Home / Entrepreneurs / What makes you a disruptor? 'Not knowing the rules'

What makes you a disruptor? 'Not knowing the rules'

The founders of Brompton Bikes, WAH Nails, Unruly, Inkpact and Doddle reveal how to shake up an industry






Being at the helm of a disruptive business comes with challenges.
Photograph: Gary Burchell/Getty Images

Founders of businesses that shake up an industry are seen as future gazers, innovators, one step ahead of everyone else. But for many, being a disruptor is an accident; a by-product of following an idea or chasing a dream.

For Sarah Wood, co-founder of video ad-tech company Unruly, the name of her business is enough to mark it out as disruptive, but that was never the aim. “In fact we just didn’t know how things were done,” she says. “I think with disruptors you often have that. They can appear to be disruptive not because they set out to be, but because they don’t know the rules.”

Guardian and Aldermore event, The Disruptors. Held at The Bike Shed in Shoreditch, east London. 1 February 2018. Sarah Wood, CEO & Co-Founder of Unruly looks at William Butler Adams, MD of Brompton Bicycle



Entrepreneurs (l-r) Sharmadean Reid, Charlotte Pearce, William Butler-Adams and Sarah Wood at the Guardian disruptor debate, held in Shoreditch and supported by Aldermore. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Others share Wood’s opinion. “I didn’t know how you run a beauty salon,” says Sharmadean Reid, founder of beauty brand WAH Nails, who set up her first salon in east London, “so I thought: ‘I’m just going to do what I think it should be like.’ I think disruptors bring a different opinion to an industry that might be a bit stale and rethink what a customer would want. All I thought was: ‘Why does it have to be like this?’”

What Reid describes as an “entrepreneurial mindset” is what Charlotte Pearce, founder of personalised handwritten communications business Inkpact, thinks is a way of seeing things from a slightly different angle. When Pearce set up her business, detractors questioned how she’d ever make any money from handwritten notes. While they “just saw handwritten notes”, Pearce saw “emotional connection”.

Being a bit different is what marks out disruptors, says William Butler-Adams, managing director of folding bicycle brand Brompton. “If you’re being disruptive or unruly, you’re just one degree to the side of everyone else.” It need not be a radical difference, he adds.

Being at the helm of a disruptive business comes with challenges. Pearce recalls the moment she called off a deal with a potential investor at the 11th hour because of a gut instinct that it wasn’t the right way to go, potentially spelling the end of her fledgling business. “First of all I just cried. And then I just felt like this weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

For most disruptive leaders, the journey is a daily rollercoaster. “Every single day is a high and a low – it’s actually comical,” says Reid. “I sometimes write it down because I think this life, this startup journey, is ridiculous.”

“If you employ people and you have customers then the problems just come rolling in,” says Butler-Adams, insisting it’s important to put it all in perspective. “The key thing is, in my opinion, I make a bicycle – it makes people happy or it doesn’t. It’s not that important.” Butler-Adams, who last year had to oversee the recall of 144,000 bikes, said he often urges his staff to “chill”, recognising that it can’t always be plain sailing. “Fundamentally, a brand is tested when things go wrong. You have just got to go with the flow and not worry too much about it – and sometimes it works itself out.”

Adam Lauffer, chief finance officer and founding member of disruptive parcel service Doddle has experienced both highs and lows. Despite its initial success, Doddle hit a rocky patch last year, having to close most of its high-street stores. “I probably doubt every day,” says Lauffer. “Every day I probably also get some news that makes me think: ‘Hmm, we might be on to something here.’ There’s a constant oscillation during the day.”

Guardian and Aldermore event, The Disruptors. Held at The Bike Shed in Shoreditch, east London. 1 February 2018. (l-r) Chair Rita Clifton and Adam Lauffer, CFO of Doddle



Rita Clifton, chair of the event, pictured with Adam Lauffer. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

With all of the ups and downs, what can disruptive leaders do to ensure their dream doesn’t die? Butler-Adams recognises that success is connected to being “perpetually dissatisfied with your business”. For Lauffer, contingency planning is key, in case things don’t quite go your way.

Reid believes in being single-minded: “You have to be obsessed with your business. Hustle hard all the time.” But being a successful leader is also about admitting you might not always know best, and recognising when somebody “knows better than you”, she says. That kind of personal development is something Pearce feels is vital. “I want to be a better version of myself tomorrow than I was today,” she says.

Working on personal development is key for anyone planning on chasing their own dream. “Why would you want to be like everyone else?” says Reid, while Butler-Adams urges aspiring disruptors to “just be different” and Wood appeals for them to “be yourself”. For Pearce, the answer is both simple and surprising for some: “Work harder on yourself than your business.”

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