Surviving disruption in business

For established businesses — like those selling books, music, telephone service, taxi rides, electricity or even jet engines — “disruption” can be a scary word.

But it means success to many innovators using technology in new ways. Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Kayak and others created billion-dollar enterprises by finding faster, cheaper or more dependable ways of reaching or serving customers.

Terry Jones helped disrupt the travel business as co-founder of Travelocity and later as chairman of — online sites that give people easy ways to book aircraft tickets and hotels. He’s now trying to disrupt the industry again with Wayblazer, a startup that applies artificial intelligence to travel planning.

Jones, author of the book On Innovation, has shared insights on digital innovation with audiences in Doha, Qatar; Mexico City; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and virtually with an audience in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Here are takeaways from those talks and our own interview with him:

  • All business is being digitized. Telephone companies that charged hefty prices for international calls now face competition from WhatsApp that lets people connect for free. People can bank and pay bills on their mobile phones.
  • The internet changed the world. Information found its freedom. If somebody comes in with better information, you’re dead.
  • Large companies need to remain agile, to change quickly and avoid getting cut off from newly empowered consumers who crave choice.
  • Constrained resources can spur ingenuity. Cost-conscious scientists and engineers in India managed to orbit a satellite around Mars for $74 million, far less than the price tags for U.S., Soviet and European Space Agency missions to Mars. (That was even less than Hollywood spent making the movie The Martian!)
  • New technology can work in old companies’ favor. Utilities give away advanced thermostats to help consumers reduce their energy use. This can save the expense of building new generating plants.
  • Manufacturers build diagnostics into products to reduce downtime and issue resupply orders.
  • “Big data” is all over the place, but hard to digest. Entrepreneurs who figure out how to simplify and yield insights from data dumps will prosper.

The game isn’t over for old companies, says Jones, who points to Hartford Steam Boiler, a successful Connecticut firm created in 1866 to inspect and insure steam boilers. It’s still in that business today, but it also insures companies against cyberattacks, identity theft and other risks.

“You’ve got to take risks to [survive] in a world of disruption,” Jones says. “You have to learn how to move faster than ever.”