Saul Alinsky published a somewhat controversial book back in 1971, called Rules for Radicals. It details the structure and organisation employed in revolutions. A lot has changed since then, but with buzzwords like disruption shaping our economic landscape more than ever before, crucial lessons can still be drawn from Alinsky’s theory of radicals and applied to a startup perspective.
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As in our economic environment, the tech startup space is made up of two main groups: the haves and the have-nots. The haves are the companies that have attained an above average level of financial success. The haves seek to secure their interests by maintaining the status quo. The haves influence laws and regulations which help them secure the wealth, property and so on.
The have-nots, on the other hand, are the exact opposite of the haves. These are tech-entrepreneurs who do not have an excess of financial wealth, and can’t spend millions on marketing. Instead of dealing with the status quo, the have-nots are more inclined to try and disrupt the norm. The haves-not have to focus on trying to fight the establishment with the little they have.
Something strange has been happening over time; the have-nots have set out to disrupt the establishment, changing the status quo and consequentially creating a lot wealth. They, in turn, contribute to massive advancements in innovation. In what Alinsky regards as the Rules for Radicals wherein lies the blueprint for disruption.
Below are five learnings we can take from Alinsky’s blueprint for disruption:
1. Never go outside the expertise of your people
As a disruptor you need to be able to understand what your area of expertise in and zero in on it. Refrain from broadening your focus purely out of greed. Airbnb for example chose to focus solely on people looking to link hosts and travelers, leaving out the US$700-billion-a-year hotel industry.
The numbers may seem attractive, but Airbnb understood what its specialty was and focused solely on its core. That means it’s important to understand what your area of expertise is while clearly articulating what value you offer in the market you serve.
2. Go outside the expertise of the enemy
Every market has a gap, or a current need that is not being fulfilled. Disruptors in the tech industry learn to spot these gaps and build their businesses around them. Dom Hofmann, Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, the co-Founders of the social video platform Vine, found a gap by creating what can be summed up as the six-second love child between Youtube and 9gag without all the puppies and kittens.
The strategy of focusing on a space that was not being catered for (short video clips without the filter and editing options of Instagram) allowed Vine to grow its user base to over 40 million users.
3. Organise and reflect
As a disruptor you must have the mentality of an organiser. In every revolution (which is essentially what disruption is) there has to be one or a few organisers.
These collective minds rally up their troops through their visionary ideas and ability to persuade. One vital attribute that organisers must possess is the ability to recede into a state of deep reflection. At every point of the revolution or disruptive process, the organiser must be able to take a step back and analyse the progress of the disruptive venture. Quoting Robert Greene: “Events in life mean nothing if you do not reflect on them in a deep way.”
This reflectiveness goes beyond merely analysing the efficacy of marketing plans and strategies. Reflectiveness must go to the extent of reflecting on the business model itself. The inability to escape the everyday noise of business often prevents entrepreneurs from reflecting on their constantly changing business environments and assessing whether their business model is actually working.
Very few business models survive first contact with their customers. Disruptive entrepreneurs learn to use the practical feedback they receive from their customers. This means observing the behaviour and the reaction customers have to your product and adapting your business model appropriately.
An appropriate example of this can be found in disruptors such as Instagram, which undertook a soul-searching reflection culminating in the purge of all its features, save the photo-sharing functionality. This reflective pivot played a huge role in adapting the Instagram business model to create the multi-billion dollar app we have today.
4. In war, the end justifies almost any means
Disruptive entrepreneurs have realised that business is war, regardless of whether you avoid competition. The act of creating a business and attempting to create a new market and disrupt an existing market is ultimately an act of war against established companies in the market you seek to disrupt. Disruptors realise that in war, there is no rules. Instead, there are ethical codes that are subjective to the dictates of self-interest.
Uber is a prime example of this war-ready mentality. Upon realising that the taxi industry was heavily regulated, Uber extended its business to focus on “any qualified driver with an appropriate vehicle”. In so doing fully exploiting the limitations of the law. Uber went as far as calling the company’s central command room the “war room”.
Uber became seen in some circles as a startup fighting against what can be regarded by most as unnecessary regulatory laws. Regardless of where the company actually found itself, Uber gained from the publicity in the end. This justified the means.
Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk, on the other hand, managed to grow Airbnb into a multi-billion dollar company by using what was at their disposal. As an enlightened and disruptive have-not, Airbnb understood that its did not have the ability to compete directly with Craiglist because it was an already established two-way marketplace. Instead Airbnb used what was at its disposal — a readily available free source of new property owners. Airbnb salespeople ‘made unsolicited approached to property owners’ on Craiglist leveraging off the strength and reputation of an established site.
In the end, all is fair in love and war… and business.
Image by Esad Hajdarevic via Flickr