9 Ways To Disrupt And "Hipmunk" An Industry

By Jason Baptiste on February 28, 2011

disrupt and hipmunk resized 600hipmunk [hip-muhnk],   1.  verb:  To bring sexiness and simplicity into an existing industry with a fresh approach that delights people.  Example:  The real estate mortgage industry really sucks.  Someone should hipmunk it.  2. noun:  Startup funded by Y Combinator that makes it easier to find flights. 

The word disruption is thrown around way too much.  It's often used to describe ideas that are not disruptive.  Recently though, I've noticed a trend of YCombinator backed startups that follow a similar theme: Go after an industry or process that is excruciatingly painful and make it better. Sure all startups are about solving a pain point, but in the case of Hipmunk and others, the pain is chronic and unbearable.  

Find Something Tied To A Process That Consistently Sucks

Some things are just a pain and never ever change. The industries that can be hipmunked are ones that you repeatedly ask yourself "Why hasn't anyone made this better?" It can't be a temporary cure either, it needs to be a full blown relief of pain. In the case of HelloFax , it seemed like a silly idea at first to most. Fax machines are a thing of the past it would seem, but in reality they aren't. With all of the innovation we've had, trying to send a fax is still a pain. EFax is cumbersome and real fax machines are far worse. Every blue moon, there is no way to do anything other than send a fax. It's still horrible. With HelloFax, they took a process that consistently sucks and made it just work.

Simple And Clean Interfaces Come First

One of the best ways to make a product enjoyable and easy to use is with an interface that is simple+clean. Give the user what they want, the bare essentials, and make the information easy to digest. It's not about being the prettiest either. I love the hipmunk interface, but it's not whiz bang beautiful. It's clean, simple, and organizes information well. The flow of information should come first and foremost in a clean interface. Problematic and painful industries usually have a high amount of friction between the customer and information. They usually want to access or deliver information in a fast manner, but it often takes way longer than they would like.

It Will Probably Be Unsexy...So Make It Sexy

The industries most ripe for disruption are usually the unsexy ones that no one wants to touch. That's okay, look at it like the startup version of the popular teen movie "She's All That". Find the ugly one and turn them into something absolutely beautiful. It's not in the DNA of unsexy industries to think about everything else in this article. That's why they're unsexy and people despise them. The travel industry? Absolutely boring. Look at email. Everyone thinks that email is long dead and gone, but at the end of the day it's still widely used. Companies like Groupon and Thrillist are growing faster than any other company before. They figured out how to leverage an unused, unsexy asset and make it work for the user.

Take a look at Square.  Payment processing is a sleezy, unsexy, and just headache of an industry.  Square took that and turned it on its head.  They added a beautiful interface and made it frictionless for real world merchants to have a payment processing engine without the headaches involved.  

Call Out Your Competitor

Don't be afraid to call out your competitor and wage war. You should be respectful of course, but it's okay to stir the pot. Look at Salesforce. They proclaimed the end of downloadable desktop software and Marc Benioff was no stranger to letting the world know the companies that are his enemy. His spat with Microsoft is supposedly one of the greatest things that ever happened to the company!

Deliver Great Support

Most unsexy industries don't have a love for customer support. It's not that they deliver bad customer support, it's just that they don't deliver GREAT customer support. Zappos for example... they sell shoes. Who would have ever thought that a shoe retailer could be an iconic company? Well, Zappos is really a company with great customer service that happens to sell shoes. If you have a passion for support that mirrors Zappos, you can extend the great experience you deliver with your application to the real human interaction you may have with customers.

Look For An Industry That Rarely Changes

I've always believed that those who get comfortable and think they are immune to disruption are the most likely to be disrupted. Having a large customer base makes large incumbents feel like they will never leave. In actual reality, they will, but they just need a great solution... your solution. Problems don't make people change. Problems make people search for a solution. Until a good solution exists, they stick with the current one. It's like a do while loop of seemingly neverending pain. Do deal with pain while looking for a better solution, until you find a better one.

Work Towards Building Fanatics

The hipmunk mascot is barely a year old I believe, but boy do people love that little critter. Some have even created fan art! In a short period of time, Hipmunk has created valuable brand equity and fanatical customers. Some companies never get to achieve that. If you're able to resolve pain, finding fanatical customers will happen a lot faster.

Be Disruptive, But Respectful

It's fun to shake things up, call out your competitors, and make a lot of noise, but always be a gentleman or a classy lady. Have logic and let people see the rationale behind your argument. You should always have an answer that is more than "just because". Show those trapped in the Matrix why your solution is better and will free them from the pain that currently exists. Use a loud mouth and PR to get the world's eyes on you, but deliver sound logic. There is a thin line between being passionate and just being insane. Rationale is usually the difference.

Focus On Power Users

Not every solution should do this, but I noticed that it worked very very well for Hipmunk. A lot of the people that I know who are Hipmunk users, travel VERY often. Sometimes you just want to focus on the normal users, but you can get fanatical users and strong advocates by solving the pain for those that have it the most often. A person that travels multiple times a month with long flights is much more likely to want your solution when you first launch/unproven than a person that travels a few times a year, often for vacation+light work travel. Hipmunk, padmapper, hellofax, and others are just the start. The number of processes that are beyond painful run deep and present a world of opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs. What other industries are ready to be "hipmunked"? My vote: the domain purchasing industry. Someone should "hipmunk" Godaddy :).

You Should Follow me on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jasonlbaptiste, Friend me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jasonlbaptiste, Email Me: jbaptiste@onstartups.com, or even call: 201.305.0552

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Startup Culture Memes: Do You Have A Duck Of Awesomeness?

