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Broad startup positioning: innovator, disruptor or creator?

4 min

A new framework to evaluate startups and startup ideas.

There are a ton of ways you can position your company as a founder.

There aren’t many ways to think about your company that are broad enough to encapsulate all of the above, though. Perhaps who you sell to — businesses or consumers — is one, but it’s tough to come up with many more. But broad startup positioning can be valuable in three ways:

  1. It can give you analogues of successful companies that you can look to emulate.
  2. It forces you to think beyond the scope of narrow categories that can pigeon-hole your thinking.
  3. It can force you to be honest about what you are today, and what you want to be tomorrow.

Here’s a framework I’ve been using as I’ve been considering startups to invest or start over the past year. It’s really helped me rethink where the startup is, and where it could be moving forward. It’s also useful as a barometer to understand the probability of success of the company and the expected value at the end.

Is the startup a market innovator, market disruptor or a market creator?

Market Innovator

Definition. This is a company that enters a market that is largely defined, but helps push the market towards greater improvements and innovation.

Examples. Zoom (video conferencing),  HubSpot (CRM),  MailChimp (email marketing),



Market Disruptor

Definition. This is a company who is entering the market with the goal of upending it and potentially leading the market moving forward.

Examples. DocuSign (wet signatures —> e-signatures),  Slack (email/chat → synchronous chatrooms),  Figma (licenseSalesforce (on prem CRM —> cloud CRM)



Market Creator

Definition. This is a company that is pointed towards category creation, whether that is through external trends, self-creation or both.

Examples. AWS (public cloud provider), GainSight (customer success software), AirBnb (short term home rentals for everyone)



Ultimately, the difference between the three categories can be reduced to two factors: difficulty and market potential.

Innovator, Disruptor or Creator?

It’s easier to be the innovator, but the upside tends to be less.  Reverse for the creator, and the disruptor is somewhere in between.  These are obviously broad generalizations and there are exceptions to the rule.  As you can see in the examples, I tried to use best of breed names to make sure you would know the companies.  But that’s not necessarily representative of your path towards that type of success.  Again, if you succeed as a creator your path to massive success is more straightforward than if you are successful as an innovator.

One last thought — you don’t have to stay in the same market category as a company.  You can start in one and then evolve into another.  Some of the best companies out there do this extremely well.  Apple, for example, is renowned for being a market creator.  But if you look closer, you may see them as something else entirely.  But maybe that’s for another blog post!



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