As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pierce Brantley, an author, speaker, and owner of Invicta Consulting, a product strategy firm. He’s written three books, including Calling: Awaken to The Purpose of Your Work, Creating Heroes: The 10 Tactics of Client Leadership, and Power, Love, Sound Mind. He has successfully launched, run, and sold his own company, served as an executive for a top-ten Social PR firm in Dallas and consulted with numerous Fortune 500 companies. Brantley studied Disruptive Business Strategy at Harvard Business School and is on the Forbes Technology Council. When he’s not nerding-out on the latest business principles, he enjoys spending time with his wife Kristie, gourmet cooking, and playing jazz guitar with a good cigar.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My backstory started when I was young. As a kid, the peak of success for me was Matthew Broderick in the movie War Games. All I wanted was a glowing, green screen computer on which to play new and exciting games. I never hacked the government for a competitive stint of tic-tac-toe like in the movie, but I did get an original Apple II computer and that set the trajectory of a career filled with innovation and exciting new technologies. Those early experiences led me to build and sell a small agency in my mid-twenties. The business provided software development and branding services on the edge of the Web 2.0 craze. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working and consulting with Fortune companies and startups in all things technology and product development. It’s been a fun career.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well, this story isn’t directly business related, but it did give me a healthy appreciation for the relationship between people and technology. I used to be a bit of a prankster. One time, pre-internet, I made a little program that looked as if I had access to the Clinton administration’s missile command. I showed the app to a friend of mine and convinced him he made a mistake and sent nuclear missiles to Russia. He believed me and was mortified! His first thought was to call his mother. It was bad. But to his quick relief, he realized I didn’t even have a modem. I learned early on that technology should be a conduit for good and it has the power to shape people’s lives in meaningful ways. Moreover, tech advances need to be taken seriously, and there should always be an ethics discussion when disruption innovations are imminent.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
In my first job, I was a web developer and crashed the large e-commerce platform for which I was hired. The crash happened in my first month of work. Soon after the crash, The CEO came over to my desk and I was certain I was fired. “I’m sorry I crashed your site,” I said. He kneeled down next to me and said “It’s our site. You’ll fix it.” I learned a powerful lesson about ownership, leadership and shared responsibility. From that point on, the CEO took time to mentor and introduce me to people I needed in my life. My success is directly related to his early kindness. Fun fact: I don’t do web development anymore.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Invicta, the first part of my business name, means undefeated or unconquered. I believe love conquers all. Love for people, specifically. I believe the purpose of technology is to make people’s lives better and that empathy for your users needs is the quickest way to provide value in the market.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
You can compete like everyone else, or you can play a different game. That’s disruption. My business, Invicta Consulting, provides product and business management services that help you do just that. We give you an edge in the market by redefining the way the game is played with your product. That’s what I help companies do: play a different game and tell a different story. It’s how they win.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Artificial intelligence has had a slow burn to relevancy, but now, it’s everywhere. A new company that leverages AI can quickly outcompete an older, service-based business simply because it can solve problems more effectively. It’s weighty stuff. But the possibilities are endless.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
A pivot is the central point at which a mechanism turns. For the business mechanism, that central point is value. For Invicta Consulting, we swing towards disruption, and see it as a point of leverage that can provide value to other companies. All that said, I think we are seeing a mass commoditization of all service industries, and this shift needs to be taken seriously. Technology is great but it can’t replace the human spirit. At least not yet. Wink.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
I had a client who does fantastic work in the opinion polling. They’re in an industry that relies heavily on bodies in seats. Their business had a great mission, but they wanted to get better at contacting the right people at the right place and time. Their success would all come down to good data.
Being “data driven” is a buzz phrase these days, but a business can’t be driven by data unless their data is accurate. This was especially true of my client. The less accurate their data, the more busywork their company had to do. So, instead of collecting more data, we looked at how their data aged and atrophied over time. We discovered something fascinating; certain data-points aged less than others over a fixed period of time.
This boiled down to trust. We could trust certain data-points more than others.
