Startup Jargon: The Eruption of Disruption

Did you really mean to say that?

Hats off to the marketers and PR/ad people of the world. They are the ultimate wordsmiths and spin doctors. When life gives them lemons, they make… limoncello.

Think about a word that we’ve seen a whole lot of recently: “disrupt.” Is this not one of the sourest lemons in the bag? Per Google Dictionary, to disrupt is to “interrupt by causing a disturbance or problem” and “drastically alter or destroy the structure of.” It is unmistakably negative as a noun, verb, and adjective. You may remember this last one from the letter your kindergarten teacher sent to your parents that went something like this: “Dear Mrs. Bor, your son was incredibly disruptive in class today. Please make sure he understands that legos are not weapons, and that when my hand goes up, his mouth goes shut.”  A marketer might say that I was an enthusiastic little kid.

If you think these definitions are off, then here’s your triple-dog dare for the week: call up a few of your customers and ask them if they’d like you to disrupt their day. I think you’ll be met with some skepticism and reluctance.

A word we love to hate or hate to love?

Fast forward from that proud preschool moment to present day, and this same word is being absolutely celebrated. Everyone wants to be known as the next disruptive startup, and headlines like these are generating big smiles in the C-suite.

A matter of perspective

What’s making this vocabulary so popular in today’s startup world? Is there something else going on here? Is it possible we’ve missed the point? Maybe we’ll find an answer in this recent Harvard Business Review post with the spoiler-alert title, “Startups that seek to ‘Disrupt’ get more funding than those that seek to ‘Build.'” Queue the quotes…

“Disrupter” startups received 1.7 times more funding, on average, than “builder” startups. *


[Investors] allocated nearly twice as much funding to the disrupt condition as they did to the build condition. **

Yes, we have indeed missed the point. All this “disruption” isn’t aimed at end-user customers – it’s for the other critically important audience, investors. Of course, you won’t hear Mautic complaining about the market responding favorably to the message as well (I take absolutely no credit for this – it’s only day 6 for me).

While this may only be one study, the results are both revealing and believable. It’s money-motivated messaging. Are you surprised? Me neither. Now here’s some context for those HBR quotes, and you can read the post for the full story:

  • Based on interviews of 2,000 entrepreneurs across 950 random startups
  • “Disrupter” and “Builder” labels were determined by evaluating language used in LinkedIn profiles
  • * Quote #1 above was based on actual startup funding from CrunchBase
  • ** Quote #2 above was based on a hypothetical funding exercise

As marketers, this all seems to fit our preaching: right message, right audience, right time. And according to HBR, it’s working. So, carry on with the disruption! Don’t get too comfortable, though, because industry jargon can be fleeting, and this technobabble bubble may burst at any time. But as a bootstrapped, rockstar, bleeding-edge, thought-leading, growth-hacking, stealth-mode unicorn, you probably already knew that.

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