Being a disruptor feels pretty cool. Taking on the big boys and disrupting a market. It has a David and Goliath quality. It has a noble ring to it. It carries a Steve McQueen like swagger. Before getting caught up in the emotion of it, marketplace disruptors need to understand if they are more like the cow or like the goat.
Most companies are cows. They work their way across a marketplace, moving slowly and methodically, and a reliable pace. Some are bigger than others; some have black and white hides; they are bred for different purposes, but they are fundamentally cows.
Goats move more quickly and can get to places that most cows won’t go. Goats can find their footing against tougher terrain and can find their place in areas that seemed previously uninhabitable. However,
Cows need a fence; Goats need a shepherd.
Cow companies defined
For most organizations, they are cows. They will always be cows. They aren’t going to evolve into something else. There is nothing wrong with cows and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a big, fat beautiful cow roaming the marketplace. Your pasture marketplace is laid out before you, you gobble up as much as you can, and then produce for your investors. It’s a tight little analogy. Some natural barriers or fencing keep you in your place in your markets, but you can pretty much just do your thing.
Goat Companies defined
Having been trapped behind herds of them in Greece, goats are surprisingly quick and can move quickly into inhospitable places. Goats companies can enjoy the same marketplace pastures that cows do, but they can find new markets that their bigger cow competitors won’t (or can’t).
The one caveat to goats is that they need a strong sheppard to lead them. Some fencing and barriers will work, but they need leadership to both protect them and help them grow.
Cow limitations: Fun cow analogy
Many companies feel the pressure of these goats invading their pastures so they try to evolve their cows. They are still cows, but if they can be enhanced … ? Some go with branding, trying to make their cow stand out from the rest. Some would enhance the cow itself with strong legs or faster digestive system. You can mess around with the cow, or the cow’s appearance, or even what the cow may feed upon, but you are still a cow. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you can’t fundamentally change the cow into something it is not.
Goat limitations: Leadership
Most disruptor companies are looking at the successful cows in the marketplace and seeing some new untouched places where they can own that market. Cows are leaving those areas untouched so perfect place to send in the goat. What most founders and entrepreneurs miss is this: they see the cows roaming free and so they do the same with the goats – just assume that the goat will find its way and be successful in this new uncharted market.
We can drop the goat analogy now. Most organizations that are disruptors need a really strong leader to help them navigate into new markets, win new territories, avoid getting bullied by cow companies, and protected as they go off into new spaces. The disruptor model requires organizational leadership that protects and fosters growth.
How to lead disruption:
Establish the Path
Leaders for disruptor companies need to set a vision for where the company is headed and why you are charting this path. Whenever possible, establish a single path vision on where you wish to head and set the team toward that place. Trying to win every market or every opportunity will likely cost you too much in resourcing and opportunity cost to make you successful. Pick and path and get the company moving.
Give it Time
Many leaders will get frustrated that it takes time to establish success in new markets. It always feels like it should be quicker. Every successful company you mimic or admire had a longer origin story that you realize or admit (or that they will admit). You, of course, need to be smart along the way and if things are truly not working, find another path, but make sure this is based on data and insight, and not on anxiety.
Protect along the way
There are wolves in those new markets. Your job is to protect your company as you go into these new spaces. Customer expectations, regulations, talent, competitors, and other disruptors will block your path or make your ascent harder. Think of yourself as not only a great leader, but a great sheppard too. The crook comes with the job!
Scout the next steps
Odds are you will take a few detours along the way. Every founder talked to the book Beyond Product had at least 1 major pivot along the way. Many have 2-3 over the years until they finally ascend to their successful marketplace. As the leader, keep looking for what that next right place may be for your company. Unless you as a leader set it, the company has almost no chance of finding it by itself.
Are you a Cow or Goat?There is likely something to be said that even disruptor goats eventually get big and fat and slow and start acting more like cows. But it is rare – if not unheard of – for a cow to get lean and nimble and start acting like a goat. If you want to disrupt, you need the goat mentality, but most important you need that strong leader who can forge a path for those new markets and protect the organization while you make your way there.
Todd Wilms was once trapped behind a herd of goats in Greece, but as a vegetarian eats neither animal. He did write a book entitled Beyond Product, where over 85 business leaders offered views and insights in successfully building and growing their organizations, from that first idea over coffee to their exit (and next steps). It is available on foudnersplace.co or from Amazon.