Among owners and fans, it’s a foregone conclusion that Tesla will remain the dominant producer of electric vehicles (EVs) as the automotive world increasingly adopts this technology. And why shouldn’t it? Tesla produces the best EVs, and perhaps the best cars made, has developed an incredible brand, and fills waitlists years before a new car is delivered. This all seems to indicate that Tesla has developed a world-beating business model, but is it actually a signal of future trouble?
Tesla’s strategy has always been to build EVs that are better than their internal combustion competitors and sell them for premium prices. In the language of innovation theory, strategies that offer existing consumers better products at higher prices are called sustaining innovations. Sustaining strategies tempt entrepreneurs because they appear so logical: build a better product and customers will come. But research shows that it is a losing strategy for new businesses. In sustaining competition, the industry incumbents nearly always win.
Incumbents are favored because sustaining strategies build on capabilities that they have developed over the course of their rise to dominance. Worse still, a sustaining strategy presents the entrant as a clear and direct threat to the incumbents. The combination of these two factors creates a response that often proves overwhelming for the entrant. Incumbents respond ferociously and deploy so many resources to the battle that the entrant is overcome.
Consider the situation for Tesla: It would be difficult enough for a company that sells 50,000 units per year to fight even one major automaker head-on. But Tesla has attacked not just the automakers but also every incumbent in the value network that produces automobiles, including the entire base of suppliers and dealers. The resources that these aligned interests can bring to bear are vast. Collectively, these firms spend more on R&D every year than Tesla has invested in its lifetime.
Many have argued that the move away from internal combustion is simply too technologically painful for automakers, but the technology underpinning EVs is largely a modular combination of standard components purchased from independent suppliers. The technology simply isn’t a constraining factor, and with every new auto show the automakers demonstrate this with new concept cars, such as the Porsche Mission E, squarely targeting Tesla. With its fantastic design and beloved product, Tesla might have written the playbook that the incumbent automakers will follow to dethrone it.
If better products and technological barriers aren’t enough to defeat incumbents, is there any hope for entrepreneurs? We’re believers in disruptive innovation strategy, which allows entrants to beat even the most-powerful incumbents. Disruptive innovation begins at the bottom of existing markets or by creating new markets where people don’t currently consume. They target the least-attractive customers and produce worse products for less money with lower-cost business models than conventional offerings. In doing so, they create the phenomenon of asymmetric motivation, which causes incumbents to ignore or flee them. But disruptive strategies don’t remain at the bottom of the market – they possess a technological core that allows them to improve their performance over time, capturing more of the market and pushing incumbents into ever-smaller segments at the high-end.
Many observers say this approach could never work in EVs, but we’re seeing it happen today. It takes the form of low-speed EVs driven by security guards on college campuses, retirees in the Sunbelt, and middle class families in China. The manufacturers are largely unknown and that’s the point. Each year they grow bigger and improve their products without any resistance from incumbents. Soon they will be good enough to lure the least-demanding customers away from traditional automakers and the disruption will have begun. While these companies improve their performance to capture more customers, Tesla’s only option is to reduce its performance. Which position would you rather be in?
Thomas Bartman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School