Prescribing Success with Disruptive Innovation

This is a guest post by Michael Mayers, an experienced innovation & new product development leader who has launched successful products in financial services, marketing services and health & wellness.  He tweets about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the joy of being a Brit in NYC at @mikemayers25.

At the time of writing Amazon lists 932 books released in the past 90 days under “innovation.”  Many of these will espouse a theory of one sort or another that seeks to systematize the process of successfully bringing new products to market.  And while most will deliver a superficially cogent model for the limited historic cases provided, nearly all of them will fail to deliver a prescription for future success that works in practice. (That’s right Stage Gate, I’m looking at you!)

Innovators Solution

But some time-tested theories do have prescriptive value.  In this blog post I take one such canonical model – Professor Clayton Christensen’stheory of Disruptive Innovation – and use three of its defining characteristics to help identify entrepreneurial opportunities and kick-start successful innovation strategy.

Look for 5 blade razors.

As markets mature industry leaders seek to capture increasing value from their best customers in an effort to drive profitable growth.  M&A aside this is typically achieved through the development of incremental, sustaining innovations – a process which most businesses become adept at executing.  The inevitable challenge comes when the pace of these innovations oversupply product performance for even the best and most demanding customers.  This oversupply, easily measured, is a key indicator that a sector is ripe for disruption. 

This tendency is surely no more obvious than Gillette’s flagship razor; the Fusion ProGlide with its parody-inducing 5 blades.  Arguably the maximal desired performance from the humble safety razor was surpassed decades ago with the twin-blade Trac II and the addition of a lubricating strip.

Enter Dollar Shave Club who, in 2011, recognized this performance oversupply and launched an innovative business model to attack the razor blade industry’s most over-served customers.  It’s first offering was a twin-blade razor – 70s “technology” in blade terms – sold online via a monthly subscription model at a fraction of the price of its big brand competitors.  And the attack plan is working:  The company raised $12MM in a Series B financing in October last year.

Ignore the best customers.

Take an industry’s best customers – those premium, big ticket whales with the eye-watering margins – and forget about them.  Successful disruptive innovations typically target current category low-end or non-consumers, and for two very good reasons:

Firstly, when a new entrant targets non-consumption the competitive response from industry incumbents is often muted to the extent that they may be ignored altogether; just as the personal computer industry was by mainframe manufacturers in the 1980s.  And if the interloper seeks to serve and incumbent’s low-end, low-margin customers they may even be happy to give up that pesky, profit-dilutive segment in the pursuit of better financial ratios; just as US car manufacturers gave way to Toyota in the 1980s in the compact economy segment.  And let’s face it, who wanted to sell low-margin compacts like the Corolla when you’ve earned the right to sell the S-Class? 

Secondly, the initial performance of new technologies usually fall short of the demands of an industry’s best and most sophisticated customers:  PC performance was a joke for mainframe computer buyers.  Either way a new entrant attack on an industry’s best customers is ill-advised.  Either a crippling competitive response or sophisticated customer demands will bring the upstart to its knees.  Much better to compete for low-end markets or outright non-consumption where your product can be the best alternative to nothing at all. 

Classic examples of this approach include Sony who offered a generation of new consumers access to personal, portable transistor radios while RCA doggedly stuck to heavy vacuum tube technology which afforded significantly better sound quality for the most discerning customer.  Or Nucor’s electric arc furnace, suitable only for the production of rebar at its outset, versus Armco’s integrated steel mills which produced much higher grade sheet steel.  Or Netflix’s streaming DVDs, utterly at the mercy of fickle bandwidth issues in those early days, versus Blockbuster’s DVD rental business with its significantly higher fidelity picture quality. 

When each of these technologies first launched they did not satisfy the current needs of their industry’s best customers.  Crucially – and fatally for the businesses who ignored them – each quickly shed their growing pains and enjoyed a higher performance gradient over time than existing ones.  The consequence?  Having established a beachhead amongst non- or low-end consumers those nascent technologies intercepted and then surpassed the performance of prior technologies.  Each successively picked off “low-value” customer segments from the bottom up until they adequately addressed the performance requirements of the entire market.  And it’s worth noting that Dollar Shave Club now offer 4- and 6-blade razor lines on their subscription model:  The move upmarket has begun.

