The Subtext of Disruption

December 01, 2020

One of the more timeless lines in startup orthodoxy:

“We’re __ and we’re disrupting the __ space with/by __

It’s been a line I’ve taken at face value for years. Disruption equals changing the world, incumbents move slowly, and you need to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Incumbents and status quo are Silicon Valley’s eggs.

And of course how are you going to make millions for yourself and investors if you don’t fundamentally rethink something? You need an important truth you fundamentally disagree with if you’re going to change the world (and get rich doing it).

So many of us set off to disrupt spaces, and the more I think about it, the more I wonder if perhaps this language isn’t the best mission to arm ambitious would-be leaders with. There are a number of assumptions sitting behind this language and rhetoric, and I don’t think they’re always true.

Assumption 1: Impact requires disruption

It feels intuitive when I write it - in order to make a radical difference, you have to do something radically different. But disruption builds on top of simply doing something different; you also have to do it better, in such a way that the market completely changes.

Sometimes, maybe it’s enough to just be different and not care about how you are relative to everyone and everything else. Putting your approach and point of view out into the world and letting people take it or leave it. Basecamp, for example, has done this with massive success.

Or maybe doing things the same is fine. Let’s say you own a series of apartment buildings - do you really need to completely rethink the apartment-living experience? Maybe you’d make more of an impact by treating employees and tenants fairly, taking steps to make your buildings more sustainable, giving some profits back to the community, etc. Maybe in your community that’s different than the status quo, but a the end of the day you’re not running the business itself significantly differently.

Assumption 2: You’re either an incumbent or a disruptor

It’s been well-established that large companies have trouble with innovation, and if we assume innovation to be a positive force than it follows that our agile startup should move into a big market with slow-moving incumbents, where it can “disrupt” them and take the lion’s share eventually.

But then what happens? Our agile startup becomes a big company. And do we really think we can do it better if large companies systemically can’t innovate? Do we really think we’re the exception to the rule?

Now I realize the direction I’m going flies in the face of startup world dogma, one that I tend to agree with in many cases: this cycle of disruption is in fact ongoing and is a positive cycle - this is the way the world moves forward, and by playing your role you push the market and the solutions to people’s problems in the right direction.

That being said, I want to offer an alternative viewpoint - there may not need to be one standard to disrupt/innovate around in your market. Perhaps you can carve out a comfortable niche where you can build your point of view and stay smaller and more agile, but have a larger voice within your niche. And perhaps (shudder) the incumbents are doing a fine job for some subset of the market when it comes to solving people’s problems.

Assumption 3: We all need to be world-changers

I actually agree with this assumption - I think everyone should try and make an impact in their own way. But the startup world subtext that comes with “disruption” is that you need to make a BIG impact. Like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos big. This ends up pushing many entrepreneurs down a growth and scaling path that can be the wrong fit for them, their business, their market, or the world. Facebook made a BIG impact in our world and in the social media market, but was it for the better?

The more I read about them, the more I respect businesses that are doing what are often dismissed as the “little things” right - treating their employees and vendors well, working with integrity, giving back to their communities, and having a critical eye towards the status quo of how life and work are intertwined, if not the status quo of their market.

Interpolating one of my favorite authors, David Mitchell, the ocean of industry no more than a multitude of drops. As we think about the challenges in our world and increasingly acknowledge that maybe systemic approaches to commerce and economics may be more responsible for these struggles than a lack of innovation, I think we’d benefit from more businesses not trying to become a tsunami of disruptive growth, but rather aim to be a comfortable, responsible, reasonable drop.

Thanks to Oli for reading drafts of this piece.