Discoveries: Big ideas for radically reshaping distribution
Ideas are essential for breaking free of the past and exploring the future of distribution. Will you join our quest?
Putting ideas to work
I’ve just passed my first anniversary as a Substack writer, and my second year is off to a very fast start. If year one was about ideas, year two is hyper-focused on how to pursue them. To begin, B2B innovators need to discover and explore the big ideas that may reshape distribution. Ideas are upstream of best practices and essential for radical change. Without ideas, distributors are destined to continually strive for incremental gains. With ideas, distributors may create new value, generate new revenues, and earn new profits. The future of distribution must be defined by ideas—and through ideas, distributors may become a force for change in our society and economy.
Here’s a run-down of a few of my most important and recent discoveries:
Disintermediation is a siren’s call for manufacturers. Taking control of customer relationships and taking their orders direct may lead to increased sales, share, and profits, but if old and new intermediaries—meaning distributors and marketplace platforms—better serve customer needs, then disintermediation will lead to the opposite outcomes. Maybe, maybe not, but customer preferences—today, as ever—rule.
Distributors cannot rely on the risk of potential bad outcomes to dissuade suppliers, however. The threat of disintermediation is real and growing as digital technologies create agency for manufacturers, giving them the virtual means to tell stories, listen, make offers, take and fulfill orders, and manage post-sale satisfaction and brand reputation.
For distributors, the opposite of disintermediation is reintermediation. Fighting disintermediation is not about getting marginally better at what distributors have already done; that approach is a delaying strategy at best. Instead, the surest path for distributors is the boldest: Imagine new roles, invest in new capabilities, and create game-changing value for customers and, therefore, manufacturers. Pursuing transformative ideas, not blind adoption of best practices, creates the opportunity for consequential innovations.
Inspired by TWIN, I am writing a series of newsletters to explore big, transformative ideas for the future of distribution. If we don’t think big about the future, we won’t live up to our potential. Here are my topics; please reach out if you would like to contribute:
Becoming an innovation intermediary (published on June 14th)
Decentralized distribution (DeDi) (published on June 21st)
Regenerative distribution (published on July 5th)
Distributing power (published on July 12th)
Revisioning the supply chain (published on July 18th)
Derek Thompson and the abundance agenda
I’ve just discovered Derek Thompson’s newsletter, Work In Progress. Thompson advocates for innovation to solve our biggest problems, and I see a common cause with distribution’s opportunity to innovate for the betterment of customers, community, and society. I will write about his work in future editions, but for now, here’s how Thompson defines the abundance agenda, a frame for coming together:
This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.
Toward a community of B2B radicals
Speaking of common cause, I have found a shared interest with leaders at associations, vendors, distributors, manufacturers, and digital platforms. All are stakeholders in innovating distribution and working hard to bring about the future. But there’s a problem. B2B radicals—individuals that are curious, thoughtful, and driven to achieve change—do not have a shared identity, nor do they have a place to gather.
I’m working with several partners to create a community of B2B radicals. We are creating content, putting it out there, and looking to see who comes. We are launching projects to work on opportunities and inviting B2B radicals to lean in. And, we are looking for a tipping point, one that marks a sea change in distribution’s contribution to how we all live our lives and do our work in a human-first digital age, as I have previously written:
The tipping point I see is not about a winner emerging in the battle between marketplace platforms vs. traditional distributors. Nor is it about suppliers embracing disintermediation to severely diminish or eliminate the role of incumbent distributors. These fights are real and ongoing, with many battles ahead before a war is won, if it ever is. No. The tipping point replaces the long-held principles, strategies, policies, programs, and partnerships of old-school analog distribution with a modern concept and practice of distribution in the digital age. As a discipline, digital-age distribution will be understood and executed by distributors but also manufacturers, platforms, and more. In a way, distribution is experiencing a coming-of-age moment, maturing, and stepping up to operate globally and locally for the betterment of customers, communities, society, and the economy.
What have you discovered? Do you see the coming tipping point? Are you a B2B radical, or do you know one? Or more? Do you have advice or experience building a community or launching a movement? If so, please reach out. Share your comments below or reach me at email@example.com.
Great piece, as always - thanks Mark. I'm struck by the thought that the abundance economy will be driven in large part by those of us in the middle. And in addition to all the things we have in common across verticals, on this set of issues each industry vertical has something uniquely important to add to the transformative/abundance discussion - housing, food, energy, water, manufacturing -- it's a rich area to explore, not merely "best practices" that we all can share, but what is truly transformative to our world that we can drive in each industry.