It can be hard to stand out in today's competitive marketplace, no matter what industry you're in. How do you convince potential customers to choose your product or service when your competitors are larger and more established?
Disrupting the status quo can help you find a competitive foothold in any industry. This strategy can help you win dedicated customers as you uncover better ways of solving people's problems.
What is industry disruption?
Industry disruption means changing the rules of competition in an industry by doing things differently. This doesn't necessarily mean adding bells and whistles to products. It could mean the opposite—paring away a product's complexity to give consumers a more streamlined or intuitive experience.
"I know it's counterintuitive to pull back on things as a way to innovate," says Robyn Bolton, founder of innovation consulting firm MileZero. "But think about the remote control for your TV. How many buttons on that do you actually use? That's an example of something that's become over-featured because they keep adding stuff to it and lost sight of what people want."
Discovering what people want is the key to disruption in business. Many companies think they know but don't realize that shoppers are simply settling for what's available.
Examples of industry disruption
The founders of direct-to-consumer fashion company StitchFix discerned that shoppers had unmet needs for both affordable advice from a stylist and an efficient way to try out new clothes without commitment. StitchFix's solution—sending boxes of try-then-buy clothes chosen by a stylist according to a customer's size and sense of style—has become a disruptive force in the retail industry.
"How are they able to do that?" asks Ann Lim, founder of business consulting firm Sweet Spires and a SCORE volunteer business mentor. "It's because they understand the market," she adds. "They understand what we want and what feels good for us. If you really understand what the demand is, then what you come up with as a solution may be potentially disruptive."
This type of industry disruption allows smaller companies to come into markets dominated by older, bigger players.
"The best disruptors see solutions to challenges others have become blind to," says Shaun Savage, founder and CEO of GoShare. "When businesses start becoming complacent, they stop looking for ways to improve. Disruptors come along and fix problems the old guard didn't even realize were there."
How to become an industry disruptor
Bryan Mattimore, co-founder and "chief idea guy" for innovation agency Growth Engine and author of three books on ideation and innovation, has identified five strategies that companies can use to disrupt their industries:
- Solve an overlooked or ignored problem for potential customers
- Add technological functionality to a product or service
- Package a service option with a product to add value
- Sell your product or service at a lower price than others, perhaps by making it simpler
- Deliver the service or product more quickly or cost-effectively than competitors
To execute any of the above items , it's essential to engage in the following three approaches:
1. Understand what customers like and don't like, and why.
What to change in order to disrupt your industry or product segment is often far from obvious. This is why knowing what drives your customers is at the root of all innovation.
"Really understand what [customers] like and don't like about the current offering, but more importantly, understand why they like or don't like something," Bolton says. "Then you'll have a sense of what things you have to keep because they're price-of-entry into a market, and what things you can take away without really disappointing people."
2. Always look for better ways to do things.
A big part of being a disruptor is cultivating an innovative habit of mind. That is, you'll need to continually assess how things could be done differently.
"The best way to become a successful disruptor is to never stop improving, never stop looking for better ways to do things, and never become stuck in old habits," Savage says.
Disruption is just as much a position as it is a specific action. Get used to thinking—and operating—outside the box if you want to make disruption central to your business approach.
3. Co-create your business with employees and customers.
It's tempting as a business owner to keep creative control for yourself. But disruption is much more likely to occur if you let employees and customers help you come up with new ideas—an approach called "co-creation."
"To be an industry disruptor, companies should embrace co-creation, which allows employees to generate ideas," says Nicholas Yarnall, founder and CEO of Potestiam. "Don't forget, your customers can be co-creators just as much—so keep an ear to the ground and make sure their voices are heard and engaged."
If you want customers to gravitate to your company, try disrupting your industry by giving them what they really want. Customers can help you figure out exactly what that is—and design disruptive solutions—if you let them.