Designed to respond to the consumer's every wish, the on-demand economy is transforming companies and the labour market, and its rise is undermining the strength of the traditional players.
The term "on-demand economy" was made popular by the rapid success of the new Silicon Valley start-ups led by Uber and Airbnb, and now everyone is talking about it. It refers to business activities where companies use new technologies to bring goods and services to consumers virtually immediately, and is experiencing staggering rates of growth. And so, scarcely seven years after it began, Uber is worth over 60 billion dollars. In the United States, 42% of people have used an on-demand service at some point. This is a trend set to continue.
Aside from the most well-known services that allow customers to order a driver, a meal, a doctor or lawyer, the on-demand economy now seems able to satisfy the consumer's every whim, even the most outlandish. Booster offers a mobile petrol pump service allowing drivers to fill up at any time. Through Techy you can request the services of an IT expert to fix your computer. FriendsTonight finds its users companions for any trip, such as to the cinema, a bar or nightclub. Pamper lets you order a manicure and Soothe brings you a massage. With Trumaker, you can find a tailor to cut you a suit. Washio will do your washing. And finally, Wag! walks your dog for you. There are even start-ups in California that deliver cannabis on demand, plus for Roman Catholics with an urgent need to confess, Scooterino Amen can bring a priest on a scooter to your door. It seems that the economy is more directed towards the immediate gratification of the consumer than ever before.
A new phase of capitalism
The arrival of the on-demand economy marks not only an anthropological development, but also the beginning of a new phase of capitalism. At the start of the 20th century, the introduction of assembly and production lines meant that Henry Ford could mass produce the Ford T at a reasonable price, a development that began to make the automobile more accessible to all. Today, the on-demand economy is allowing ordinary people to access services that were once the preserve of the privileged.
Several factors have converged to allow this revolution to occur. The first is the boom in new technologies. Powerful microcomputers available at low prices mean entrepreneurs can achieve a great deal by working alone from their own home. The spread of smart phones is also enabling autonomous workers to react quickly and move around with ease. And thanks to the internet, complex tasks such as programming or drawing up legal documentation can be outsourced to professionals working remotely.
In short, new technologies are creating relationships that are more fluid: large companies with very strong hierarchies and a stable workforce located in physical premises are giving way to less precisely structured entities composed of a small team of leaders and a constantly fluctuating mass of contractors. They may not even have an office, but those at the top direct the business while their staff work flexibly to meet customer requests.
The swift rise of the on-demand economy has also been facilitated by the financial crisis, which led to an availability on the labour market of young, flexible workers with good access to technology. Today, 34% of US workers are self-employed. Finally, the on-demand economy is the consequence of a shift in the balance of power in society. As The Economist states, whereas Karl Marx once laid out the opposition between the owners of the means of production and their workers, the dichotomy that stands out today contrasts individuals who are cash rich and time poor and those who have less money but much more time. The on-demand economy means transactions can take place between these two kinds of economic agents, and the latter can be paid to provide the former with services that they have no time to carry out themselves.
The winners and losers of the on-demand economy
The on-demand economy has changed the capitalist paradigm, bringing about far-reaching changes within society, the world of work, and even the lives of individuals. There are positives and negatives, as with any radical change. This is why it causes so much passionate debate, as illustrated by the many legal challenges and demonstrations against Uber and the aborted attempt to legislate to limit the expansion of Airbnb in San Francisco. Its opponents regard it as a reversal of social progress and a return to the brutal capitalism of the 19th century, when long queues of workers waited every morning in the hope of picking up a day's work.
But the supporters of this new reality emphasise the flexibility it gives workers, who are free to work wherever and whenever they choose. They also highlight the freedom consumers now have to choose from a wide range of services accessible on demand at prices they can afford. The defenders of the on-demand economy also say that it enables a better allocation of resources in society. For example, many rooms that would otherwise remain empty can be offered to tourists temporarily through Airbnb, and Uber allows several passengers to share the same vehicle.
Consumers certainly appear to be holding all the cards; for workers, however, the picture is more mixed. Those who value flexibility over security benefit from the new reality. This is the case for students wanting to earn a bit of cash, those who loathe office hours, young parents who would like to work part-time while raising their children, or older people nearing retirement who want to reduce their working hours. On the other hand, workers who favour security over flexibility, such as families with mortgages and tuition fees to pay for, stand to lose out in the new economic environment. It is therefore up to governments to adapt their welfare systems to better reflect society's needs in the light of the rapid rise of the on-demand economy. The American model, where health insurance is provided by the employer, is not at all appropriate for these circumstances and ought to be reformed so that every worker is covered.
Traditional actors forced to catch up
The on-demand economy also implies a significant shake-up on the majority of markets. This is firstly because companies offering on-demand services naturally launch on existing markets, where they proceed to impose very stiff competition on the traditional players. The most striking example of this is of course the arrival of Uber on the taxi market. But secondly, the heavyweights of the on-demand economy, which have the benefit of their brand names, capital and the latest technology, can swallow up sectors other than that of their principal and initial line of business.
