The problem with “disruption” today
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” — Ernest Hemingway
I wrote this back in November 2014 on my ShopDrop startup blog after Uber raised a round valuing them at 40 BILLION dollars. And less than 6 months before that they raised $1 billion at a valuation of about $18B. Overvalued, bubble, crazy — some of the words that might run through your mind because yes, Uber is just an app. But it’s not JUST an app, and the valuation might not be too far off the mark. There’s a good valuation break down here I advise you to check out and I won’t get into because my post isn’t about the value. It’s about the misleading smokescreen Uber’s created for other startuppers in America.
The Harvard Business Review has a very worthwhile article from 2011 about this term based around the current trend in division of labor. But for this post, I’m talking about hyper-specialization in terms of technology being created. It’s the current American technological void we’re in and it bugs the hell out of me. There’s a bottle neck of apps and services that claim their the “Uber for this”, “Uber for that”. Call it: uber’s little monsters. New products cloning existing business models, and often with the same Uber-y arrogance. And yes, these ventures are getting funded! Lots of funding! It worries me. It worries me that the uber-talented (see what I did there?) human beings behind these products aren’t thinking outside the box. They’re simply twisting and bending something that already’s been proven for a slightly different market or industry. Hyper-niche products. And some of these entrepreneurs have the audacity to call this “disruption”. In about 1 paragraph of Peter Thiel’s new book, Zero to One, he sums up the misuse of the word “disruption” perfectly:
“However, disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as trendy and new. This seemingly trivial fad matters because it distorts an entrepreneur’s self-understanding in an inherently competitive way. The concept was coined to describe threats to incumbent companies, so startups’ obsessions with disruption means they see themselves through older firms’ eyes. If you think of yourself as an insurgent battling dark forces, it’s easy to become unduly fixated on the obstacles in your path. But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create. Indeed, if your company can be summed up by this opposition to already existing firms, it can’t be completely new.”
The problem with hyper-specialization & the veil of “disruption”
As I mentioned, there’s a trend to solve these super-duper niche and very first-world problems. Can’t get booze delivered? Solved! What about ordering coffee in advance since who the hell has 5 minutes to waste? Solved! A lot of this wasteful clutter is getting funding with barely even a revenue stream. Are we in a bubble ? Are investor’s views also clouded? Could be. But that’s a much longer debate and not my focal point for this post. Why are a lot of America’s smartest students making games or messaging apps? Because it’s relatively “easy”, it’s fun, and it’s trending. Nobody’s thinking long-term. How can this make our world better? How can we help others not living in American luxury? There lacks a hunger to truly try and change the world like our forefathers of technology have. This smokescreen of false “innovation” and “disruption” is putting the minds of extremely talented people under a delusional spell.
The only hope, which is also my ideal plan, is to use the algorithms we make for these first-world solutions, experience we gain, and technology we build to eventually tackle real-world problems. Or at the very least, use the money we make to good use. Start a company or a foundation that helps lives, solves problems like education, racism, unemployment, deforestation, wage disparity, and other MAJOR problems that need help from America’s most talented
So why don’t America’s most talented sought to solve these real-world problems FIRST? Simply put, it’s hard to see these problems while physically IN America. Most of America’s “top innovators” come from extremely privileged lifestyles and families where real-world problems rarely exist. They go from prep-school to top tier colleges without ever going out of their comfort zone. Often without even trying too hard because their parents went to that school and legacy sweeps them right in. Even the (albeit shrinking) middle class in America live relatively comfortable in comparison to many many other countries.
In order for the new generation to get inspired and start solving real problems, they need to stop Snapchatting, put down Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book of vanity and go travel to see these problems. Without stepping out to see the world first-hand, your thoughts will stagnate and stay in the confines of our Americanized bubble.
I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, tweet me at @mistabishop or shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org