When Did “Disruption” Become A Good Thing?

When I got sent to the principal’s office as a kid for doing standup in AP Bio, the charge against me was simple: “disrupting the class.”

For most of us, especially those of a certain age, “disruption” is an inherently negative concept. Accidents or signal problems cause transit disruption. Bad weather disrupts cell phone and satellite signals. When sci-fi movie villains attack, they use disruptor rays.

But in recent years, we can’t get enough of disruption.

Entrepreneurs promise it, investors seek it, the markets love it. Legacy companies fear the daylights out of it, but the smart ones try to anticipate it, control it and ultimately embrace it themselves. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who disrupted early social platforms like MySpace, once publicly warned his company that if its engineers don’t figure out what will disrupt Facebook, someone else will.

Perhaps it was TechCrunch’s annual Disrupt Expo that helped coin and popularize the term, as it applies primarily to technology, married with services. Now there’s also an annual Disruption Innovation Awards Ceremony in New York that has become known for, you guessed it, being disrupted by tech gaffes and snafus.

In the past 30 years, disruptive technology has raised its head everywhere. Back in 1991, E-Trade started offering online trading, forever changing the way we invest, and today financial giant Charles Schwab has been called the “Amazon of investing” because of its low-cost transactions.

Yahoo and Gmail virtually shut down AOL. The iPhone and its app ecosystem disrupted the cell phone industry. Airbnb’s app is causing indigestion for the hotel industry and its investors.

Drones are disrupting a range of industries. And in the next decade autonomous vehicles will disrupt conventional delivery and transportation (hopefully not disrupting our ability to stay alive on highways). 

As financial PR professionals, we help our clients relate how their specialties, products and services are disruptive, in the best sense. Whether it’s a top accounting firm that is the first to offer advisor services to the emerging medical cannabis industry, fintech companies that offer new ways to offer and process loans, or consultants who streamline compliance and help their clients capitalize on the value of Big Data, smart players are disrupting the status quo in a variety of ways.

There is no greater value proposition today than the disruption message—but there is also a risk that the term will be misapplied and over-hyped.

To tell a credible story of disruption to reporters, investors and clients, here are a few questions companies must ask themselves:

  • Who has taken notice of your services?
  • Is it the result of someone’s dream to change the world?
  • Does it keep rival CEOs and their boards up at night? Why?
  • Will it create or eliminate jobs?
  • Does it have the ability to scale up and send ripples of change around the world?
  • Does this change, moderate or create new behavior? How?
  • Will someone want to buy your company to keep it from disrupting them?
  • What risk or downside will your competitors try to exploit against you?

Perhaps the best lesson about disruption lies in the contrast between the recent IPOs of Uber, which landed like a thud, and Beyond Meat, a classic unicorn story. Both are undisputedly change agents. But while Uber arguably has the positive impact of making ride-sharing easier and more fun (potentially reducing traffic and drunk driving), questions linger about fairness to its drivers and the crushing impact on the struggling taxi industry, which is trying to do the same job with far more regulation.

Beyond Meat, on the other hand, is an all-around feel-good product that allows vegans to have a guilt-free simulated burger, or meat-eaters to sample a tastier veggie burger. It’s perceived as healthier and its disruption of Big Beef is a plus for the environment (not to mention cows).

Neither company is currently profitable. But when it comes to telling a story about disruption, investors and consumers clearly skew toward change they can feel good about.

By Adam Dickter, Director




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