Sandipan Roy
Mar 20, 2017

How do we eat the incumbent companies’ lunches?

Five lessons for big companies, from maniacally zealous startups and VCs.

Sandipan Roy
Sandipan Roy

Imagine this: Almost 5,000 startups, investors, incubators, venture capitalists, unicorn founders and academics gathered in Silicon Valley over a few days with an almost maniacal zeal to start a revolution and overthrow the system that has produced some of the biggest companies in the world.

Terrifying, and yet energising…

Last month, I was to be in some global meetings in Silicon Valley, so I took advantage of that to attend the Startup Grind Global Conference.

For those unfamiliar with the event, founders of WhatsApp, Chobani, Coursera, Tinder, and Waze; investors like Vinod Khosla, Ben Horowitz, Justin Kan; and strategists, academics, data scientists and thought leaders from Singularity, IBM Watson, Google, Airbnb, Netflix and HBX—just to name a few—got together to inspire, exchange ideas and pitch in the beautiful Fox Theatre and other venues across Redwood City, California.

Everything held over those couple of days was intimate, authentic and passionate. While I don’t much care for chatting with other human beings, especially strangers, I shockingly saw myself shedding all inhibitions and getting caught up in the swirl of energy, passion and authenticity.

My pitch to everybody was quite simple: my world is all about consulting and executing for big legacy incumbents who run the risk of getting disrupted by these very people, and I wanted to spend time in their world to see how they did it.

Remarkably, that worked. We talked, we drank and we exchanged contacts. Most importantly, I learned so much just listening to the fireside chats, presentations and keynotes by some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world.

Here are the top five things I picked up:

1. Set a target that you will not achieve unless you innovate

What is your 10X? What is your moonshot? When you set yourself a 10X target, you approach the problem in a very different manner. And the solution that you get, even if it isn’t able to solve the problem, will be radically different and better. Singularity University, one of the founders of this 10X thinking, talked about how it approached investment with this approach. The core question: How would your business model change if we gave you a billion dollars instead of a couple of million?

Notes for incumbent companies: I, personally, don’t like the term ‘moonshot’ as it seems like something that will fail many times before it doesn’t. How do we make the success of innovation more predictable so that it is funded, institutionalised and scaled?

2. Be the general of rebellion

Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz walked in wearing a T-shirt with the words “General of Rebellion” on it, and made a very inspiring presentation on how culture was at the core of any rebellion. He drew from the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian slave who led the only successful slave revolt in history, and quoted from leaders like Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Reed Hastings and Mark Zuckerberg to inspire the startups. Horowitz shared four big pieces of advice: “keep what works”, “create shocking rules”, “include other cultures” and “make decisions that show priorities”.

Notes for incumbent companies: Disruption needs culture and culture often needs disruption. Incumbents generally develop a few different models for innovation and disruption. Find yours and build a culture around it.

3. Disruption is not an event; it’s a process

Many incumbent companies and industries wake up to disruption when it has gone past being a process, into becoming an event. Disruption creeps up in parts of the market you’re not interested or attracted to, and then slowly spreads its tentacles to grab your entire business. While technology isn’t always the reason for disruption, it most definitely determines the speed of it. The co-founder of Evernote, Phil Libin, made a fantastic presentation using the rock, paper, scissors game to illustrate how the startup scissors would eventually cut the incumbent paper, before the paper even knew it.

Notes for incumbent companies: How do you disrupt yourself while disruption is still a process and not a final event? The challenge is to go back to your business model and look at where value will continue to be created—and where it will be destroyed.

4. Growth counts for nothing without engagement and monetisation

I believe the mindlessness of ‘so many million acquisitions’ seems to have been sorted out. It was very clear from the conversations going on that funding just a growth model was a thing of the past. While a growth mindset was absolutely critical to the pitch, investors seemed to have woken up to the fact that a blind obsession with growth would push us toward another dot-com bubble, before we even realised. Nir Eyal made a fantastic presentation, based on his book, Hooked, which is a must read if you want to go beyond vanity metrics. His approach of triggers, action, variable rewards and investments should be a go-to framework for anybody interested in habit formation for their products

Notes for incumbent companies: Build habits, not just plain usage, because habits are hard to switch, while usage can be replicated.

5. Finally, be the impact that you wish to see in the world

That was pretty much a common theme from everyone. None of the startups I met, VCs I heard from, or unicorn founders I learned from wanted to do anything unless they were very clear about the impact they would have on the world. Being stubbornly devoted to who they were, seemed like a highly scalable and sustainable model. Pivots were allowed but had to be authentic and answer the proverbial “is this how I want to impact the world?” question. And it was great to see that this wasn’t some fluffy hindsight mantra of only the successful, but was also deeply embedded within the entire community.

Notes for incumbent companies: Far too often, we disrespect the value of big ideas as we get caught up with inexpensive experimentation. Build a massively transformational idea and pursue that relentlessly in everything you do.

So, who’s disrupting you when you aren’t disrupting yourself? Ask yourself this question, and I sure hope you have a real answer for it. Good luck!

Sandipan Roy is chief strategy officer with Isobar Asia Pacific

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