Disruption Eruption

Spire Digital
Spire Digital
Jan 10, 2018

There’s a war going on and, believe it or not, it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. It’s a battle for future supremacy, with disruptors on one side, looking to upend the status quo wherever they can, and disruptees on the other side, desperately protecting whatever dominant stronghold they may have.

This disruption eruption is a clandestine game of cat and mouse, with each faction trying to stay one step ahead of the other. Venture capital is being spent at alarming rates to get a foot in the door. Corporate profits are being reallocated at unheard of levels to keep the door shut. Overpriced acquisitions and acqui-hires are being made. Rebrands and debrands and wholly owned subsidiaries are being launched. Enemy of my enemy friendships are being forged. Sun Tzu is being read.

Disruptors traffic in commercial cuckolding, the act of taking one’s bread and butter and buttering it themselves. Disruptees wield power, influence, money, resources, brand recognition, and a wealth of other advantages that come from years of dominance. Disruption is not for the faint of heart and many more fail than succeed. Ain’t that right, Elizabeth Holmes? But when they work, they really work…

Jeff Bezos just surpassed Bill Gates to become the richest man in the world by disrupting retail, groceries, hosting, cable, music, water ballet, and just about every other industry in his (or anybody else’s) purview. His predecessor, Gates, came to prominence by disrupting IBM. And, Steve Jobs became Steve Jobs by (eventually) disrupting Gates.

Interestingly, most of today’s disruptees were once disruptors. If you saw The Founder, you know that McDonald’s special sauce was being faster and more efficient than the prominent drive-ins of the day. Amazon’s chief rival, Wal-Mart, became the Belle of Bentonville by challenging the norms of mom and pop five and dime stores. Basically, if you’re successful enough as a disruptor, you’ll undoubtedly become a disruptee, which is how Amazon and Apple seem to be the top targets of disruptors as of late.

Archetypically, disruptors are scrappy millennial-laden upstarts with on-site yoga studios in their offices, while disruptees are age-old behemoths run by withering white-haired white men. However, both can take on many shapes and forms. Linux, PHP, and the whole open source movement disrupted software development. Blockchain and Bitcoin disrupted currency. The Tea Party, the Alt-Right, and the Berners disrupted politics. The Ice Bucket Challenge disrupted charity. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo disrupted social issues.

Still, the aforementioned startups in “the hip part of town” are making the most noise and causing the most strife for market leaders. The battles are hard fought and bloody — Warby Parker vs. the eyeglass industry, Blue Apron vs. grocers, Netflix vs. cable vs. movie theaters, Khan Academy vs. college, Casper vs. mattress manufacturers, Bumble vs. sports bars, Spanx vs. girdles, etc.

The disruptees aren’t going down without a fight though. They’re retaining high-priced patent attorneys to “protect their intellectual property”. They’re spending liberally on new technologies and talent, usually bred in the world of disruptors. They’re launching internal innovation labs and hiring consultants to show them how to “think like a startup”.

They’re also taking the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach by investing heavily in disruptors. GM owns a large share of Lyft. Google acquired Waze. Disney, Nike, and Microsoft all run Techstars-supported accelerators. Goldman Sachs, the whitest of white hairs, was an early backer of Square, Spotify, and Pinterest.

Disruption isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. Competition breeds greatness. If they’re going to have even a remote chance of getting beyond MVP, disruptors better be pretty damn badass. And, regardless of whether or not they can conquer their adversaries, disruptees will undoubtedly improve their offerings drastically during the conflict. Both will have to leave the status quo behind.

No matter who wins, the real victor is the consumer, with products and services that are cheaper, cooler, prettier, bigger, faster, stronger, and all-around better. Innovation and advancement prevails, making the world, yes, a better place. And, that’s why Spire Digital exists!

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