Elizabeth Swaney and the Disruption Olympics


Originally published by Raj Sapru on LinkedIn.

In case you missed it, American Elizabeth Swaney, representing Hungary, put forth a freestyle skiing run in the halfpipe that was devoid of any tricks, spins, or other maneuvers that one would expect in an event that prides itself in multiples of 360 degree aerial rotations. The experience culminated in a lackluster, last place performance on international television that was so out of place that the video borders on quaint. The media coverage (social and otherwise) was in high gear with a collective, “Who the heck is she and how on earth did she get on the world’s largest platform?” After all, she made it to the Olympics and competed in front of an international viewing audience of billions.

The question rings familiar as we are often challenged by established brands, “Who is that?!,” and “That’s not a real brand, they just started!” — questioning the legitimacy of newer, highly placed brands on the Amazon search platform. Swaney herself only started skiing in 2010 and similarly the public was quick to challenge her legitimacy. How did she get there?

The answer: strategically. First, she joined the team from Venezuela, her mother’s home country, as the data showed a higher likelihood of qualifying for a team with less depth than the US. When that didn’t work she threw in her lot with Hungary, the home of her grandparents. As a Hungarian, she stood a much better chance to qualify based on the available slots and the competition on that particular team in that particular event. Digitally disruptive brands do the same thing — find a weak category, a specific node in Amazon terms, and dominate it. That’s why when you dig deep on a product listing you’ll see “Best Seller” products associated with category names that are not intuitive, but nonetheless work to qualify the product as a Best Seller and place high in search.

With no apparent talent or skills for the freestyle event, how did Swaney get through a presumably objective system of scoring? After all, while there is some subjectivity where tricks and style are concerned, there are real points to be had in a long runway of international competitions leading up to the Olympics. It turns out that the long runway of objective criteria is exactly how she did it — show up at a lot of events, don’t crash, and build up the points needed to qualify. Digitally disruptive brands understand the “points” on Amazon — reviews, title, conversion, and rank — and put a hard focus on quickly building those up. Digitally focused upstart brands build awareness, too, in unique ways for niche audiences, but keep their eyes on the sole prize of Amazon success. In Swaney’s case, she built a good story that must have aided her journey — Harvard graduate, competitor in other sports, and even candidate for governor of California.

Much of the public still puts Swaney’s story in the “scam” column, much like established brands do to upstart brands that they see dominating the search rank on Amazon — it’s a broad label that combines the savvy and the schemers. In e-commerce, showing up on page one of Amazon search results is the Olympics of e-commerce. Call it what you want, but both Swaney and digitally disruptive brands do three things in common: shed preconceived notions about how things are done, understand the system in front of them, and keep a laser-like focus on one thing: getting to the Olympics.