They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, we are all familiar with the saying, and many of us have either been on the giving or receiving end of this at some point in our lives. Furthermore, sure, this saying may ring true when someone imitates your style or finds interest in the same hobbies that you have, but it’s meaning does not hold up in business.
Entrepreneurs are so predisposed to imitation that it pervades their ability to become innovative thinkers. No entrepreneur would ever dare call themselves a copycat. Instead, they call themselves disruptors. Nevertheless, I would argue it is the same thing.
Why is this bad for business, exactly? Let us take it back to the late ’90s. When Clayton Christensen first coined the idea of disruptive innovation, it was a novel concept full of promise and the very thing that entrepreneurs chase: power. It described the process of how a product or service would take shape at the bottom of a market and relentlessly work its way up until it eventually displaced the market’s most established competitors. Sounds like every entrepreneur’s dream, right? Except, like what happens with most business concepts, time oversimplified its meaning.
Today, when we think of disruption, we think of carnage — the weak dethroning the strong, a process that will repeat itself for the rest of history. However, here is the problem: when we focus too much on the idea of disruption, we obsess over the quest to conquer the competition rather than figuring out how to successfully target overlooked segments in a given market to grow our companies while also bringing value to the industry and its consumers.
In other words, we should focus less on destruction and more on evolution. This requires a level of forward-thinkingness and creativity that not many entrepreneurs have, which is why so few actually “make it” big. Southwest Airlines is a perfect example of this. When the airline was starting, society believed that only the well-off wanted to travel by plane. However, Southwest Airlines chose to ignore that perspective and pioneered the first low-cost carrier model, which invited regular people into the skies to travel. As a result, they did not have to drive other airlines out of business to find success; thus, they grew the market, and success followed. Moreover, today, they are among the best-ranked airlines in the world, showing that creativity prevails over disruption.
IKEA also shares a similar story. After opening their first store in South Korea, the resulting ripple felt throughout the country was not an evaporation of all of South Korea’s furniture stores. Instead, the opposite happened. For the first time in two decades, the market experienced a 7 percent growth rate. Rather than aiming to push out other retail stores, IKEA added something to the market that did not previously exist. Not only did they see a massive spike in sales, but this new retail experience reinvigorated a love for furniture shopping in consumers that spread throughout the area as well.
In both of these examples, Southwest Airlines and IKEA became giants in their industries on the back of inclusivity. Their goal was not to steal business away from other companies in the market; it was to add value that did not exist at the time. I think that is my biggest issue with disruption. Entrepreneurs who white-knuckle the idea of disruption focus on taking away established products or services because they believe success is only possible when their competitors are destroyed and gone from the market altogether. Instead of innovating, they copy existing business models and aim to do it bigger and better. Sure, sometimes this works, and other times it does not, but I ask: where is the value in this either way?
There is none. By eliminating products and services from a market and replacing them with a rebranded version of the same products and services, you are not benefiting consumers at all, you are just aiding in the problem of market oversaturation. In these instances, it is evident that the end goal is not about reimagining how the market can better serve consumers and change the way they live and think, it is all about the pursuit of money.
Profitability is one way to measure success, but it should never be the only lure of starting your own company. Instead, entrepreneurs should strive to provide value and solutions that do not already exist in the market. What inspired the foundation of your business? How do you intend to be different from other businesses in the industry? Leaders who thoughtfully and creatively answer these questions — where financial gain is not the only priority — are the ones who have the best chance of building legendary companies. For example, if Southwest Airlines would have tried to compete with other airlines that catered to wealthier passengers directly, it is very likely we may have never heard of them today. However, because they reimagined the travel industry and saw an opportunity to open up flying to the general public, they have cemented themselves as leaders in the aviation industry and set a new precipice for flying for decades to come.
Do not get me wrong — disruption is not bad in and of itself. However, it is usually never the intention of promising entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs saw the potential in opportunity rather than in destruction. This is not to say that disruption will not inevitably happen as companies expand and markets shift, but it should be a side effect of creativity, not the precursor to carnage.