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Constructive disruption, without the bruises

Posted by Chad O'Connor  March 8, 2013 11:00 AM

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One thing innovators love to talk about is disruption - that one single advancement that will burst onto the scene and change for the better how everything is done. But innovators need markets to improve, and when seeking out the next big thing, not all markets are created equal. The challenges associated with groundbreaking innovations in say, the mobile field, are very different from changes in markets that are more traditional in nature.

At Hailo, we know a thing or two about making traditional markets work better. The taxi industry is historic globally, and certainly here in Boston. We’re not interested in destroying the current market – just the opposite. We want to work within the current system to make it better for drivers and passengers alike. We have gone to great lengths to move the industry forward with our app, which is designed to help cab drivers connect more easily with passengers. After having launched in cities across the world – including London, Dublin, Chicago and Toronto – we have learned some valuable lessons about what works when attempting to improve the efficiency of traditional markets. Here are three lessons based on our own experiences:

Do Your Homework
Traditional markets are old and, chances are, most of the players are pretty used to things the way they are. Your innovation is never going to get traction if no one thinks they need it. Do your research. Avoid a flop by first digging in deep to understand the issues. Start by identifying the people who are seen to be at the very bottom of the food chain and talk to them. Determine what their pain points are. Their needs are those that are most likely going unmet, meaning that your innovation has the biggest opportunity for improving the market from within.

For example, one of the key issues for cab drivers is the amount of time they spend on shift driving around looking for passengers. A recent poll we conducted of Boston cab drivers found that 60 percent of Boston’s taxis spend between a quarter and half their time on shift empty. By driving around hoping to stumble on a passenger, drivers are wasting money through fuel and they’re also missing potential fares that are a street over, out of the line of sight. With Hailo we saw an opportunity to solve this age-old problem by allowing passengers to connect directly to cab drivers via their smartphones.
Regardless of which traditional market you’re hoping to enter, the first step is to get out there and find out what it is that people actually need.

Be Flexible
Once you’ve done your research and determined what your product should be, you have to think about the greater context and how it’s actually going to play out. While Hailo is in the traditional market of the taxi industry, that market is different in Boston, Toronto and London. A cookie-cutter approach is unlikely to gain traction. You run the risk of stirring resentment among the very people you’re trying to win over by assuming they’re just like everyone else.

Geography Matters
You have to be flexible. You must be willing to adjust everything from your roll-out to your marketing to the product itself. A saucy marketing campaign might be a runaway success in Paris, but maybe something more heartfelt would play better in Boston. What works in Austin isn’t necessarily going to work in Portland. You might be trying to reach the same audience, but how they communicate in any given location is not going to be the same. One size absolutely can’t fit all, and arriving in a new town without seriously thinking about how best to work with your local audience is a fast ticket back to wherever it was you came from.

Don’t Be Abrasive
The old saying is true – sugar tastes sweeter than salt. You’ll get much further by trying to work within existing systems than by trying to blow them up. Make an effort to meet with the members of your community. Present yourself and your plan and explain why your product is going to help. At Hailo, we make a real effort to unite with the community in which we operate. We’re excited to be participating in this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston, where we are located, and are always on the look-out for other opportunities to meet with and talk to Bostonians. By working with the Boston community, we are becoming part of it.

Vanessa Kafka is general manager of Hailo Boston, located in South Boston. You can follow Hailo on Twitter at @HailoBoston and read the company’s blog here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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