The Daunting Task of the Disruptor

Mike Peña, Stanford University October 8, 2013

Challenging the status quo is a fight entrepreneurs often like to pick. And with tech startups successfully changing the game practically overnight across industries — Airbnb in travel, Spotify in music, Square in the retail space, Uber and Lyft in the transportation business — an entrepreneur might think it’s as easy as, “Code it, and they will come.”

But in reality, bucking the trend is no trivial matter. When you see a business opportunity no one else does, your big idea is inevitably for a product or service that no one is demanding. Knowing what people will want before they actually do is a sweet spot to be in, and realizing how difficult it will be in the beginning will only brace you for the tough — but worthwhile — road ahead.

Changing the World is Hard

In this eCorner video clip, venture capitalist John Lilly of Greylock Partners quotes longtime STVP faculty member Tom Kosnik in urging aspiring entrepreneurs to “do what makes your soul sing.” That, Lilly says, will give you the strength to persevere in the constant struggle against the status quo.

“Because it’s hard, and because it’s constantly hard, and because people are telling you ‘you’re a moron’ and why things won’t work — over and over and over again,” Lilly explained, “it’s important to do things that speak to you and really feed your soul and help you grow over time.”

The Rock Star Myth

But if you’re an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, a statistic presented by Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (ETL) speaker David Friedberg serves as a sobering status quo for anyone with dreams of becoming the next Jack Dorsey. According to Friedberg – who launched his own entrepreneurial journey after earning a degree in astrophysics and leading several projects as a mathematical programmer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — the odds of starting a company and it being worth over $1 billion is .0006 percent.

“There’s a culture of taking leaps and doing big, exciting things here. And you’re an important person if you do that,” said Friedberg, founder of The Climate Corporation. “But just being an entrepreneur does not make one a rock star.”

The Danger of Protecting the Status Quo

Some say the status quo is upheld at the highest levels. In his ETL talk last spring, author Nassim Taleb mentioned how U.S. monetary policy aimed to preserve the fragile and dysfunctional parts of our economy in the wake of the most recent financial crisis. To Taleb, that sort of intervention runs contrary to the premise of his book Antifragile.

Luckily, today’s entrepreneurial culture recognizes the constructive value of failure and embraces the forces of creative destruction — especially in Silicon Valley, where reinvention is a constant.