Ever wonder what digital disruption looks like up close? Take a peek at the tourism industry in major cities around the world. Instead of staying with established hotel brands like Hilton and Starwood, consumers are finding lodging via homeshare sites like Airbnb, Homeaway, or 9flats.com. Roughly 120,000 people stayed in Airbnb-rented rooms in Brazil during the World Cup. Instead of hailing taxis on the street, people are Uber-ing cars or calling a cab right to them with the Hailo app on their mobile phones. And upstart rental car companies like RelayRides and Silvercar are slowly starting to siphon customers away from traditional airport rental facilities.

Hotels, taxis, and car rentals are all well-established industries. How have they been disrupted by these startups? Simple. They became complacent. And tradition-bound. Meaning they didn’t do enough of the things Uber, Airbnb, RelayRides, and their disruptive counterparts have done. Like embrace a digital strategy. Or make sure they had a laser focus on the customer experience. Or take advantage of the three biggest digital trends shaping the future: mobile, personalization, and data.

Uber was founded by entrepreneurs Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick, who never bothered to try to improve the taxi experience. Instead, they reimagined it. They reimagined the industry from scratch using today’s technology and digital know-how. That’s how they figured out that standing on a curb hoping a cab comes by makes no sense, when mobile technology could let you hail a driver on-demand just about anywhere anytime nearly instantly.

RelayRides, while a smaller player for now, has similarly reimagined the car rental industry – twice. Launched in 2010 as a peer-to-peer competitor to Zipcar, it first enabled people to rent their cars out by the hour when they weren’t using them, then pivoted to offer longer-duration rentals. Their pricing is lower than traditional car rental companies, but where RelayRides differentiates is around experience. With more than 800 makes and models in their online marketplace and greater convenience in pick-up locations, RelayRides offers a personalized, often easier alternative to the airport car rental centers we all know and don’t love - the long lines, the byzantine rental terms, and the “sorry, we only have a compact available!” selection. 

That’s how innovators and disruptors create value. It’s how they upend entrenched industries and surprise incumbents. It’s how they unlock new ways to make money, drive topline growth, and become leaders, not laggards, in the marketplace.

The next time you’re thinking about how your company should leverage technology put yourself squarely in your customer’s or your user’s shoes. Identify what you don’t like about the way your business meets customer needs and figure out how you can change the game by delivering a better experience, by creating a more powerful solution. Drive the disruption yourself before you become disrupted target for the disruptors. After all it’s much easier to lead when you aren’t focused on playing catch up against the new upstarts in your market. 


This is the first in a series of three videos in which I explain how companies can win in the ever-evolving digital race.