The two most cited disruptive business ventures are AirBnB and Uber.
Today’s “disruptors,” and those who write about them, are doing a disservice by using the word as a synonym for, or add-on to, entrepreneur. By doing so, they are missing some key points.
In both definition and practice, disruption is the antithesis of entrepreneurship. The word “entrepreneurship” means to undertake and do something – create. Disruption is, clearly, not that. It’s more closely aligned with destabilizing and destroying established systems.
Most importantly, “disruption” – much like its business-lexicon cousin, “creative destruction” – is not a business goal. It is an expected consequence of innovation and entrepreneurship. By themselves and in the business context, disruption and destruction have no value. Class clowns disrupt learning but create nothing. No one is better off for their disruption.
Even though it’s fairly implausible to make a profit or generate economic growth simply by disrupting, the business and entrepreneurship world is cluttered with those who proudly state their goal as disruption. One of the biggest tech showcases and trade shows is even called “Disrupt,” as if the word itself were a goal or some magic bean ready to take root and lift any venture into the heavens.
Kevin Roose has an outstanding piece in New York Magazine on the clichéd overuse of “disrupt” in entrepreneurship circles. Well, in all circles. For goodness sake, Taco Bell has a Resident Disrupter. More on this later.
As Roose points out, “disruption” had a straightforward business definition before people began applying it to things to which it had no connection whatsoever. Paraphrasing the original usage from 1995, disruptive innovation involves:
… services and prducts [which] target the bottom end of an established market, then move their way up the chain until, eventually, they overtake the existing market leaders.
By this definition, almost everyone using it is using it incorrectly. Industry leaders can’t disrupt their own industry. Or at least they shouldn’t.
And declaring yourself a disruptor doesn’t mean any more than calling yourself a Sherpa. A title is not a business model.
The two most cited disruptive business ventures are AirBnB and Uber. Both disrupted their markets because they created and introduced new business models which, like the definition above, were straightforward, targeted the bottom of an established market, and eventually moved up the chain.
Their disruption was a result of product, not disruption as a product. Almost nobody booked a car on Uber specifically to disrupt the taxi industry.
As the world’s leading provider of youth entrepreneurship education, we don’t teach disruption. Instead we teach young people how to recognize opportunity, analyze risk, persevere through adversity and construct business plans. We teach innovation, creativity and its cousin, creation.
Let’s not forget Jeff Jenkins, the Taco Bell “resident disruptor” mentioned above, who said this about his role:
“The thing I love to do more than anything else in life is build. I think I probably missed out on not majoring in architecture at UVA because I love to literally build things. So, knowing that, I wanted to be able to build a new mobile ordering system for Taco Bell. I wanted to be able to build a new concept. That was just, it’s in my blood…
“The role I have today, the title I have today, is all self-created. When I see an opportunity within our company, I’m not afraid to write the email…”
If you were counting, he used the word “build” four times including one “literally build.” In addition, he spoke about seeing an opportunity and not being afraid to take risk – essential building blocks of the entrepreneurship mindset.
It’s probably not even possible to be a disruptor from inside a Fortune 500 company like Taco Bell (YUM). But even if it were, his title aside, Jeff Jenkins is describing business innovation and entrepreneurship, not disruption.
There’s a big difference. True disruptors are creators and entrepreneurs first – not the other way around.
Photo credit: Content Loop