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Whatever business you’re in, a surprise is coming

I’ve always liked taking photographs, so I’ve always had a camera. My wife prefers moving images, so she’s always in the market for a video camera. We both hate talking on the phone, so we carried mobile phones more out of necessity than choice.

Here’s the thing. Those three consumer items – camera, videocam, phone – used to be separate gadgets, separate expenses, separate things to carry around. A modern high-end smartphone, however, combines all three items in one gadget. It is a better camera than the point-and-shoot devices of a few years ago and it takes videos in high definition format, a huge improvement on the bulky-but-blurry devices of not-so-long-ago.

Is it still a phone? Yes, and it’s all but killed the landline as a mass consumption item. But that’s the last thing anyone’s concerned about. When high-end ‘phones’ are launched these days, the key features emphasized are the light sensors, the photons and megapixels, the processor speed, the quality of the headphones.

If you used to be a manufacturer of still or video cameras, your days of being a mass producer are fading fast. Unless, of course, you managed to move quickly into the business of producing tiny cameras to fit smartphones. Walk around modern Nairobi, and notice how many prime locations are given to shops selling mobile gadgetry. And how many camera shops, booksellers and music retailers have given way.

My point? That you just don’t know where the next competitive threat is coming from. Here is something you can predict, though: the bigger threat will come from outsiders to your industry, not insiders.

When Nikon just had to worry about Canon, and Sony about JVC, things were relatively safe and secure. Established insiders usually have established ways of competing – predictably so. But that’s not where the problem came from. The photography brands of today, in just a short few years, are Apple and Samsung.

So it was in other industries. While the big music producers were arm-wrestling with one another, they paid no attention to the iTunes insurgency that was about to upend the table. When gentlemanly book publishers were trying to take a few points of market share off the other chaps in the industry, they failed to understand the fatal threat posed by the interloper Amazon.

Let’s bring it home. When Kenya’s banks were busy competing on the basis of fractions of interest rates and availability of branches and ATMs, they were not noticing a looming threat in the form of some strange thing called M-Pesa that allowed money to move mysteriously in the form of a text message.

How surprised they all were.

The best strategy is a surprise, and the convergence of technology is so rapid that the person who’s going to unseat you tomorrow probably isn’t even visible to you today. And certainly isn’t sitting at the board table where industry bigwigs come to rub shoulders and make genteel agreements about competition.

The bigger threat to all of us is going to be the upstart, the outsider, the invader. The one who doesn’t live by the rules because they don’t apply to him; the one who’ll understand the implications of the new digital mobility faster than you will because she has no existing business model to lose.

The future is digital and disruptive, in ways that will be surprising. This applies whether you make pizzas or buildings; sell taxi services or legal services; write books or insurance policies. It applies whether your key customers are mass consumers or niche businesses. A large part of the process of making and the experience of buying your product is going to become digital. Surprisingly so.

The only question that remains is this: will you be the surpriser or the surprised?

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