It's not easy for a service provider to disrupt an industry. To some entrepreneurs, it might even be nerve-wracking to be benchmarked against "tried and true" solutions.

"It can be daunting to go after an industry that's been doing things one way for so many years," admits Marie Chevrier, the founder and CEO of Sampler. Her firm helps consumer packaged goods brands distribute product samples to customers via digital channels in a manner that is more targeted and measurable compared to "traditional" sampling tactics.

So how, then, do entrepreneurs successfully disrupt an industry? According to Chevrier, the key is to solve a problem for your customers and help them realize that just because they've been doing something the same way for decades, it's not necessarily the most effective way to tackle the problem. "You have to be ready to educate your clients on their pain point. How bad is the solution they're currently relying on, and how much easier or more effective can your own solution be?"

"The first step to disrupting an established industry is recognizing a void within and creating a superior product or service to fill it." So says Dana Rubinstein, co-founder of Dapple, a pioneer in natural cleaners and healthy home products specifically designed for households with babies. Almost a decade ago, Dapple's founders realized that while millions of parents were washing bottles on a daily basis, surprisingly, there wasn't a single product that could effectively get rid of milk film and odor from bottles using baby-friendly, plant-based ingredients. That's how Dapple was born.

Perseverance was key, as it took Rubinstein and her co-founder a year to formulate the solution. It took a while, as Rubinstein knew they could not cut corners when it came to infant safety. They had to deliver top efficacy when going up against the established and commoditized cleaning industry. In order to succeed, Dapple knew it had to create a truly superior product.

Chevrier also agrees that perseverance has been key to sampler's traction in the market. "We're trying to change an entire industry, and that takes time."

"For us, it's always about delivering the best work for our clients," says Chevrier, referring to Sampler's work with The Body Shop, Mondelez, and Living Proof, among others. "We're incredibly involved in their success, and that has been the key to ours."

Technology companies are often pressured to make their solutions as "self-serve" as possible. Chevrier argues that entrepreneurs need to have a higher level of service available, especially when trying to disrupt an industry, so that company leadership has an opportunity to interface with customers more often and to develop long-lasting relationships. This is especially true at the beginning of a disruptor's lifetime.

When trying to disrupt, an entrepreneur can't underestimate knowing his or her industry inside and out. "Successful disruption requires deep industry knowledge," says Chevrier. "It's no surprise that we hear so many entrepreneurial stories begin with a personal story about how the founders had faced the problem they are solving themselves." Chevrier believes that the original pain point you felt will keep entrepreneurs motivated along the long, challenging road ahead of them.

After all, it's not easy winning against Goliath when, in effect, you're David. The original David, however, beat Goliath due to being nimble and quick on his feet. As a smaller company competing against well-entrenched giants, Dapple works hard to listen to its customers extra carefully so that the company can meet their evolving needs and work to innovate accordingly.

"We will try new products and new campaigns all the time without many intra-company hurdles to get them out there," says Rubinstein. "This way we can see what works and quickly discontinue what does not." Rubinstein also credits having "real people behind its business"--namely, relatable moms whose stories are familiar--"customers actually talk to us directly." This gives Dapple the opportunity to understand its customers' needs better, and to meet them faster.

For Young & Shand, New Zealand's leading digital agency, the key to defeating the Goliaths in its way was to clearly identify his competitors' weaknesses "and make a stand against that," says Ben Young, the agency's co-founder. "We believed that digital could solve real-world business problems." Traditional agencies considered digital to be an afterthought (at the time--this was 2009), but Young & Shand knew it was central and core to any strategy.

"Play to your strengths, do the things only you can do, that the others can't," advises Young, who has since gone on to become CEO of Nudge, the native content platform. "And keep doing them - over and over. It drives incumbents wild."

For example, to show that Young & Shand was adept at the digital landscape, the agency used retargeting techniques to target people who came to its website. Admittedly, the company would come close to overdoing it; some Internet users would see their ads 100 times in a month. But Young & Shand was only targeting to micro-locales where 70% of marketing decision-makers worked. This kept the firm top of mind, and decision-makers "thought we owned the Internet," Young says with a laugh. "And best of all - it riled our competition up and took them off their 'A' game."

However, people need to combine their passion for solving the problem with the humility to know that they always have the potential to learn. "You shouldn't imagine you know everything about an industry just because you've been close to the problem you are solving," advises Chevrier. "You should continue to surround yourself with people that have been in your industry longer or in a different capacity than you have.

While there are many different ways to disrupt an industry, and it's always an uphill battle, one thing is certain: following the lessons of disruptors such as Chevrier, Rubinstein, and Young can only help point you in the right direction.

Published on: Feb 3, 2016
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