Not disruptive, and proud of it

I remember “disruptive” when it was called “paradigm shift.” That phrase died during the tech-bubble along with “portal” and “think outside the box,” yet the concept has returned. Don’t follow along.

Paradigm Shift Cartoon

When I get pitched — usually by someone raising money — that they “have something disruptive,” a little part of me dies. You should be worrying about making something useful, not how disruptive you can be.

“Disruptive” is the in-vogue word for the opposite of “incremental improvement.” A disruptive product causes such a large market shift that entire companies collapse (the ones who don’t “get it”) and new markets appear.

Disruptive is fascinating, disruptive changes the world, disruptive makes us think. Disruptive also sometimes generates billions of dollars, which is why venture capitalists have always loved it and always will.

But disruptive is rare and usually expensive. It’s hard to think of disruptive technologies or products that didn’t take many millions of dollars to implement. Most of us don’t have access to those resources, and many of us don’t care, because we’d rather work on an idea we actually understand and can build ourselves, an idea that might make us a living and be useful to people.

There’s nothing wrong with incremental improvement. What’s wrong with doing something interesting, useful, new, but not transcendental? What’s wrong with taking a known problem with a known market and just doing it better or with a fresh perspective or with a modern approach? Do you have you create a new market and turn everyone’s assumptions upside down to be successful? Should you?

I’m not so sure. Here’s my argument:

1.  It’s hard to explain the benefits of disruption.

Have you tried to explain Twitter someone? Not the “140 characters” part — the part about why it’s a fundamental shift in how you meet and interact with people?

Hasn’t the listener always responded by saying, “I don’t need to know what everyone had for lunch. Who cares? What’s next, ‘I’m taking a dump?’” They don’t get it, right? But it’s hard to explain.

There are ways to elucidate the utility of Twitter, but even the good ones are lengthy and require listeners with patience and open minds — two attributes in short supply.

“It’s hard to explain” should not be a standard part of your sales pitch. “You just need to try it” and “trust me” don’t cut it. That may be OK for Twitter — today — but what about the 100 other social-networking-slash-link-sharing networks that didn’t survive? Ask them about selling intangible benefits.

2.  It’s hard to sell disruption, because people don’t want to be disrupted.

If you’re reading this you’re probably more open to new ideas and new products than most, because you’re inventing a new product, starting a company, or you’re just ruffled because I’m pissing on “disruptive” and you’re looking for nit-picky things to argue with me about.

But most people are creatures of habit. They don’t want their lives turned upside down. They launch into a tirade of obscenities if you just rearrange their toolbar. When they hear about a new social media craze they cringe in agony, desperately hoping it’s a passing fad and not another new goddamn thing they’ll be aimlessly paddling around in for the next decade.

Change is hard, so a person has to be experiencing real pain to want change. Selling a point-solution for a point-problem is easier than getting people to change how they live their lives. Identifying specific pain points and explaining how your software addresses those is easier than trying to tap into a general malaise and promising a better world.

3.  Most technology we now consider “disruptive” wasn’t conceived that way.

Google was the 11th major search engine, not the first. Their technology proved superior, but “a better search engine” was hardly a new idea. In retrospect we say that Google transformed how people find information, and further, how advertising works on the Internet.

Disruptive in hindsight, sure, but the genesis was just “incrementally better” than the 10 search engines that came before.  (Or 18.)

Scott Berkun gives several other examples in a recent BusinessWeek article. He highlights the iPod — an awesome device, but not the first of its kind. Rather, there were a bunch of crappy devices that sold well enough to prove there was a market, but no clear winners. Here an innovation in design alone was enough to win the market. Not inventing new markets, not innovative features, not even improving on existing features like sound quality or battery life — just a better design, unconcerned about “disrupting” anything else.

Setting your sights on being disruptive isn’t how quality, sustainable companies are built. Disruption, like expertise, is a side-effect of great success, not a goal unto itself.

