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Grow or die: Sara Clemens’ business disruption lessons

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International high-flyer Sara Clemens share tips from Silicon Valley on how to be a market disruptor

Businesses need to transform and grow, or risk being overtaken and die, says Sara Clemens, the chief strategy officer for music streaming service Pandora.


“There is no peacetime in the consumer internet. It’s always wartime, so you can never rest on your laurels,” says Sara.


“No matter how great your product or service is, you always have to be thinking about who is going to disrupt you and how do you change your business to continue to be relevant to consumers.”


Sara is a US-based New Zealander who has made an international name for herself in the tech industry, working with Microsoft, LinkedIn and now Pandora, where she leads corporate strategy, development and international expansion.


In her keynote speech at the CFO Summit in Auckland on 9 March 2016, Sara describes the key consumer trends disrupting business.


“The key shift is the transition to mobile,” explains Sara.  “In 2010, 12% of all engagement on digital was mobile. That’s now increased to over 50% and the expectation is that will be up to 75% by 2020.


She says that mobile enablement of consumer and enterprise services is accelerating at a speed beyond what businesses anticipated.


“That’s creating a world where customers are expecting to get instant access to digital services 24/7 in real-time, and is a key dynamic that enterprises and businesses need to adapt to.”


“Mobile natives or urban millennials have grown up in a world where they’ve always owned a mobile phone,” explains Sara. “They’ve never lived in a world where they didn’t have a small computing device in their pocket.”


Sara describes the raft of new “just-in-time” service providers that use text message-based services instead of downloadable mobile apps.


“Service providers like Magic and Digit and Everlane have created a customer support infrastructure that enables you to ask questions using messaging platforms and get instant responses. So instead of going onto an online shopping site, you can now just send a message saying, for example, “I want a grey shirt” and the grey shirt options will be delivered to you via messenger.”


“So these new service providers are providing an instant response via a messaging-based interface which is completely natural and intuitive for the customer. This removes the hurdle of having to educate the consumer on how to use their service and can massively reduce the cost of doing business, makingyou more dynamic and nimble.”


So where do you begin your journey to become a market disruptor?


“You always have to start with an understanding of what problem you are solving as a company,” says Sara. “What is your core purpose and vision, and what are you seeking to ‘be’ for the consumer?”


Interestingly, Sara says that it’s not the discovery of opportunities that companies need to focus on, but instead the identification of the ventures that are the most commercially viable.


“It’s not what we do, but what we don’t do,” she explains. “This is the trick of effective strategy. A successful company will often have materially more options available to it than it can successfully execute on.”


Sara closes with a warning that doing nothing is not an option.


“Doing nothing wrong, can also mean doing nothing right while the world changes around you, and consumer behaviours are influenced by your competitors and the seculartrends of technology adoption."


“Doing nothing can conceivably mean that you become irrelevant to those customers,” she cautions.


“The strongest companies are the ones that cannibalise themselves,” she concludes. “They ensure that they’re able to get a great return from their core business but are equally willing to invest in and develop new businesses that leverage that core expertise.”


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