your long-term success. You need visionary leadership, as well as a culture and process for finding the next big step, recruiting the people, incenting them, and training them to make it happen.
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Linear non-disruptive thinking may be the way to get started as an entrepreneur, but it won’t get you the big success or the legacy that you crave. Your challenge is to think big, communicate effectively to avoid scaring customers and investors, and follow the best of breed guidelines to deliver on a timely and ongoing basis. It’s a lot more fun than a random walk based on a dream.