Opinion: Why disruption is the most abused business word now

credit: TechinAsia (Walter Lim)

Everybody is talking about how disruptive technologies are transforming our business landscape, from self-driving cars, remote-controlled smart homes, to the “uberization” of everything.

Judging by how fast disruptive companies are growing, it does seem scary. After all, no company wants to be the next Kodak, Tower Records, or Nokia. And we all know how difficult it is for retrenched workers in a traditional business to get a new job.

Unfortunately, disruption is fast becoming the next dot-com. I see many entrepreneurs use it like a buzzword. Nursing their pet technologies, they claim that they are ready to disrupt their competitors or their industry without the faintest idea of how they wish to do it.

Here are some of the most common myths about disruption:

1. Killing industry giants

Many tech startups have their eye on huge and mature markets that are filled with giant incumbents. Their founders wish to be the next Amazon, Google, or Facebook, unveiling a revolutionary way to beat the entrenched competition. They wish to be a David in a world of Goliaths.

The problem with such an approach is that it makes companies focus purely on what the existing companies are doing well or wrong rather than what their customers truly want or need. It also results in the creation of many “me-too” businesses that focus on building a better mousetrap and trying to out-innovate incumbents for its own sake.

2. Building a great app

Everybody is using an app these days, so why not build one that will revolutionize the industry?

Well, according to Statista, there are a staggering 2.2 million apps on Google Play Store and 2 million on Apple App Store. Just look at this chart:


Photo credit: Statista.

Now, take a look at your smartphone. How many apps do you have there and how many do you even use on a regular basis?

While mobile apps have certainly transformed how we do business transactions, you need to know that not all apps succeed. In fact, the majority of the most downloaded and used apps belong to either Google or Facebook.

google and facebook

Photo credit: FreeCodeCamp.

That’s not all. On average, people are only using about 30 to 40 apps on their phones each month, says the data below.

app usage

Photo credit: AppAnnie via TechCrunch.

So, what should startups do? Heed the advice of Quincy Larson of FreeCodeCamp:

But if you’re a startup or a developer hoping to actually build a user base and make money, I would recommend proceeding into mobile app development with extreme caution.

The web is a cheaper and easier place to build products and attract users. It’s also a place where you won’t live and die by the whims of Apple and Google’s app stores.

3. Betting on big data

Big data. Now, this is the secret sauce behind transforming your marketing, isn’t it?

The intoxicating brew of new analytical techniques, online real-time insights, and super fast computing power have transformed the game of analytics. Countless technology pundits have declared that the age of human intervention in marketing is over—just leave it to the algorithm!

Unfortunately, the truth is far more sobering.

Data analytics has been a messy business and will continue to be so for some time. One of the biggest problems with crunching data is that it is too vast and unorganized.

The other challenge facing big data is that it can fall prey to signal error and confirmation bias. Signal error is when large gaps of data have been overlooked by analysts. On the other hand, confirmation bias is the phenomenon that people will search within the data to confirm their own preexisting viewpoint and disregard the data that goes against their previously held position.

4. Fixating on the latest technology

What about technology, then? Wouldn’t robots and drones be disrupting the way we live our lives?

Well, I’ve no doubt that technology is going to change the way we live. Just look around you and you’ll see lots of people staring at their smartphones and twiddling their thumbs.

However, not all technologies end up becoming disruptive. In fact, over 90 percent of tech startups in Silicon Valley fail.

A key problem with focusing on technology alone is the high burn rate associated with tech projects. In their never-ending bid to “Fail fast. Fail often,” technology startups are splashing countless hours and millions of dollars of their own and investor’s cash iterating for the perfect app.

This has resulted in some tech startups becoming the “walking dead.” “They don’t necessarily die. They putter along,” said one manager from a tech giant.

5. Novel “Blue Ocean” innovations

OK, perhaps tech alone isn’t enough to disrupt a business ecosystem.

But what about new and inventive ways of doing things? For example, using your smartphones to pay for your products and services or launching a circus without animals ala Cirque du Soleil.

Well, novelty is great if your customers care about what you’ve got to contribute. However, it can result in what we call the Shiny Bright Object syndrome whereby you end up chasing after a newfangled idea, method, or technology just because it is novel.

Remember the Tamagotchi?


Don’t fall into the Tamagotchi trap. Photo credit: Katy.

6. Scaling and growing fast

Finally, companies have declared that they need to be disruptors in order to grow and scale fast. Often, a good reason for doing so is to justify the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars that investors have pumped into their companies.

Many of you would have heard the story of Amazon. The ecommerce giant first disrupted the book retailing industry and is now threatening the broader retail industry with their business model. However, it did not breakeven until the company was six years in the running. It also burned hundreds of millions of dollars in investor cash before it started to turn red ink black.

Unfortunately, not many companies are like Amazon. While it can be seductive to embrace a “growth at all cost” strategy in order to gain scale and markets, doing so could also mean facing early burnout, especially if you run out of funds and energy.

Whither disruption would go?

OK, you get the message that disruption isn’t just a single sexy thing. What then should you do to make your business or product disruptive?

My simple answer is this: don’t.

No, I am not telling you to forget about slaying industry giants, develop apps, embrace big data, ride technology and innovation waves, or grow and scale your business quickly. But what you ought to do is to focus on bringing as much value as you can to a potential market which you know about and care for, and to do it in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Here’s an eight-step approach you can consider:

  1. Find an underserved customer problem.
  2. Assess the size of the market and do this realistically.
  3. Learn about existing solutions and their weaknesses.
  4. Explore the best way to solve the problem and delight your customers.
  5. Use either current or future technology to do so while managing costs.
  6. Develop and test your prototype. Use lean/agile methods to iterate.
  7. If your prototype is successful, consider seeking funding to expand it.
  8. Grow and scale your efforts.

The key is this: disruptions only happen when we first begin with the customer.

Instead of setting your sights on your competitors, the next technology wave, or the latest buzzword from Silicon Valley, think about what your customers truly need, want, and desire. Doing this faster, cheaper, better, and more profitably than your competitors can help you disrupt your market.

Oh yes, if you’re really interested to learn where the word “disruptive technology” orignated, read this article on Clayton Christensen’s seminal work.

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