By Dharmesh Shah on February 16, 2011

The following is a guest post from Tom Critchlow. Tom is head of search for Distilled, a London and Seattle-based SEO company. 

Have you noticed how as people spend time together they develop certain attitudes and practices unique to them? That's culture.

"The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group" - Culture defined at wikipedia

Working environments force people to spend a lot of time closely interacting with each other and startups even more so! This close interaction leads to the emergence of culture.

In my eyes there are two ways of identifying the emergence of culture within your business. Behaviour and language.

I'm no linguistic scholar but I believe the two are very closely related. Behaviour affects language and language affects behaviour. A feedback loop that is constantly molding the culture within your business.


Within Distilled there is a rich set of language that’s unique to us. Here’s just a few:

  • breakfast of champions
  • getting shit done
  • delivering change
  • the duck of awesomeness
  • getting close to clients
  • phone ninjas
  • the skiing trip
  • labs
  • you can't outsource giving a shit
  • actionable insights
  • communication solves all problems

Within our company these are used often and with a rich history of experience behind them. Here's a brief explanation for a few of them:

Phone Ninjas: About 6 months ago I wanted to persuade our consultants to spend more time on the phone to clients so I implemented some game mechanics internally to give out points everytime you made a phone call to a client. Simple and effective. I believe it took off however because the highest level you could reach was called "Phone Ninja". Over time, the points system became less used but I'm not so bothered about that because the concept of spending time on the phone and the phone ninjas term has stuck around. Here's a few pics of @PaddyMoogan (Distilled) and @SamuelCrocker (ex-Distilled) as phone ninjas:

The Duck of Awesomeness: We've had various schemes within Distilled aimed at recognising and rewarding exceptional behaviour. Unfortunately, none of the schemes really caught on. People would forget about nominating others for good work or we'd suck at feeding back to everyone who had done what. All of that changed when we bought a blue duck with stars on and called it the duck of awesomeness. It moves from desk to desk as people do good things. The combination of the duck and the name has been a huge success and the duck often moves between desks once every few days. It's a fantastic way of keeping people motivated and providing recognition to people who do good work.

Hopefully you can see how the language here is more than just words. The rich culture that goes along with the language shapes behaviour. These words and phrases mean more to us than they do to an outsider. They have become memes.

‘Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. [...] When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.' - Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene

The power of these memes lies in the feedback loop between language and behaviour. Sure, the concept of breakfast of champions hasn't changed the company that much, but the concepts such as getting shit done (more details here), or the duck of awesomeness most certainly have.

Let's take another example. SEOmoz. They have a wonderful set of beliefs laid out by Rand eloquently in this blog post. That's all very well, but is this set of beliefs simply empty promises or a half-forgotten blog post? How do we tell how strongly SEOmoz believes in them?

We know this set of beliefs has been deeply ingrained in the SEOmoz culture because of language. The single word TAGFEE is part of the SEOmoz vocabulary. The staff use the term all the time and it's come to mean something very important. You'll often overhear an SEOmoz employee say something like "Should we do that? Doesn't feel very TAGFEE".

There's no specific reference to Rand's post and the wording of the specific beliefs. In fact, if you did a spot survey of SEOmoz and asked "what does TAGFEE mean", I bet you'd get many different answers. But that doesn't matter, because it would mean something to everyone. TAGFEE has evolved. It's a meme.

Actionable Insights

One of the up and coming memes within Distilled is “actionable insights”. As with all memes, it’s a part of our culture rather than a clearly defined rule. I apply “actionable insights” to all kinds of things from meetings to presentations I give (aside: I wish we were big enough to afford a meeting fairy).

For example I’m putting together the slides for our upcoming Link building conference and as I’m building my deck I’m constantly trying to ensure the audience will get actions out of my talk. The phrase “actionable insights” bounces around my head over and over again. The language is influencing my behaviour.

I also apply actionable insights to blog posts. The takeaway message from this post is as follows:

Pay close attention to the language used within your company. Any behavioural change within your company will have an associated change in language. And vice versa: Any language change within your business will have an associated behavioural change. Think carefully about how you name initiatives, present training or what you call your internal tools. Language is powerful.

There’s a corollary to this insight as well. Language is powerful and this works both ways. Negative language can shape negative behaviour and negative behaviour can shape negative language. You’re likely already watching out for negative behaviour but make sure you watch out for negative language too, this can be just as dangerous.

Language Envy

Memes are difficult beasts to tame. Trying to control them is like herding cats. I’ve had some success with creating and shaping internal memes to best suit the behaviour I want but there’s always room for improvement. Here’s some language I’m envious of from companies and communities I’m closely involved with:

  • Fail fast - from Reevoo, a developer heavy startup. I’d love to ingrain this in our culture, a wonderful phrase that symbolises at once innovation and determination.
  • TAGFEE - mentioned above from SEOmoz, although we have a manifesto internally at Distilled it’s not become a meme. We need an idea internally that defines our ethics.
  • Hustle - the Hacker News community always talks about hustle and although we have a very similar meme with “getting shit done” I’d love the single word hustle to make it into our lexicon as a way of persuading people to constantly step outside of processes to get things done no matter what.

What’s the lexicon of your startup? What internal memes are there? Which memes are you most jealous of? I'd love to discuss in the comments or on twitter.

If you liked this post, follow me on twitter or book tickets for our upcoming Link Building Conference in London 18th March, New Orleans 25th March.

Topics: culture
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