4.  The disruptors often don’t make the money.

The construction of high-speed Internet fiber backbones and extravagant data centers fundamentally changed how business is conducted world-wide both between businesses and consumers, but many of the companies who built that system went bankrupt during the 2000 tech bubble, and those who managed to survive have still not recovered the cost of that infrastructure. They were the disruptors, but they didn’t profit from the disruption.

Disruptive technology often comes from research groups commissioned to produce innovative ideas but unable to capitalize on them. Xerox PARC invented the fax machine, the mouse, Ethernet, laser printers, and the concept of a “windowing” user interface, but made no money on the inventions. AT&T Bell Labs invented Unix, the C programming language, wireless Ethernet, and the laser, but made no money on the inventions.

Is it because disruptors are “before their time,” able to create but not able to hold out long enough for others to appreciate the innovation? Is it because innovation and business sense are decoupled? Is it because “version 1″ of anything is inferior to “version 3,” and by the time the innovator makes it to version 2 there are new competitors — competitors who don’t bear the expense of having invented version 1, who have silently observed the failures of version 1, and can now jump right to version 3?

“Why” is an interesting question, but the bottom line is clear: Disruption is rarely profitable.

5.  Simple, modest goals are most likely to succeed, and most likely to make us happy.

It’s not “aiming low” to attempt modest success.

It’s not failure if you “just” make a nice living for yourself. Changing the world is noble, but you’re more likely to change it if you don’t try to change everything at once.

I made millions of dollars at Smart Bear with a product that took an existing practice (peer code review) and solved five specific pain points (annoyances and time-wasters). Sure it wasn’t worth a hundred million dollars, and it didn’t turn anyone’s world inside-out, but it enjoys a nice place in the world and it is incredibly fulfilling to see people happier to do their jobs with our product than without it.

Had I tried to fundamentally change how everyone writes software, I’m sure I would have failed.

I made less money personally at ITWatchDogs, but the company was profitable and sold for millions of dollars. We took a simple problem (when server rooms get hot, the gear fails) and provided a simple solution (thermometer with a web page that emails/pages you if it’s too hot). There were many competitors, both huge (APC with $1.5 billion market cap), mid-sized (NetBotz with millions in revenue and funding), and small (sub-$1m operations like us). We had something unique — an inexpensive product that still had 80% of the features of the big boys — but nothing disruptive.

Had we tried to fundamentally change how IT departments monitor server rooms, I’m sure we would have failed.

There’s nothing wrong with modesty. Modest in what you consider “success,” and modest in what you’re trying to achieve every day:

My daughter convinced me that insisting something be Deeply Meaningful With Purpose can sometimes suck the joy from it.  –Kathy Sierra

Of course it’s wonderful that disruptive products exist, improving life in quantum leaps. And it’s not wrong to pursue such things! But neither is it wrong to have more modest goals, and modest goals are much more likely to be achieved.

You must have your own thoughts on this subject!
Leave a comment
and let’s continue the conversation.

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  • http://www.andysalo.com Andy Salo

    My first thought on your post today is “what would the VCs say about this?”
    It is sooo true that Google at the time was just a better search engine. I worked at Inktomi in 1999 which built a search engine that powered AOL, MSN, and many other portals. Google was seen by the company as a good search engine but that they would fail because they were competing with their customers – the portals – by having a consumer facing “www.google.com”. That was a bet that was lost big time as Inktomi sold in 2002 to Yahoo for a song after Google ate its lunch.

    I will say that I totally agree with this post about needing to focus on something useful and practical, not transformational or disruptive. For any customer you need to save them time, save them money, or make them money.

    That said, I will disagree with you on one point about the iPod. I’m surprised the BusinessWeek article you referenced didn’t mention it. Apple’s iPod wasn’t the disruptive part. It was iTunes. The combination of iPod with iTunes was the thing that was so useful, and at the same time disruptive.
    .-= Andy Salo’s latest blog post: Startup Ecosystems =-.