To prove this out, we build a web platform and machine learning algorithm to find, match and collate dis-associated data points. The solution worked great. Best of all, it made better use of the client’s time by helping them prioritize on the right leads in the system.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
I’m sold! AI should be embraced where applicable.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
About a month after starting the project, we did a proof of concept for the client and discovered the algorithm found people even when their names were listed differently or considerably misspelled. Pretty cool!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Without vision, people grow uncertain — even in times of certainty. When a period of disruption does come, this principle still holds true. The critical role of a leader, at all times, is to remind themselves and others of their original vision. Leaders are a magna carta unto themselves and others; pointing to the great charter of the business’s future. Also donuts. Donuts work great.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think morale is confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline shown by a team during a hard time. A leader must mirror confidence in the original vision, display enthusiasm in the way forward, and demonstrate discipline in how they make decisions with their team. Building morale is an exercise in building vision.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Don’t rush to build a better mouse trip. Consider why there are mice in the first place. I call this the Original Problem Principle. When times are tough, most businesses default to cutting costs and providing a better service than their competitors. The outcome typically looks like a bigger megaphone for their service. The result is more noise and more frantic sales. This exhausts the market. Instead, pause to consider what the real, original problem your business is attempting to solve. Necessity is both the mother of invention and disruption.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Blockbuster, the taxi industry, and yogurt all have one thing in common. At different times, each of these business arenas failed to understand that the customer wasn’t buying their service, but rather, the customer hired their business to do a certain job. People hire services and products the same way businesses hire employees.
Consider grocery stores. People don’t go to the grocery store to buy food, they hire the store for meals; specifically meals at home. The store is a means to an end for the consumer. In the 1960s the grocery store was an innovative service, but it was still just a middle-man of sorts. Consumers are now hiring DoorDash and BlueApron because they solve the original problem, a meal at home, better than the store is able to do. In light of this, I think there are three mistakes businesses make when faced with disruption:
- The business thinks the new technology is fad.
I call this Early-adoption Dissolution (queue up Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’). EaD is the belief that a technology is novel and will only be used by fringes of the market. This is almost never true. Consider how VR or Bitcoin have changed media consumption and investing. Early adoption is a sign that the times have wanted to change for a long time. The best thing you can do is leverage the technology with your unique value proposition.
2. The business thinks their service is what customers value.
Customers hire the business that can do the best job for their particular problem. But the customer’s problem is agnostic of technology all together. Back to the meals example, if the customer’s biggest problem is having the family together at dinner, then the grocery store doesn’t solve that problem. The meal solves the problem. Businesses are problem solvers, not service providers.
3. The business thinks the technology serves a different market.
Low-end disruption, which is disruption that serves over-served customers, is often characterized by simply being “good enough.” This type of disruption targets large markets who have lots of options. If you look at how the music industry has steadily been disrupted this becomes clear. I still have friends who swear by the quality of analog music and record players. But the record player still lost. The quality of sound is irrelevant when you’re on a road trip or working out.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Beware of Pivot Mode
Pivot Mode happens when you redefine success as survival. If you are constantly reconfiguring your business, even out of necessity, you’ll find your business will stop growing. Plan a pivot and stick with it. This happened to JCPenny in recent years. They tried too many things and customers didn’t want to ride the rollercoaster of change with them.
2. Combine Technology with Great Service
Even as technology becomes more accessible, it can be leveraged in creative ways. A few years back, I helped an auto maintenance franchise learn how to create a better relationship with customers with new technology. We learned that trust and turn-around time was paramount. Now the best car shops are using a combination of video and communication platforms to help customers feel more connected to the vehicle maintenance experience.
3. Know The Real Problem You Solve
Disruption is the outcome of big problems being solved in even bigger ways. Often the problem we solve is not what we think. Planes won the transportation battle, not because they were newer, but because they were faster than trains. The primary problem was fast transportation, not better railroads.
4. Discern The Disruption
Different types of disruption affect a business in different ways. If you understand what type of disruption your business is experiencing, it can help you pivot effectively. Let’s look at new and old disruption.
New disruption leverages new technology to acquire new types of customers. This type of business typically ignores the way older, more established businesses work. They may grow fast, but their gross margin per sale is typically much lower. An example of new disruption is DoorDash delivering food.
Old disruption takes advantage of a business’s existing surplus, which occurs when performance overshoots what customers can use. An example of old disruption is Walmart letting a customer pick up their groceries in their car.
Both types of disruption affect food supplier businesses. The lesson for us is this: when disruption occurs, you need to double down on understanding who your customers and competition really are.
5. Become an Innovator
In a world where many products and services can be copied or commoditized, the business that continually innovates will win. The rate of technological improvement almost always out-paces the ability of a consumer to use the advancement. If you can leverage this principle, you will gain ground in a highly competitive market. I love the way Booster, a gas delivery service, will fuel up your vehicle while you’re at the office. They’re a great example of leveraging a commodity like fuel, and the technology of the smartphone, to make life easier for consumers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love this quote by James Clear: “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” I’m often asked how to successfully hit goals or make ideas happen. It’s simple really. Take your emotion out of it and build a habit around what you want to accomplish. You’ll hit your goal in no time.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn or https://invicta.consulting