How to Rock the (Industry) Boat

Start by asking, 'what are the pain points in my life, and what can I fix in my customers' lives?'
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This story appears in the January 2011 issue of . Subscribe »

David Croslin: The customer is king.
David Croslin: The customer is king.
Photo© John Johnston

Q: I want to shake things up in my industry. Can a small business be disruptive?

A: The secret to disruptive innovation is simple: Focus on your customers.

A lot of companies will say they do, but the truth is they are stuck focusing on themselves, says David Croslin, former chief technologist at Hewlett-Packard and author of Innovate the Future: A Radical New Approach to IT Innovation. "They end up trying to please themselves or beat competitors," he says, "rather than considering their customers."

Startups, for example, can squander resources by hiring staff before it's necessary, or even spending too much energy thinking up a flashy name. "One time I got this call from a company that poured $40 million into a product," says Croslin, now a market trends consultant in Colorado Springs, Colo. "And then they asked me, ‘Where do you think we can sell this?' They were too busy looking at the wrong thing."

Established companies go wrong when they start worrying about cutting costs or beating the competition. For years, the mobile phone business was caught in a kind of arms race, with each side adding more and more tools to keep up. "They kept trying to top each other with features that most people never used," he says. That is, until the iPhone hit. The iPhone was actually simple in comparison, but its design--stylish, user-friendly and super-convenient--was all about the customer.

You don't have to be Apple to upend a market, either. Some of the biggest disrupters are small companies, such as IQware. The Richfield, Ohio, firm develops software for the healthcare and hospitality industries--users of databases that usually require an army of IT hires. Instead, IQware offers a rules-based platform that even history majors can use to create workable software. And the company, started in 2005, is now looking at a $12 million offer for a quarter ownership.

So, if you want to be disruptive, start by asking two questions: What are the pain points in my life, and what can I fix in my customers' lives?

"Going back to basics," Croslin says, "can fix a lot of things."


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