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  • http://blog.whyspam.me Richard Schneeman

    I would have to agree. As I read, i can’t help but think of Nikola Tesla, all his disruptive inventions, and his eventual penniless death. I’m wondering if you’ve had this article in the works for awhile, or if you’ve just been reviewing too many capital factory applications.
    .-= Richard Schneeman’s latest blog post: ShadyEmail.com Featured on MakeUseOf =-.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Touche on the Capital Factory application comment. :-) But no this was in the works already — I write posts weeks in advance so that I have a healthy buffer. Professional writers have the chops to write on a schedule, not me. :-)

  • http://www.bigbrassband.com Adam Wride

    It’s funny that much of the advice given to entrepreneurs is meant to be inspirational, but most of it places undue barriers to entry.

    This is sound advice. My goals in life are to provide for my family and make the world a better place (even if it is just a little better).

    Thanks for the great posts week in and out. I can’t comment each week, but this post was too good to not thank you.

  • http://www.chrismower.com Chris Mower

    I enjoyed your post. Thanks. Disruptive has potential, but it’s not often that something like that comes along that truly succeeds. That’s why taking smaller steps towards a larger end goal is so effective for most people. It’s a lot easier to get someone to shift their eyes and turn their heads than to instantaneously move in the other direction

    Thanks again for sharing.
    .-= Chris Mower’s latest blog post: Entrepreneur Interview: Chris McClain of Chris McClain Productions =-.

  • http://SlateCast.com Sergey

    You nailed it. I always believed that there are two ways of making it in business:

    1. come up with something revolutionary new and hopefully not too much ahead of its time and be able to sell it, or…

    2. take an existing product and improve on it significantly.

    #2 approach does not imply the abandonment of innovation, but rather a series of incremental ones, just like you described.

    I was glad to hear this from a VC, because majority believes that the only way to success if by becoming another “Thunder Lizard”.

    Inspiring. Thanks.
    .-= Sergey’s latest blog post: Dancers =-.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Yeah on HackerNews Paul Graham argued against my post, saying that you’re not “ambitious” unless you want to change the entire world.

      That may be a requirement for YC and VC in general, but surely it’s not a requirement for business, and for many of us it’s just a distraction.

      • http://SlateCast.com Sergey

        This trend must have started with proliferation of software (including Internet-based) business. Historically business approach that worked best was steady growth through product development and maturity, similarly to humanity itself. Otherwise, applying “new” aggressive philosophy, we just ought to nuke the troublemakers and start over.

      • http://giffconstable.com Giff

        Nice post Jason. Frankly, as much as I respect Graham, I think the “change the world” comment is such a throw-away soundbite, especially when you look at the ideas that YC funds. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build a great and useful business. Being too disruptive and too far ahead of the market is a hard and lonely road, and usually means you get to watch someone come along later and win the rewards.

        I prefer Paul’s latest quote: “There’s nothing more valuable than an unmet need that is just becoming fixable.”
        .-= Giff’s latest blog post: Enthusiasts vs Normals =-.

    • http://www.fikket.com Pieter Eerlings

      I would add a 3rd one

      1. something revolutionary
      2. improve something existing
      3. Take an existing product and apply it to a different niche and market. We are doing this with our company, applying an existing USA model in Europe, in localized languages, with more local features. It’s not extremely innovating, but it works.

  • http://SlateCast.com Sergey

    On an unrelated subject, and sorry for using this board, since I don’t have a way to contact you directly. These posts appears to be moderated, so you can delete it after you read it… FireFox does not handle well the header of this page: it floats to the right too far and RSS box spills over into the right column.

  • http://www.dennisgorelik.com Dennis Gorelik

    I agree — it’s not a good idea to be way ahead of your time.
    It’s better to work on what is relevant and in demand today, not some time in distant future. That way everyone benefits more.

    Inventing disruptive technology is ok (and even good) if it meets today’s market demand.

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  • http://www.scottberkun.com Scott Berkun

    I have half a blog post that I might just have to kill now :) Nicely done.

