A few months ago, I reached my boiling point with the word disruptive. I was researching affiliate programs and asked a fellow business owner about his experience running them. He had developed a new service to manage affiliates and said something to the effect of, “We’re taking our decade of experience in affiliate management and turning the system on its head in a truly disruptive way.” I shut my computer and banged my forehead against it until I concussed myself into unconciousness. Not only did he fail to describe the service that I potentially needed, he used what has become my most loathed term in business.
Here is what a disruptive product or service is NOT: something that is faster, cooler, cleverer, more ethical, or superficially different than its competition. While these features can be innovative, innovation is not synonymous withdisruptive.
Within the span of two weeks, I heard two new luggage brands say their carry-on is truly disruptive. The first was the Go-Ro on Kickstarter, a seriously cool-looking bag that I would totally shell-out an imaginary $500 for, or at the very least, pin onto one of my Pinterest boards. I watched the entire pitch video and held my breath, thinking I had made it through their entire narrative without hearing the claim of industry disruption. But, alas, homeboy sneaked it in there in the last 30 seconds.
The second time was on my favorite show, Shark Tank. Before the Go-Ro, there was Trunkster. In an argument with one of the Sharks, the founder claimed their roll-top opening and built-in scale – their piéce de résistance – was “truly disruptive.” YOU, reader, YES! YOU can disrupt the luggage industry with a mere $500.
Except, no. You can’t. There’s absolutely nothing disruptive about a wheelie bag that costs MORE than another wheelie bag because it has cool features, even if those features mean you can take your designer luggage off-roading with its big-ass wheels, unlike the tiny baby wheels on your run-of-the-mill wheelie bag. Maybe their built-in USB chargers will disrupt airport electricity usage. I can’t imagine airports would be too put-off by saving a few bucks on their utility bill, since they’ll charge you $6 for a banana.
What disruptive really means is to open-up the market for a product or service to people who were once excluded because of price or access.
A $500 bag is still in the luxury market, and people who don't already spend money on luxury items can't/won't buy it, even if you spent 3 years designing it.
Google’s Android operating system disrupted Apple’s monopoly on smart phones because it’s open-source, so any hardware company, at any price point, can use it. In addition, anyone can make an app for an Android phone, unlike Apple’s infamous red tape for new app developers.
Uber has disrupted local taxi services (for better or for worse) by letting anyone with a car earn money by shuttling your drunk-ass around, and gives you a cheaper option than Yellow Cab. If you’re really lucky, your Uber driver will have candies and bottled water to sort you out until they can PLEASE JUST STOP AT THAT TACO BELL.
Airbnb has disrupted the hospitality industry.
Spotify has disrupted iTunes, which disrupted Sam Goody. Tidal wanted to be disruptive, but they made a terrible product with an inflated price and the selling point of exclusivity, which is the exact opposite of disruption.
Etsy disrupted that god-awful feeling of cold-calling local boutiques to put your handicrafts on consignment.
You get the picture.
And which company’s site is polluted with disruption? That’s right, EVERLANE. It’s neat they have radically transparent pricing. It’s noble they show us their factories. It’s mega impressive they might be taking market share away from GAP Companies. Are they disruptive? Nah. Shifting the same audience from one product to another is not disrupting an industry, because it’s not opening the apparel basics market to new people who didn't already have access to it.
In fact, the only disruptions in fashion that I can think of were 1) the invention of catalog shopping and 2) fast fashion in its unholiest form.
So, my 2016 ask for all new business owners, innovators, social entrepreneurs, and Kickstarter prospects: Please don’t describe yourself as disruptive. Full stop. Earn that adjective from your customers and critics. Look at the blogging software, Ghost. It's open source, idiot-proof, and was called "disruptive" by Forbes. They didn't show up to disruption island and disruptively stick their disrupt flag into the sand declaring themselves disruptors of the blogosphere. It's like putting "I think I'm really funny" on your Tinder profile. It's not a characteristic that's up for self-assessment.
Your $500 bag is not disruptive.
Your new affiliate service is not disruptive.
Your brilliant marketing angle is not disruptive.
And, let’s be real. This blog post probably won’t disrupt the use of the word disruptive, and will only further add to the semantic satiation.