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Disruption Lessons From Airbnb

What’s the key to avoiding disruption? When evaluating your business model through the seemingly timeless lens of supply and demand, think critically about the supply side. Your future competitors will likely supply what you do — but from cheaper, off-the-radar sources.
COLLABORATORS Sangeet Paul Choudary
Airbnb disruption lessons
photo by Eric Kulin

There are backyard business terms, and there are — how shall we put it? — more elevated notions.

Any kid with a lemonade stand grasps “supply” and “demand.”

But notions like “disruption” and “business model innovation” tend to be the province of the business literati. If you know what they mean, you’ve either been to b-school or read a few dozen articles (perhaps even in Build) on the topics.

This is why a recent post on TheNextWeb.com caught our attention. Sangeet Paul Choudary, author of the upcoming book, Platform Thinking, used the very friendly term “supply” to frame what, in our eyes, is a kick-ass theory on the often complex notion of disruption.

Choudary (@sanguit) explains that the key to Airbnb’s disruption of the incumbent hospitality market — that is, hotels and inns — was its ability to challenge the incumbents’ traditional source of supply. “Airbnb enables anyone with a spare room and a mattress to run their own BnB and benefit from a global market of travelers.”

It would be one thing if Airbnb were the only upstart disrupting incumbents by challenging traditional supply sources. But in Choudary’s eyes, Airbnb fits into part of a supply-challenging pattern, along with BuzzFeed, oDesk, and YouTube. What do these companies do differently?

Here’s Choudary’s list:

1. They create new sources of supply.
No one previously imagined an inventory of travel accommodations composed of urban households with spare rooms. Likewise, the idea that a global audience would find amateur videos (as is often the case on YouTube) appealing would have been scoffed at years ago.

2. These new sources of supply tend to be inferior to and less sophisticated than previously existing ones.
As the case study of Airbnb suggests, the average listing initially doesn’t compare to established hotels in service quality and targets a price-conscious traveler. The same dynamic applies when comparing YouTube with traditional broadcast media.

3. Over time, the supply on these platforms evolves to compete directly with mainstream competitors.
As the platform finds greater adoption among consumers, it attracts mainstream producers as well. As a result, the production quality improves as the platform gains consumer traction, something that we’ve seen with both Airbnb and YouTube, as well as many other platforms.

So where does all of this leave you? If you’re a midmarket exec, think about what your company supplies. Remember: Your future challengers are thinking about cheaper, off-the-radar ways to supply the same thing. What can you do about it? Two things:

1. Consider the long-term vulnerabilities in whatever it is you supply. How might a new business capitalize on these vulnerabilities?

2. Take a step in this direction, even if it’s just a mental step. What can you do to remain nimble and competitive, if suddenly your customers can go elsewhere — and pay less — for what you supply? A larger company could simply make an acquisition. A mid-sized company might not have such fiscal flexibility.

Collaborative consumption is a business phenomenon that touches some industries (i.e. hospitality and transportation) more than others. Has the sharing economy changed how you think about supply?

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“See it coming” is the first of four steps you can take to be on guard for disruption, according to the authors of “Big-Bang Disruption” in this month’s Harvard Business Review. The next three steps: Slow the disruptive innovation long enough to better it; get closer to the exits and be ready for a fast escape; and try a new kind of diversification.

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Disruption Lessons From Airbnb

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