Can “Old” Companies Disrupt?

No!*

OK, so Apple did it, and Steve Jobs is considered a genius (and he was) for making it happen. But for most companies, it just isn’t going to happen.Evolution, improvement and progress – sure – but real, iPhone-type disruption? Very, very unlikely.

Mind you, that won’t stop companies from claiming that they are disrupting this or that segment or vertical.Just like Sodastream disrupted the “home carbonated beverage” business a few years back.

As companies mature, the company will adopt a certain gospel. The employees will either believe in the gospel, be indifferent to it, or leave the company. So eventually, you are left with a company where everyone believes pretty much in the same “truths”. In an environment where everyone believes that the earth is flat, it is hard, if not impossible to fund research to show that it is spherical.

Obviously. there are quite a few obvious examples to contradict this theory; Google’s moonshot projects spring to mind, and 3M is perhaps a better example, but my impression is that these examples are the exception, and that the vast majority of companies at one point or other stop challenging everything they believe and just go back to the same old s..t.

To disrupt, it’s clearly not enough to just do random things that just happen to contradict what you believe. A recent example is the use of VR in video surveillance; I doubt any police officer would feel comfortable wearing a headset for hours on end, in a potentially nauseating virtual environment where you have to physically move your head in the direction you want to see, vs. just having a fully unwrapped panoramic image on a good IPS or OLED monitor. I fail to see how limiting your field of view is a good thing. So it just doesn’t make sense to me to throw money after such a project (but it did to a lot of other people).

It’s obviously very difficult to come up with something that make commercial sense, and challenge your gospel. You’ll most likely be pitching your idea with “I believe people will love this”, which will then go up against “well, the competition is doing x, y and z, and so we should do that”, in most cases, it is easier, and better for your career, to go back to your desk and put your ideas back in the drawer. So I guess most people do just that.

Another factor is that ideas have to be possible to implement. Not just theoretically, but in practice too, with consideration to the staff and financial resources you have. A small contractor would be better served bidding on projects he can actually finish, rather than drafting plans for a new bridge or skyscraper that he has no chance of completing even if he wins the bid. If you don’t have the financial capacity to actually fund the first batch, setting up logistics, handling returns and warranties, then why bother? It may be a great idea, but if you can’t possibly execute it, then it won’t happen. Dropcam was able to go to market by buying cheap cameras off Amazon, updating the firmware, relabeling the cameras and shipping them. It was clearly suboptimal from an operational standpoint, but it allowed them to discover that the idea was viable, even if it seemed to contradict the whole “open platform” mantra.

For newer companies, that are not carrying around a lot of outdated and perhaps questionable gospel, this is a golden age. It has never been cheaper to set up extremely powerful cloud based computing and storage systems, and I don’t ever recall a time where I could buy a fully functional and plenty powerful computer for $10 – including the OS!

Enough ranting, let me get back to doing something that aligns with our gospel.

*Betteridge’s law in full effect here

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