What new disruptors get wrong that seasoned disruptors get right

Editor’s note: Karla Jo Helms is the chief evangelist and Anti-PR strategist for JOTO PR Disruptors. 

The concept of disruptive innovation is often spoken of, but perhaps not completely understood. Simply defined, it is the process in which an underrated, or unexpected, product or service starts to become popular enough to replace (or displace) an established product or service already on the market. 

Disruptive innovation is mostly attributed to start-ups and small- and mid-size businesses, as they are competing in markets with a small number of large, well-established players that are comfortable (if not complacent) with their dominant status. These longer-termed well-established players employ sustainable innovation, improving existing products and services for their existing audiences, and don't aggressively disrupt their markets to court new consumers. From their standpoint, why should they?

New arrivals to a market face an uphill battle – competing on qualities such as price and availability are not winning strategies against corporate behemoths. Where they can find their footing and achieve market prominence is by presenting a solution – their product or service – that solves consumers’ needs like never before, putting consumers more in the driver’s seat. While these innovators may appreciate that upending the accepted “rules” of their industry will upset those same competitors, they often fail to realize that their disruption comes with serious liabilities. 

Competitors will try to stop disruptive innovators 

Often, competitors will feel threatened and use aggressive tactics to take down the innovator using legal, yet unethical means such as frivolous and exorbitant lawsuits, including Patent Assertion Entities. In fact, for some, it is their business model to drive out smaller businesses using these lawsuits and then buy that company’s assets for pennies on the dollar. 

Assaults on an innovator’s reputation aren’t limited to the courtroom. Other entities resort to negative publicity campaigns, seeding false rumors – even outright slander – for which a smaller company will likely lack the funds and legal apparatus to defend itself.

Tragically, many disruptive innovators fall victim to these legal assaults because they aren’t aware that their best defense against these eventualities is a proactive campaign to establish their goodwill in the eyes of the public. Making products and services more accessible to the public to enhance lives, such as life-saving technology or price-transparency apps that equalize health care, puts consumers in the driver’s seat. 

Goodwill campaigns that publicize these good works are important, if not vital. Yet, inexperienced innovators make the following business-killing mistakes:

  1. Developing a model or product first without considering what their supposed target audience will see/perceive as barriers to adoption.
  2. Not considering who will be the key players to influence the early adopters.
  3. Misestimating the rate of adoption. In other words, being naïve as to the resistance to change.
  4. Never assuming they will need legal help as early as they do.
  5. Thinking that PR and publicity should happen after they become successful.

Disruptors must demonstrate that they solve a problem 

Any product or service that has the potential to upend the very state of an industry, regardless of its altruistic intent, is going to provoke negative human emotions. In short, people generally dislike change. These people – the innovator’s audiences and influencers – must see their disruption as not an industry innovation, but rather as a goodwill equalizer. Put another way, the audience should be recognizing the business as solving the audience’s problems – and that they are doing so specifically for that audience.

The experienced business leader understands that the key concept behind preempting these inevitable attacks lies with winning in another kind of court – the one of public opinion:

  1. Doing market research into the key target audiences to find their actual acceptance/ defiance to adoption. Note: key target audiences include one’s competition. Knowing their insight beforehand has given many disruptors the advantage of prediction.
  2. Conducting key opinion leader market research that finds the influencers of the key target audiences. Adopting the new media approach today – of communicating through influencers and key opinion leaders – allows adoption to occur 10 times faster.
  3. Taking the two instruments and data above to mathematically calculate the size, and a potential hindrance to adoption, of the target audiences, to come up with the estimation of effort (time, money, marketing) it will take to convince a segment of the population to change their minds or to think in a new manner.
  4. Preparing early for legal suits (from competitors and anyone in those economic networks that will get cut out due to the innovation) and including crisis communication strategy plans in that preparation. 
  5. Utilizing the news media as a broad-stroke education tool to drown out ill-intended naysayers before they speak up. 

Research is the foundation for successful innovation 

One common denominator has been abundantly clear: Research is the foundation upon which the disruptive innovator builds their case with their target audience. Once they have instilled goodwill into the public’s hearts and minds, they will have them on their side, even evangelizing for them. That is the means to hinder or even take down the naysayers and thwart direct attacks. The lack of preparation is the innovator’s mistake to make – and a sure path to failure.