    My main gripe is how often I hear the word “disrupt” used as verb, when what they really mean is just compete. “We need to disrupt our competitor” doesn’t really mean anything, as the literal meaning for disruption is specific and narrow (undercutting existing product with cheaper, or a much different approach, and changing the nature of how consumers make purchase decisions in that space).
    .-= Scott Berkun’s latest blog post: Post #1000: A Strawman for Everything =-.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      “Disrupt your competitor” sounds like you’re shooting them with a phaser. :-)

      Don’t kill the post — the world needs more voices on this subject, and anyway it would be ironic if a post which referenced your article for material caused you to kill one of your posts!

  • http://www.looknglas.net Ed Personius

    You pegged me: started a new company with a new twist/use for older technology. That is, Window Video Systems. It is projected Digital Signage. So although I didn’t invent the components, I am integrating several to use in a new way that allows moving images on storefront windows.
    I decided to approach this as an incremental improvement, over presenting it as a “Disruption”. It has disruptive qualities, but I realized that presenting it must be done in a way that is more easily acceptable to people. Therefore, I call it a “Projected Digital Signage”, when discussing it with people who know what Digital Signage is. When discussing it with the average retail owner, I say, “imagine if your posters could move and change their messages.”
    You gotta cook the frog slowly, otherwise he’ll jump out of the pot. So if you have a truly disruptive product, you better present it as an incremental improvement. Otherwise, someone else will make the money. You can’t be so in love with your idea that you distinguish it too far from what is known and acceptable to your market.
    http://www.looknglas.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.tonywright.com Tony Wright

    Great post!

    I’d add this thought… Even if you WANT to “go big or go home”, disrupting often isn’t the path to greatness. Look at all of the mega-startups/products that all (most?) of us envy. I’m hard-pressed to think of one that was truly a novel idea aside from Twitter. Ebay, iPod, iPhone, Craigslist, eBay, YouTube, Google, Facebook, etc.

    If people aren’t buying/using a solution with the EXACT SAME VALUE PROPOSITION I was proposing to offer, I’d take a very critical look at the product I was going to spin up.

    Note: I run a startup that went the other direction. It’s been great (and we’re on track to profitability– woot!), but it’s challenging to sell things to businesses, when they’ve never bought anything quite like it before.
    .-= Tony Wright’s latest blog post: A Designer in Support of Design Contests =-.

  • http://www.johnstonsearch.com Brian Kevin Johnston

    “Simple/Modest goals are most likely going to succeed, and make us happy” Love that, so true…. there are ZERO overnight success stories out there that “stick”… Best, Brian-

  • http://www.gawrilla.com Kevin Pruett

    I’m a firm believer in disruptive business models. That’s a completely general statement equate that with a simply innovative approach that pushes the boundary and status quo of a particular industry/concept/market/etc.

    But I completely agree that disruption is a by-product or a result of a useful product. I think it’s very premature to call something disruptive in the early stages of any particular business. That said, I think it serves great purpose to strive for such a feat.

    Status quo is fine for some people, but what real change has come from that? It’s the believers in disruption, the people who “know” that the process is wrong, that stand to make a difference in their respective arena.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      You’re assuming that “real change” is the goal of business, or the goal of founders.

      For some, yes, and I applaud that. The world is better for those with vision.

      But not everyone needs to change the world. Indeed, few can. It’s equally valid to have more modest goals, like being happy, supporting your family, enjoying work every day, and still making a lot of money.

      In fact, it’s not so modest when you think about it. If going for “changing the world” means you miss out on all that, is that better?

  • Lina Inverse

    I’m sorry, but I don’t get the impression you understand what disruptive technology/innovation is all about. Click on that link, read a book by Clayton M. Christensen, etc. A few examples from his first book:

    Sustaining technology: Winchester hard disk technology

    Disruptive technology: 8 and 5 1/4 inch hard drives, hydraulic excavators

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Actually Lina if you read the definitions in the article you cite, you’ll find that I’m using exactly the right definitions:

      Disruptive: An innovation that creates a new and unexpected market.

