Disruptive Technologies: What They Are and How to Embrace Them

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Erin Pennings
Erin Pennings

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As long as humans have been around, we’ve been looking for ways to improve our lives. While sometimes the shifts are small — sometimes a visionary comes along and pioneers new technology that forever changes the way we live or work.

man uses disruptive technology in the form of a vr headset

Three examples of this that everyone is familiar with? The telephone, automobile, and computer transformed the way we connect and interact with one another, with a lasting impact socially and in terms of business.

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And today, we’re seeing unprecedented technological growth and innovation, which means that new disruptive technologies are emerging that have the power to change everything about the way we experience the world.

Table of Contents

What is disruption in business?

Across the board, disruption happens when new technology becomes available that supplants the “old way” of doing things. In business, this often means that a new company comes in and turns the industry on its head.

In my experience, small companies and startups are best positioned to disrupt their industry because they are lean and agile, without the overhead or complex systems of their established competitors.

As a result, they can test their ideas without having to make significant changes across their business, building on their success to grow into a disruptive business.

Most of the founders I’ve worked with have deep domain knowledge and experience, a genuine belief that there’s a better way, and are driven to get results.

Sometimes, they do this through new technologies. At other times, companies focus on new processes built from the ground up and designed to solve a problem.

How is disruption different than innovation?

Some innovations can be disruptive, but not all innovation is. For example, a company can be innovative without transforming the entire industry or creating a new standard or lens through which to see the world.

For example, the invention of the automobile can be considered a disruptive innovation, making it easier to travel long distances more quickly and comfortably than a horse-drawn carriage and more independently than train travel.

However, innovation that makes cars lighter or more aerodynamic for better gas mileage isn’t something I’d consider disruptive.

What is disruptive technology?

Initially coined “disruptive innovation” by Harvard Business Review, disruptive technology refers to innovations that make new opportunities more accessible to more people.

In business, this usually disrupts the market, calling into question whether “this is the way we’ve always done it” has a place in the future. In my experience, it can lead to belief shifts that change the way an entire industry operates.

To continue my car analogy above, the advent of electric-powered cars disrupted the automobile industry, changing everything about the way we manufacture vehicles and necessitating new factories.

Impact of Disruptive Technology

It’s not just the automobile industry that’s seeing huge changes; disruptive technologies can be found just about everywhere you look.

Dollar Shave Club is one of the most popular examples of disruptive innovation.

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Dollar Shave Club launched with a single video, and by touching on the pain points people have when shopping for razors, launched the beauty subscription industry.

Before, big-name companies Gillette and Schick had more than 69% of the razor industry — and five years after their 2011 launch, Unilever purchased the company for $1 billion.

Uber took on personal transportation and changed the way people get around.

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Uber is another example of disruptive innovation, taking on the way people find rides with the simplicity of an app. Despite some hiccups along the way, they remain one of the fastest-growing startups — and one of my favorite ways to travel when I’m away from home.

Airbnb disrupted the hospitality industry, changing the w

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Similarly to the way that Uber took on the taxi industry, Airbnb disrupted hospitality, making it easy for people to find places to stay with more space than the typical hotel room.

Simultaneously, Airbnb hosts can rent out their unused rooms or homes for extra cash. Born out of the co-founders’ attempts to make money to cover rent, Airbnb is currently worth over $75 billion, and it’s still my favorite way to book vacation rentals.

Stripe disrupted online payments, making it easier for ecommerce businesses to accept payments.

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Born out of a desire to make it easier for entrepreneurs and small businesses to accept payments online, Stripe’s founders sought to reduce the cost and complexity of payment processing — some of the biggest barriers to entry for ecommerce businesses.

With over 300,000 businesses using Stripe, it has 37% of the market share and is second only to PayPal in the payment management arena.

What are the benefits of disruptive technology?

Disruptive technologies provide huge opportunities for startups who see a gap in the market and want to get their foot in the door. There’s a great deal of potential for early adopters to establish authority.

In my work with startups, it’s a lot of fun to watch their businesses grow as they become experts in maturing technologies.

And because disruptive technology is exciting, it’s often newsworthy in the industries that use it, making it easier to garner attention. What’s more, in disruptive innovation, there is often a collaborative effort in the community, even amongst competitors, as in the case of OpenTofu.

What are the challenges of disruptive innovation?

Despite the long-term benefits, disruptive technologies come with their fair share of hiccups early on. Here are some of the biggest challenges associated with disruptive technologies:

  • Slow go-to-market and glitchy prototypes
  • Lack of awareness in the target market
  • Small early markets mean higher risk

Examples of Disruptive Technologies

Today, it seems like just about everywhere we look, we’re faced with disruptive technologies. This is partially due to the pandemic, which accelerated digital adoption and technological innovation by at least seven years.

However, as part of digital transformation, many of these technologies were already on the market or maturing. With that in mind, here are some of the disruptive technologies I see changing the world today:

  • AI and machine learning.
  • 3D printing.
  • Video and music streaming.
  • Virtual or augmented reality
  • Bitcoin, blockchain, and digital currency.