Understand why the product is hired.

Why did you hire that non-fat latte you had this morning?  It’s an odd turn of phrase but you did, in a sense, hire it to do some jobs.  Maybe it was to give you a boost of energy.  Or to stave off hunger pangs until lunch.  Perhaps it was just a useful distraction or a focal point around which to socialize with colleagues.  Maybe it was all of those things.  Once you accept that we hire products and services to perform “jobs-to-be-done” (JTBD) on functional, emotional and social dimensions a whole world of insight will open up about consumer motivations and the building blocks of competition and product performance from the consumer perspective.

The story of Febreze illustrates this well.[1]  Now a $1B product Febreze was very nearly a total failure for P&G.  Functionally, it performs an obvious JTBD:  It neutralizes odors in household fabrics.  Early marketing efforts focussed heavily on this performance dimension but sales were muted.  Both the R&D and marketing teams were bewildered as to why such an obviously useful product was failing to gain traction.

Post-launch research highlighted an interesting but troubling phenomenon:  Customers were often desensitized and oblivious to even the most pungent odors in their own homes.  Functionally, Febreze solved an issue for a home’s visitors rather than its owners. 

But the P&G team had a stroke of luck:  They observed a few customers who, having worked hard to clean their homes, were then liberally applying Febreze with a final flourish.  Diving deeper into this behavior the researchers found that some customers were hiring the product to provide a visceral emotional reward at the end of a period of cleaning – a means to enhance the satisfaction of having a cleaned a room.  The penny dropped and Febreze was quickly repositioned for its emotive, rather than functional, qualities and sales soared. 

This story is often positioned as a flash of marketing positioning brilliance; a Eureka! moment that’s difficult to replicate.  But when viewed through the lens of JTBD it becomes clear that a more systematic understanding of the emotional dimensions to cleaning a home may have saved P&G from considerable heartache.  And while Febreze is now a roaring success one has to wonder how many potential category killers have been pulled from the market for want of a better understanding of what the customer was actually trying to achieve?

Flip the coin.

I’ve been looking at this in terms of using the Disruptive Innovation framework to find innovation opportunities.  However, if you are an enterprise manager working in an established industry then you can easily turn this around to find corresponding threats.  Ask yourself whether you are oversupplying your customers and delivering your own version of the 5 blade razor.  For a moment, put your best customers out of your mind and think about how traditional non-consumers and low-end markets might be better served by competing technologies.  And put the product marketing brochures to one side and ask what jobs to be done you satisfying amongst your customer base.  And finally, if and when you identify a threat or technology that is picking off your least profitable customers, don’t flee upmarket:  Stand, fight and innovate right back.

[1] This story is recounted from “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg.


When Being Rational Kills Your Business – Clayton Christensen

Clayton ChristensenLast week, I attended the World Innovation Forum on behalf of my company, Spigit. One of the speakers was Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor most famous for his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. His talk was one I really looked forward to, and he didn’t disappoint.

The theme of his talk was Disruptive Innovation as a Platform for Growth. A good all-purpose title, but one that really didn’t do justice to the range of topics. Clayton delivered a lot of good knowledge and analysis. I tweeted most of his talk, and I wanted to pull it together in a blog post here. So let’s get to it.

Big Steel vs. Mini Mills

He opened with a discussion that one can find in The Innovator’s Dilemma. It’s the tale of how big traditional integrated steel mills lost market share to upstart mini mills over the course of several decades. To the point where the integrated steel mills have for the most part been shuttered.

Key to the story is this: The steel market could be segmented into different segments, from low-grade to high-grade steel. And profit margins improved as you sold into the higher grade markets. The big integrated mills produced all grades of steel, which meant the profit margins for the different segments averaged out.

Cue the disruptive technology, mini mills in this case. The mini mills initially were too small to utilize the then-current technology to produce high grade steel. But they could produce low-grade quite well, and at a much lower cost. This meant they could easily underprice the big integrated steel mills, and they gained market share in the lower end of the steel market.

