5 revolutionary startups – and how they disrupted their industries

19 December 2017

But for a select few, with success comes the potential to revolutionise the way we live, work and think. From Uber to Innocent, we take a look at five small businesses who emerged from humble beginnings to change their industries forever.

1. Uber

The origin story of this unconventional taxi service may be an inspirational one, but its expansion has been plagued with a barrage of industry push-backs and regulatory red-tape.

A simple app that lets users order a cab at the touch of a button, the company now boasts 40 million international users creating work for two million drivers worldwide. But Uber has faced backlash from taxi driving communities in several host cities, most recently appealing a city-wide ban imposed by Transport for London following claims that Uber’s self-employed drivers were being deprived of basic rights such as minimum wage and sick pay in violation of UK employment law.

Despite its rocky relationship with its industry and regulators, Uber continues to grow and is set to be at the forefront of developments in driverless technology. Now working closely with Volvo, the two companies are set to ‘take a leading position in self-driving technology’ with plans to release the first ‘fully autonomous’ cars by 2021. 

startup team at meeting

2. Airbnb

In 2017, Airbnb guests and hosts contributed £3.46 billion to the UK economy according to the company’s UK insight report. A growing global phenomenon, the couch surfing-inspired booking app has announced plans to improve travel experiences for disabled travellers as it continues to grow.

Airbnb was founded in 2009 and has since grown to offer more than three million individual accommodations. The platform allows its hosts to turn extra space into spare cash and travellers to search for affordable accommodation, luxury lodgings and unique travel experiences across 191 countries. Airbnb operates as a broker service between guests and hosts, who can register their properties on the platform in exchange for a 3-5% service fee. The cost of lodgings is set by the host and the customer also pays a 6-12% fee.

The company’s core philosophy is centred around travel as an inclusive experience, one that’s as much about connecting like minds as matching heads with pillows. In keeping with these values, the platform now features host-powered Guidebooks for their most popular cities and has introduced exclusive ‘Airbnb experiences’.

3. GoFundMe

The crowdfunding phenomenon is nothing new but its shift to digital platforms has seen an explosion in online fundraising campaigns. Crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe have made it possible to ask for money or donate to a cause, without any awkward exchanges or even eye contact.

The company has differentiated itself from competitors such as Kickstarter by accommodating personal fundraising efforts as opposed to strictly business-related campaigns. Individuals and organisations can use the platform to raise funds for almost any cause, including community projects, medical bills, tuition fees and even travel expenses.

startup creative working on project

In a change to its original model, last month GoFundMe announced plans to drop its 5% platform fee for all personal campaigns within the US and replace it with an optional donation button. It’s not yet clear if this new structure will become a permanent fixture or be rolled out across international campaigns and organised fundraising schemes.

The company’s growth shows no signs of slowing, consistently benefitting from the positive press of its users. Last month, The Guardian reported on a New Jersey woman who raised in excess of $320,000 USD to help a local homeless veteran.

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4. Headspace

The explosion of the digital landscape in the past decade has created a generation of stressed-out workers who are ‘always on’. As the world’s working population teeters on the edge of burnout, the founders of Headspace introduced meditation to the masses - when they needed it most.

Now sporting affiliations with global brands including Google, Spotify, Airbnb, LinkedIn and United Airlines, Headspace has become the go-to solution for companies looking to combat the effects of workplace stress and to ‘improve their business outcomes’.

production team at startup

Founded by former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe, and stressed-out advertising professional Rich Pierson, Headspace started out as a mindfulness events company. But the pair soon noticed that attendees wanted to take what they learned home. The Headspace app has combined two previously polarised ideas, merging the practice of mindfulness and guided meditation with all the convenience of a smartphone app. Headspace hasn’t so much disrupted an industry, as introduced an existing one to a whole new audience using the digital platform.

The app offers guided meditations designed to combat stress and aid sleep.

Headspace offers (often) sceptical users the chance to try out their service with a 10-day free trial, after which point they can choose to continue with a monthly or annual subscription plan. Sessions can be as short as two or three minutes and can be focused on personal goals such as improved athletic performance or increased productivity.

5. Innocent Drinks

One of the UK’s best-known business growth stories, Innocent Drinks was formed in 1998 when three Cambridge graduates packed in their day-jobs to bottle and sell their own blended fruit drinks.

While bottling fruit drinks may not have been a strictly avant-garde business model, the team’s marketing strategy has placed them among the founding fathers of small business content marketing.

From catering vans covered almost entirely in artificial grass to a ‘compliment generator’ feature on their website to hilarious blog posts concerning the various aliases of their loyal Twitter followers - Innocent has made their happy-go-lucky brand ethos, and not direct sales, the focus of their marketing strategy. This has helped the company to position themselves as a household name and set new standards for small business innovation and startup culture.

startup coworkers solving problem

Innocent have faced rumbling controversy over the high sugar content of their drinks but more notably over their decision to give up a majority stake in their company to global giants, Coca-Cola. A second increase in their stake in 2013 prompted founder, Richard Reed, to publicly assure stakeholders that Innocent would continue to be run by innocent people.

Although for some, the company’s ethical credentials may have been tainted by the takeover, Innocent continues to operate under the same brand ethos and to actively support numerous charities through the Innocent Foundation (founded 2004) and also in conjunction with Oxfam, Action Against Hunger and Age UK. Their product range has also expanded, with recent additions including cold-pressed vegetable juices and carbonated fruit juice drinks.

These are just five of the largest disruptive businesses operating today, but there are organisations and startups disrupting almost every industry. Could your business be at risk of a changing industry? Or could your business be the threat?

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