Five rules to ensure you thrive in a brave new digital world

The sharing economy. The frictionless economy. The digital revolution. However you think of it and whatever you call it, we're living through an age of major technological disruption. The conventions of our societies, our economies and our social connections are all being reshaped at a rapid pace - and business is no exception.

"All these labels are actually symptoms of something much bigger," says K D Adamson, Futurist and Founder and CEO of the Futurenautics Group.

"That much bigger thing is digital disruption – the emergence of what we call the digital economy. It's a paradigm shift in business itself."

The likes of Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo and more are just some of the leading exponents of the movement. They've smashed the traditional rules and barriers surrounding their industries, using new tech (apps), private assets (spare rooms, cars and more) and flexible labour to unlock new models for work and services.

Clearly, these companies aren't isolated examples. But with so many changes happening at such a dazzling speed, how can entrepreneurs make sense of their success, and apply the lessons themselves?

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Rule 1: Read, watch and understand

A lot of the conventions, models and expectations we take for granted are being blown out of the water by digital disruption and associated trends. As such, it's crucial that entrepreneurs and small businesses do all they can to structure their strategy and thought leadership around the new forces reshaping our world.

"Entrepreneurs must understand that they've got to zero in on their own business needs, but also develop an incredibly broad world view," K D suggests. "Dedicate time to staying abreast of as many trends, changes and opportunities as possible."

This is important for two key reasons. First, it's the global megatrends like ageing populations, the rise of millennials, big data, AI and automation that are driving the upheaval we're seeing in business on a worldwide scale. Having a good handle on these can help your enterprise better understand its position in the market, and how it can continue to succeed in the long-term.

Second, the boundaries between different industries and sectors are also being eroded - and new competitors are emerging from all sorts of previously unexpected places. We'll dip back into this in rule three.

Read: The importance of a plan B in business

Rule 2: Be agile

"What is absolutely key for businesses going forward is to be agile," K D argues. "Right now, tech platforms are allowing start-ups to access a market very cheaply, and to scale very rapidly. Smaller businesses that are agile and use technology really intelligently to build a different sort of relationship with their customers are now in a position to challenge big businesses."

It's an exciting thought, and one that's been played out time and again by young upstarts - often with a tech focus - breaking the established rules to move the goalposts within their industry.

In practice, agile is a philosophy that means businesses are prepared to react to changes and opportunities without losing sight of their overall vision and mission. While it's run the risk of becoming a business cliché in recent years, at its best an agile outlook can help firms be more dynamic in their ambitions and daily operations, listen more to customers and produce faster results. Often it's backed up by specific training, processes, methodologies and more.

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Rule 3: Connect to the emerging eco-system

As K D explains, one of the most profound shifts digital transformation is driving is the rise of so-called 'eco-systems' across businesses.

"In future, we think that new platforms and the opportunities they're opening will break down vertical markets altogether," she says.

"Every sector will be impacted by digital disruption. We're already seeing traditional industries suddenly realise that Google is a competitor. It's quite remarkable to think that Google is looking at how its AI products can enter into the maritime industry, for example."

This links back to rule number one: As the world changes due to monumental forces, new doors are opening in the world of business. Companies who are insightful, agile and tech-ready can step through them and reap the rewards.

"Platforms are operating in a different way than the business we're used to, which centred on the idea that if you could get a big enough scale you could drop product prices and get more customers," K D adds.

"The network effect is totally different. Instead of being a single company, we're talking about being part of an eco-system of companies delivering a service. Very often, that will be underpinned by technology."

Increasingly, it's now the innovative use of technology and data that makes firms competitive, allowing them to throw a lower-cost, higher-appeal hand grenade into a well-established market. Again, think Skype, Uber, Payasugym, Spotify, Warby Parker and so many more.

These challengers are also supported by a changing mindset among their customers - which brings us to rule number four.   

Read: How to drive innovation from within your company

Rule 4: Personalise to the max

With the rise of apps and data collection, personalisation is the name of the game for entrepreneurs launching a new product or service - and is fully expected by millennials and other emerging generations.

"In so many aspects of their lives, people are now able to get a really personalised service - I'd argue this is why there's so much dissatisfaction with politics at the moment, because democracy can't meet that expectation in the same way.

"Millennials, generation Ys and the generation Zs coming up behind them value access over ownership and sustainability, which is again where digital comes in."

A constellation of tools, from intelligent software to 3D printing, allow personalisation at a hitherto unprecedented level - any business that places value on understanding its customers and catering to them should harness them wherever possible.

Rule 5: Solve problems and expand your mindset

"Here's the golden rule," K D concludes. "It's not enough just to have a great technology and business idea. The key thing for entrepreneurs is to solve a problem. In every industry there are huge problems that everyone knows about, but everyone has decided they're too big to tackle. The really disruptive companies - and the most successful ones – are those that have a big, audacious goal."

This approach goes hand-in-hand with a self-sufficient, creative business mindset. As a futurist, K D highlights African entrepreneurial culture as a strong template for this.

"In Europe and many parts of Asia, we're not taught to think outside the box," she explains. "Going forward, that flexible mindset will be so important. If you can add it to innovative tools, the potential is enormous."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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