We all know examples of startups that popped up overnight with a new approach that took share from the competition. On the flipside, some of us have also gone through painful analysis with leadership teams or boards of directors dissecting how those competitors outmaneuvered us. Since around 2009, using technology to create a new path to success has steadily become the conclusion to that analysis.
Two factors made 2009 a turning point: The release of the iPhone in mid-2007 gave millions a new path to market, and by 2009 ubiquity of 4G LTE data networks paved that path worldwide. Similarly, just as PayPal revolutionized computer-based payments starting in 1998, Venmo, Square and Stripe capitalized in 2009 on broad adoption of smartphones and widespread, fast connectivity to reimagine how and when payments are made.
Payments provide just one example of companies reimagining the user experience and seizing technology to syphon some revenue from incumbents. Consider: Airbnb vs. hotels (late 2008), Uber vs. taxis (2009), Rent the Runway vs. luxury apparel stores (2009) and Blue Apron vs. the grocery store (2012). Each of these top growth firms — and hundreds like them — used more technology to their advantage, more so than the incumbent competition. They started with an idea and then got insight regarding which technologies could help them achieve their often-wild aspirations from a technology solution partner.
Let’s use Blue Apron as our first example. The company has a tech team of more than 100 people led by an industry expert and works with several cutting-edge technology partners to help it make sense of the data, analytics and automation it needs to run the business.
Then there’s Uber, which upended an entire ride-hailing industry by using phone-based mobility tracking paired with a mobile app to make passengers feel safe about taking a ride with a stranger in a non-livery-owned car. Decades of parents telling us not to get in a car with strangers fell away with the tap of a smartphone button, because Uber worked with some of the best mobility partners and app developers in the world to find a way to make us feel comfortable.
And Rent the Runway reverse-engineered an entire fashion supply chain, working with mobile POS partners, analytics experts and multiple software partners to create a platform and process that introduced a new way to consume and use luxury items. This company created its never-before-seen offering via the same method as the others: its technology teams working with partners to offer a great service while increasing its understanding of customer preferences.
Upon mulling what these fast-growth companies leveraged that their competitors failed to see, the simple answer would be technology. Yet they didn’t just use technology. In fact, for some of these firms, the technology they were looking for didn’t even exist when they started their journeys. Rather, they created a digital customer experience and then pushed the boundaries of technology. They challenged every norm of their industries — automating, simplifying and anticipating in order to deliver a next-level customer experience not previously imagined.
In most cases, these companies didn’t have the talent with which to take such technological leaps at first. They filled in their expertise gaps with something that the fastest-growth firms in the world have relied on for decades: the technology partner channel. They understood that partners offer insights that can drive innovations in ways internal teams would likely miss. Quite simply, these companies went straight to the technical experts and used their knowledge to help them find a new way forward. And as such, a new era began — one fast-growth firm and a few technology channel partners at a time.
In 2021, we face another industry change: the rise of robotics and augmented reality empowered by analytics, 5G and automation. These technologies will revolutionize how we live, work and play. They will also create new opportunities that will usher in a fresh wave of competitive ideas that incumbents will, once again, likely not foresee.
Whether maintaining market prominence or challenging the incumbents, it comes down to talking to the right technology partners who can help you ideate, formulate and deploy the next-generation technology that will allow your company to ride this new wave of opportunity. Some of these conversations may challenge you, and some will surely confuse you, but they need to be had. We need to listen to the brightest minds in the technology industry and see what they have in play that will make a difference for our businesses.
You may already have a technology partner, and you may be very happy with them. Or you may create, deploy and manage all of your own technology, and that may work for you right now. But the future is full of possibilities that most of us don’t have the time or talent to study fully.
Consider an industrial job site, not typically considered a bastion of innovation. But with 5G, field technicians, work teams and others will be able to use real-time data to collaborate, sharing insights almost instantly. This will spur a whole new generation of augmented human and even robotic workers who instantly use data and analysis to solve problems or employ robots to improve worker safety.
In other words, 5G will power truly transformational technologies in every aspect of business. Will your current team or technology partner be up to this challenge of guiding you through? If yes, that’s amazing. If not, it’s time to consider widening the aperture and meeting some new partners and consultants to help you make sense of the evolution.
With a new technology wave cresting and new business models popping up seemingly overnight, the best option most existing business leaders have is to bring in innovative partners and consultants to help them surf this technical evolution — and delight customers along the way.
Janet Schijns is the CEO of JS Group and a former Fortune 500 C-suite executive with experience ranging from Verizon to Motorola to Office Depot. Her clients regularly increase their revenues by more than 40% and achieve high levels of market-share growth. Areas of expertise include routes to market, channel programs and solution development, and she has worked with vendors, distributors and partners in a wide range of technology areas including services, cloud and advanced solutions.