When you think “disruption,” thoughts immediately run to the Ubers, Warby Parkers and Airbnbs of the world, which rapidly revolutionized the taxi, eyewear and hospitality industries, respectively. As ambitious as you are, it can be hard to imagine how creating such monumental industry transformations relates to the marketing of your local design firm or accounting practice or restaurant.

However, not all disruption is as earth shattering as all that. Disruption may be at the center of your business—an innovative product, perhaps—but there can also be smaller changes that have a positive effect on your competitiveness and your marketing efforts, both online and offline.


“If you fill a niche that others don’t, or provide value in a unique manner, that’s when you know you may have something other small businesses can’t offer their customers.”


“If you fill a niche that others don’t, or provide value in a unique manner, that’s when you know you may have something other small businesses can’t offer their customers,” explains Geoffrey Colon, former communications designer at Microsoft Search Advertising (Bing) and author of “Disruptive Marketing: What Growth Hackers, Data Punks, and Other Hybrid Thinkers Can Teach Us About Navigating the New Normal.” For example, a veterinary practice that creates value for pet owners by adding in-home vet services can be highly disruptive in its market, with the potential to pull market share from competitors. A fitness studio that offers lunchtime exercise classes for time-crunched workers can do the same.

Disruption, large or small, starts with an idea of how to fill a void for customers by creating experiences that are smarter, faster, cheaper and easier. But what if you don’t have an idea of where to start?


Solve Problems


Virtually every successful, disruptive idea started by solving problems—often, simple ones. Joy Mangano, the multimillionaire inventor of the home-shopping sensation Miracle Mop, solved the problem of having to plunge your hands into a dirty water bucket to wring a mop. And food trucks in Los Angeles developed a simple and highly effective marketing campaign to get a reliable stream of customers. They solved a problem for hungry workers who didn’t know when to take their lunch breaks by texting them exactly when the truck would arrive at their job site. Identifying problems can be a great opportunity to disrupt the status quo with innovative solutions.


Listen to customers


One of the easiest ways to draw inspiration is to listen to your customers. You can “listen in” by tapping social media, such as searching Twitter hashtags or trends.google.com to see what people are talking—or griping—about. You can incentivize surveys to get feedback and scour reviews of your business for telltale clues.

“Find out what the customer really needs,” advises Alex Buck, owner of DD Forge, a firm that helps companies innovate more efficiently. Buck often goes straight to the source; he develops conversation guides that have three open-ended questions, which owners and salespeople can field to customers during face-to-face conversations. “Get customers to sit down with you and open up about their challenges and the solutions that would help them. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn and what it will inspire,” he says.


Be a forward-thinker


Businesses of all sizes can wither because of an entrenched mindset, Colon says. Conversely, a visionary approach can yield immediate results and help to ensure that you stay one step ahead of the competition over the long term. Just think of how quickly inventive startups like Netflix gained traction. Less than a decade from Netflix’ first subscription in 1999, you could hardly remember a time when you went to a brick-and-mortar movie rental store.

Established businesses also reinvigorate their thinking with fresh ideas that update or up-end old modes of doing business. “The key is not to fixate on the past or get mired in the present,” says Colon. “To be disruptive, owners need to focus on the future.”


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