      Evolutionary (or what I called “incremental”): An innovation that improves a product in ways customers expect.

      Yep, that’s what I meant.

      Disruptive can work out! I just don’t believe it’s for everyone, nor do I think it’s wrong to have more modest goals in mind.

      The Internet is full of articles about how you need to be disruptive; I needed to voice the other side.

  • http://jasoncrawford.org Jason Crawford

    Have you read *The Innovator’s Dilemma*? “Disruptive” is a technical term. It’s not just “a big change” as opposed to “a small change”. It’s: “An innovation that creates a new (and unexpected) market by applying a different set of values.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_technology

    Disruptive opportunities are important to startups because sustaining opportunities are likely to be snapped up more efficiently by established players. Focusing on disruptive opportunities is an important strategy.

    See also: http://cdixon.org/2010/01/03/the-next-big-thing-will-start-out-looking-like-a-toy/

    (All that said, there are probably lots of people who bandy about the term “disruptive” when they just mean “I think this is going to be big!”)
    .-= Jason Crawford’s latest blog post: Software undergoes mitosis: Why Twitter’s API strategy was brilliant =-.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      I didn’t define disruptive as “a big change.” Why did you put that in quotes? Actually I did define it as creating new markets.

      Are you really saying that all startups should be trying to create new markets? Are you really saying that you’re more likely to succeed at creating new economies than selling products to people you already know need that product?

      If you’re a VC, yes, because often that’s where billions of dollars come from. Also a high chance of failure.

      That calculus does make sense for some people of course! It’s not irrational. But neither is taking the road more likely to succeed and with a smaller outcome.

  • http://kyield.wordpress.com Mark Montgomery

    A good post, but just wanted to contribute that the term is most often used in my world anyway to describe not a disruption to a user, but a market without innovation or improvement. The disruption is often to entrenched vendors or monopolies where incremental improvement leads to less diversity, poor quality products, bloat, and systemic risk among others.

    It would be wonderful if disruptive products and services weren’t necessary, but that has been tested often and failed. I invite you to submit a very important innovation– even life saving innovations– to those who dominate markets and see what kind of response you receive.

    If it is perceived to threaten products, aka cannibalization, dozens of such attempts in my career have proven over and over again that not only will the innovation not be adopted and distributed, but will often invite predatory search and destroy reactions.

    So it’s a nice thought, but not practical in the real world. Otherwise I suppose blogs wouldn’t be necessary or popular, for they are absolutely disruptive to a very large industry, and putting many fine folks out of work.

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  • David Locke

    The right word is discontinuous. Disruptive happens after the fact if at all, so no one can say that technology X will be disruptive. It shouldn’t be disruptive until it improves to the point of being the replacing technology. See http://productstrategist.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/the-word-is-discontinuous/.

  • Mischa

    Well made point, enjoyed reading. Thanks.

  • http://www.alertowl.com Janko M.

    Very good post. It seems to me it’s very hard to differ detect when you are doing something “cool to make” but possibly unusable (not “cool to use” by others). I got some sense for it after many failed cool to make attempts, but it’s very nice to see it coherently written and argumented like on this blog-post.

  • http://www.offerlounge.com/addyourbusiness Joe Lima

    Jason:
    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. Thank you. A few years ago, I met an angel investor at an investment conference and he said to me, “You know, there’s is nothing wrong with just creating a great small business that provides you and your employees with a nice income.”

    That comment really opened my eyes to a new definition of success and this post just reinforces it. Thank you.

    Joe Lima
    http://www.offerlounge.com

  • http://www.mynext.co.uk steve

    Very good point. Like the worry about making something useful rather, good reminder for me

  • http://www.nuxeo.com/ Stefane Fermigier

    Jason,

    Nuxeo, our company (I won’t say “startup” since we will celebrate our 10th anniversary this year) *is* disruptive, and we are proud of it.

