What does it take to create business disruption?

Maybe you need to have different wiring to disrupt a business

Last week I blogged about the fundamentals of creating a disruptive business model as defined by Clayten Christensen in his book "The Innovator's Solution," a follow-up to his original book "The Innovator's Dilemma."  I often get asked by VCs to look at startup businesses and give them feedback.  And one thing I've noticed is that the more time someone has spent working for one of the "incumbent" large players in an industry, the less likely they will be able to disrupt that business. At least in the open source world, it seems that the most successful products and companies have come from people with little exposure to the traditional way of operating.

Linus Torvalds and the developers who originally built Linux certainly didn't come from a background of heavy-duty Unix experience, yet they disrupted all of the incumbents. Heck, IBM couldn't figure out how to compete with Microsoft, yet a university kid out of Helsinki created the fastest-growing server platform ever.

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Similarly, the founders and management team of MySQL never worked for Oracle, Microsoft, or IBM, and that freed us to challenge assumptions about features, architecture, development, pricing, and distribution. And while Marc Fleury worked briefly for Sun, I'm sure his ways never fit in with the corporate culture there.

A few weeks ago I was speaking at a small B2B conference put on by Technology Crossover Ventures. While every company that presented had some ambitions to be disruptive, only two companies passed the Christensen test I described last week: SolarWinds and QlikView.

Both of these companies have very different product architectures and business strategies than the incumbents in their markets. For example, QlikView operates completely in memory without any need to create OLAP cubes. Maybe this is a lucky accident sprung from naivete, or maybe it's a brilliant idea that came from having a fresh perspective. But it's notable that the view came from outside the traditional approach to BI.

Similarly, there have been lots of teams that have built storage engines for MySQL, but perhaps the one that could be the most interesting comes from a Y Combinator startup called ReThinkDB. I'm pretty sure none of these guys were even born when relational technology was invented, so they aren't likely to be too set in their ways about how a database should work. Instead they're focused on how to optimize database performance for emerging SSD-based systems.

Maybe the longer your exposure to the traditional ways of building products and businesses, the less disruptive you will be. So here's to naive startups that can afford to be radical in their architecture.


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