BUSINESS
11/22/2016 06:24 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

4 Steps to Disrupting a Traditional Industry

Back in school, if we were "disruptive" in class, we'd probably end up spending long hours after school in detention, doomed to a punishment of writing "I will be quiet and respectful when the teacher is talking" over and over again on the chalkboard.

Our parents wouldn't look too kindly on that.

But in the world of startups and entrepreneurship, the word "disruptive" has taken on a whole new meaning. If a company is "disruptive," it means they've burst into an industry and loudly proclaimed that they're not going to conform to the rules -- they're going to shake things up!

Now, that's something our parents can be proud of.

In fact, in recent years, "disruptive" has become something of a buzzword among entrepreneurs. It's every entrepreneur's dream to disrupt an industry, creating that next innovation that changes the game, like Uber or Airbnb.

However, the reality of disrupting an industry doesn't always match up with what many aspiring entrepreneurs envision. So many bright people approach their businesses with the sole intent of "being different" -- without really defining their why.

Indeed, disruption isn't necessarily about reinventing or establishing an entirely new category: it's about taking what's working, and revolutionizing it.

The founders at Voila Mattresses are learning and re-learning this every day. As they set out to revolutionize the mattress industry, they've learned a great deal of valuable lessons about what "disruptive" really means. Here are the four steps that entrepreneurs can take in order to be truly disruptive.

1. Define the landscape.

You can't just walk into an industry with the sole intent to disrupt it. Before you start talking about innovating and revolutionizing, you've first got to understand the industry backwards and forwards -- no question.

This involves researching the history of the industry, familiarizing yourself with its key players, understanding what is appealing about their products, and discovering those areas where there's room for improvement.

In Voila's case, they discovered that an enormous proportion of customers weren't actually going to the mattress store to do a "feel" test before buying it. Instead, the audience was responding to the ease of buying a mattress online, rather than strapping it to the top of their car and lugging it home. This background research was crucial in helping nail down a business model that would truly disrupt the industry.

2. Identify the problems.

Through their extensive research, Voila discovered that people liked the convenience of buying their mattresses online. However, they noted a serious problem with this: the quality of the actual product wasn't matching up with the quality of the technology.

Specifically, the mattresses being shipped were foam mattresses, which don't provide a lot of support. For this reason, most people prefer coil mattresses over foam ones. Further, these mattresses bought online weren't well-designed: the edges lacked support, so if someone were to sit on the end of the bed, they might slip off and find themselves sitting on the bedframe. Major problem.

Clearly, then, Voila saw a gap in the mattress industry: there was a tradeoff between ease of buying the mattress and the quality of the mattress purchased. And that's what sparked them to disrupt the mattress industry.

3. Innovate a solution.

To Voila, the problem was clear: they had to be able to easily ship a mattress so that it could be bought online, while -- importantly -- maintaining the comfort of one that could be bought in a mattress store. This meant it had to forgo the foam and opt for coil instead; it also had to have side rails so that people didn't slip off.

But how could they ship a large, cumbersome coil mattress in a scalable and cost-effective manner? That's where their engineering innovation came in. The engineers at Voila developed a machine that sucks the mattress in while squishing it down and rolling it into an air-tight vacuum bag. Thus, their mattresses conferred all the benefits of a store-bought coil mattress, but could be shipped just as easily as a foam one.

An entrepreneur's job, however, doesn't end at solving the problem -- no matter how innovative the solution may be. No, disruptors need to not only be innovative, but also make customers feel great when they use the product.

4. Create an awesome customer experience.

In a truly disruptive business, customers will remember the experience they had from the moment they first opened the package. For instance, Blue Apron, a disruptor in the food industry, sends gourmet recipes (as well as the pre-measured ingredients to make them) right to do your door. It's a great idea, for sure -- but what gives people that special experience is the gorgeous way their boxes are packaged and prepared. You feel like a real chef opening them -- and that's by design.

In the same way, Voila creates an "experience" in the packaging of their mattresses. Since their mattresses are jet packed, they have to quickly expand -- in industry jargon, "recover" -- before becoming usable. This means that, when you open your mattress, it immediately expands right before your eyes (perhaps that's why it's called "Voila"!).

Thus, it's important for entrepreneurs to take into account not only what their product does, but how their customers experience it. Giving customers a feeling of magic -- one that they'll surely tell their friends about -- is one of the best ways you can market your company, without spending a dime on complicated advertising campaigns.

Ultimately, then, the meaning of "disruptive" has evolved a great deal since we were in elementary school. But it's a lot more than just a startup buzzword. In order to be truly disruptive, entrepreneurs must do their research, come up with an innovative solution to a problem, and provide their customers with a world-class experience. But as Voila demonstrates, disruption has the potential to bear tremendously positive results -- for customers and entrepreneurs alike.