Ultimately ceding the low-end seemed OK to the big mills. It meant dropping the lowest profit business, which made margins look better, as the graphic below demonstrates:

Improve Margins by Exiting Low-Margin Businesses

In the short term, this strategy was quite beneficial to the integrated mills. The next part of the story is where the disruption really kicks in. The low grade mini mills’ technology got better, so that they could produce increasingly higher grade steel at lower costs. This forced the big integrated mills to retreat to ever higher margin segments, until there was no place left to hide.

Disruptive technology. Steel in this case, but it happens everywhere.

Why Do Companies Allow this to Happen? They’re Being Rational

This is a wide open question, and it’s one that cannot be answered completely here. But Christensen provided some valuable points.

In pursuing the higher margin business and jettisoning the lower segments, companies are being eminently rational. Fighting it out over low-margin business is generally not considered a good application of corporate capital. Why? Here’s my personal take on Christensen’s disruption model:

  • Existing customers are not clamoring for your low-margin business
  • Current manufacturing and installed base do not support lower cost production or delivery
  • Return on capital for protecting the low-margin business is poor
  • Low-margin business is not strategic to customers, and does not fit long term company goals

Indeed, all of the above are rational and generally the right approach to the problem. Spending large dollars pursuing low-margin commodity businesses is something most of us would view as folly. Christensen, in describing the big integrated steel mills’ management, noted that he never uses the word “stupid”. They’re actually being rational.

In being rational, companies encounter a significant problem when it comes to innovation:

A business model hijacks an idea and forces it to change to conform.

The existing business model rides on a set of processes and principles. Anything new must work with that “innovation infrastructure” to get anywhere internally. But often, this requires changing an idea so fundamentally that it no longer works like it’s originator thought it would. Innovation takes a hit.

Who’s Next for Disruption? Oracle and Toyota

Christensen mentioned some specific companies at risk for disruption.

Oracle, the ever growing enterprise software behemoth, is at risk for disruption from I get that. Salesforce clearly has lower cost applications that can target Oracle. In databases, Oracle seems to have prevented disruption by MySQL by acquiring it.

Toyota was a surprise pick for disruption…by the likes of Kia and Hyundai. As Christensen explained it, Toyota has been putting resources into higher margin luxury cars and pick-up trucks. Meaning they’re vulnerable at the lower end.

That’s one thing with these disruptive technologies. It’s really hard to believe it before it happens.

Key Strategies for Addressing Market Insurgents

Christensen offered three pieces of advice to companies in dealing with market disruption:

  1. Create separate units to deal with insurgents
  2. Frame the problem correctly
  3. Understand the job your product was hired to do

Separate business units. This advice is in his book, but it still makes sense. Essentially, the best way to handle disruptive technologies is to tackle them in a separate division outside the main corporate focus. Keys to this division:

  • Separate sales force
  • Leverage new technologies for cost-advantage, performance benefits
  • Be willing to cannibalize existing sales

Most companies do not do this. In the computer industry, Christensen cited IBM as the only company to successfully navigate disruptive technologies: Mainframe -> Mini computers -> PCs. Of course, they’ve jettisoned the PC business. I wonder if the next wave will be the mobile platforms emerging, like the iPhone.

Frame the problem correctly. Christensen believes the root cause for the inability to innovate is not framing the problem correctly. Companies do not understand what is happening with their customers as they use new technologies:

Expensive failure always results when disruption is framed as technological rather than business model terms.

There’s a tendency to view market competition through a technology lens, not a business one. A company will see a new technology, and note its obvious inferiority to what current leaders offer. It then becomes easy to dismiss it.

That’s the mistake.

Companies should think in terms of the business context for changes in their industry.Best way to do this?

Customers hire your product for a job. This was an intriguing way to put things. Christensen advises thinking in terms of “the job your product has been hired to do”. I heard this, and my initial instinct was…huh? But it really is a powerful way to understand how your customers use your products and services.

The crux of his point is that segmenting the market on demographics – e.g. urban hipsters, suburban soccer moms, etc. – is a way of performing marketing. But it’s not useful as context for product roadmaps or assessing new competition for your customers’ wallets.

Christensen referenced a Peter Drucker quote to bring this home:

The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it is selling him.

