Times always change, it’s an inevitable fact of life. But the reasons why they change can’t always be predicted that easily – another fact of life.
So, while we all know that tomorrow will be a new day with new possibilities – ad infinitum – the nature of the possibilities is really up to us to decide on. Innovations are one of the few distinctly human traits, largely because we are the only species on the planet possessing an inbuilt obsession with change and improvement. Or at least change in the hope of improvement.
While this is nothing new necessarily – civilisation has got to this point through several millennia dedicated to the notion of progress – the idea of disruption is relatively modern. As a word, the traditional connotations are wholly negative. People are disruptive at the cost of others. Yet, in 2017, whenever you hear the phrase, classrooms aside, it’s almost always used in a positive way. Disruption shakes up the status quo, propels entire industries forward, and revolutionises the way we live, work, and play.
Confused? Here are four mould-breaking business disruptors, how they achieved that was previously unthinkable, and what we can learn from them.
Although Steve Jobs enjoyed both incredible highs, and devastating lows in his career, it’s impossible to deny that he is one of the ultimate disruptors.
Back in 1984 computers were, for all intents and purposes, still in relative infancy when it came to mainstream adoption. Although unthinkable now, the dull black screens with reams of green text were the sole domain of office workers and geeks. Inaccessible and not particularly flattering on the eye in the same year the original Macintosh computer would appear on the market and revolutionise the sector.
None of which is really why Jobs makes it onto our list. Yes, he was involved in the ground-breaking project, but his tenure at the helm of the Macintosh project would end a year later, then he left to found NeXT, a computer firm aimed at the educational market. It’s what happens next that really explains his inclusion.
Skip forward more than a decade and Apple Macintosh merges with NeXT, meaning Jobs is again on the payroll of the company. More so, he’s given the position of CEO of the former company, which has been suffering from dwindling sales and is on the verge of bankruptcy. This is despite the fact that the products are largely considered to be superior in terms of usability and functionality when compared with Windows-based machines, the market leader.
Rather than looking to try and develop even more advanced machines, though, instead Jobs understood that really this was about salesmanship. Working closely with British designer Jonathan Ive, the ‘Think Different’ advertising campaign was launched, and Apple moved from being solely tech-based, to a lifestyle choice brand. Starting with the iMac’s striking neon-coloured monitors, products like the iPod, iPhone, iWatch and iTunes followed in those footsteps- the first time a computer manufacturer had placed an emphasis on design, and the zeitgeist of cool.
Put simply, Jobs understood that perception is the key to mass appeal. Win over the public’s loyalty, give them something that they consider to be desirable, rather than entirely functional, and victory isn’t far away. So, although Apple Mac is no longer a disruptor or challenger brand in the true sense, that’s because it has re-written our expectations of tech companies, making others fall in line with its slick aesthetics.
Best quote: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
In comparison to the Steve Jobs story, Mark Zuckerberg’s is perhaps more straightforward, if you keep it to the basic facts. In 2004 this Harvard University student took a huge risk in setting up a website, Facemash. The idea was simple, and based on two concepts – t e tradition of US colleges to create a ‘face book’ directory for current students, and the ‘hot or not’ game. By hacking into the administrative computer network, he created a domain that allowed students to peruse their fellow campus buddies and decide whether they were indeed good looking, or not.
Quickly shut down, Zuckerberg faced expulsion and potential legal charges for invasion of privacy and copyright violation. None of which put him off setting up another project containing Augustan images with corresponding comments sections, which was made open to his classmates to share notes on.
By now the birth of Facebook was well on its way, given the popularity of this platform, and his Facemash among students – everyone likes instant communication and everyone likes looking at other people’s pictures.
Of course, while all this was going on, MySpace was king of the social media pile. And this is where it gets a bit more interesting. Whilst MySpace was largely focussed around music to begin with, and open to anyone providing their country had access to the platform, Facebook was, to begin with, only available to Harvard attendees, before begin rolled out to other college campuses. It wasn’t until 2006 that it went ‘mainstream’ – allowing everyone to have an account providing they were over the age of 13. By this time, the mythology was already in place – people wanted an account before they could get one, and users with accounts were already plentiful. The network was, in many ways, too big to fail already. Although it still could fail, as MySpace would eventually.
