Startups: Culture of Disruption?

Today, startups are very much in vogue. They are attractive to many young graduates not only because the job market is unyielding and college tuition continuing to rise in price, but also because in popular media they are draped with a gloss of glamour. Whether such trendiness comes in the form of flip-flops and sun-dappled San Francisco campuses or in the shabby-chic edginess of Berlin, either way, startups – and especially tech startups with their constant merry-go-round of new digital products – remain cool.

For those of us who excelled at IT and science in school and suffered for it on the playground, the promise that ‘life gets better after high school’ has never been more true. Now and then you may come across someone who will confess – head-bowed and mumbling – that they once worked for a startup that flopped, but on the whole it is only the glowing success stories that we hear.

The Creed of Disruption

Startup culture, and in particular that of ‘disruption’, came under fire this month with an in-depth and widely shared article in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore. Lepore begins her piece by citing Clayton M. Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, where he identifies the eponymous dilemma as the fact that for an innovator, doing the ‘right thing’, is in actual fact doing the ‘wrong thing.’ This has almost come to be a creed in the technological community, where it is widely believed that achieving big success is only possible if you are willing and able to shake up, or disrupt, the establish industry. It is the idea of the race towards change, the idea of constant revolutions by pulling down (usually by undercutting) the status quo and rising up fast in the vacated space.

As Lepore writes, smartphones and apps are an example of successes that have come about through disruption. In fact they were so disruptive they even temporarily caused Facebook a headache, when they believed that they would be unable to turn a profit if they couldn’t squeeze advertising on to small iPhone screens.

Disruption is not merely an academic theory. ‘TechCrunch Disrupt’ is an annual conference for plucky startups and even featured in the first series of HBO’s Silicon Valley. The reputation and influence of the conference organisers, Tech Crunch, is growing fast. Last year they crossed the Atlantic to hold their first European conference in Berlin, and hope to repeat the same success this year in London. In their attempt to lure startups to attend the conference on their website they promise, ‘No other event on the planet can bring as much noise to your launch as TechCrunch.’

Evolution not Revolution

Lepore and many other denounce this obsession with disruption as not only childish, arrogant and dangerous (words often hurled at smarmy startup nerds) but also irrelevant. ‘Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail,’ Lepore writes. ‘It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature.’

Perhaps instead of breaking up and revolutionizing, the success of the majority of startups lies in building and stockpiling, and in learning and developing. It is gradually acquiring a tool box of resources and fine-tuning business intelligence. Perhaps it is not in creating a scene or a ‘noise’ with organizations like TechCrunch but by working with companies that offer solid assistance. Companies such as datapine for example, providing a marketing dashboard like this to ease and simplify the operations of nippy startups, helping them to achieve longevity by constructing, and not destroying. Perhaps it is not disruption but evolution and development that will best serve struggling young companies; an appreciation of continuity and stability as opposed to pace and change.

Of course, we may never get a clear picture as to what the best formula is. After all, history is written by the victors, and when sorting through the rubble it can be hard to find out what happened to those that fell behind, and what those shaking their heads and mumbling did wrong.

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