Soft v. Disruptive Innovation

Soft innovation is innovation that anyone can do, and is typically incremental improvements. In my previous post I mentioned Jerry Murrell at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. His business plan is a soft innovation because he solved a problem based on what his product is about. Some examples of this would be:

  • Rewards cards – they’re common place now, but when they first came out they were unique and the idea was simple.
  • Silly Bandz, rubber bracelets that come in a variety of shapes and are now all the rage with kids.
  • Free WiFi
  • Comfortable chairs and coffee shops in bookstores, encouraging customers to read before purchasing

On the other end of the spectrum we have Disruptive innovation – ideas that shake up an industry and cause paradigm shifts, with companies collapsing and even new markets emerging. These are costly ideas, typically involving large companies with massive R&D budgets. Some examples of this would be:

  • Trains replaced by Commercial Airlines
  • For watching movies at home there were Projectors, VHS, DVD, and now Blu-Ray (there are others, but I’m only listing the main ones)
  • In music there was Vinyl, Cassettes, CDs, and now MP3

While soft innovation can be copied (but the results not always replicated), disruptive innovation has more drawbacks, the biggest being cost. Most disruptive technologies cost a lot of money, and the return on investment isn’t there.

A Venture Capitalist told me that he learned the hard way to not invest in a disruptive product if you’re the first to bring the idea to market – and thats because there isn’t a market. Humans by nature are comfort creatures … we don’t want to be disrupted. Unless something can be made more enjoyable, or easier, we’d rather not want to deal with change.

The irony of disruption is that it usually comes off of the back of others. Scott Berkun wrote an article in BusinessWeek where he highlights this. Like that fact that iPod came off of the back of a bunch of clunkier devices once Apple was convinced the world was ready for it.

The point of this post isn’t to say that dreaming big and going the harder route is wrong, because without that there would be many medical and technological advances that we would have missed, and people would have suffered. There is a place for both soft and disruptive innovation – but remember that great ideas are built off of others. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”