What is Disruptive Technology?
Recently, I’ve been hearing the word “disruption” being tossed around in many regular day-to-day conversations that I don’t believe are appropriately used. I was in a mentor call Ryan Blair, who had frequently referenced “disruptors,” “disruption,” “disrupting,” essentially every iteration of “disrupt.” Although specifics were never discussed, I started wondering if it was even being used properly. Whether it’s a coincidence the topic of disruption has become a casual water cooler conversation, or I’m just more susceptible to hearing it, it got me thinking, what the hell is disruption? More, what the hell is disruptive innovation?
I’ve never been the type to take everything I hear for face value and, as a result, have developed a rather pessimistic attitude to question everything (possibly a consequence of government-infused perceptions I still loathe). Anyways, after some research, I noticed how inaccurately disruption is described as and how incorrectly it’s being applied. Many people frequently use “disruptive innovation” to describe any situation in which an industry “shakes things up,” but such broad usage has resulted in a blighted misunderstanding.
“Disruption” describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources can successfully challenge established businesses. Many people often refer to products as being disruptive when it’s more accurate to describe business models as disruptive. For a company to disrupt, the revenue and cost structure of the incumbents that the company faces must keep them from responding.
Disruption can occur at two levels: in existing markets and/or by creating new markets.
By providing a “good enough” product for the low-end customers, disruptors can cater to a market segment the incumbent usually dismisses. When companies have a strong foothold in the market, they seldom innovate or penetrate into uncharted territories. This is where the disruptors come into play. By successfully targeting those overlooked segments and gaining a foothold there, disruptors prevent incumbents, who are often chasing higher profitability in more demanding segments, from responding vigorously enough. They keep moving on up, delivering better performance and driving out incumbents.
New market footholds are probably my favorite type of disruption, especially regarding internet of things innovation. In this case, disruptors create a market where none existed. They find a way to make non-consumers consumers. Think Airbnb —although their early users were the “low hanging fruit” of the hotel industry, the ones that didn’t necessarily care about the hotel’s higher-level features, amenities, and services, they’ve mastered a completely unique market segment within the sharing economy.
Why Understanding Disruptive Innovation is Critical for Any Business
I recently had a discussion with my co-founder that led to a monumental realization of how we strive for innovation. To spare the details of our conversation, I’ll just get straight to the point. Disruption is not something that just comes to you in an “a-ha,” “Eureka,” “holy sh*t I figured it out” moment. Sure, it definitely can, but the roots originate in learned, studied, and relevant experiences. Applying the theory correctly is essential to realizing the main benefits and crucial to staying afloat.
First. Thinking disruptively broadens your horizon – it directs you in a place you might not have gone otherwise. Disruption often starts at a market’s edges’ where it’s either an undemanding/overlooked market wedge or a underrepresented/non-existent consumer group. Leaders of successful companies can only be successful by broadening their view and spotting trends from the onset. When leaders are fixated on the vision or mainstream trajectory, myopia develops over time that eventually limits their capability of reacting to new players.
Second. The more places you look, the more trends you’ll notice, and although you won’t be able to respond to every apposite bearing, you will be able to sift through the early-stage progressive ones from those that will most likely fizzle out. But the only way to do so is by applying the disruptive innovation theory.
Does this trend have a unique way to make it easier or more affordable for customers? Is this trend unlikely to be seen as attractive from incumbent and industry leaders? If yes, go for it!
Third. By analyzing the trends, you can inevitably make predictions. The theory predicts that when someone enters the space offering a better product or service, the incumbent will feel threatened to respond and speed up innovation. On the other hand, the disruptors are initially considered inferior and can therefore focus on obtaining a segment of the market incumbents do not care for.
Fourth. Applying the disruptive theory internally will ensure you won’t get disrupted. Although it can be quite an investment to organize teams and departments to do such, it’s a critical step in ensuring your enterprise is ahead of the industry.
Is IoT disruptive?
It certainly has potential to be but remember that it’s not the product that’s disruptive, it’s the business model that’s disruptive. Indeed, another FitBit-like competitor will not be deemed disruptive despite it being in the realm of IoT, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to be so long as it caters to a segment FitBit is overlooking. The first is to have a clear understanding of what IoT technology is.
The persistence of Moore’s Law (the observation that digital devices tend to get about twice as good for the same dollar every 18 months) is making the technology boom a Second Machine Age in which each new innovation becomes a building block for subsequent innovations. Take a look at our smartphone. What started as a flip phone has now turned into a handheld supercomputer. And it’s even more impressive because they are touch screens, GPS receivers, WiFi transponders, cellular telephone receivers, accelerometers, compasses, teleportation devices, etc. (just kidding on the last one…for now, I mean) all in one.
Side note: a sleeker version of the 1G First Generation Mobile Phone is coming back to the market for only $500 on Kickstarter. That’s right, for half a grand, you can have a 2nd phone to reduce the amount of time you spend looking at your screen on the first phone…
Basically, because we spend on average 4 hrs a day looking at our smart screens, we now need a second phone so we can stop looking at our first phones…? Now that’s marketing! Here’s a thought, put your first phone away, and don’t bother getting a second one.
Back to the point. All, if not most, of these devices, transmit an abundant amount of data. The data is literally thousands or millions of times greater than we have ever seen before. We now only have one prefix left in the existing metric system before we run out of how to describe how much data there is in the world. We’re in the world of the yottabyte. After that, we run out. The new (legitimate) proposal: hellabyte. (That’s hella big — pun completely intended).
The exponential progress in products and services has also led to a democratization of such intangibles. Technology is no longer something that’s just restricted to large companies or rich countries. Everywhere on the planet now has access or at least the potential to have access. By its very nature, any company entering a market must also consider the rate and pace at which adoption is actually occurring. The television set took 38 years before it got its first 50 million users. Twitter took 9 months. Angry Birds took 35 days. Now that investments in technology infrastructure and assets are pervasive across every sector through the world of IoT, the competition and playing field have had an exciting shift. Amazon, which started off selling shoes online, now also has a computing company through its cloud services. Alibaba is applying for banking licenses, and Google, a search giant, is tapping into the autonomous transportation market. What this means for small companies is an accessibility and potential to disrupt sectors that historically, you’d have associated with just large companies.
This brings me to the type of disruptors that stand out — platform-based disruptions (as opposed to product-based disruptions) such as Amazon, Alibaba, Airbnb that have effects well beyond the industries limits. While product-based disruptions change what people buy, platform-based disruptive technology changes the way people live. We’re entering an age where platform-based disruptions will ultimately shift societal norms into unimaginable ways. And this is just the beginning.