    What we’re disrupting is the established order of the big 4 companies in our market (EMC/Documentum, Oracle, IBM, OpenText). Our disruption is simple: we’re offering similar products than theirs, only better and faster, and less expensive to buy and maintain, because we’ve chosen to use an open source development model.

    And, contrarily to what you’re claiming, our customers are happy to be “disrupted”, because we offer them more control on their technology choices and on their support and services options, and our sales model is much more in line with their own interest.

    S. Fermigier, Founder and Chairman, Nuxeo
    .-= Stefane Fermigier’s latest blog post: Open Source ECM Vendor Nuxeo Gains Record Number of New Customers and Partners Rapid Growth in 2009 Demonstrates Success of Global Expansion =-.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Congratulations! But what you’re describing isn’t disruptive, in fact it’s just what I was arguing for.

      “Disruption,” as other commentors here have pointed out, implies creating entire new markets. You just said you offer a similar product, just with improvements all around. That’s not a new market.

      GMail was an incrementally better web email client. Twitter was disruptive to the entire notion of communicating over the web. Sounds like you’re GMail, not Twitter.

      I’m glad you’re competing and kicking ass!

  • http://slash7.com Amy

    In my experience, the more swagger about disruption and grand plans to change the world and get super rich, the less execution. This ties in with your #3, because those people weren’t writing blog posts about how disruptive they were going to be, they were actually getting on with the work.

    In a counterintuitive way, I think people use these grand plans to protect themselves from failure. They dream so big that they feel insulated from actually having to deliver on their goals. Their dream is so big it’s unquantifiable. And, I think they don’t, deep down, believe it; they’re emulating.

    Add in that “disruption” or “paradigm shift” (ahh, the good old days) is an impossibly slippery word, and it’s a perfect recipe for nobody ever being able to come out and say, definitively, that you failed.
    .-= Amy’s latest blog post: Manifesto-in-progress =-.

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  • http://game-changer.net Jorge Barba

    Great points!

    As always businesses will adopt new words created by some author to describe a pattern of competition, they’ll write a guide and then tell businesses to set out to do the same.

    I do think that most companies don’t really set out to be disruptive. You can be ‘disruptive’ in nature like Google but it’s important to remember that they only became disruptive after they started making money and adopted disruption as a strategy period. (they even say it!)

    I also think that people like to use to word ‘disruption’ just like ‘innovation’ yet I will argue that there are more people around us who like to take a more practical approach to solving problems (incrementalists) because that’s how they’re wired and then there are the ‘world changers’ (imagineers) who have a vision in their head of how things could be and then set out to do exactly that.

    It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who will fail most often.

    By nature we all want a better way of doing things but how we go about it has more to do with how we’re wired than simply adopting a new pattern of competition because it sounds really cool.

    At the end of the day we all do whatever makes us happy and to each his own.
    .-= Jorge Barba’s latest blog post: #Innovation posts of the week: Empathy driven innovation =-.

  • Robert

    One nit pick, the example you give about ITWatchDogs and the e-mailing thermometer seems like the definition of disruptive tech as I had understood it. Namely, a “good enough” product ( 80% functionality ) which is ridiculously cheaper than the competing “fully featured” products and as a result eats their lunch.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      First, there were at least 5 competitors in our price range. Sure we had more features, but that’s not disruptive.

      When you sell essentially the same product to the same people to solve the same problem in the same way, that’s not disruptive, that’s just competing well!

      • Robert

        Ahh, I got the impression that you were the only ones in your price range. My mistake.

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  • Jonathan McCoy

    Jason, I am a fan of your site – you give great pragmatic advice for building a pragmatic business. This post is no different.. great advice to an entrepreneur trying to build a business.

    However, I wonder, does the message really need to be packaged this way? You really don’t give the reader an idea of when the time is right for modesty, and when the time is right for a grand vision.

    1. From your last paragraph, I think you realize that there is a place in the world for both modesty and visions of disruption. Some problems customers understand now, and that presents an opportunity to make money now. Some problems customers don’t understand yet (http://blogmaverick.com/2010/04/06/why-you-should-never-listen-to-your-customers/), and that requires disruption.

