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Taking Stock #31: Disrupting the disruptors

by Sean Fleming

When I was a boy, being disruptive would get you sent out of the classroom by an exasperated teacher. About 15 years ago it was starting to become the trendy thing to say about your tech company. Then it became the label investors were looking for in startups. Before long it had achieved a near Zen-like state of ubiquity. Everyone wanted to be a disruptor

The New York Times, one of the last great newspapers of the English-speaking world, recently ran a story about a legal row in New York city involving Airbnb, that great disruptor of the hotel sector. According to the story, a group of entrepreneurially minded guys made millions renting out properties in contravention of local housing regulations.

The housing authorities in New York don’t want people to run commercial enterprises through Airbnb because there’s a shortage of affordable rental accommodation, the Times article explains. But spotting an opportunity, one man made a little money renting out one apartment, then soon started looking for others to make more money from. He ended up making a lot of money.

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Isn’t it ironic?

It’s an interesting story for several reasons, not least that a successful disruptor now finds itself the target of disruptive behaviour. Someone call Alanis Morrissette. I can’t help but wonder how Uber would react if some of its drivers found a way to make money from a side hustle using Uber’s platform. I don’t think they’d take it very well.

So, let’s all take a minute to enjoy the schadenfreude of disruptors waving the rule book at people who refuse to play by the rules. As someone once said, “it’s only funny when it happens to someone else.”

What’s all this got to do with retail, with ecommerce, with deliveries? Well, everything and nothing. Retail has seen more than its fair share of disruption in the last 20-odd years. There are recent innovations like the eDOR which I wrote about in January. Or the delivery robots that will keep rolling, rolling, rolling until they encounter stairs, from November 2018. And Amazon’s go-go-gadget supermarkets with no queues apart from the ones outside, from August last year. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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Ride the wave

Disruption isn’t something that happens in a contained and finite way. It’s not like buying a new technology platform. It’s not a thing you do and then say “we did it” – it’s a wave. A rolling wave of change, challenge and opportunity. And because every business is on a journey (yesterday’s disruptive startups desperately want to become tomorrow’s established brands) that rolling wave will affect you in different ways at different points on your growth journey. Just like those slow-moving, fat-cat established businesses that the plucky startups are gunning for, don’t get caught out by complacency. Everyone gets obsessed with Amazon, often pointlessly so. But when it comes to the business of disrupting your business, Amazon is precisely who you should learn from.

We all know this story, right? First, Amazon disrupted the book retail sector by selling books online. Many long-established bookstores collapsed as a result of that. Did Amazon put its feet up once it was the world’s biggest book-seller? I should co-co – instead, it disrupted its own core business by throwing itself headlong into the digital book space with the launch of the Kindle.

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After all, the technology already existed and the Kindle wasn’t the first e-reader; Sony got there at least a year earlier than Amazon. But with a retail infrastructure all of its own and a detailed analysis of customers’ purchasing behaviour, Amazon cleaned up. You can’t blame it for not wanting to sit around long enough to become not just a target but a bloated lame duck.

So, if you’re admiring how well you’ve done by successfully disrupting a sector of the economy, don’t get too comfortable. Disruption’s great when you’re the one benefiting from. But when it’s being done to you, it’s a right royal pain in the rear; everyone wants to be a disruptor, but no one wants to be disrupted.

 

#crowdsourced, #Taking Stock

    
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