There’s an enormous amount to be learned when you consider your company’s product in the hands of a customer. In understanding the uses of the product, the  job of the product, you increase the likelihood of framing diruptioon in business terms, not technology. One example he gave is Ikea. Ikea’s not a low-priced furniture store. It’s integrated to get a job done – to get your place furnished fast.

The Disruptive Potential of Green Tech

Green technology has emerged as an important driver of our future economy. There’s a lot of investment in the sector. Here’s where Christensen put forth an interesting observation.

He traveled to Mongolia to see his kid who was on a mission there. While walking through a market, he came across some cheap solar-powered TVs. They were miniature, and the solar panels were low-cost materials. The quality wasn’t great, but they functioned well enough for that part of the world.

He compared these little cheap solar devices to the larger green initiatives underway today. And in his view, disruption of the traditional power industry is more likely to come from things like cheap solar TVs than from big heavy investments.

Those TVs are closer to the job people are hiring for.

Electric cars are often in the news today. The biggest challenge for them is that currently technology requires a heavy battery onboard. This causes them to be slow, and they don’t go very far on a charge. So who might be interested in “hiring” heavy, slow cars that can’t go too far? Parents of teenagers.

The Power of Employee Ideas

I’ll close out this post with this note. Christensen was engaged by Intel to talk to its employees about disruptive innovation, and framing the problem correctly. Led by then-CEO Andy Grove, the company held a series of employee meetings to discuss new ideas for their markets.

Last year, ideas coming from those employee ideas amounted to $18 billion for Intel. Not bad, not bad at all.

Microblogging Will Marginalize Corporate Email

In case you missed it last week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt had this to say about the microblogging service Twitter:

Speaking as a computer scientist, I view all of these as sort of poor man’s email systems. In other words, they have aspects of an email system, but they don’t have a full offering. To me, the question about companies like Twitter is: Do they fundamentally evolve as sort of a note phenomenon, or do they fundamentally evolve to have storage, revocation, identity, and all the other aspects that traditional email systems have? Or do email systems themselves broaden what they do to take on some of that characteristic?

At first blush, this seemed like an example of Google not ‘getting it’ when it comes to Twitter (see the comments to the linked blog post above). But I think he’s actually on to something. It is a new way of posting notes about what you’re doing, but it also has a lot of communications usage via @replies and direct messages (DMs).

Reflecting both on Schmidt’s statement, and my own use of Yammer at my company, I’m seeing that microblogging is slowly replacing a lot of my email activity.

As more companies take up microblogging with services like Yammer, Socialcast, and SocialText Signals, employee communications amongst employees will both increase and divert away from email. Something like this:


Socialcast’s Tim Young said this about email:

Email is dead. If your company is relying on email for communication and collaboration, your company is walking dead in this new economy.

Being the CEO of Socialcast, that’s not a surprising statement. But I think he’s more right than wrong.

The shift I describe applies regardless of the microblogging application used. Since I’m actually familiar with Yammer as a user, I’ll talk about its features in the context of this shift.

Yammer Follows the Innovator’s Dilemma Path

A useful context for thinking about Yammer versus corporate email is Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. Generally, the premise is that incumbent companies need to grow and increase the functionality of their products. This increases the products’ complexity and cost, but also increases margins. But as the incumbents are doing this, it opens an opportunity at the lower end of functionality for new companies to come in and attack the incumbents’ base. From Wikipedia, here’s a graphic that demonstrates the concept:


A useful way to think about the Innovator’s Dilemma in the enterprise software space comes from this blog post, Enterprise Software Innovator’s Dilemma. Existing vendors expand the functionality of their products, heavily relying on the requests of large customers. Over time, this has the effect of creating a robust, highly functional and more expensive offering. This trend is what opens the door for new vendors to come in.

Let’s consider Yammer in this context. Simple microblogging runs along the “low quality use” in some ways. At least in terms of the feature set. But it certainly takes “use case share” away from email.

If all you could do was make public notes, that’s the end of the story. Microblogging does not replace email. But these guys are advancing their product, and are rising up the performance axis.

