Since I am a techie at heart, I always get excited when founders pitch their 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 take a lot of time and money to roll out.
Therefore, I recommend that entrepreneurs use the term “disruptive” sparingly and 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 approach to get started as an entrepreneur, but paradigm shifts are the route to a significant 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 entrepreneurship.
In my experience, you need to follow some best-of-breed guidelines to get you ahead of the crowd and improve your odds of success in making the big step. Here are eight recommendations to get you started:
- 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 practical solutions in the minds 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 timeline and the number of pivots required to find the sweet spot in your market.
- Find a way to highlight social responsibility. Culture changes, new economic realities, and emerging geographies frequently cause new markets to develop. People want to help build a sustainable environment and improve the well-being of others. Make that a way to unveil a significant technology change to customers and employees.
- Assemble a team willing to think and act outside the box. 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, manufacturing, distribution, and monetization. Your challenge is to provide the visionary leadership to stay ahead of the pack.
- Exploit disruptive opportunities throughout 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 links in the value chain, for example, by 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 smartphone software and accessories. As a result, Apple was able to leapfrog their lead, and Nokia never recovered.
- Plan on disrupting yourself before competitors do. Cash cows can be your downfall in this rapidly changing world. You need to constantly attack your existing business model and plan to replace it before customers start looking at better alternatives, and before 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.
Linear, non-disruptive thinking may be the way to get started as an entrepreneur, but it won’t get you the big home run 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.