    But, do we really need a cheerleader for modesty in entrepreneurship? Do we really need a one-sided article purporting the virtues of thinking short-term in order to make yourself money? Really, if I want to hear about the virtues of short-term capitalistic thinking, I will have one of my iBanker friends buy me lunch and tell me the same thing.

    2. Modesty is fine if you are working by yourself on a short-term problem, but when working with a team on a longer-term problem, its all about the BHAG (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Hairy_Audacious_Goal).

    3. If entrepreneurs succeed through modesty, and then cheerlead modesty (because it is all they understand), we end up with a cycle that produces a bunch of niche products for short-term needs. Meanwhile, folks who stand up and say ‘I want to cure cancer’, or ‘I want to make a clean energy solution’ don’t have a way to relate to successful entrepreneurs. Thats why they’re called heretics (http://bilconference.pbworks.com/How-to-Be-a-Successful-Heretic).

    This is a cycle of shorter and shorter-term thinking. This is where our economy as a whole begins to get comfortable, and we get to watch from across the ocean as other economies solve he problems of tomorrow (or worse, we watch as no one solves these problems at all). This is backwards, capitalism works because those who succeed are in a position to take on more risk.

    Jonathan

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful, detailed rebuttal, but I really disagree. :-)

      You ask when is the “time” for modesty or otherwise — my answer is that both are acceptable, and that you simply need to choose and then be consistent in achieving that. For example, a big idea raising big money is consistent, whereas going for a massive idea on a shoestring budget probably unduly hampers your chance of success.

      The reason this article is so one-sided is that the Internet is brimming with people telling you that if you’re not swinging for the fences you’re not an entrepreneur. That is almost word for word what Paul Graham’s said about this piece in HackerNews.

      So I feel the need to counterbalance those extremes with this extreme. Of course it’s not applicable to everyone, but I think some people feel they almost need permission to strive for a $10m exit instead of a $1b exit, so I want to give those people some ammo.

      Responding to your point 1, I didn’t say anything about being short-sighted. I’m talking about multi-million-dollar companies which are either profitable and self-sustaining (like 37signals) or like my two exits which were multi-million dollars again, just not $100m (very unlike 37signals). When I say “modest” I don’t mean “just barely feed your family and be finished.” I mean you don’t need to “change the world” and you don’t necessarily need $100m of personal net worth. $10m of personal net worth is, in my opinion, more likely to happen and will probably make you just as happy, open just as many doors, and solve just as many problems.

      Regarding your point 2, again you’re confusing “short-term” with “smaller exit.” Example: FogCreek’s FogBugz isn’t that special. It’s a bug tracker with some feature advantages and some disadvantages over any other tool. They’ve been around for 10 years and still going strong. It’s long-term, it’s many millions of dollars, it could be sold for a lot (but Joel doesn’t wish it). This is what I’m talking about.

      As I’ve said in previous articles, my goal was always to sell the company at a fair price. That was a long-term goal which — for Smart Bear — took about five years. But it was modest in my definition of the word.

      Regarding your point 3: It’s unfair of you to say I’m cheerleading modesty because all I cannot “understand” another way. I do agree with you that if no one stands up and tries to change the world, the world doesn’t get changed, and that’s bad on many levels.

      I think this point comes down to your assuming that my point is that 100% of entrepreneurs ought to “think small,” whereas actually I made this argument one-sided only to balance the general tenor of discussion on the Internet, and specifically with high-profile bloggers who are equally one-sided the other direction.

      I think where we might agree on your point 3 is that being inconsistent with actions and goals is the error.

      Thanks again for the analysis!

  • http://www.3gpower2.com Bill McNeely

    Wow, you took the thesis of “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis and “The Little Train That Could” and expanded on it. Nice.

    The crew at 37signals and yourself seem to be in agreement. Focus on the Fortune 5000. The odds of success are better.

