How to Be a Disruptor

Mark L. Johnson / March 2019

Would you like to be good at sniffing out opportunities and carving out niches before others? Then be a market disruptor.
    
“Established companies have to start thinking like disruptors,” says Paul Earle, an adjunct lecturer on innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, in the KelloggInsight article, “Tips for Established Companies to Keep Innovating.” “It’s not a choice,” he adds. “Their entire existence is at risk.”

Why Be a Disruptor?
Here’s why you need to embrace change.
    
In the 1920s, union plasterers in Chicago went on strike. They failed to get higher wages, because builders switched from plaster to “Dry-Wall, ”says the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry’s centennial book, “Celebrating 100 Years of Industry Growth with the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry.”   
    
If you were a plasterer in the 1920s, would you have fought against drywall, or embraced it? It took time for plaster versus drywall to unfold. But by 1955, history shows, 50 percent of all new homes featured gypsum wallboard, “Celebrating 100 Years” says. A year later, 56 percent of homes had drywall.
    
“Little could be done to stop the advance of gypsum wallboard,” the book says. “Gypsum products had branded themselves around cost savings, ease of use and non-combustibility.” And a slew of disruptors — simple carpenters and painters — hung wallboard long before most plasterers caught on to the disruption taking place.

Survey the Landscape
What can you do to be a disruptor? Look for ideas. Read magazines, blogs and books. Attend AWCI’s Convention & Intex Expo in National Harbor, Md., this April. Be open to new ideas, even if they at first seem far-fetched.
    
3D printers, for example, won’t displace standard construction. But they will land more work for firms that “harness this new type of mechanization,” I wrote in December 2017. Is that how you see 3D printing? As an opportunity to establish a niche in your marketplace?
    
Here’s another potential disruptive technology: the blockchain. Blockchain protocols provide encryption for crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, and they can protect your work documentation, too. Are you among the first firms in the wall and ceiling industry to use it?
    
Augmented reality is certainly pie-in-the-sky stuff. It’s not field test and field ready just yet. But one day soon, AR systems will be a commonly used field layout solution. Ready to get started with AR? Or, would you rather wait until AR technology has been perfected?
    
“If you’re completely absent [in] smaller market experiments, that’s a sign you’re in trouble,” Earle says. “You should have lots of little bets going on at any given moment.”

Start Prototyping
I say get started in using new technologies. Buy a 3D printer. Trial a blockchain database subscription. Yeah, buy a Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headset for $3,000.
    
Start behaving like a startup. Figure out new ways to put together walls and ceilings. Fiddle with new gadgets. Try out new processes. Don’t worry whether the innovation will be big or not. Just start on a small scale, and do it today.
    
Draw inspiration from our industry’s founding fathers and early risk takers. Ask yourself, what would Orville P. Huntley and R. Terry Blazier of East St. Louis, Ill., do today? According to AWCI’s “Celebrating 100 Years,” AWCI members Huntley and Blazier, pioneers in spray-gun technology, may have been the first contractors to spray plaster on exterior walls.
    
What would Oscar A. Reum, AWCI’s first president, do? Reum was a disruptor. Not only did he help found AWCI (then a plastering contractors’ association), but “Celebrating 100 Years” says he was a shareholder in a wallboard manufacturing company. That clever man. He spoke against wallboard as a substitute for plaster—doing so when plasterers were striking in Chicago—but all the while investing some of his money in a wallboard product line.
    
What would Reum do today? Would he buy a 3D printer and try out blockchain technology? Would he buy a HoloLens? You bet he would.
    
The question is: What are you going to do?

Mark L. Johnson, an industry writer and communications consultant, can be reached via markjohnsoncommunications.com.