Here is what Yammer now offers:

  • Behind the firewall installation
  • Public notes
  • @replies
  • DMs
  • Groups
  • Private groups
  • File attachments
  • Favorites (a form of bookmarking)
  • Tagging
  • Conversation threading
  • Unlimited character length (i.e. not limited to 140 characters)
  • Search

Look at that list. When you think about your own internal email usage, what ‘s missing? Folders or the Gmail equivalent of tags seem to be something for the down the road. I’m not an IT manager, so I’m sure there are some heavy duty infrastructure aspects of Microsoft Exchange/Outlook and Lotus Notes that are not there. Thus, Yammer still has the insurgent, disruptor profile relative to corporate email.

But don’t underestimate that. There’s what IT knows is needed behind the scenes. and then there’s what the users actually do when given the different applications.

Expanding Communications, Marginalizing Email

Microblogging’s premise is that public proclamations of what you’re doing and information that you find are a new activity for people, and they have value. Information is shared much more easily and in-the-flow of what we’re all doing anyway. In an office setting, I continue to find the way Dave Winer describes it quite useful: narrating your work.

This use case is what promises to dramatically increase communications among employees. As we’re seeing with Twitter’s explosive growth, it takes time for people to grok why they should microblog. But once they “get it”, it takes off.

So services like Yammer have your attention as you post updates and read what others post. In reaction to what someone posts, you hit the Reply button. You’re having a conversation that others can see, and join in if they want. You decide to have separate conversation with someone in this context. Do you open up your email? Or just click “Private Message” to someone? I’m willing to bet you’ll do the latter.

Which starts the marginalization of corporate email. Why? Because a lot of what’s going to generate interactions is occurring right on that microblogging app you’re looking at. It’s the most natural thing to act in-the-flow and use that application in lieu of email. Well-designed microblogging applications are also quite seductive in terms of ease-of-use.

As I’ve written before, email’s role changes in this scenario. The logical end use cases are:

  • Notifications
  • External communications

This isn’t something that’s imminent. Email is quite entrenched in daily workflow, older generations aren’t likely to stop using it and internal microblogging is still nascent.

But no one said the Innovator’s Dilemma plays out over the course of a couple years. It will take time. But watch the trends.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Microsoft Is Getting Much More from Its Investment in Facebook

When Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook at a $15 billion valuation, the general reaction was one of disbelief. The valuation is too high to justify. But some people at the time felt like the dollar amount was well within the comfort zone of a giant like Microsoft. Here’s how commenter Prashant put it on TechCrunch:

I don’t think that MSFT expects to make money on the $250MM at a $15B valuation. Internally for them it is a $250MM investment to get an exclusive advertisement deal over the next 4 years. The 2% stake is only icing on the cake. Had they announced that they have given $250MM to Facebook for a 4 year exclusive ad deal, no one would have flinched, this is cheaper than the Google/MySpace deal.

Over the past few days, I’ve read a couple other blog posts that make me think Microsoft may be getting much more from its investment. Here’s a quick list of what what Microsoft seems to be getting:

  1. Exclusivity on a huge number of page views, and experience with social context advertising
  2. Insight into an emerging competitor to its operating system and productivity apps hegemony
  3. Model for bringing social networking into the enterprise

Let’s look at #2 and #3.

Operating System and Productivity Apps

Dan Kimerling wrote a great piece on TechCrunch about how Generation Y looks to the new wave of social media apps for functionality previously provided by Microsoft’s desktop and web offerings. As Dan notes:

Facebook succeeds because it is the killer web application for communications and personal information management

These are in-the-flow tools. Facebook users don’t leave Facebook, open email and send a separate message. They do it all, right there. The level of functionality is just right for their usage.

The original Microsoft email and productivity apps were pretty simple, but they did just what people needed, and with skillful marketing tie-ups, Microsoft became the standard for millions of us. Over time, Microsoft has added new features to each release, because that’s how they grew their revenues. You had to get the latest. But what happened was we got to feature bloat.

Via Kathy Sierra, Creating Passionate Users Blog, 2005

Via Kathy Sierra, Creating Passionate Users Blog, 2005

I think Kathy Sierra’s graphic is spot-on for general mainstream users. Personally, I probably use only 5% of the functionality available with the applications.

