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The Innovator’s Emerging Market Opportunity

Point: Current non-consumers (rather than current customers) may represent the best opportunity for an innovationclaytonchristensenwif1

Story: The future of solar power may be in the markets of Mongolia rather than in the high-tech companies of Western countries, said Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen at the World Innovation Forum.

Christensen’s recent visit to Mongolia led him to this view. In Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, Christensen saw a very popular product in local markets: cheap solar panels attached to small portable TVs. Rural herders were buying these solar-powered products, and they were buying the products without needing government inducements to do so.

In the West, solar power competes with established power grids. As a result, solar has been seven years away from cost-competitive performance for 35 years. Solar still costs too much and needs government support (grants, subsidies or tax breaks) to create even the current low levels of adoption.

Adoption of solar power is low in the West because solar power competes with anytime/everytime electricity from 24-hour power plants and ubiquitous power grids. Sunlight, in contrast, is sporadic.

For Mongolians, the imperfections of solar aren’t a problem because the alternative is either no electricity at all or expensive disposable batteries. Almost one-third (32%) of Mongolians still live an off-grid, semi-nomadic life style. They move their collapsible, felt-lined homes to follow their flocks of goats, sheep, yaks, horses, and camels across the high plateau of Asia. Mongolians don’t expect flip-of-the-switch power for air-conditioners, hair dryers, or halogen mood lighting. Untold hundreds of millions live without power in Asia and Africa.

Christensen’s evidence suggests that solar power has the greatest opportunity to shine where it faces no preexisting electrical infrastructure. The rise of solar power may come from expanding the total base of electricity users, not from replacing one highly-optimized incumbent electrical system with another emerging innovation. For emerging technologies, emerging markets can be a key because they represent large populations of non-consumers for which the new idea needs to out-compete nothing.

The larger point is that Mongolia symbolizes a larger market of non-consumers with different needs and different requirements. Sometimes, an innovative product that can’t compete head-to-head with incumbent may nonetheless be vastly superior to the alternative of “nothing” in the population of consumers. Many companies have used this strategy to good effect.

For example, Southwest Airlines considered the car and bus — not other full-service airlines — as its primary competition. Intuit’s competitor for TurboTax software was the pencil, not other tax software packages. Tata’s Nano low-cost car competes with 2-wheelers in India. Non-consumers of air travel, tax software, and cars, respectively, were the targets for these new products, and non-consumers were a much larger markets than existing customers.


  • To find new markets, study non-consumers, not current customers
  • Find markets in which a new innovation is better than nothing, despite the innovation’s imperfections
  • Avoid head-to-head competition with a well-optimized incumbent.

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