HEAD vs. LEAD: Disruptions Originating at the High- vs. Low-End of the Market
Twenty five years after it was initially proposed, Clay Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation continues to be a major reference for entrepreneurs, corporate innovators, and investors. However, the term "disruptive innovation" is often used in ways and contexts that are not consistent with Christensen's original theory, which argues for initially accessing the market from the low end. For example, there has been controversy as to whether a firm like Tesla, which clearly accessed the market by targeting high-end consumers, should be thought of as having "disruptive" potential. Should all disruptions start at the low-end of the market or from unserved segments who can't afford the incumbents' current solutions (a "new market" foothold in Christensen's terminology)? Is it possible for an innovation that will ultimately disrupt and displace incumbents to start off by serving high-end segments that are currently participating in the market and are willing to pay top dollar? In this note, using several examples, including the emerging market of cultivated meat, a distinction between High-End Access Disruptions (HEAD) and Christensen's original Low-End Access Disruptions (LEAD) is proposed. Both strategies support innovations that have the potential, at scale, to dominate incumbents, but that are not able to do so initially due to a "handicap," i.e., a product shortcoming that mainstream consumers aren't willing to accept. The exposition analyzes similarities and differences in the disruptive processes implied by these two strategies, and provides practical guidelines to help entrepreneurs, innovators and investors choose the approach that best fits their situation.