If we remain with the example of Uber, the company quickly realised that drivers were extremely busy in the mornings and evenings, but had far fewer jobs in the middle of the day. And so to fill the off-peak hours, it began to offer additional services. First came the food delivery service, UberEATS, then the company delivering anything, UberRUSH. From a taxi company at the forefront of technology, Uber has gradually transformed itself into a service platform devoted to nothing in particular, able to turn its hand (or its vehicles) to various types of requirements.
Besides taxis, start-ups delivering food such as Caviar or Munchery are the ones facing competition, as well as longstanding firms on the delivery market such as FedEx and UPS. The name that Uber quickly built for itself, combined with its solid IT infrastructure, has allowed it to rival institutional players in a field where it was initially an outsider. And so these firms are obliged to respond to demand and follow the lead of Uber, or to at least adapt what they offer to meet the new rules of the on-demand economy. This is why UPS has just invested 28 million dollars in the start-up Deliv, which provides a same-day delivery service. The fast food brand Taco Bell has also established its own system for delivering food. And taxis are using smart phone applications modelled on Uber ... Little by little, with missionary zeal, the on-demand economy is converting its competition rather than taking them out.
Disruptive innovation: J.S. Bach versus The Rolling Stones
Established companies engage in incremental innovation; start-ups engage in disruptive innovation. It is a fight between David and Goliath, and we all know how that turned out.
Imagine a lush meadow under the spring sunshine. Two professional musicians in smart suits are playing Sonata for flute and harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach. Suddenly those sweet sounds are ripped to shreds by an electric guitar. It is the well-known riff from Start Me Up, the hit song by The Rolling Stones. When the bass and drums also join in, the classical music perishes in an orgy of electrically amplified instruments. Keith Richards' furrowed face is lit by a wicked grin.
The fantastic music by J.S. Bach symbolises the established companies here. Their approach is well-considered; their products are polished. They have built a longstanding relationship of trust with their customers. Everyone thinks that they can continue like this for a very long time to come. Is The Rolling Stones' music as great as Bach's? That is certainly up for discussion. In any case their music is different. Rough, less polished, aiming for a direct impact. And certainly not less commercial. The rock songs by Jagger and Richards symbolise the young start-ups here. They disrupt the peace of the established companies and sometimes even bring the biggest players down.
Playing by different rules
The Rolling Stones were innovative. They revamped the old blues, consciously cultivated their bad boy image and made good use of the mass media to put themselves out there in the market. They were disruptive – rupturing and devastating – before their time. Of course, classical music also uses modern recording and distribution techniques, but that is more of an incremental innovation, a gradual change. The product itself does not evolve much anymore. The difference between these two notions – incremental and disruptive innovation – is essential for companies, according to Cedric Donck, business angel and founder of the Virtuology Academy.
"Established companies engage in incremental innovation. They improve their products or services step by step, but they stay in the same business model. In the hotel sector, this means we make sure our rooms have Wi-Fi, we are on TripAdvisor, we have an attractive website and so on.
Start-ups engage in disruptive innovation. They play by different rules. One example is Airbnb. Another are the banks. They try to outdo each other with apps and other digital innovations, which are necessary, but not enough. Disruptive players such as Lendio offer peer-to-peer money lending to companies without the involvement of a traditional bank. This type of 'uberisation' is emerging everywhere. Disruptive innovation cannot be stopped."
How different is disruptive innovation?
- Disruptive innovation never emerges from the sector itself
Spotify was not established in the music industry, Uber was not created by a taxi company, The Huffington Post is not part of the conventional media world and Tesla is not the result of a car manufacturer. Disruption wiping the floor with existing companies does not arise from those companies themselves.
- There is a fundamental difference in the vision of technology
In conventional companies, technology supports the organisation's business or marketing and is often a source of irritation or frustration. The CTO is rarely part of the board of directors. Start-ups are actually based on new technology (big data, artificial intelligence, new algorithms, robotics, etc.) and wonder, what can we do with it?
- The innovation is accelerating
Innovative companies are sometimes beaten themselves. Apple did not see Spotify coming. Google was outdone by WhatsApp in terms of speed. Disruptive companies are not immune to disruption themselves, and this process is only getting faster.
- Start-ups are currently finding it easy to raise money
Starters who can prove that their good idea has great business sense are currently finding it relatively easy to raise money in order to develop their idea. Being large and financially strong are no longer advantages.
Disruptive innovation: the Build - Measure - Learn cycle
In the lean start-up method, an imperfect minimum viable product is quickly tested on the market, modified and tested again until it is right. Or until the product is dropped.
In established companies, internal innovation tends to be top-down. The directors make a decision and instruct middle management, which passes the task on to the staff. Then it moves up, back down and up again several times. No wonder innovation takes so long. What's more, the initiative is taken by the management. This does not always guarantee that the market actually needs it.
