Commentary

The Secret To Being Effective Disruptor: Insightful Blindness

The most successful tech startups are those run by people who see around corners and spot opportunities others miss. Often, these opportunities come as a result of their inability to see the barriers that stop others. This is what I call “insightful blindness.”

We have seen instances of insightful blindness in some of the textbook disruptors from the early 2010s like Airbnb and Uber. You could make the case, for example, that liabilities alone would destroy both concepts before they made any progress. Instead, both willfully ignored conventional criticism and grew to become billion-dollar companies.

Electric scooter company Bird offers another example of insightful blindness.

The company offers inexpensive rentals in dense urban areas. Users can unlock and ride the scooters using a smartphone app.

Bird charges a $1 flat fee plus 15 cents a minute. The scooters can last for 18 miles on a single charge and travel at speeds of up to 15 mph.

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Bird scooters use location tracking and remote locking technology to make them dockless. That is, you can drop off or pick up a Bird anywhere. For this reason, Bird does not own or lease any land for the scooters.

Better to ask forgiveness than permission

Writing in the Harvard Business Review last year, Stanford Adjunct Professor Steve Blank noted one advantage that startups have over established companies: they “can try any idea and any business model — even those that on the surface are patently illegal.”

For instance, Uber made its early gains by ignoring municipal regulations about commercial transport. Similarly, on September 1, 2017, Bird dropped hundreds of black scooters on the streets of Santa Monica without getting permission from the local government.

Despite these questionable legal practices, Bird amassed 50,000 users and 250,000 rides during its first month.

Insightful blindness doesn’t just mean skirting over local laws. It also speaks to the heart of disruption: the ability to ignore orthodoxy about a category.

For instance, Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa started Warby Parker, a mostly online eyeglass company, despite conventional wisdom that consumers wanted to try on glasses before they bought them.

Instead of listening to that criticism, Warby Parker did things differently by focusing on the advantages of what it offered: lower prices, a range of modern styles, a value-based mission, and a try-on kit. Warby Parker succeeded as a disruptor of the eyeglass industry.

The power of the blank slate

In Bird’s category, personal transportation, the obstacle was the “first and last mile problem.” Studies show that most people are comfortable walking an average of a quarter mile to or from public transport stops to their final destination. Beyond that, they look for a different solution. One is bicycles, which aren’t practical everywhere. Another is taking short-distance Ubers or Lyfts, but those costs add up fast.

Bird doesn’t impose such costs on the user. They are cheap rentals that require very little financial commitment from the customer. They’re also easy to use and require no storage.

Despite solving a major transportation issue, Bird could have remained stalled forever as it awaited approval from various local governments. Instead, in less than a year, the company has expanded from one to 30 cities.

In order to stay ahead of competitor Lime, Bird has aggressively expanded to new areas. In the process, Bird has collected cease-and-desist letters from at least eight different cities. Usually, this only keeps the scooters off the streets for a few days.

That’s not to say cities are the only ones trying to keep the scooters out; in Santa Monica, some residents have begun to vandalize Bird scooters as a protest against the flood of tech companies to the area. This too was merely a minor setback for Bird. They released a statement urging customers to report vandals, and then quietly moved forward with their operation. Bird’s success in the area far outweighs the cost of dealing with opponents.

Following Uber’s playbook, Bird has reaped publicity from such showdowns and forced the public to consider the wisdom of public restrictions.

It’s no accident that Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden worked for both Uber and Lyft. He has carried their secret of innovation, which in the end is only partially related to technology. The greater portion of their success was enabled by insightful blindness — also known as chutzpah.

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