The word “disrupt” is everywhere these days. In Silicon Valley today you can’t spend more than 5 minutes in a coffee shop without hearing someone describe how their company is going to “disrupt the <fill in the blank> industry.” Entrepreneurs and business school students are taught case studies of “disruptive” companies. It’s even the name of TechCrunch’s popular startup conference.
Disrupting a market to improve it is definitely a noble cause, albeit a difficult one. But Silicon Valley’s obsession with focusing on disruption is leading entrepreneurs in the wrong direction. You don’t build the most successful companies purely by focusing on “disrupting” an existing market.
Here’s why: thinking purely in terms of “disruption” psychologically limits your direction and potential. If you are just thinking about disrupting an existing industry, you will tend to narrow your market size to just the current market’s customers and their needs. And you are led to focus on incremental improvements to current products (i.e. “How can I make a much faster horse & carriage for people who currently use it” or “how can I build a better flashlight”?) versus inventing something completely different. As an example: ten years ago, if you were trying to disrupt the personal flashlight industry would you have thought of developing an iPhone?
The most successful Internet companies today did not achieve success by just focusing on taking over old industries — they found it instead by creating something where nothing previously existed. They targeted the customers who were not currently served and found a better way of serving them. And in the act of creating that new market they ended up disrupting many existing markets along the way.
Much has been said about how Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services – today’s poster children for “disruption” – have “disrupted” the taxi industry. Yes, people are now definitely taking Uber and Lyft instead of taxis. But they are also using those services in ways in which they never would have used a taxi. Commuters are taking Uber and Lyft instead of driving to work and paying hefty city parking fees. People are now choosing Uber over walking, taking the bus, or just staying at home. And Saturday night’s “designated driver” is getting replaced by the Uber driver. Uber and Lyft have not just replaced the taxi service; they have made personal transportation so convenient and inexpensive that they serve a market need an order of magnitude larger than the one served only by cabs.
My advice to product managers and entrepreneurs: when you are thinking about starting a new company and creating your grand vision, don’t limit yourself to “disrupting” an existing market and the people who are already served. Don’t even use the word “disrupt” when thinking or talking about your product. Instead, use the word “create”. Specifically, focus on creating a new industry by adding new value to an underserved market. You will be far more likely to come up with a much larger idea and business.
- Stop using the word “disrupt” when thinking about your product as it will limit your creativity to what currently exists. Instead, focus first on creating a new industry serving people who could not originally be served. You’ll end up with a bigger total market, a more creative solution and a willing audience eager for a new indispensable product.