1. AI and Machine Learning

Regardless of your job or industry, you’ve likely seen a lot of AI and Machine Learning tools in the news — and like me, you’re witnessing how people’s perceptions of AI are changing. AI and Machine Learning remain some of the most disruptive technologies — and I think it's likely that we’ll continue to see changes emerge for some time.

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Let’s dive into some specific AI technologies.

Generative AI

As a copywriter, I’ve seen a lot of AI tools launch over the last few years, especially generative AI — including OpenAI’s much-hyped ChatGPT. And while I find generative AI tools fun to play with, and absolutely fascinating in their capabilities, they’re still just that — tools.

Disruptive technology example: ChatGPT is one of the most well-known generative AI tools

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Just like Google Docs can’t write a great article without human input, the same is true of generative AI. You need great prompts and a solid expectation for what you want to create. So, when I speak about generative AI or teach others to use it in their web copy, I coach them in four main areas:

  • Teaching the AI about how you want to come across.
  • Communicating your expectations for output.
  • Providing feedback to the AI tool to fine-tune the results.
  • Using the generative AI results to create impactful copy that is original.

Originality is a huge concern with generative AI. I’ve found it sometimes invents information that “sounds good” or scrapes ideas from the Internet.

With that in mind, the powerhouse behind generative AI is our brains, so if using it for inspiration, make sure that anything you write is in your own words exactly.

In other words, while I find generative AI to be a helpful tool, I trust it about as far as I can throw it. And since it’s all theoretical, I can’t throw it very far.

AI/ML Data Analysis & Predictions

We create at least 120 zettabytes of data every year — a zettabyte has 21 zeros, in case you’re wondering. It would be impossible for humans to analyze that data manually.

However, that’s where AI and ML come in handy especially — in addition to processing and analyzing that data, AI and ML can develop predictive models that allow data-driven marketing and business decisions.

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Personalization

With better access to data and improved insights, it’s also possible to create a highly personalized experience, dripping out content and offers that are helpful to your audience based on their behaviors.

While this is beneficial for every industry, luxury ecommerce shoppers respond particularly well to a high degree of personalization.

As Simon Hughes of Design & Build Co. says, “Our clients are luxury ecommerce brands who place memorable and unique customer experiences at the heart of what they do. By using AI, we are able to create bespoke experiences that are automatically tailored to individual customers.”

AI Product Reviews offers reviews of the different AI tools on the market.

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Max Maybury of AI Product Reviews, a company that reviews different AI tools, says, “We use AI and ML to improve our review platform by employing AI algorithms to analyze sentiment, process data, and personalize reviews to make them more valuable to our users.”

AI Headshots

While a lot of the AI applications I’ve talked about so far have been related to language and data analysis, some emerging businesses are focusing on images, including AI headshots.

HeadshotPro is a leading AI Headshot provider with over 50,000 customers.

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“We’ve been developing our own in-house models since Stable Diffusion (SD) came out back in 2022. SD itself doesn’t lend itself too well to photorealistic AI photography, but once you start building your own models and pipelines, it starts to look VERY realistic,” says Danny Postma, founder of HeadshotPro.com.

Andrew Meyer, CEO of Arbor, a digital energy advisor that helps people lower their carbon footprint, shares that by using AI and ML, they can “provide personalized insights and recommendations to our customers, making it easy and safe to save on energy.”

2. 3D Printing

I have to say, I’m surprisingly obsessed with the opportunities 3D printing presents for someone who doesn’t have a 3D printer. I’ve seen so many incredible applications firsthand and am excited for so many more.

Bias Tape Makers

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One of my first experiences with 3D printing was early in the pandemic during mask shortages when people — including me — learned how to sew masks. Unfortunately, bias tape, one of the most popular materials for ties, was quickly in short supply. Enter 3D printers — who created designs for bias tape makers so people could print them and make more masks.

Healthcare Devices

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Some of my favorite applications of 3D printing lie in its ability to change people’s lives.

When I was doing research a few years ago for a client who manufactures 3D printers, I came across some videos about how a group of volunteers printed prosthetic hands for children and adults who need them — for a fraction of the cost.

That’s not all — today, companies like Formlabs are 3D printing dental products like crowns, retainers, and orthodontics.

Food

Yep, you read that correctly. Companies are 3D printing food. I find it absolutely fascinating, too.

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High-end restaurants like FoodInk are playing with 3D printing everything from plant-based meats to desserts.

3. Video and Music Streaming

Anyone who has listened to a podcast, streamed music from Spotify or Amazon, or watched Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+ knows about the power of video and music streaming and how disruptive these products continue to be for the film and music industries.

But the benefits aren’t limited to consumers or companies that stream video. Entrepreneurs and businesses are using streaming to communicate with their audiences.

Lori Highby, CEO and founder of Keystone Click, and host of the podcasts, BROADcast for Manufacturers and Social Capital, agrees.

“Streaming audio and video is so powerful! One of my favorite reasons for using it is that you get the immediate reaction of the real-time conversation but can then keep the conversation going post-live activity by resharing the content you have,” Highby says.

Highby points out that technology has made it easier to fuel the conversation.

“Now, with AI, it’s even easier to pull a transcript that converts to a blog, or other short-form snippets of content,” Highby says.