    On a personal note, when I was trying to swing for the fences and being a pomopous a** doing so, I failed. When I focused on solving a problem and provided a clear solution I ended up with sales, access to distribution channels and a piece in the April 2010 issue of Inc magazine.

    What a concept!

  • http://c3sart.com Cesar Torres

    I haven’t left a comment in a while, but I hope you know that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading.

    If I want the company or product I’m building to be disruptive, usually I want to be prolific in everything that I say and do. One of my other favorite blogs, Accidental Creative, talked about something similar today.

    When we feel that we must be profound, we artificially elevate the stakes and the perceived consequences of not being profound. The unfortunate result is that we do mediocre work because we’re so fixated on the end result that we neglect the process.

    [via]

    In the same way one can obsess over making something “disruptive” or “game-changing,” we can get caught up in trying to be prolific with whatever it is we’re creating. I’ve found that these outlooks are what tend to stifle action. I need to learn to get over the fear of failure that may or may not come after even minimal action.

    Good things to think about, Jason.
    .-= Cesar Torres’s latest blog post: We are the future of advertising =-.

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  • Whoamitoblowagainstthewind

    IT was interesting to read the article. Agree with notion that disrupting customer is pointless. Yet reading Clayton Christensen my tAke on disruption is from competition and not from customer. One disrupts the competition by offering a better solution to the customer. Granted this typically involves changing theway customer is already doing something. Nevertheless this change is something that is easy for the customer to take in their stride. If the business can do this then then it disrupts the competion without disrupting the customer. Example ethnic grocery stores disrupting the established players. Great thing about this kind od disruption is that the established player have no incentive to pursue this market until it’s too late… Observe ethnic food aisle at established grocers or organic food offerings there. So my take is that disrupton is successful if it disrupts the existing value chain by creating a new one that serves non-consumption that established value chains do not have any incentive to serve.

  • http://CrucialDivide.com David Ashwood

    Great post and a good read.

    If you describe yourself as disruptive – then you probably aren’t.
    Truly disruptive technologies come about through their user-base – it’s not something you design in – it’s something that evolves.

    Like modesty – it’s not something you can brag about :)

  • http://lingpipe-blog.com/ Bob Carpenter

    IANAB (I am not a businessperson), but I did read Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. I took away the message that the disruptive technology often started small and grew into being disruptive through incremental improvements or moving into more lucrative markets (e.g. disk drives, steam shovels, motorcycles/cars, etc. etc.)?

    Disruptive technology doesn’t have to disrupt users. Consider Christensen’s steam shovel example. Users just got better earth movers when hydraulic shovels provided more value than cable-actuated ones. From a user perspective, the move was no more disruptive than from steam shovels to gas-powered shoves.

    Isn’t the party line that Google disrupted the advertising business, not the search business? From that perspective, it seems like a standard Christensen-style disruptive ploy. Start by selling cheap ads to the low end, then eventually take over the computer ad world from banner ads and eventually become the world’s largest advertiser. Even with advertising, it wasn’t just ideas, where they were hardly the first, but execution. I believe their marketing model was people telling each other “you just gotta’ try it, it’s better”.

    Also, disruption doesn’t entail lack of competition among companies to carry out the disruption. Going back to Christensen’s examples, there was more than one hydraulic shovel maker, more than one Japanese motorcycle and/or car company making smaller cars, more than one disk drive maker moving from 3.5″ to 2.5″ disks, and so on.
    .-= Bob Carpenter’s latest blog post: Sequence Alignment with Conditional Random Fields =-.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      I agree with what you’re saying.

      What I’m railing against is that people are setting out to be disruptive, as if being disruptive is the goal rather than the result of being especially successful.

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  • http://jayliew.com Jay Liew

    Hi Jason, this post reminds of when Evan Williams talked about the “tractability” of a problem. Enjoyed the post.

    http://evhead.com/2007/12/how-to-evaluate-new-product-idea.asp

    Cheers!

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