I’ve talked previously about the Innovator’s Dilemma here. As market incumbents grow, they tend to move up-market in terms of functionality in their offerings. What this does is open the door for competitors with new functions that are simpler to use. These new competitors target a niche, and grow slowly upward from there.

Facebook’s niche is still heavily Gen Y. But they’re gaining a foothold. Microsoft’s investment gives them a ringside seat for what’s happening there.

Social Networking Inside the Enterprise

I was reading a blog post by Doug Cornelius where he reported out notes from a session at the Real World SharePoint Experiences conference. A Microsoft Solution Specialist was describing the roadmap for SharePoint. If you don’t know, SharePoint is Microsoft’s enterprise collaboration software, where teams can build out individual sites to shhare and work on documents and to communicate. Each employee has a MySite, which includes their corporate directory information as well as the the list of groups and documents that are theirs.

Here’s a quote from Doug’s post:

Social networking. Mysite will be the hub of the social network. There will likely be Knowledge Network integration. They are looking to take some lessons from their investment in Facebook.

The Enterprise 2.0 space is hot, and social networking is a big focus for companies and vendors. Through its investment in Facebook, Microsoft can learn a lot of what drives interactions, how people connect and watch the mistakes the young company makes. As Dave Ferguson put it:

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. The corollary is that the bad judgment doesn’t have to be yours.

Microsoft continues to evolve its SharePoint offering, and I look forward to SuperPoking my colleagues one day.

Wrapping Up

At first, the only purpose for the Facebook investment appeared to be advertising related. I’m sure that’s still primary, because of the huge dollars involved.

But Microsoft is also gaining an information advantage for the new wave of social computing that is finding its way into both consumer and business experiences. Given the vast reach of the company’s product lines, that’s pretty valuable as well.


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Yelp Is Putting Zagat into the “Innovator’s Dilemma” Headlock

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, author Clayton Christensen describes how new technologies emerge to take over markets. Initially, companies roll out products that serve the low-end of the market. They offer something cheaper and less functional than the product that currently dominates a market.

After establishing a toehold in a niche, a company expands the capabilities of its product until its features start to “bump up” against those of the incumbent vendors. The incumbents, the original “innovators”, find themselves fighting at the lower margin end of their business. Tired of spending resources to protect low margin sales, they take themselves further up the functionality ladder, where they can charge a premium.

Eventually, they run out of room at the top of the market. And the scrappy, less functional competitor has taken over the remaining market. This is shown graphically below:

In the recent New York Times article, How Many Reviewers Should Be in the Kitchen, Randall Stross looks at how Yelp is eating away at Zagat’s business model. Zagat publishes the very successful Zagat Guides. Zagat’s reviewers give the low-down on restaurants in cities around the world: price, quality, service.

I remember from my banking days that these were hit. And they cost money as well. Zagat has done well charging for their guides.

Yelp is the Web 2.0 site where everyday people rate their experiences with all sorts of services, restaurants included. Typical of these user-generated content sites, the quality of Yelp reviews was uneven early on. But it was a quick way to see what someone thought of a place before you went.

Well Yelp has gotten bigger and better. The site now has an army of reviewers. And power users with a flair for good reviews earn Yelp Elite status (my brother-in-law is one of them).

Yelp started out pretty low-end, as most Web 2.0 companies do. But it appears that Yelp is now migrating upmarket in terms of quality. It’s starting to bump up against market leader Zagat.

Here’s how Stross describes it in the New York Times:

Fortunately, the sites that welcome customer reviews have evolved significantly. One of the best, Yelp, has replaced the cult of the anonymous amateur with a design that highlights the judgments of the exceptional few. These dedicated reviewers produce work that, in quantity and quality, increasingly approaches that of their professional forebears, and they are willing to divulge personal information about themselves.

Because of Zagat’s 30-year history of subscriptions, the company’s mindset is one of actually making money via subscriptions, and that has served it well. The reluctance to give up something that’s generating real sales with real profits is understandable, but risks Zagat losing market share.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but there’s enough history where companies that you might have said, “Oh, they’ll never overtake so-an-so” end up doing just that. It’s not an overnight thing, it takes years. But it’s a real phenomenon.

Michelin Guides next?


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