To establish an innovative business model, disruptive start-ups use a strategy resting on two complementary processes: building a discourse which will engage clients and partners in the new ecosystem, also known as framing, and continuous adaptation of their business model in response to the needs of clients. This will be illustrated by the case of Salesforce versus Siebel in the business software industry at the start of the 2000s.
Cases of successful disruptive innovation, where a start-up manages to radically transform the functioning of an industry, remain exceptional. Among the best-known are Amazon with the distribution and sale of books or Netflix which revolutionised the film distribution industry in the United States. They have resulted in the creation of a new business model which shifts the industrial ecosystem’s centre of gravity away from the historic leader and towards the start-up, and ends up creating a new ecosystem around the start-up. Business
model innovation is characterised by new sources of value creation, the arrival of new clients and partners and the implementation of a new kind of organisation, which rivals the business model of the historic leader and gradually replaces it.
Revealing one’s intentions from the outset
Up until now, studies of disruptive innovation have been more interested in the reaction of existing businesses, and much less in the manner in which the start-up succeeded in establishing its business model. Hence, the importance of understanding the processes set
in motion by the disruptor, which starts off with slender means with which to attract clients, partners, the media and analysts, and ends up taking the lead over an established and much more powerful competitor, and in some cases, making it disappear.
This is the process that we call the disruptor strategy, whose aim is to reduce uncertainty in order to engage consumers and partners as players in the creation of the new ecosystem: from the outset, in order to get their attention and support, the start-up reveals its
intentions and ambitions through framing, ie, the construction of an effective discourse and presentation. At the same time, it must adapt its business model and its product to achieve the best possible offer for its clients and partners. The combination of these two actions
creates a virtuous circle and puts the historic leader on the horns of a dilemma: retaliate at the risk of legitimising the new business model, or do nothing and risk being overtaken.
Salesforce and the emergence of the cloud
The study of the emergence of Salesforce between 1999 and 2006 against Siebel in the management and client relation (CRM) software sector illustrates the concept of disruptor strategy. Originally, software publishers (Siebel, SAP) sold their clients CRM software and
costly products associated with maintenance and consulting services. Salesforce’s innovation consisted of coming up with a much less expensive business model, based on cloud computing, with SaaS services available by subscription. In the first instance, this product was aimed at consumers who were not part of the Siebel ecosystem.
Before Salesforce had even launched, it was already addressing the ecosystem with a discourse emphasising its unique affinity with the “no software” revolution, and then its leadership, via press releases, interviews and dramatic stunts. This framing found an echo with start-ups and small-to-medium-sized businesses lacking the means to invest in a heavy system; with partners interested in the new ecosystem; and with the media and analysts who relayed and amplified Salesforce’s discourse and took up a more critical position in relation to Siebel. At the same time as new consumers were starting to get interested in the product, Salesforce was continually improving it to reach the standards expected by the majority of existing consumers. By combining these two framing processes and adapting the business model, the start-up had started to seduce Siebel’s clients and partners within two or three years.
In the face of Salesforce’s offensive, Siebel didn’t react at first. The firm stayed with its old model without taking account of the new needs created by a competitor which it didn’t yet perceive as such. It only launched into the cloud in 2003, three years late. A vicious circle, symmetrical with Salesforce’s virtuous circle, falls into place: poor responses, mounting criticism in the media and from analysts, mass exodus of clients and partners to the new ecosystem. Finally, in 2006, Salesforce became the leading supplier of CRM services, while Siebel was bought by Oracle.
A situation that was hard to predict
The Salesforce-Siebel case is a prime example of the establishment of a new business model. It highlights the importance of these two complementary processes of framing and adaptation in the disruptor’s strategy. This is, of course, an individual case, but it shares elements with other cases of successful disruption like Amazon and Netflix. For businesses, there are a number of lessons to be learned from these results. For the disruptors, it’s about the importance of pulling on both levers at the same time, given that the temporal window is limited. That means they have to find a way to reveal themselves clearly, but without being too precise, so as not to limit their scope for adaptation. In its framing, Salesforce presented itself as the leader by stating that it was offering a better value product and that its service was cheaper, but without going into the key points of the new business model.
For the leader, it’s hard to know how to react. Siebel had logical reasons for not responding to Salesforce in a market sector in which – at first at least – it had no interest. It’s very tricky to predict whether a start-up will be successfully disruptive or not. The problem is that Salesforce gained a competitive advantage by learning faster than Siebel. Siebel didn’t ask itself the right questions for several years, and the needs of Salesforce’s start-up clients were ahead of the needs of its own clients. When the firm did finally take action, its cloud didn’t function as well as Salesforce’s one, despite an R&D budget and far greater human resources.
To avoid this, existing businesses must therefore develop a strategic vision, an understanding of what is happening in their environment, in order to try to learn more quickly than the start-ups and be attentive to the market of tomorrow. But it’s very difficult for a firm to say that in 10 years’ time its clients will want products that are completely different from those it has on offer today.
