By entering the market with products and services that are every bit as good as those offered by legacy companies, a new breed of disrupters is making it harder than ever for traditional businesses to compete.
Clayton Christensen’s Theory of Disruptive Innovation first came to public attention 25 years ago. Christensen presciently explained that fast-moving disrupters entering the market with cheap, low-quality goods could undermine companies wed to prevailing beliefs about competitive advantage. In the last decade, however, the profile of disrupters has changed dramatically. The critical difference is that they now enter the market with products and services that are every bit as good as those offered by legacy companies. Their ascendance doesn’t undermine Christensen’s theory. In fact, they expand its reach and vitality — and make it harder than ever for traditional companies to compete.
The Classic Theory of Disruption
Before we look at how things have evolved, let’s briefly review why Christensen’s theory proved so influential and, indeed, disruptive to existing ideas of competitive advantage.1 Traditional strategy had been anchored on the notion of “generic strategies” in which a company could compete at the high end by differentiating, at the low end by pursuing cost leadership, or focus on serving a specific niche exceptionally well.2 Christensen illustrated a way for new entrants to cheerfully ignore these basic strategy dynamics. He showed how a new kind of dangerous competitor could wreak havoc by entering at the low end of a market, where margins are thin and customers are reluctant to pay for anything they don’t need.
The new entrant comes in with a product or service that’s cheaper and more convenient but that doesn’t offer the same level of performance on the dominant criteria that most customers expect from incumbents that have been working on the technology for years. The incumbents feel they can ignore the newcomer. Not only are its products inferior, but its margins are lower and its customers less loyal. Incumbents choose instead to focus on sustaining innovation — making improvements to the features that have been of most value to their high-end customers.
Christensen showed the downside of ignoring the newcomers. Eventually, as these upstarts improve, they become pretty good at the old dominant criteria. They also develop such solid innovations at the low end that they bring new customers into the market. Having doubled down on what has always worked, the incumbents fail to notice two things.