Every start-up faces a decision: disrupt or engage. 

Every start-up faces a decision: disrupt or engage.   

If the entrepreneur could raise all the money they required easily, and if they could communicate the inevitable building of their market and gain followers and customers, they would create their own cathedral. Entrepreneurs are people who like to upset the apple cart, not build on others’ creations.

But life is not simple, and today the game is about engagement.

In short, ‘digital enablers’ – or enabling technology start-ups – are like cars, digital cars. They need a highway.The opportunity for retailers – whether they be Mothercare, N Brown, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, or those in New Bond Street – is to be a highway.

Carlotta Perez, international consultant on technological revolutions, has demonstrated that technology runs in 60 year cycles. From the Big Bang of disruptive technology to the end of the cycle where the new common sense has emerged, large institutions and industries are transformed by the new derivative technologies from the Big Bangs.     

Entrepreneurs drive the change, but the large customer distribution bases of the established enterprises and industrial groups embrace the new economics brought about by these digital enablers, or they perish.

Retailers should focus on being a well-maintained highway, cultivating their customers with outstanding customer care, feedback loops, loyalty programs, and merchandising flair. They should also recognise that technology is not an industry, it is a layer, which is driving profound disruptive economics.

In the same way that record labels and mobile telecoms companies were gazumped by Apple, which understood that the world had gone network, and so understood that each transaction ultimately had multiple stakeholders, retailers today are not living in a hierarchical or linear world. Size doesn’t matter; clear economics do.

Imagine everyone’s shock if a major retailer would announce that it is open for digital business by publicly releasing – not only API’s – but also a percentage of the economics of digital revenues for all developers who help build their platform.

Imagine if a major retailer would make it in their customers’ interest to release more data to the retailer by incentivising them with new services, new savings, or new deals.

Retailers are mostly organised around their supply chain. But the winners are those companies who build their ecosystems around their customers. They identify their natural allies, and make it in their interest to participate in an expanding pie transactional model. We all invest, and we all have a stake in the outcome.

Innovation is ultimately about economics – otherwise we’d all be flying the Concorde - but we’re not, we’re stuffed into Jumbo Jets.

For retailers, it’s about being a highway, and ensuring you have the best digital cars driving down your autobahn, for you to take a toll along the way.

This hard word of building the P&L through engaging with ‘digital enablers’ will separate out the winners and losers of the retail sector over the next decade.

Julie Meyer is the founder of EntrepreneurCountry Global, and managing partner at Ariadne Capital Entrepreneurs Fund