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Asymmetric Motivation & Startups

People need shoes. There is a grand market for shoes. Zappos has proven it. Big Shoes dubbed "Store Sko" in Norwegian, a small shop in my neighborhood that sells (guess what) big shoes, has proven it. The shop has been running profitable for years. Big Shoes is master of segmentation marketing.

Asymmetric motivation

Big Shoes has a positioning advantage - competitors, incumbents and mainstream shoe shops are reluctant to pursue the market of abnormal shoe sizes. First, the market is not perceived large and hence lucrative enough compared to mainstream markets. Second, customized shoes require customized inventory and production lines.

Niche marketing

When a mainstream shop cannot provide for the customer that shoe size s/he is looking for, they refer to Big Shoes, a sales person told be. Big Shoes receives referrals from competitors because they are in fact not yet competitors - they target different segments. Rather, for the mainstream shop, it is a matter of customer service.

Since Big Shoes is about the only big-shoes-specialist in Norway, customers come back. As customer retention is high, Big Shoes builds a stronger relationship to its customers who again share the news with new customers.

Solving problems

People with extra-large feet do not mainly need a spectacular design or shock-absorbing functions with their shoes. They need shoes that fit. Big Shoes excel at solving that problem for this particular segment. The shop has even started providing shoes that competes with regular shoes on design.

By solving a real customer need, Big Shoes are able to provide great customer service, keep clear of competition, and accordingly charge extra. The shop has added mail order as distributions channel and expanded into additional XXL product ranges. Big Shoes makes a sustainable business of asymmetric motivation.

Update: Thanks to Paul's comments I have changed the title and done some changes in this post; this is not a case of Jobs-to-be-done marketing. Rather it makes an example of asymmetric motivation, one facet of disruptive innovation.

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  1. Big Shoes has nothing at all to do with disruption, nor with the notion of “jobs to be done” marketing. It is a very simplistic idea of niche marketing.

    Q1: What is being disrupted?
    A1: Nothing. Lots of shoe stores sell big shoes. They may not be specialized, or have the variety, but it is clearly within the scope of the overall shoe industry. It doesn’t change the business model for selling, making, or delivering shoes. It doesn’t lower the cost, or make it more convenient to get shoes. It has no chance of displacing shoe stores that sell the full range of shoe products.

    Q2. What unmet need is being served?
    A2. You could possibly argue that it is difficult to find a broad selection of large-sized shoes in standard shoe stores. But, this is a red herring. There is no room for expansion in this market, because as soon as you sell shoes that aren’t big, you aren’t a big shoe store anymore. And, all a regular shoe store has to do, if so inclined, is to slightly improve their selection of big shoes to stop the growth potential of a big shoe chain. A regular shoe store chain has a huge advantage of convenience, as they are selling to a broader market, and therefore will have more stores in more locations. Except for a tiny niche who aren’t satisfied by the range of shoe styles offered, and who are willing to make a special trip to go to a specialty store, there is nothing special this store has to offer that is fundamentally different from a normal shoe store. This is the definition of a niche marketer, not a disruptor.

    Q3. What is the unique, (non-obvious) “job to be done”?
    A3. There isn’t one. No matter what size of shoes that a person wears, they are all bought for the same reasons. Foot protection, style, utility (e.g. running shoes). There is no unmet need beyond the product attribute itself — i.e. size. But how is that different than me needing a size 10 and you needing a size 12? Again, all that needs to be done to relegate the big shoes store to a tiny niche is for a shoe emporium to expand their selection. There simply isn’t anything special about people with big feet.

    The real question is what is the point in labeling these guys as a disruptor? Does it change how they do business? Do they market differently? Is their business strategy fundamentally different from a “shoe store”?

    My point in challenging this is that for disruption to have any useful meaning, we can’t just apply it as a hype term to describe all innovations, or all niche marketing opportunities, or to relabel the concept of positioning or of segmentation. If we do that, we neuter “disruptive innovation” of all value, and create fuzzy business thinking which doesn’t help solve any real strategic problems.

    Note that you did mention a disruptor in this article — Zappos is one. But they are disruptive because they change the business model for shoe selling, reducing cost, improving service, and increasing selection in ways that are impossible to duplicate by a regular shoe store, similar to what Amazon did to the traditional bookseller.

    Also, if you wanted to apply the jobs-t0-be-done concept in this instance, you would be looking for an alternative, probably inferior (on at least one dimension in the eyes of the mainstream market) product which solved some part of the shoe experience better than traditional shoes — perhaps something like environmental sensitivity. For example, maybe an adaptation of socks which sacrificed durability for increased comfort and protection which were intended to be disposed of after just a few wearings, but which were biodegradable. When finished with them, you simply toss in your compostor or bury in your garden as plant food. Then, the job to be done that satisfies an unmet need is solving the end-of-life problem for traditional shoes. That would have potential to be hugely disruptive, if someone could figure out a way to make it work. And, it would even be disruptive for people with big feet.

  2. Thanks for putting a great effort into this Paul. I pretty much agree with your arguments. Big Shoes is not a good case of Jobs-to-be-done. I believe that I was too eager to do a rant on JOBS, and as much as do I admire that little store on the corner, the heading of this post was misleading and more about copywriting than anything else. Perhaps I came to think that it was “good enough” 🙂

    When all is said and done, I do however believe that Big Shoes is case of asymmetric motivation, an important and often overlooked principle of disruptive thinking. One general challenge in addressing disruptive innovations is that its authors have come to state the theory as more or less universal. This makes it even more difficult to categorize a case as disruptive or not. As with Big Shoes and asymmetric motivation, some cases might carry facets of disruption. When talking of Zappos, its distribution channels and service offerings, it might be an interesting discussion whether or not disruption can occur in parts of the business model, e.g. customer segmentation. Relative to competition off course. And if not sustainable, perhaps semi-disruptive.

    In respect to you comments I change the headline and do an update. Moving forward I’ll make sure that I’m not seeing the trees for the forrest. Thanks.