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What Drives Disruptive Businesses?

“It really just came from annoyance and anger."

Once upon a time, if you asked someone about their aspirations in business, you might have heard the word “entrepreneur”. Now, it’s more likely to be “disruptor”. From Uber to Airbnb, disruptive companies seem to be the biggest and most successful. Is it any wonder disrupting has become an aspiration?

The thing about disruptors, according to MarketInvoice CEO and co-founder Anil Stocker, is they don’t necessarily set out to be disruptive. Stocker co-founded MarketInvoice, which allows businesses to sell their unpaid invoices to provide working capital, in 2011, after spotting how difficult it was for small businesses to get the funds they needed. It was that desire to solve a problem that inspired him, rather than a desire to be “disruptive”.

Speaking at a Guardian panel discussion event, supported by Cisco, on the topic of disruption, Stocker said: “A lot of people say: ‘I want to have a disruptive idea.’ They catch on to this term ‘disruption’. I think it’s better to say: ‘What is the customer’s problem that I’m solving?’”

It was the same problem-solving ambition that inspired fellow fintech founder Ben Stanway to establish saving and investment app Moneybox, after finding that financial investment was often a preserve of the wealthy. “When we started Moneybox, I didn’t really go into it thinking I wanted to be disruptive,” he said. “There was a group of people who weren’t being served and we wanted to serve those needs.” The same drive was behind Stanway’s first dip into disruption with the creation of flower postal service Bloom & Wild – his response to a disappointing experience of sending flowers to his now-wife.

I felt like I wanted to be the person who could create a better alternative

Amy Williams

The driver for disruption is often practical, but can also be incredibly personal. For Ade Hassan, her company Nubian Skin was a direct reaction to challenges she had experienced in trying to find “nude” hosiery and lingerie as a woman of colour. The company is credited as having brought a truly innovative product to the market, but for Hassan it was about addressing a problem that affected her personally. “I didn’t anticipate that we would have the impact that we did in the industry,” she said. “It really just came from annoyance and anger. I knew there were countless people like me going through the same thing.”

When Amy Williams founded ethical advertising platform Good-Loop, she wanted to make a difference to an industry she had experienced first-hand while working at one of the world’s largest ad agencies. “I wanted to make waves. I just felt like I wanted to be the person who could create a better alternative.”

That same desire to force change was what drove Jane Lucy to set up automated energy switching company Labrador. Lucy had already taken on supermarkets with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on the Chicken Out! and Fish Fight campaigns and decided it was time to target energy suppliers, stating: “I definitely wanted to be disruptive.”

Does that mean to be a disruptor you have to want to change the world? Not necessarily, said Hassan. “For me, it was very personal. But I don’t think you need to have a personal story that aligns with a plan or product – it can be very strategic.”

It can all sound quite simple, but with so many similarities in how they ended up where they are, you could be forgiven for thinking disruptors are simply born that way. With that in mind, is it possible to just “become” one? Yes, said Lucy, who started Labrador in her 40s as her third career, combining careers in criminal law and television to allow her to push for change in the energy market. For her, the sector is ripe for disruption. “Obviously energy is probably one of the most ancient markets that still exist,” she said, citing estimated bills and dated technology among current comparison sites as examples of why the industry is overdue some disruption.

Energy is probably the most ancient market that still exists

Jane Lucy

At the same time, Labrador stands apart from some other disruptors in the way it fits in its sector. “Our business model is paid for by the energy suppliers, so we are disrupting them at the same time as them paying for us to exist.”

That ability to co-exist isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Stocker. “A lot of disruptors position themselves that they are going to be the best, they are going to conquer the world. But there are also lots of interesting ways that the old world can collaborate with the new world.” For him, that means MarketInvoice working alongside big banks, looking at how its product can work with establishments that have been running the sector for hundreds of years. “I think you shouldn’t discount collaboration, even if you are disrupting your industry,” he added. “Collaboration can get you further faster.”

Getting far fast is what most disruptors aim for. But what happens when you get to your destination? Once a disruptor has disrupted, is there anywhere else for them to go? It’s about constantly looking at where you can go next, said Hassan. “It’s all about speaking to our customers and figuring out what else it is that they want so we can keep one step ahead.”

“To an extent, companies disrupt other companies,” said Stanway. “But really, it’s the customer doing the disrupting.” He cited Walmart founder Sam Walton, who said: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

With that in mind, while Uber, Apple, Airbnb and every other disruptor out there looks like they’re in control, they’re actually just catering to the needs of the real bosses, suggested Stanway. “It’s really the customers, by choosing a company, product or service that is better or cheaper, that are really causing the disruption.”