Disruption vs. legacy: Can startups use the tech of the future to preserve the values of the past?
Published on August 27, 2019
In the food line at a networking event, an entrepreneur eagerly told me about their new startup.
I heaped black bean dip and chips on my plate and gently suggested they not use the word “disrupt” to describe their endeavor. I’d already phased it out of the content I’d been creating for other local startups. The word is dated and hollow, but maybe it’s just me that feels negatively about it, so I didn’t push back when the entrepreneur insisted it was the best way to describe their business.
I don’t remember their business idea being particularly terrible, but that’s because I don’t remember anything at all about their startup. If it wasn’t revolutionary enough for me to remember it over the appetizers served at the affair, how disruptive could it really be?
Turns out, I’m not the only one that’s over disruption. In a piece for the Guardian calling for the retirement of the word, Leigh Alexander writes, “The Silicon Valley buzzword has the aftertaste of a sucked battery. It doesn’t even mean anything any more.”
It became an effective tool for startups to sell themselves to investors.
Alexander goes on to explain that while the word has its roots in the 90s with “‘disruptive innovation,’ a principle whereby entrenched, dominant product or service providers could be unseated in the market (have their leadership position disrupted) by smaller rivals who offered solutions more simply or at less cost,” the startup world—an industry of underdogs—was immediately drawn to it.
It became an effective tool for startups to sell themselves to investors. Sure startups are small and unknown, but they have better tech! They’re nimble! They’re more innovative! And they’re going to use the shears of determination to cut through red tape and make solutions that benefit everyone. The future would be populated with business moves that were both good for the bottom line and those on the bottom rung of society. But as Alexander asks, “How often are ‘moral good’ and ‘attractive to investors’ genuinely found in the same room?” Her answer: Many startups become that which they seek to destroy—the status quo.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should
I’d initially had an issue with disruption because I’d grown tired of startups at networking events overhyping and underdelivering on their solutions, but it’s become apparent there’s an even larger issue at play—the people harmed by an upheaval-driven mindset.
In a 1945 address to the American Philosophical Society, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb remarked, “our participation in making it possible to make these things, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.” His answer at the time was yes, despite the never before seen death and destruction made possible by the atomic bomb, but his regret grew greater with each passing year.
If you’re more attuned with pop culture than World War II history, you might recall Oppenheimer’s sentiments echoed with more caution by the ever-sexy Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcolm in the 1993 blockbuster, Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”
And 64 years after Oppenheimer’s address, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, famously stated in a Business Insider interview that Facebook’s motto was “Move fast and break things.” The motto was abandoned in 2014, but the slowdown apparently wasn’t enough to avoid the social media site’s recent scandals related to data and privacy.
To prevent the pursuit of money and power from placing science and technology in opposition with the collective good, startups will have to consider how their innovations will play out in society before pushing forward with new tech. Earlier this year, I interviewed Brandon Young, recent college graduate and founder of PascalTags, on a livestream show I host.
PascalTags is basically the barcode sticker of trackers designed to keep inventory from getting lost. However, Young says there are broader use cases than manufacturing for his invention. I describe my fear, as a woman, of someone with ill-intent placing a tracker the size of a small sticker on my car or purse and following me without my knowledge. This isn’t me being paranoid. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports 1-in-6 women will be victims of stalking in their lifetime.
There are founders focused on keeping the tech they unleash from having a detrimental effect on society, and then there are founders aiming to protect what is already good in the world.
Scenarios like this are why until Young incorporates a “kill-switch” into his passive device, he’s unwilling to move forward with making it possible for the tags to connect with the internet, despite customer demand. Young says navigating ethical gray areas “is very stressful and what keeps me up at night.”
There are founders focused on keeping the tech they unleash on the world from having a detrimental effect on society and then there are founders whose startups are aiming to protect what is already good in the world.
Is legacy the opposite of disruption?
