Jun 282016

1 of the most common themes around any startup these days is how they intend to “disrupt” something. Founders aren’t saying they plan to “disrupt” something as a consequence of what they’re doing, but rather using the term like it’s an actual objective – “disrupt the {industry name here} industry.” Here’s the problem, I don’t go into a store, online, or pay people to disrupt something, I pay people to either give me a thing that I find useful or at the very least want, or to do something that makes my life better in some way. “Disruption” isn’t either of those things. 

My issue with bragging about your proposed “disruption” is that it invariably turns out that the talk was nothing more than bravado to cover up a complete lack of actual worthwhile product. Real disruptors aren’t talking about their disruption, they’re talking about what you can buy right now. They’re selling something, and it’s something that you need. Reed Hastings sold us DVDs by mail, before letting us pay for all the movies we could stream. Steve Jobs offered us OS X and iDevices. Bill Gates was marketing Windows. These guys not only disrupted the world, but they never tried to sell you “disruption”. It was always “Here’s a thing” or “Here’s something I can do for you” followed by “If you’d like it, give me money.”

The common theme with all of these success stories is that disruption was a consequence of what they were offering consumers, not a deliberate, promoted thing they were doing. These people, and their companies, came up with something new and compelling. The disruption came when everyone else reacted to the new and compelling thing. That’s the part a lot of these “disruptive” startups don’t seem to get. You don’t actually cause disruption, you can just hope to be in a position to benefit when everyone else disrupts things. That’s why the people who actually disrupted stuff focused so much on their products and services, those products and services are what they can actually control.

Now that we’re all clear that disruption isn’t something you do, but rather a reaction to something you’re doing, the thing to worry about is what are you doing that is going to cause a disruptive reaction? You can’t just say that what you’re doing is going to have that affect, we’ve all heard that before, and it’s rarely true.

By the way, not everything is in a position to be “disrupted”. People have to have the ability to completely, and easily, change the way they are doing things. That means there needs to be a low barrier to leaving whatever they were doing before, or you need to be the one to lower it. It also means that whatever you’re offering has to offer enough of an advantage to people to justify going through the hassle of switching. Note that your offering can’t merely be just as good or a little better, it has to be significantly better – otherwise you’re never going to overcome inertia.

How many things have people said are ripe for “disruption” that are still pretty much the same as they have been for years or more? Education and medicine are 2 examples I’ve heard multiple times. Both of those are largely unchanged. The big reason for that is that there’s no good way to switch out of the current system. Part of that is regulatory (particularly in medicine – where it takes years to prove the efficacy of what you’re trying to do), and part of that is a perceived lack of legitimacy (particularly with education, where alternatives to the current options are often met with cynicism and skepticism). But, they’re 2 industries that have been around and unchanged for a while even though people wish they would, so we just blindly say they’re ripe for “disruption.”

Cable TV was the same way for years, and is only now starting to seem like it’s actually getting disrupted. The real reason for that is that it’s now finally easy to watch anything you want without having a monthly cable subscription. Now all that’s left is to make the alternative to cable and a DVR compelling enough to justify the hassle of switching, and you see that happening with companies like Netflix putting out original content that you can’t get on cable anyways. In other words, the disruption of the cable industry has less to do with any 1 company and more to do with several factors converging at once.

Do you have something to offer that’s significantly better than what’s already out there, and has a low barrier to switching? Is the situation right for people to switch from whatever they’re using or doing to what you’re offering? No? Then you’re not “disruptive”. Even if you do, it’s in your best interest to stop saying that you’re “disruptive”. It’s in your best interest to hype up all the reasons people want to give you money for what you’re offering and adopt it. Not only is that disruption, that’s also the chain of events that has to happen if you want to stay in business.

 Posted by at 11:09 PM