28 June 2015
What is disruption?
I’m always a bit wary of buzz words and, in an industry that’s full of them, it’s important to dig a little deeper into an idea before accepting it as gospel. So, what does disruption actually mean?
Last week, I was honoured to have been invited to the Institute of Directors’ Disruption Conference, which was attended by some great business leaders and fellow entrepreneurs. As you can imagine, the topic of this particular event was disruption. Having been asked to speak, I took some time to work out what I understood it to mean, and came up with a few ideas.
Now, I’ve heard a few people say, “I’m a disruptive business person” and it doesn’t sit well with me. Surely, disruption is an end result not a way of life. If you look at the companies that have really shaken things up – Google and Apple for example – they’re not disruptive by nature; they are collaborative and they’re organised.
The word itself seems a bit misleading, as it implies you’re trying to make life difficult for people when I would argue that it’s the exact opposite.
The way I see it, disruption is the advancement of the way we do life and business through innovation and technology, but in its simplest form it’s to make things simpler, faster and cheaper.
When UKFast was much smaller than it is now, I always wondered how you could really compete with the big boys like Cisco or Facebook; companies that have huge resources, deep pockets and sizeable RnD departments. However, I soon realised that it’s the small businesses that change the world. Why? Because you can go to market quicker, you’re more agile, and it’s much easier to get ideas filtering through the entire business.
I actually learned this from a guy called Dan Cobley from Google. I got a phone call from him, which I’d say changed my life in many ways. We sat and had dinner in the Roof Gardens and I was surprised at how fascinated he was by our business. He spent the whole evening asking questions about UKFast.
Halfway through I had to stop and ask him why we were there, as I knew they weren’t interested in buying us. He explained that, as a big business, they place a lot of focus on SMEs, trying to find the ones that seemingly ‘defy the laws of gravity’ and learning from them. He saw UKFast as falling under that umbrella, as we were growing faster than anyone else in our industry without external investment.
It was an eye-opening experience, where I realised the agility you have when you’re still relatively small. I also learnt a lot from Dan. In fact, our weekly Monday morning meetings for the whole company came from that discussion, having asked Dan how they managed to update the entire business at the size they were at.
But disruption is not new. I know it’s the buzz word now but it’s age old. I’ll never forget my uncle Phil – he’s 102 – reminding me of horse drawn ambulances. Can you imagine Jigsaw Medical with a fleet of horse drawn ambulances? Innovation has the power to change entire industries, it’s been happening for years, and it doesn’t just revolve around technology either. One of my favourite types of disruption is disruptive marketing.
I don’t know whether you know the story of the banana wars. I told this story at the conference, as it’s a great example of how you can shake things up in any industry.
Asda came up with the idea of the banana war after looking for a low-selling product that other supermarkets sold a lot of. That product happened to be bananas, something Sainsbury’s made good money on, so Asda went to market claiming to be the cheapest seller of the fruit. Sainsbury’s slashed their price so Asda did the same in response, and so on, the result being that someone in the boardroom at Sainsbury’s eventually called it quits and they had to remarket.
At UKFast we found our banana product. Our main competitor was selling firewalls at inflated prices and making a huge profit. We thought this was counterproductive because we want to protect people on the internet, so we decreased our cost per month and eventually they realised they couldn’t keep up with us. It actually really helped to establish us.
Now, I feel like we’re in the best position because the industry we’re in is the ultimate disruptor. Without companies like UKFast, building and investing in data centres, there really isn’t any way to connect. Now is an era that’s ripe for disruption with all the resources at your fingertips. You can set up a business more easily now from your bedroom and change the world from a thought.
So I’d like to end on a question, and if you have an answer, please feel free to comment. The question is this: How will you leave your mark on the world?
Or in other words, as Tom Cheesewright joked after my speech, if your banana isn’t a firewall, what is it?