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“We want to become the Uber of _______.”

Without question, this is one of, if not the, most uttered phrases in early stage tech startups: We want to be the Uber of
grocery delivery, or we’re going to be the Uber of laundry, or flowers, or booze, or even dog walking.

It is, without question, one of the most obnoxious things startup founders say; it’s right up there with the words “synergy” or “disrupt.”

I say this not as a scrooge, “get-off-my-lawn” kinda guy. We work on the forefront of technological innovation, trying to bring actual transformative technologies (like machine learning, A.I., vocal interfaces, etc.) to bear on business problems. So it’s not that I’m cranky and simply don’t like the jargon.

No, the reason I hate the phrase “Uber of X” and “disrupt” is because, well, they’re lazy.

Just because you built a startup that delivers an on-demand service through an app does not make you Uber. Just because you have an idea to change the way a few people do a particular thing does not make you disruptive. In fact, doing something better than a competitor used to be enough to win market share (and the spoils that go along with that). Now, everyone is obsessed with “disrupting” their market (which, to be fair, might not always be positive).

Facebook has actually disrupted journalism — much of media companies’ distribution no longer is controlled by the media companies, but rather by Facebook’s algorithms and massive audience. While this is great for Facebook and small publishers, many would argue it’s been terrible for the quality of investigative journalism (as well as for media consumer’s ability to distinguish fact from fake). I’m not arguing either way; I’m just saying “disruption” isn’t always universally positive or necessarily desirable.

Robots have been a boon to efficiency, corporate profits and consumer prices in heavy manufacturing… but have been god-awful for much of the blue collar middle class and the rust belt cities those workers used to call home.

Uber did actually disrupt transportation. They not only took a massive cleaver to the taxi industry, but changed the way some cities plan for their respective transportation futures, gave birth to the “gig” economy, and became the highest valued private company on earth. That’s what real disruption looks like.

Just because you’re willing to deliver someone’s laundry through an app does not mean you’re putting every dry cleaner out of business. Nor are you going to decimate the shares of Whirlpool or Kenmore. It’s still more convenient to do the laundry yourself, and have clean clothes in a couple hours (for a lot cheaper price per pound, I’d wager) than wait a day (or more) to get your clothes back.

Now, if you live in a Manhattan apartment and have no washer or dryer in your unit or building and have to carry it down four flights of stairs and to a laundromat? Absolutely. An on-demand, app-based solution sounds phenomenal. And, that means there could be a real market for that startup’s offering given the size of some metro cities. But, the “Uber of laundry” it does not. Nor disruptive, for that matter. But it could still be the basis of a successful company! And I don’t know why that isn’t good enough for anyone anymore, but that’s a question for another post.

The other thing worth noting regarding Uber and true disruption is a cliché, but accurate — “heavy wears the crown”.

Uber completely upended massive sectors of the economy. With its forays into robotics and self-driving cars, it could very well dethrone consumer auto manufacturing as we know it. But, the price of relentless innovation and destructive creation leaves bodies in the wake.

Uber has been embroiled in PR nightmares for years. And recently, an explosive exposé in the New York Times has Uber reeling to the point they’ve hired former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder to look into systemic sexual harassment and HR deficiencies in the company.

(Tl;dr — Uber’s hyper-competitive, “meritocratic” culture bred a rather toxic working environment for employees.)

Apple, a similar adherent to innovation and disruption at all costs, was tagged with similar allegations of sexist, toxic practices behind closed doors.

There’s no doubt innovation, advancement and technological excellence are noble causes worthy of pursuance. But, a slavish devotion to those ideals at the expense of corporate responsibility or employee wellness is no good either.

Moral of the story? Stop using the terms “Uber of X” and “disrupt.” If you really are those things, journalists or tech writers will use them when writing about you. If you’re describing your company in those terms, quit it. And, be careful what you wish for: Many of the most disruptive companies are reviled as much as they’re revered. And, much of what they had to sacrifice to make their companies the behemoths we see today might not have been worth it for many of the people left in the respective wakes.

Sometimes, just being better than your competitors is enough to make a great company. And building a great company might be a noble and more realistic goal than Uber or disruption — and that’s pretty damn good in and of itself.

 

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