When I think about cowboys, I think about the wild, wild West, but if I were Canadian, apparently, I’d think about Calgary. Shanika Abeysinghe was born and raised in Calgary and is the co-founder of Bessie Box. She says a quick Google search of the city will pull up the Calgary Stampede, “Our history is tied up in farmers and farmland.” My search also turned up several sites about Calgary cows.
This city at the feet of the Canadian Rocky Mountains is home to nearly 5 million cattle. Abeysinghe’s startup, Bessie Box, cuts out middle-man grocery stores to get beef directly from the farmers to the consumers. They’re striving to return to a time when communities were connected to their local farmers and people knew where their meat was coming from. She says it was only a few years ago, around 2015, when she began to question where her meat came from and what impact her consumption was having on a larger scale, “I was like, wait a minute, so what I'm eating at the store… I actually don't know where it's coming from. And that really frightened me.”
Around the same time, she also realized that fast fashion meant she didn’t know where her clothes were coming from either, “When you think about fast fashion, it’s taking advantage of people and then when you think about factory farming, it's harming, you know, animals, of course, but then also [smaller] farmers that are doing such a great job already.”
While, Abeysinghe may not be calling for the retirement of “disruption,” she does believe we need to focus our energy elsewhere right now, “It's exciting. But I think, given where we are in the world today, which I hate to say that it's a scary time, really reverting back to people and connection is one of the most important things I think anyone can do.” Focusing on people doesn’t haven’t to be a radical idea, but it often is in the world of tech where there’s so much discussion around robots replacing humans as the dominant workforce and startups respecting workers’ rights. Obviously, this issue isn’t exclusive to startups, look at the Fight for $15 or the surprising announcement by the Business Roundtable that the interests of stakeholders will now come before those of shareholders, but shouldn’t startups use their status as new entrants to their various industries to reprioritize what’s important?
Could preserving legacy be the new disruption?
For Bessie Box, the farmer is important. They partner with Neilson Signature Beef ranchers Lance and Karen. Lance is following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather and his and Karen’s children are following in their footsteps. Sure, supporting small farmers is a feel good move, but Abeysinghe is clear: “It isn't this sad story of like, ‘Oh, we need to support farmers because it's what we need to do to help them.’ It's more like he's working really hard and doing things very humanely. So I think, in that regard, he deserves that business.”
In a way, Bessie Box is preserving the legacy of family farming in Calgary. Could preserving legacy be the new disruption? When I first began talking about legacy versus disruption, a few friends became uncomfortable with the use of the word. It’s started to take on the weight of regressive values and conservative politics. For Abeysinghe, when she thinks about legacy, she first thinks about, “how Aboriginal people were treated in Canada, basically, since the beginning of time. So that's like a legacy that cannot be ignored. It's one that needs to be acknowledged. And we need to work to make the changes that need to be made systemic to make sure they have a chance.
Abeysinghe’s definition of what legacy can mean broadens beyond country, “If you think about positive things like the idea of family and the value of family, the value of community, I think that those are things that are so worth fighting for, and bringing forward into your every day.” For her, this can be having as meaningful relationship with your next-door neighbor as you do your Twitter friend who lives halfway around the world.
She and her co-founders and their farmers view success for Bessie Box as expansion sure, but more importantly, “Just having more people try it and tell us how good it is or their memory that's tied to Bessie.” The genuine smile that spreads across Abeysinghe’s face as she says this is as refreshing to see as her words are to hear.
When I think back to that networking event and that eager entrepreneur, I now wonder if my mind seized onto the word “disruption” because there was nothing else for it to cling to. We are our stories. Stories shape how we see ourselves. We learn from stories. It is not hyperbole to say stories make us human.
And buzzwords? Well, buzzwords are broad and lack specificity. They’re shorthand to gesture toward something we assume is widely known. They’re like a too small blanket on a bed being tugged this way and that way trying to cover it all, but leave all parties involved wanting for more warmth. Buzzwords create an In culture and an Out culture—those that are fluent in the language of a subculture and those that are not—but they do not foster true connection. To do that, we must focus on what’s genuine and return to our legacy of storytelling.