Who Took the Disruption Out of TechCrunch Disrupt?
For some years, TechCrunch has put on its Disrupt conference during which start-ups compete for fame, glory, and some money. Earlier this week, YourMechanic--a Y Combinator alum--was crowned the winning "disruptor" out of 30 entries.
But does the start-up really live up to the mission of being disruptive? Not quite.
A Familiar Idea
YourMechanic is a marketplace where "a selection of contracted, certified mechanics, and transparent pricing" meet consumers who need work done on their cars. Having a mechanic make house (or side-of-the-road) calls and including parts companies in the loop is a nice twist, but folks, that's all it is. YourMechanic founder Art Agrawal even told the Disrupt judges that mechanics already market themselves through Craigslist.
And this isn't a first for a car repair marketplace. In January came word (via TechCrunch) that BodyShopBids received $1 million in funding. That company lets consumers receive bids on body shop work from providers that the site has checked out in advance. The work isn't done at the customer's premises, but the concepts are similar.
Furthermore, the idea of online marketplaces to match buyers and sellers is well over a decade old. YourMechanic isn't a disruptor; it's an adapter, which is fine. But the event is called TechCrunch Disrupt, not TechCrunch We-Kind-of-Did-What-They-Did-But-in-a-New-Market.
Where Have All the Disruptors Gone?
There's some growing criticism that the Disrupts and Y Combinators of the world aren't delivering companies that are new, but newish. Even as Y Combinator founder Paul Graham questioned VCs' valuation levels when investing in new companies, seasoned Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla claimed that accelerators like Y Combinator are over-hyping companies, resulting in unrealistically high expectations on the part of founders.
That's another way of saying that novelty is bleeding out of start-ups. Look at what YourMechanic beat out for the prize: second-place Lit Motors that has designed an electric motorcycle that cannot tip over. Ironically, one of the judges, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, has received some criticism about seemingly trying to replicate a lot of Google's culture in the company she now leads.
There's nothing inherently wrong in telling entrepreneurs to look at business models that work and apply them to new markets. And if you're running a contest for the safest business model, it would be different.
Disruption means turning industries upside down through an innovative approach. It's providing DVDs and downloaded video like Netflix when everyone else was like a Blockbuster video store chain. It's Apple introducing the first iPhone. Disruption is companies such as Dropbox and YouSendIt solving problems for people in ways that hadn't been tried. It's the time Ray Croc realized that he could take a burger stand and turn it into a fast food empire.
By all means, if a clone approach works for a company, adapt away. It's a completely valid form of innovation. But there's a difference between becoming one part of a crowded field and breaking away to really make the world different.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.