Love him or hate him, everyone can at least agree that Trump is a disruptor. In just his first few months in office, he’s upended relationships presidents traditionally have with just about everyone, from the judiciary to the free press.
In the business world, and especially among tech startups, disruption has become a holy grail (not to mention fodder for satire). New companies aspire to revolutionize industry and culture, or at least sell that lofty goal to their investors. But now we have a case of real disruption in the White House. What does that teach us about the DNA of disruption and the right and wrong ways to wield disruptive power as entrepreneurs?
Disruption is what no one sees coming
Real disruption means big changes done fast. Like what Trump has done. Twelve months ago, he was a dark horse few thought would win. Today, he’s the leader of the free world. Trump came seemingly out of nowhere, disrupting how candidates campaign, the traditional political establishment and common protocols of international relations.
Entrepreneurs aspiring for disruption need to bear that velocity in mind. Disruption is when change happens so quickly that it outpaces others’ abilities to adapt. This speed—and tendency to catch people and institutions completely off-guard—is at its heart. Airbnb is a good example, turning the global travel industry on its head in under a decade. In New York, for example, one out of every five of the city’s “hotel rooms” are now Airbnb rentals. Regulators have been left struggling to keep up, as the company fights legal battles around the globe.
By contrast, most of what passes for “disruption” in business today is actually “evolution”: change that’s far slower and more predictable. Take my industry. I founded one of the first online eyewear companies 12 years ago. But while online sales are growing, today they make up about 5 percent of the eyewear industry’s sales. This is a case of evolution, not disruption. There’s ample time to adapt, plan and see what’s in the pipeline.
Disruption mingles creation and destruction…in uncertain ratios
Disruption in itself is an unknown quantity. It can be destructive, ravaging venerable institutions to no real end. It can also be productive, clearing out inefficiency and old habits to make way for something better. The challenge is that real disruption is often both of these things at once…and the final balance sometimes isn’t evident until the smoke clears.
For all the chaos he has wrought, for example, Trump has also proved an unexpectedly productive force in certain respects. By offering a real antithesis to prevailing norms—on everything from politics to news—he has shifted discussion and forced a healthy synthesis of old and new attitudes in an almost dialectical process. Ultimately, a brand new thesis, or paradigm, emerges—stronger, more viable than what came before.
Take his disruptive approach with media, for example. By bypassing traditional media, he has obliged news outlets to confront some of their shortcomings and find new and creative ways to reach readers. He’s also inadvertently reinvigorated them. Across the board, subscription rates are soaring at papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times.
This same destructive-productive duality is evident in true entrepreneurial disruptors. Uber, for example, has devastated traditional taxi industries in areas where it operates and threatened livelihoods, while also giving passengers needed options and better service. Disruption is always like this: mixed and messy. In its highest form, however, it leads to a needed—and beneficial—rebalancing of power. This may not always be the express intent of the disruptor—Uber, after all, has profit primarily on its mind—but it’s one very real collateral effect.
The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long
The nature of real disruption is that it has a short half-life. Sooner, rather than later, it finds a path of accommodation … or fizzles out. Trump may head an enormously powerful government, but we’ve already seen the courts shut down his travel ban. If he wants to actually accomplish anything, he’ll need to reconcile with Congress and other institutions. Government is a team sport, even if you’re the captain.
The same holds true with tech disruptors: lasting change requires compromise. Uber, for instance, is increasingly accommodating pressure from local governments on safety inspections, insurance and pick-up/drop-off locations. Indeed, they’re even partnering up with municipalities to share data and improve planning. The same goes for Airbnb, which is looking more and more like the hotels it once displaced, and is even in talks to acquire high-end vacation rentals.
In the end, true disruption is furious, intense and inevitably brief. Some disruptors push too far, too fast…only to see their gains reversed by incumbents. Other entrepreneurs—the ones that effect lasting changes—find a way to accommodate and subtly redefine the status quo. It’s easy to forget, for example, that now familiar institutions like Microsoft and Walmart were once disruptors, as well. Of course, the cycle of disruption never truly ends: after a while someone else come along to disrupt them, too.
Roy Hessel is president and CEO of Clearly and founder and CEO of EyeBuyDirect. The ideas in the article are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the companies.