This article is a synthesis of the publication “An Ecosystem-Level Process Model of Business Model Disruption: The Disruptor’s Gambit”, published in the Journal of Management Studies. It presents the results of a longitudinal study carried out by Yuliya Snihur (Toulouse Business School), Llewellyn D.W. Thomas (Imperial College London, Universitat Ramon Llull) and Robert A. Burgelman (Stanford School of Graduate Business), from the case study of Salesforce and Siebel, combining a theoretical approach and the analysis of a documentary base of historic data.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Par Yuliya Snihur[/su_pullquote]
In the construction of a corporate identity for their business, creators of innovative start-ups have to simultaneously highlight their distinctiveness and also show that they belong to a pre-existing category of similar businesses. The objective is to reach “optimal distinction” which means finding a balance between an identity which is distinct from other businesses, and a “group” identity where they can show they belong to well-established business category. This balance is important if starts-ups are to grow their reputation and legitimacy.
To be unique but not too unique, that is the dilemma. A business’s first few years of existence are critical for the construction of its identity. It’s a period when creators make strategic choices which they must implement rapidly so that the business project survives and develops, but whose consequences are difficult to modify over the long term. The aim is to highlight the distinctiveness of the business while reassuring potential customers and partners about its normality. This balance is what’s known as “optimum distinction”. To succeed, a midway point has to be found between being unique, which contributes to the reputation of the firm, and the need to be like the others, to belong to a pre-existing and recognised group or category, which delivers legitimacy.
In search of optimum distinction
The challenge of building a corporate identity is something all new businesses have to face, but it’s even more intense for innovating companies with new business models, ie, a way of running their business which breaks away from existing practices in their sector. By definition, start-ups have no history or track record and are unknown to the general public, who have no frame of reference or benchmarks to rely on when it comes to trust.
What this study seeks to identify is the means by which innovating start-up companies build their reputation and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. To answer this question, we have analysed the way in which four young businesses built their identity. All four had introduced new business models, but each belonged to a different market sector: health, restaurants, digital services and the hotel sector. The results reveal four specific actions that were present in every case: these are storytelling, the use of analogy, seeking accreditation or reviews, and the establishment of alliances or partnerships. On the basis of these results, we have come up with a theoretical model which shows the link between each action taken and its consequences for the business’s corporate identity as perceived by the public, each action tending to influence both the reputation and the legitimacy of the firm.
Self-affirmation and external recognition
The first two actions are the sole responsibility of the creator and are linked to the way the business proclaims or declares itself from the start. Storytelling describes the genesis of the enterprise and gives it meaning. If it highlights individual experience or the personality of the creator, it will have an influence the reputation of the firm; if it highlights a social issue, like sustainable development, it will be more likely to establish its legitimacy. Analogies, on the other hand, allow the firm to explain its contribution by comparing it to other players in other sectors, close to or distant from the firm’s own activity. When the players are from the same sector, we speak of a local analogy whose aim is to build up the firm’s legitimacy. If they are from different sectors, this more distant analogy will result in a strengthening of its reputation.
The two other types of action involve a broader cross-section of collaborators. These actions need to be taken later on because they require more time to put in place and call for a more objective assessment of the firm’s competency compared with other businesses or organisations. A third-party evaluation can take multiple forms, from rankings and prizes to processes of certification or accreditation. In the first instance, the evaluation should grow its reputation, in the second, it will impact on its legitimacy. And finally, establishing partnerships, with the regular meetings that entails, leads to stronger relationships with third parties. This leads also to image enhancement through association, which fosters the firm’s reputation or justifies its membership of a group or a category and thus confers legitimacy.
Consequences to be confirmed in new research phase
The size of our sample and the short period over which the study was undertaken do not allow us to draw any general conclusions about the effects of these four actions. Nonetheless, the replication of similar results in a sample of four businesses belonging to four different sectors does make it possible to offer hypotheses that make a fresh contribution to the theory of business identity, especially in the particular instance of businesses operating an innovative business model in their sector. These hypotheses could be tested in future studies on a larger sample and at a more advanced stage in the development of the business. On a practical note, new businesses engaged in innovation could use them to find pointers on the timing and the actions to implement to construct their firm’s corporate identity.
[su_spoiler title=”Méthodologie”]The approach chosen for this qualitative study draws on the field of multiple case-by-case studies. Yuliya Shilhur selected the four most innovative businesses in terms of their business models in four different sectors, from a representative line-up of 165 firms chosen at the start. The results were obtained by studying 620 pages of documentary sources (both internal and external) supplied by the firms and 29 interviews with inside sources (founders, employees) and external ones (investors, clients). The study was published in February 2016 in the review, Entrepreneurship and Regional Development, under the title “Developing optimal distinctiveness: organizational identity processes in new ventures engaged in business model innovation.” [/su_spoiler]