Disrupting: Upending the Status Quo

In the regular, non-startup world, the word “disrupting” tends to have a negative connotation.  The teenager in class who is disruptive is a distraction.  The disruptive forces of an earthquake are destructive.  The movie-goer speaking loudly throughout the whole film is disruptive and literally the worst.  A disrupting startup, however, is groundbreaking.  They change the status quo in fields that have grown stagnant, they take away money and jobs from super-companies and industries that have held monopolies.  Think Uber to the taxi industry or Airbnb to the hospitality industry.  Both raised millions on that exact pretence.  Get enough paying users, and take over the kingdom; a startup coup d’état.  In a sense, starting a startup has become ubiquitous with being disruptive, and some startups can’t live up to the pressure.  

Let’s take a closer look at Airbnb and Uber.  Both began with very interesting ideas; rent someone’s room or house while travelling; order a black car to drive you to your destination.  It quickly became clear that these companies were much more than good or novel ideas, their true potential lay in their disruptive forces.  They proved to longstanding and conservative industries that their was a better way of doing things, and customers loved them for it.  Now other startups are describing themselves as “The Uber of…” or “The Airbnb of…” and are in turn being funded.  Being labelled a disruptor is like winning an oscar for your first ever on screen performance.  It puts you in the fast lane and makes people want to work with you even if they don’t know you. 

Being disruptive has therefore become the norm as well as a PR prerequisite if you want any journalist to write about your startup.  The number of articles that have the words “disruptive innovation” in their title increased by 440% between 2010 to 2015.  A good idea with a nice origin story just doesn’t cut it anymore.  

So where does this leave a lot of startups?  For one, starting to compete with their most powerful adversaries, and often getting crushed in the process.  The down side to trying to prove oneself as a disruptor is gaining a lot of attention from the industry your trying to tackle.  Everyone knows of the ongoing battle between Uber and taxi companies all over the world.  Governments have become involved, banning the service huge cities in the world like New Delhi, Mumbai, Berlin, and Rome, not to mention the whole of Thailand.  Or, worst of all, startups can’t convince people that they are, in fact, disruptive.   

But is it wrong to demand such a thing from new startups?  Must they prove that they will change the world, or is it enough to ask that they change only some things for the better?  Time will tell, and customers will ultimately decide what does and doesn't need changing.