Many industries have their favorite buzzwords, but the word “disrupt” for the tech sector is in a league of its own. It’s become so overused that, basically, everything is disruptive today and, therefore, nothing is.
Even the person credited with popularizing the word, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, says the word has been abused in ways he didn’t intend. “Disruption is, at its core, a really powerful idea,” Christensen told a TechCrunch Disrupt crowd in September. “But everyone hijacks the idea to do whatever they want now.” Christensen said the word today is synonymous with short-term goals aimed at bringing companies an “immediate sense of success.“
The word was introduced in a 1995 article titled “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” when Christensen, along with Harvard professor Joseph Bower, examined the strategy that young companies used to collapse giant firms, like Netflix did to Blockbuster. Two years later, Christensen published his book The Innovator’s Dilemma and his extensive case studies really got people talking about disruption.
PayPal founder-turned-VC Peter Thiel is so tired of the word, he doesn’t think people should just stop using it, he thinks they should stop trying to be disruptors. In his new book Zero to One, Thiel writes that if companies truly want to attain success, they need to create monopolies:
But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create. Indeed, if your company can be summed up by its opposition to already existing firms, it can’t be completely new and it’s probably not going to become a monopoly.
For Thiel, true success is not about figuring out how to produce something at a premium level with lower cost. It’s about completely owning a category like Google does with 68% of the search market. Its closest competitors are Microsoft and Yahoo, which own about 19% and 10%, respectively. But Google is so multifaceted, says Thiel, that it can claim to not be a monopoly and “escape all sorts of unwanted attention.” He writes:
Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. Then monopolies can keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and to finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.
Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money. Non-monopolists can’t.
According to Thiel, “monopoly is the condition of every successful business” because if you’re not a monopoly of some sort, then you have competition at your heels. Any kind of competition and you won’t have the ability to think of the extreme ideas that the world needs to survive, like building underwater cities, advancing human life with robots, or finding a cure for aging.
Rivalry doesn’t just cut your profits, it makes companies focus on defeating their competitors instead of differentiating their own brand. In an interview with The Guardian, Thiel said that great businesses caught up in disrupting other businesses is like a successful career focused on disrupting someone else’s career instead of doing something valuable on your own. “So why do people believe that competition is healthy?” he asks.