There are many things that differentiate Facebook from its early, doomed rival. Firstly, MySpace’s sale to News Corporation placed it in the hands of the perceived media establishment – out of touch with what young people want, and how they communicate with one another. Secondly, the introduction of Business Pages, which by 2007 numbered 100,000, meant that an entirely new marketing platform had been created – companies that wanted to tap into youth markets were given the opportunity to do this by promoting products on a network that was already proven. And, finally, Zuckerberg wrote the book on what is now considered relatively standard working environments for tech start-ups. Open plan offices, flexible hours, and dedicated time for staff to come up with their own ideas for the product.
If nothing else, Mark Zuckerberg shows us that the SAS motto of ‘He Who Dares Wins’ can prove true, provided you’re dedicated to daring. Not without controversy – as anyone who has seen The Social Network will know – he has put everything from university place to friendships on the line, but in the end came out on top. And, despite what you feel about Facebook now, remains very much on the top now, with more than $12 billion in profits in 2016 alone.
Best quote: “I think a simple rule of business is, if you do the things that are easier first, then you can actually make a lot of progress.”
Sir Ray Tindle
You don’t get to own around 200 UK newspapers without having some good business acumen, and Sir Ray Tindle clearly has that. Albeit some may not agree with his views.
Controversies such as the apparent instruction for his papers to stop reporting on anti-war protests as British and American troops entered Iraq, what Tindle has done is remarkable in the world of the press. Dwindling profits and declining readership are two phrases we consistently hear from the printed media world, along with cutbacks and redundancies. Not so for the Tindle Group, which was buying up titles many considered dead in the water in the middle of a recession, boosting profits by 278 per cent in 2012.
The regional publishing giant also managed to launch no less than 17 new paid-for titles, at a time when the majority of other media organisations were shedding staff and reining their coverage in. Clearly, a local rag in Lyme Regis may not be as sexy as a daily broadsheet, but what this buccaneer of the printing press has shown is that this may not be relevant. What matters is delivering a product that people don’t just want – they actually need it. Hyperlocalising the newsroom means in depth coverage of everything going on in a small area, professionally written and researched.
Tindle shows us that speculation can be a great path to accumulation. By expanding overall operations in an era when others are pulling theirs back, he has managed to ensure that the quality of what he has to sell has not waned, but rather been improved upon, increasing readership and therefore boosting advertising value at the same time. Hardly the common tactic, for that we rank him as a real one of a kind.
Best quote: “People want to read about their immediate neighbours.”
Although Toms Shoes was not the first successful enterprise Blake Mycoskie was involved with, it’s certainly the most widely known. Already having run profitable businesses, he found himself competing alongside his sister in the 2002 season of US TV show The Amazing Race, which took the pair to Argentina.
Four years later he returned on vacation, and noticed a particular type of shoe being worn by local polo players: alpargatas. The design would form the basis for the simple slip-ons that Toms Shoes launched in the North American market, although this isn’t why we consider his career to be remarkable. At the same time eyeing up the footwear, he also observed how many impoverished children in Buenos Aires were running around barefoot. It’s at this point that the concept was born – for every pair of shoes bought by wealthy US citizens; a pair would be donated to developing countries. One for one.
A philanthropic move, it has not been without criticism. Some have pointed to the potential negative impact this may have on local cobblers and footwear producers in the recipient countries. Others have criticised the entire business model because it merely delays or prevents wholesale policy change being enacted to genuinely improve living conditions, meanwhile the quality of the donated shoes has been called into question, as have standards in the working environments used to make the products in the first place (which, coincidentally, are largely in developing countries). However, with more than two million pairs of shoes donated by 2012, and a company valuation coming in at $625million, it’s clear that the model proved popular.
Fundamentally, no matter the details or potential downsides, it’s better to have people buying a product that gives even just a little back, rather than buying a product that does nothing for society as a whole. Fashion has barely, if ever, picked up on the public’s understanding of this, hence Toms Shoes being a story of success.
Best quote: “If whatever you do helps just one person, you’ve done something wonderful.”