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Are you open to disruption?

December 10, 2020
clock 5 MIN READ

The life of a traveler has been seriously impacted in 2020.  I have spent a significant portion of my adult life on the road for my job.  At times that could get exhausting, but I’m a people person, and I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people during my travels.  Recently, I was reminiscing about some of my trips, and a conversation during one of my first-ever Uber rides came to mind.

On a business trip a few years back, I took a car from the airport to the hotel and struck up a conversation with the driver. My kids like to constantly remind me that not everyone wants to talk to me, but as my wife tells them, it’s genetically impossible for me to stay quiet.

On this particular day, the driver and I were talking about life and business in general. Through this discussion, I discovered the driver also owned his own limousine company and was once a taxi driver. Today, he is a driver for Uber.

Viewing competition as an opportunity, not a threat

I asked him why he was part of Uber if he owned his own company and had a job as a taxi driver. Aren’t they the enemy? His answer was simple: “It is what I need to do to survive.” He did not say it with anger or regret—he just said it.  At the time, that struck me and caused me to really think, but it could have a whole new meaning today.  So many are living through the pandemic, just doing what they need to do to survive.

Uber was still fairly new at this time, and he went on to explain that they were setting a new standard and bringing in new customers. I asked him what he meant by “new customers,” and he explained everyone is using Uber. There is no limitation on age, location, industry, etc. He even indicated he gets Uber business from kids, and I didn’t believe it. When I asked him for what, he chuckled and said, “Getting back and forth to school, moving between buildings on large college campuses…” As he spoke again, he began to smile, “Getting home from bars on the weekend.” He told me even high school kids are using it to get back and forth to movies, a friend’s house, etc. During a busy week, he could do 175 trips of this nature.

Being a healthy skeptic (that is what I like to call it, but my wife refers to it as being a pain in the you-know-what), I immediately texted my son and asked if he used Uber. At the time, he was in high school, and I thought for sure he would have no idea what I’m talking about. I remember he responded in two seconds (obviously because this wasn’t a text about when he’d be home, how he did on his test, or a number of other annoying questions parents tend to ask): “Yeah, all the time.”

Situational awareness

As a business executive, this got me thinking. Are we being disrupted? Is our business at risk? How could I be more like this driver? He was not looking to see what the other established taxi companies or limo companies were doing; he was watching what was going on around him. He was awake to possibility, and he wasn’t afraid to take on more to be in the game.  Fast-forward years later, and there has never been a better time for us to ask ourselves these same questions.

I actually gained a lot of perspective from this conversation at the time, as well as during my more recent reflection. Here are some key learnings:

  1. There’s such a thing as a healthy paranoia. My driver was an entrepreneur and self-employed. If something or someone puts his business at risk, it puts his livelihood at risk, immediately.
  2. When you have skin in the game, it’s personal. What my driver earned or invested came from his own wallet—not from a big public company. Competitive pressures are felt immediately, and the impact is not muted.
  3. It’s wise to take a broader view. He did not have a traditional view or definition of his industry. He broadened it to “transportation.” He was not a limo or taxi driver; he is a transportation service provider.
  4. “Customer” is a fluid term. My driver did not narrowly define “customers” to those that exist historically, or even today. He viewed it as anyone using transportation (even walking or riding bikes), and he could see market expansion opportunities.
  5. Not changing is often the biggest risk. He did not fight the “new” or resist it; he embraced it. The risk of losing everything was bigger than the risk of change.

But if you’re waiting for that other side to be a “return to normal,” I’m afraid that’s a waiting room you may never leave.

How do you handle disruption?

As you think about your business in this new era upon us, ask yourself:

  • Am I being disrupted?
  • What am I doing about it?
  • Am I factoring disruptions into my business planning, or am I ignoring them?

Really think about it because the truth is that you are being disrupted. We all are.  There will be winners and losers on the other side of this situation.  And make no mistake, there is another side.  But if you’re waiting for that other side to be a “return to normal,” I’m afraid that’s a waiting room you may never leave.  The world is changing, and disruption can actually present huge opportunities for those willing to embrace it.  One day, I do hope we can safely get back on the road, but let’s be like my friend, the driver, and consider the benefits of adapting and improvising as if our lives—our livelihood—depend on it for survival. 

Albert Chiaradonna

Executive Vice President, SEI Global Private Banking

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