They are men, mostly. They are young, mostly. They are visionaries on a mission -- to systematize and make all the world’s knowledge accessible (Google); to connect all the world’s people with each other (Facebook); to change the way books are read and the sound of music is heard (Apple, Amazon); to reorganize urban transportation in 55 countries (Uber); to make brevity mandatory (Twitter); to create a more literate world and, not to be ignored, elevate free delivery to a right (Amazon). They are the disrupters, practitioners of what Joseph Schumpeter called the process of creative destruction. They have no interest in nibbling away at an incumbent’s market share: “Proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job,” biographer Brad Stone reports Jeff Bezos telling his “Amazonians”. Disrupters believe creative destruction is the main reason capitalism has created the greatest material wealth the world has ever seen. That is the mantra of Silicon Valley, the result of a swaggering culture that other parts of this country, and even centrally controlled economies such as China’s and Russia’s, are attempting to create. Or in some cases, contain. Neither emulation nor containment has been very successful, although with some help from Google our British friends are making progress in imagining and funding potential disrupters.
These disrupters move with remarkable speed. If Google and Facebook were people they would be too young to vote. And they don’t hesitate to take a leaf out of their rivals’ books. Like many media companies, the disrupters combine maintenance of control with an ability to raise capital by using various classes of stock. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, own 14% of the company’s shares but control 56% of the votes through super-voting shares. That relieves them of the need to meet quarterly earnings targets, pay dividends, or otherwise take their eyes of their main goal --disruptive change. There is an extensive academic and financial literature about corporate governance, arguing inconclusively whether the gain -- relief from short-term profit-maximizing pressures -- is exceeded by the loss -- founder/owners with unconstrained power to chart their companies’ course.
So what are the next targets of the disrupters? Not easy to predict, since many of the disruptive companies sprang full-blown from the heads of young Stanford students, and will continue to do so. But we do have clues. Google and Apple have decided that an assault on Big Pharma will enable them to do well by doing good. They believe the drug companies are inefficient, slow to use masses of data to direct their research, their products excessively costly. Apple has arranged for its users to provide data to its new partners -- among them a Harvard-affiliated cancer center to measure the long-term effects of chemotherapy, and a Stanford center studying links between physical activity and heart disease. Google has invested in 23andMe, a DNA testing company, and Calico, specializing in age-related diseases. The pharmaceutical companies confess they find this “unsettling”, not least because their physical products, pills and such, provide only a small part of the total value, most of which comes from the research and development process. If Google and others connect their enormous data bases with patient records -- a formidable task given privacy restrictions and other impediments -- they can become hyper-efficient research and development companies.
Then there is the banking industry. The Economist, not exactly a left-wing rabble-rouser, describes the huge global banks as “lumbering giants … the wooly mammoths of finance … dysfunctional conglomerates…”, just the sort of targets that attract disrupters. Not that any sensible firm would want to duplicate the structure of “wooly mammoths.” Instead, challenge them in specific markets. Enter marketplace lending, otherwise known as peer-to-peer lending. Borrowers can now shop online for loans from individuals, hedge funds and other institutions, with cost-efficient lenders able to make do with lower spreads between their cost of capital and what they charge borrowers. Lending Club, a peer-to-peer lender valued at $1.5 billion, has attracted Google as its partner. It "… is using the Internet to reshape the financial system and profoundly transform the way people think of credit and investment… We are excited to be part of it," said David Lawee, of Google.