A couple weeks ago, as I sat watching a recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I found myself captivated by this fantastic monologue (some images NSFW) delivered by one of the show’s characters, Petyr Baelish. In it, one of his political adversaries asserts that his underhanded tactics are going to create societal chaos and anarchy in the realm. Lord Baelish’s response is both priceless and poignant:
Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again - the fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the Gods, or love - illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
I couldn’t help but consider the relevance of this statement to the role of disruptive technologies in business. In the age of the Web and mobile, now more than ever, companies are being subjected to change due to the rapidly evolving competitive landscape. Many of these changes ultimately have a drastic effect on the way in which businesses operate in a given industry, forever altering consumer perception of what “industry x” is.
Take the music industry for example. If you ask anyone today how they consume music and you’ll hear things like “Pandora,” “Spotify,” and “Songza.” These services allow users to instantly stream music from the cloud under either a freemium model with minimal ads or a low monthly fee, completely ad-free. Long gone are the days of Napster and Kazaa, where consumers are required to download and save individual songs to their PCs, and even longer gone are the days of CDs (if you’re under the age of 15, click here).
In the context of Lord Baelish’s monologue, the advent and widespread accessibility of the Web served as the ladder for companies in the music industry. Some, like entertainment media chain f.y.e., stood idly by and chose not to climb. f.y.e. has closed over 150 stores in the last three years. Others saw the ladder and began to climb, but their efforts stalled after one or two iterations (e.g. Napster, Kazaa). Only those who have continued to climb remain relevant today.
A recent article by Martin Zwilling in Forbes magazine suggests that entrepreneurs should be wary of the term “disruptive technology” when pitching to VCs because it implies a high hurdle to consumer adoption. Zwilling also contends that many companies fail not because they are late to market, but because they are too early, citing myspace as a prime example in the social media space. This concept is not necessarily a novel one, as author Geoffrey Moore examined the challenges which new technologies face in gaining adoption by the mainstream public in his 1991 book, Crossing the Chasm. Moore references the Technology Lifecycle Adoption Curve and calls out the “chasm” that exists between the early adopters and the mainstream.
I’d argue, however, that these companies do not fail because they are too early to the game, but rather because they do not have product-market fit. That is, while their product may provide a unique value to the consumer, there are too many barriers to entry for widespread adoption. Price, ease of use, enabling technologies, access, and a number of other factors are all possible barriers preventing a product from reaching critical mass. In the case of myspace, it’s more likely that awful usability, ugly design, and a weak go-to-market strategy were among the reasons it failed, and not that it was too early. In fact, it was developed and brought to market on a virtually parallel chronological path to Facebook. And we all know Facebook was not too early.
So rather than avoiding disruptive technologies like the plague, embrace them. See them as the ladders they can be for your business. And you don’t necessarily need to be the one creating the ladder, simply climb faster than the rest. Because in the end, the climb is all there is.