4. Virtual or Augmented Reality

Many people I talk with have some confusion about AI and VR/AR and how they’re all related.

If you’re wondering how AI and AR are different from each other, TechNerds does a great job of explaining this, “AI differs from AR in the sense that AI does not employ the user’s perception during the customer experience. AR delivers a sensory experience, while AI is more related to the algorithms and processes operating beyond the user’s sensory perception or observation.”

Danny Postma of HeadshotsPro has a prediction here, “I see AR getting more popular over VR, as it enables use cases to layer on top of the real world. No need to shut yourself off completely from the world.”

It’s something that I can see, too — as I see apps like PokemonGo or Jurassic World Alive using an AR mode that allows users to interact with the real world.

Some of the other potential exciting opportunities and applications for VR include:

  • Replacing a physical desktop screen — Postma was particularly interested in the opportunity to position his work around his office.

Meta is playing with smart glasses that could revolutionize how you interact with the world.

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  • While not a direct replacement for your desktop just yet, Meta’s Smart Glasses may be leading to that step.

Brand XR is exploring how to use AR to change meetings.

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  • AR-enhanced meetings, which Brand XR is exploring, have the potential to put people working remotely in the “same room” for a more collaborative experience than a Zoom meeting.

Hot Spring Spas has a virtual planning and shopping tool using AR to support the shopping experience.

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5. Bitcoin, Blockchain, or Digital Currency

While cryptocurrency can be controversial, the technology behind it is fascinating. Blockchain makes it easier to connect two parties for any variety of transactions, using decentralized finance (DeFi) to trade crypto and NFT assets.

Several companies are already emerging related to digital currency.

For example, the gaming company Roblox is already using “Roblox” currency with its digital users.

Ethereum is a leading blockchain that allows companies to use its technology for applications and has a much lower carbon footprint than other blockchains.

And, of course, Robinhood and PayPal currently allow some crypto trading for their users.

The potential of blockchain and digital currency continues to emerge, and I expect we’ll see some exciting developments in the coming months and years. It certainly has the power to revolutionize the way businesses — and people — pay one another and build wealth, and I’m excited to see where it takes us.

Adapting to Disruptive Technologies

I’ve covered many of the disruptive technologies that are revolutionizing the way people live and work in the world. So, how can businesses adapt? I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you decide how to move forward with the world of disruptive technologies.

Tip 1: Understand the Hype Cycle.


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Most disruptive technologies follow what Gartner coined a “hype cycle.” If you see an opportunity to capitalize on a disruptive technology to gain traction in the marketplace, it’s important to understand the risks involved.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle covers five primary periods, and understanding how your idea or initiative will likely play out is helpful for creating a go-to-market plan and managing expectations.

“Similar to Gartner’s Hype Cycle, there will always be an inflation of expectations — ‘AI will replace all humans, and there will be no need for humans’ — and then a trough of disillusionment where everyone will think that AI does nothing well,” says Srinath Sridhar, co-founder and CEO, Regie.ai.

However, Sridhar says that AI excels at value add, pushing it beyond just hype.

“While change is always hard, we just need to be patient and re-learn how to work with machines to adapt to the new world of human-computer interactions,” Srinath Sridhar says.

Tip 2: Instead of waiting for the wave, ride ahead of it.

That’s David Godlewski’s mantra. As CEO of Intelliverse, a SaaS company offering global cloud communication solutions, he’s seen a lot of changes and disruptive technologies over the last 20+ years.

His advice is, “Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and encourage your team to do the same. It’s all about embracing a culture of experimentation and learning.”

Godlewski says to let your team explore new technologies, proactively seek out innovative solutions, and learn from their mistakes.

“In this way, your business won’t just adapt — it’ll become a driver of tech disruption itself that even your competitors will look up to,” Godlewski says.

Tip 3: Know that disruptive technologies are here to stay.

Simon Hughes of Design & Build cautions, “Don’t bury your head in the sand and just ignore AI. The digital landscape is changing fast, and AI technology is not going to go away.”

With AI or any new tech, businesses that fail to embrace change run the risk of getting left behind by competitors. You risk looking outdated to customers.

Tip 4: Be ready when the discussion changes.

Digital Strategist Rolf Mistelbacher recently predicted in his newsletter that “the discussion around AI will change once it’s a commodity built into apps, and we can start to focus more on the different ways tools implement AI and how to do it better.”

Finding Your Place on the Disruptive Growth Curve

By now, two things are certain. The first? Change is inevitable, and companies that are more agile will be better able to adapt to disruptive technologies and position themselves for success as the market changes.

While not everyone has to be an early adopter, by being aware of what’s going on in the market, it’s possible to prepare yourself to adapt more quickly and effectively.

As for the second thing, human technology is on an exponential growth curve.

Vishaal Kumar shared this illustration of the rapid growth of human technology, to illustrate how disruptive technologies are rapidly changing how we see the world.

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As you can see in Vishaal Kumar’s illustration above, we’re on a hockey stick trajectory for new technologies. And that means that while these disruptive technologies are currently the hottest thing, we may not have any clue about what’s to come.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in April 2007 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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