At Smart, a company we first launched in London in 2015, now with hundreds of employees across the globe, the label ‘disruptor’ is often applied to us. It’s a badge we wear with honour somewhat, but we don’t think of it as applying to us simply due to our fast growth. We use it because we believe we genuinely have an opportunity to disrupt the world positively, and massively improve our industry. But we recognise the word is worth qualification: It’s in danger of becoming a cliché, and therefore it is worth unpicking it a little, to remember it is a word of value, rather than simply a buzzword.
In a digital and commercial context, ‘disruption’ was first popularised by Clayton Christensen, a Professor at Harvard Business School, back in 1997. In his book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, Christensen introduced the idea of ‘disruptive innovation’, to describe the way in which companies might use innovation to anticipate customers’ future needs. ‘Disruption’ then came to be used to describe how a small company with limited resources could enter a market and displace established providers.
Unfortunately the term then became a buzzword, and like many a buzzword it became both misunderstood and widely – and indeed carelessly – bandied about in contexts outside Christensen’s definition. Anything even remotely new or different seemed to be casually labelled ‘disruptive’ rather than just ‘innovative’.
It drove Christensen to take the unusual step of publishing an update about the word five years ago. In that reminder, he said that in the term’s original use, a business which is ‘disruptive’ generally starts by either meeting the business need of the less-demanding customer or creating a market where one had not existed before. Importantly, Christensen continued, it is when mainstream customers then start to use that new business’s product in volume that disruption occurs.
Why does the use of the word ‘disruption’ matter, anyway? It matters because disruption isn’t just mere change – change always happens, whereas disruption is about an accelerated change that can quickly redefine an industry. Disruption isn’t the same as transformation, either – that’s usually thought of as a known outcome in a specified time period, whereas disruption tends to mean an uncertain path to an unknown outcome.
An alternative or new product or way of looking at things can create significant change in any industry. Things that are genuinely disruptive – those that mean significant improvement in terms of how things are done, greater convenience or increased efficiency, opportunity or capability – are all around us and can happen due to a variety of circumstances.
In thinking about disruption, the generally accepted model is that it can be broken down into four main types, as follows:
- Low-cost competition – a new entrant to a marketplace, with a different business model, offering a product that’s similar but cheaper to provide (think of customer support services being outsourced overseas, for example, or no-frills airlines).
- A confluence of technology – when two or more technologies come together, creating new business models or opportunities (such as cloud computing, 3D printers or the Internet of Things).
- A solution to a constraint – when the high price or constrained supply of something makes it easy for a replacement to launch and take market share (like prosecco, say, or e-cigarettes).
- Technological or scientific breakthrough – a major change in knowledge or technology, which reduces the demand for an ‘incumbent’ product (go on, when did you last go to a Blockbuster video shop?).
Across all four, what’s particularly relevant for us at Smart is two-fold (a) that each category need not be a pigeon-hole or mutually exclusive – at least three of them apply to our own business, and (b) that when it comes to disruption, it’s technology and innovation that are the twin catalysts for significant and lasting change across the board.
At Smart, disruption matters to us because it’s something that’s very much part of our DNA.
Our business was only founded in 2014, yet in 2021 we’re now a global technology business that focuses on modernising and innovating in the global pension industry. We’re building a unique technology platform that’s revolutionising saving for and spending in retirement globally.
Disruption is a powerful tool for us at Smart as it shapes who we are, what we do and the good things which the innovations we create can bring. Our growth reflects the way that our product has become mainstream and used in volume. We started with just two people and now have over 400 employees and counting. Our technological platform was built to answer a customer need – helping people plan and manage their money both in the lead up to and during their retirement. Being scalable and modular means we do not have the conventional barriers of borders and language. This has given us an advantage over our competitors who operate on legacy systems which don’t offer customers a sustainable way to save for their retirements.
Our growth has seen us launch partnerships in the USA, Australia, Ireland and the Middle East in the last year and we’re active in four continents. These outcomes, and our growth, are a direct result of our disruptive approach, and our focus of treating problems with a ‘clean sheet of paper’ to provide better outcomes for end-users. In our own view and experience, technology and innovation are integral components of disruption. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.