Start-ups approach things differently. They see things through the customer's eyes, think about their problems and wonder how they can come up with a solution as a company. This hypothesis is tested in the market as a minimum viable product (MVP). An MVP is not perfect, but that's fine – its aim is to show whether there is a need for it. By measuring the right parameters, the product can be modified quickly and tested again. And modified again. This development cycle is often referred to as the Build – Measure – Learn loop. The start phase mainly focuses on finding out whether the product has a future. In start-up methodology, this is called pivot or persevere: to take a different direction or to continue down the same path.
Working with the lean start-up method: the right approach
Working with the lean start-up method in an established company can mean questioning and if necessary aborting one's own business model. This is not easy, but there is little choice.
It is not easy to apply the lean start-up ideas at an existing company. They can cause disruption, and not many companies are willing to cause damage to themselves. However, there is no choice: those not engaging in disruptive innovation may end up being wiped out or eaten up by the competitors that do. In 2013, The Washington Post, a venerable institution with 180 years of experience and Pulitzer prizes galore, was simply bought by Jeff Bezos, the man behind Amazon.
The Washington Post, a venerable institution with 180 years of experience and Pulitzer prizes galore, was simply bought by Jeff Bezos, the man behind Amazon.
So what is the best approach? Cedric Donck, business angel and founder of the Virtuology Academy, lists five recommendations.
- Get a top management sponsor
Real innovation means doing things differently. The team engaging in a lean start-up will certainly cause conflict with conservative forces, resisting legal and compliance departments and established departments defending their territories. Not all business structures are in the company's best interest. When the going gets tough, the team must count on the support of the top management sponsor to put their foot down when necessary.
- Put together a dynamic, diverse team
The lean start-up team is preferably a mix of dynamic, internal and external people. The internal people know the company and the external people offer a fresh perspective from the outside. All company levels (production, sales and marketing, legal, etc.) must be represented. This allows any stumbling blocks to be examined and resolved quickly from all the necessary angles. A good relationship between the young and old and the different levels also helps.
- Start from a different place
Engaging in innovation outside the company has no impact, but inside the company, the whole thing might collapse due to all kinds of delay mechanisms. Sometimes it is a good idea to start in a different place until a critical mass has been reached. About fifty people are often a good gauge. After that the team can be incorporated and integrated again. Processes (compliance, quality, accounting, etc.) must then be established, which will certainly benefit from the expertise of a big company. Timing is crucial: too early and you smother the new team, too late and the growth will make it explode.
- Train the team in a lean start-up
Several lean start-up methods have been developed in recent years. Many of them are included in Cedric Donck's top ten books.
- Look for the most fertile ground for disruptive innovation
The objective of disruptive innovation is to have as much impact as possible with as little input as possible. To do this, you need to look for fertile ground.
We can quote Nike in this respect: just do it! Note, however, that you will have to dispel two popular myths.
- I must not make any mistakes
Create a culture in which mistakes are not penalised: innovation is impossible without failures. Do perform a post-mortem analysis on why something was unsuccessful and what you can learn from it.
- I can only present a perfect product
Do not be afraid to present an imperfect product. Customer discovery and product improvement are central to the whole exercise. Your customer will be pleased to help develop your product.
Disruptive innovation in 4 quotes
We conclude with some provocative quotes by business angel Cedric Donck. Food for thought...
"Disruptive innovation should keep all established companies awake at night. And they need to step out of their comfort zone. People are finally starting to realise this now. French telecom group Orange has joined forces with an insurance group to set up a mobile-only bank. And media company Medialaan recently acquired mobile operator Mobile Vikings. Who would have predicted this three years ago?"
"Everyone is always talking about Amazon or Zalando, but some conventional companies have been engaging in disruptive innovation for decades. IBM sold mainframe computers in the 1970s and personal computers in the '80s and '90s. After that they moved to consulting. In the next four years they will be investing one billion euros in the artificial intelligence of their supercomputer Watson. IBM is sometimes considered a dinosaur, but that's not the case: it's a company that reinvents itself every ten years."
"Some start-ups focus only on increasing their market share without making a profit. That is like playing the lottery. There really is a different way. An internet company such as Immoweb grew steadily in a healthy way without too much fuss in the press. A couple of years ago, German media group Axel Springer, publisher of Bild and Die Welt, paid 130 million euros for a majority stake. Congratulations, is what I say to that. Unfortunately, many journalists only praise start-ups that are raising millions, even if they have no decent business case to show for it. In my opinion, raising money is gaining permission to operate at a loss. Spending someone else's money is hardly something to be proud of. Swedish scientists have recently analysed how start-ups established in 2008 were doing in 2013. The conclusion was that the more capital they had, the less they had achieved five years later. If you have too much money, you start to believe your own story and your own fantasies. If you have little money, you need to listen to your customers very carefully, and that is the best way to achieve success."
"Belgium is not doing badly. Big players such as BNP Paribas Fortis are launching internal initiatives, with Home for Innovation one example. Rather than business angels like me, they have more leverage to support their start-ups. The government is also starting to do what it needs to do. The tax shelter for start-ups is a tax scheme to encourage young entrepreneurship. Investors in Belgian start-ups will receive personal income tax benefits. When things are done right, this certainly deserves a mention."