Home Community A Formula for Building Disruptive Companies: Flip the Norm

A Formula for Building Disruptive Companies: Flip the Norm

by Chris Turner

Companies like Waze and Warby Parker are what we refer to as “disruptive”, and we mean that in the same way fifth grade teachers do. It implies a certain calm once existed until “they” came around. Things used to be (this way), and now they are (that way).

What makes disruptive companies fascinating is that they seemingly fly in the face of normal human behavior. Ten years ago, no one was saying “I like texting, but I wish the messages would disappear right after I read them.” Today, Snapchat is a billion-dollar enterprise with more user engagement than Facebook.

What makes a company disruptive? Why is disruption such an enviable characteristic? Certainly disruption can’t work for everyone, right?

People should         , but don’t because        . That would change if        .

Part I: Identify a positive human behavior

People should        .

Most of us are accustomed to judging the actions of others, so it should come as no surprise that filling in the blank for “People should        ” is the easy part. It’s not controversial to say that people should eat healthy and exercise. Social norms are baked into culture, and judging others when they fail to comply is — right or wrong — human nature.

However naturally what follows “People should        ” may come to us, there is one case in which getting it right becomes a breeding ground for disruption: when everyone disagrees with you.

For example: Vacation rentals

Today it makes perfect sense to rent the home of a complete stranger on vacation. Just ten years ago, that notion would have sounded ridiculous. Even Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator and one of Airbnb’s first investors, wrote a blog post in 2010 describing how he thought the idea was crazy. But it wasn’t. 

Airbnb founder Brian Chesky had what we startup scientists call a “unique insight”: that all rooms,  from spare lofts to the most elegant estate in Napa Valley, have a door, a bed, and walls. These are the necessary ingredients for a vacation stay, but for hundreds of years we’ve been following only one recipe: the hotel room. By remixing the ingredients, Airbnb created an entirely new recipe, and thus a new market.

Key takeaway: “People should         “ is easy to answer, but when people disagree or ridicule you, pay close attention. You may have the seed of a disruptive company.

Part II: Understand why people don’t adopt that positive behavior

People should        , but don’t because        .

Once you’ve correctly identified a positive behavior, the next step is to figure out why it’s not being adopted. At it’s core, this is an exercise in human psychology. And real-life practitioners of psychology  —  namely, therapists  —  don’t pass judgement on their subjects. Instead, they seek something far more difficult: to understand them.

Most businesses don’t fail because they lack the proper solution. They fail because they misunderstand the problem.

Enter: Electric cars

For years, most car companies subscribed to the following logic:

People should buy electric cars, but don’t because they can’t buy one at a standard dealership. That would change if we created a mass-market electric car that reliably gets them from A to B.

Using this logic, Chevy was progressive enough to create the Volt, and Nissan took it a step further with the Leaf. Still, not a single car company truly understood the root problem. No one, except Tesla.

Here’s how Tesla thought about electric cars: People should buy electric cars, but don’t because they feel uncool driving them. That would change if we created a sexy electric car that performed on par with or better than others in its class. What Tesla understood, that all other car companies missed, is that the decision to purchase an electric car  —  especially an expensive one  —  is grounded in self-esteem, not safety or practicality. By design, purchasing a Tesla makes us feel successful and forward thinking.

Key takeaway: Even when humans are aware of positive behaviors, we are largely blind to why we don’t adopt them. Understanding the underlying drivers of a given behavior substantially increases our likelihood of changing it.

Part III: Describe a circumstance that would cause people to adopt that positive behavior

People should        , but don’t because        . That would change if        .

We’ve arrived at the last part of the equation: the solution. Getting to this point implies one has a) correctly identified a positive human behavior, and b) understood the core reason why more people aren’t doing it. If Part II was about understanding human behavior, Part III is about changing it.

As we’ve covered, humans are hard-wired to behave in predictable ways, and changing those ingrained beliefs and behaviors is notoriously difficult. History demonstrates that even the most remarkable visionaries struggle to have their ideas adopted by the masses.

In the face of ridicule and self doubt, many smart people successfully finish Part II and do absolutely nothing about it. Sometimes problems are incredibly complex and don’t lend themselves to a simple solution. 

Take: Home cooking

These days, food has become quasi-religious. Like most religions, the church of food is divided into denominations, and those denominations  —  from fast food to Paleo  —  breed ardent followers.

Home cooking is the oldest and largest food denomination, with billions of followers around the world. If you’re a home cooker, you love cooking. You download recipe apps, watch Food Network and can rattle off the names of celebrity chefs. And yet, there’s one part of cooking you probably consider a chore: buying the ingredients.

Blue Apron was started by home cookers who despised the chore of buying food. Here’s the founding thesis of Blue Apron: People should cook more at home, but don’t because buying and preparing food is a chore. That would change if we delivered quality ingredients and easy-to-prepare recipes to your door.

Blue Apron understood that, sometimes, effective solutions are often just the inverse of a given problem. 

This line of reasoning is a fundamental ingredient in building disruptive companies.

Airbnb: People should pay to stay in other people’s spare rooms when they go on trips, but don’t because they feel unsafe and there’s no marketplace for it. That would change if we created a safe way to stay in people’s homes that was less expensive than a hotel room.

WeWork: People should enjoy time at work, but don’t because the modern office feels cold, corporate and restricted. That would change if people worked in a space that felt warm, human and free.

Casper: People should invest in quality mattresses, but don’t because they’re expensive, difficult to ship and distributed by third party sellers. That would change if we sold quality mattresses directly to consumers and delivered them for free.

Key takeaway: Solutions to problems can be incredibly complex. But occasionally, the right solution is just an inverse of the problem.

Photos via respective companies

Chris Turner is a human-centered designer who founded and recently sold Tenrocket, a company that builds full-stack web and mobile applications for startups in 10 business days. 

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