The Power of Disruption

06/02/2015 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

When asked what we want from business as well as personal life, we may answer "stability" or "security". The feeling of consistency may appeal to many because it feels safe. But in business at least, staying in the same place and doing the same thing is not safe. In fact it's quite the contrary, it's dangerous.

The key to survival in business is to innovate your product or service in a way that not only enables you to reach new consumers, but continues to make you relevant. Just as sharks need to keep moving to find new prey to ensure their survival, entrepreneurs need to keep their antenna up to seize new opportunities for invention or else risk becoming irrelevant, obsolete and in short, "out of business". It's also important to add that it is not enough for the entrepreneur to simply innovate within his or her existing industry, but to be willing to be polarizing and to actually disrupt it.

Clayton M. Christensen and Joseph Bower brought this concept into the current vocabulary two decades ago with their landmark book, "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave", as well as Christensen's later book, "The Innovator's Dilemma", which challenged new businesses to make radical changes in their business model, to reinvent, going far beyond merely refining their technologies. Today, this concept of re-imagining your company's economics, model and message in order to survive and thrive could not be more relevant as the world reinvents itself more and more rapidly.

Disruption, by definition, is transformative. And the brands that learn this early on are not only visionaries, but are also inventors of industries -- they single-handedly disrupt the way everyday consumers operate their lives. For example, I love New York City, but have not always loved the process of getting a taxi; Uber has now solved that. With a simple touch on your smart phone, a car is there waiting to pick you up within minutes. Likewise, we have all found ourselves in need of a grooming service, but short on time. In my own business, we made the leap many years ago from the prior standard business model of a set one hour skin care appointment to the disruptive walk-in 20-minute micro-treatment with a qualified professional skin therapist, with no appointment needed. This shift has radically altered the composition of our clientele, and the profit center of our business -- we now have customers who might never have sought out professional skin care otherwise, and each skin therapist can now take three clients per hour, each buying product, instead of only one. Now, today, there are "bar" services seen across every category -- whether for nails, blow dries, peels, eyebrows or makeup.

Gilt, the online site featuring designer flash sales is a great example of a disruptor brand that has revolutionized how many people are shopping for their clothes, gifts and home goods. With a few swipes and touches on a smart phone, you can have a brand new dress or sofa delivered to your home -- at a fraction of the price! The same goes for Amazon, introducing the same day Prime membership program. Buy anything on the site with the Prime logo, and you will receive the item in two days or less. For the time compressed or for those who live in the city without the access to a car, this is a godsend.

One of the most stunning experiences of disruption in recent memory ushered the end of the Blockbuster video rental model. When Netflix began to deliver DVDs to people's homes in 1997, it was clear that a major cultural shift was about to begin. People no longer had the time or desire to stop by a video store to pick up a movie; they wanted it delivered right to their doorstep. However, this Netflix home-delivery was just the tipping-point. Next came video streaming, and after that unlimited online movie rentals. People no longer wanted to find a mailbox to return their DVDs, never mind stopping by a video store. The brand continued to keep its antenna up and listen to what the consumers wanted and anticipated their needs before they realized it themselves. More recently the brand did an even more stunning pivot, creating their own award-winning original content. As they say "content is king" and for Netflix, this could not be more true. Not only is their content provocative and sparking cultural movements, as in the example of casting Laverne Cox as a transgender inmate in "Orange is the New Black", but radical in format: series which can be binge-watched. This concept of binge-watching, complete control of when, how many and where we watch our programs, is indeed where the market was headed when nobody was watching. But Netflix was watching and they've been reaping the accolades ever since.

With all of these cases, it has to do with radar. Sensing, not where the 'cheese' currently is, but where it will be next. This is the difference between innovation and disruption. Innovation improves upon what already is in place, while disruption is the willingness to upend an entire category or industry, and a willingness to risk your place in it as well, because you have a sense of where things will go next. That's the success of other disruptors as varied as Airbnb, SoulCycle, NetJets and of course, Disruptor-in-Chief, the mighty Apple.

And, in order to be a disruptor, you must be willing to polarize. In my native UK, we call this phenomenon "The Marmite Effect". Marmite is not as user-friendly as the more familiar export, sweet Nutella, which everyone loves. By contrast, Marmite is yeasty, salty, dark, sticky and savory -- and a bit funky. Love it or hate it -- when you're a disruptor, you have to always be ready for either outcome because that is when people are paying attention. No one remembers the middle of the road, "nice" or safe brands.

So remember, before you embark on the road to entrepreneurship, ask yourself, "Am I a risk taker? Am I willing to upset some, to turn on many? Do I have what it takes to be a major disruptor?"