The Disruptors Are Dead -- Long Live the Redefiners

RedefinersToday's media start-ups seek to build on legacies, rather than tear them down

The World Wide Web is now two decades old. Back when it was still a mainstream novelty, you'd hear a lot of talk about "disruptors." Those were the companies and the people who were going to turn the world on its head by using these new technologies in unexpected and scary ways.

The language describing the disruptors seemed designed to be especially frightening to traditional businesses, peppered with language about "cannibalization," "eyeballs" and other terms that the button-down crowd only uses at Halloween.

And their goals actually were disruptive: They wanted to make traditional media companies kneel before the might of what was then called, "new media." If that happened to take all the revenues out of a market as collateral damage, then so be it; this was a small price to pay for a brave, new digital world.

Nothing can remain disruptive forever. In time, the Web, and the people who first made it, grew up. Now, a whole generation of workers has had the Web in their lives for almost as long as they can remember, and in today's job market, they're sure as hell not looking to tear down the companies that still give them paychecks. More importantly, their ambition is more constructive than destructive.

Today's digital upstarts, whether in the form of independent start-ups or virtual start-ups that are incubated within established companies, can still have an absolutely transformative effect on a market. But their goal isn't to simply tear down what's there.

Instead, they want to make new, sustainable, substantial businesses.

The fact that they also redefine the markets containing legacy companies is just an interesting side effect.

Take Netflix. Now that it's reached huge scale, it's obvious how it changed the video-rental market from the previous physical businesses of Blockbuster and the like. But Netflix's goal was never, "let's destroy that bad, old company"; it was merely to offer customers a better experience - an experience that incidentally redefined the video-rental market's economics along the way.

Looking at things this way, we can see modern, digital businesses as redefiners, not disruptors. This means our conversations about digital media transformation can't take anything for granted - we must take into account what's changed in the generation since the Web was born.

Experience, not technology: Disruptors were driven by the sheer, geeky joy of using technology, often creating features for features' sake. Redefiners are native to the Web and apps era - keenly focused on customers' actual experiences, and so seeing technology as an important enabler, not as an end goal in itself.

The best customers, not the most customers: Instead of attacking traditional companies by saying, "we want to steal all your customers," or by settling for just a small, geeky subset of early adopters in an audience, today's redefiners have a laser-focused strategy of targeting the most valuable, influential and profitable customers of a legacy business.

Live 'Freemium' or die: Disruptors might have been content with a business model of "lose money on every sale, but make it up in volume," but redefiners have a default assumption of a "Freemium" business model. Payment systems have matured to make subscriptions or purchases a one-click process, and combining a paid tier with a free entry-level service now helps companies across the media and technology world build serious new businesses.

The goal is sustainability: If the disruptors of old were content to merely cause trouble or mischief for legacy media companies, the ambitions of today's redefiners are much broader, seeking to establish substantial, growing companies. A Web, media start-up today has significant revenues, lots of employees and maybe even a credible publicly traded stock, all in contrast to the original dot-com bubble.

It's important to highlight these distinctions, because many making decisions in the media world today still cling to an outdated view of the goals, and the successes, of new technology players. Just as importantly, the era of the redefiner is not limited to start-ups: Big companies can play, too. By adopting the virtual start-up model, building a redefiner business is not incompatible with the culture of a big, established company. In fact, since big media-companies bring existing assets like large audiences and deep content-catalogs to the table, they may even have a significant advantage in this new era.

The intersection of tech and media is no longer about turning things on their heads and hoping that some good results come from it. Instead, it's about redefining markets by building meaningful new businesses that are free from the encumbrances of their analog ancestors. And this time around, the combination of start-up-style energy with the discipline of the biggest media brands in the world may truly result in the best of both worlds.

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