Disruptions in Tech

“Disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.” – Source: Investopedia

In my lifetime, I have seen many sea changes in the world. Computers, television, job Hunting, consumerism, marketing, and so much more have been invented and reinvented so many times that I lose track.

When it happens, the company that did things “the old way” usually fades slowly into obscurity and dies. Some examples are helpful.

Old Timey Bicycles

The bicycle used to look like the one on the left. We can hardly imagine it now. When the newer style was invented, people saw immediately it was better. However, the old style lingered for a little while before finally dying.

Sales Automation (CRM)

In the world of Sales Automation, the most famous disruptions came from Oracle to Siebel to Salesforce. Each one was founded by an employee of the previous company.

The S-Curves here represent the lifecycle of any technology. When something matures, it usually stops innovating. When that happens a new player emerges with a different/better approach and grows rapidly leaving the incumbent behind.

In this case, the primary innovation each time was faster and easier customizations. Siebel was built using Microsoft’s newer desktop development environments like Visual C++ and Visual Basic. Salesforce took that that learning and applied it to the web which made customizations even easier.

Interestingly, the inspiration for Salesforce was a tool called QuickBase back in 1999. This was right around the time Salesforce was founded. Intuit bought QuickBase but didn’t know exactly what to do with it. Salesforce applied the same UI on top of a sales use case. This application approach made Salesforce into a huge success.

Lesson: New doesn’t always mean disruptive.


The business of home entertainment has been disrupted so many times. First we had basic television. Then cable TV. Then VCRs where you could rent videos from places like Blockbuster. There were thousands of Blockbuster Video stores everywhere. They had an $8.4 billion dollar valuation in 1994. Then Netflix arrived and disrupted with a simple idea. They mailed you the DVD. (Lesson: People are anti-social and lazy.)

Then fascinatingly, Netflix decided to disrupt themselves. They knew streaming was a better future for their business. This is incredibly hard to do because it means cannibalizing a part of your business. However, looking at the chart below you can see how their valuation and influence skyrocketed based on this decision.

Imagine a world where Netflix just sent you DVDs in the mail and never disrupted themselves. We would be talking about them as another flash-in-the-pan company.


Apple was doing quite well with the iPod. However, Steve Jobs knew that if the cell phone companies woke up, they would put music on their devices. He decided to enter the phone market. At the time, his own people thought he was crazy. The iPod people were very upset because they knew phones would be the end for the standalone iPod.

In the end, the iPhone was the perfect disruption and they chose to do it themselves.

“If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.”

Steve jobs

Sketch and Invision

At first, Adobe owned the designers toolkit with Photoshop and Illustrator. Then they bought their only competitor, Macromedia, and put most of those tools in the trash. (I really liked Fireworks). Then Sketch became a low-cost alternative to Photoshop and Invision entered the market with a prototyping tool.

Although Invision was co-founded by my friend and former intern Ben Nadel, I did not use it very much. I hired Ben in the late 90’s. He is awesome! But Sketch was only available on the Mac and I have always used Windows as my OS. Therefore, I ended up using PowerPoint as my storyboard tool for years. All of early Marketo was designed that way. Sketch and Invision were clearly joined at the hip, so I never got into it.

Then in 2017, I was visited in my office by Dylan Field. He showed me a pre-release version of Figma and I saw immediately how disruptive it was. It had components in a drawing tool AND prototyping. Plus the multi-player was amazing! It was the exact thing that I felt I was missing in PowerPoint.

Invision tried to catch up, but could never find the right vision. They released something called Studio, which I tried. It was focused on animation for some reason. Sketch also failed to deal with the threat and was supplanted by Figma.

Recently, Invision was acquired by Miro and announced Invision is being shut down at the end of the year. Clearly, another victim of disruption.

Lessons and Summary

Not everyone is disrupted and not every disruptor succeeds. If you want success you need to understand what matters and what is just window dressing. This is the key “vision” that you need to build great products. It’s hard to tell what new disruption will stick and what is just noise. However, if you fail to try, you will eventually be disrupted by someone else.

Disrupting yourself can be exciting and invigorating, but there will always be nay-sayers. There will always be people who think that no one will ever disrupt you. These types are dangerous for the long term health of the company.

Technologies need to be refreshed at least once a decade. There is tech debt, and new programming techniques. Plus, the growth of a company usually outstrips the information architecture of the original product.

If you are a product leader (Eng or PM or Design) you need to be thinking about how to rebuild components and disrupt yourselves. Whether that means being faster or more customizable or multiplayer or any other benefit, you need to work on it or risk competition.

Eat or be eaten. Hunt or be hunted. Disrupt or be disrupted.


One response to “Disruptions in Tech”

  1. Great post, Glen! In the process of focusing, pushing, and shaping technology to meet users’ key need and goals, success requires a devotion to continuous learning and adaptation. As UX and product designers, we must stay curious, keep exploring new ideas, embrace the iterative nature of Product Design, and resist the human urge to settle in and get comfortable with our (ever-aging) solutions. Your post reminds me to stay curious, stay hungry, keep striving for constant improvement, and keep searching for ways to disrupt the best work I’ve ever done.

Whatya think?