4 Reasons Big Companies Don’t Innovate…or Get Disrupted

For a couple of years, I’ve merely tinkered with “The Myth of Disruption“. Then I saw venture capitalist Anshu Sharma‘s recent post in Techcrunch (and Wall Street Journal) arguing that startups disrupt big companies because they’ve lost touch with what end-users want. So upstarts at the “top of the stack” can uncover all those juicy unmet needs. This “stack fallacy” has Ford thinking it can build an Uber. Though Sharma thinks it’s likelier Uber could successfully build a Ford. He also mentions Oracle’s repeated, failed attempts to defeat Salesforce in CRM.

While there’s truth to the stack fallacy, it’s a kissing cousin of traditional vertical integration strategies. Also, it tells just one small part of the story. Below are four reasons big companies don’t innovate – and one deeper truth: that most of what we’ve deemed “disruption” is bullshit.

So why don’t corporations innovate?

1. Gulliver can’t pick daises in Lilliput

Most corporate innovation fails because of one thing: size.

In any given year, only a handful of $200M businesses are hatched – globally. Now, imagine coming up with one of these unicorn ideas. (ok, a Minotaur – unicorns are so over.) Clearly, you’ll be up for a promotion and rolling in honey and Benjamins in no time. What could possibly be the catch? You work at a company that has a yuuuuuuge $1B marketing budget. Suddenly, your $200M revenue idea – adjusted for risk and a 3-5 year timeline, can be dwarfed simply by raising the price of an existing product by pennies. Guess whose block is too teeny for “the stack”…? No budget for you. We’re mailing more coupons!

In fact, many – if not most – top-level “stacks” are too small for massive companies to chase.

The app store is a decent revenue generator for Apple. It gets a 30% cut across brilliant and idiotic apps alike. But only a thimbleful of apps ever become big enough to make a blip on Apple’s financials. Sure, there’s the occasional Uber or Instagram. But it took millions of attempts to come up with those morsels. It’s a process no large company could fund or manage. Nor should it.

The same goes for mobile carriers.  Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-mobile allow tons of MVNO’s to re-sell their bandwidth and chase down niches they can’t. If one of these resellers gets big enough, the major carrier buys it. That’s how Sprint acquired Virgin Mobile US and T-Mobile bought MetroPCS. Others like Ting and FreedomPop are banking on the same outcome.

2. They don’t have to. Really.

As I explain in this video, there’s far less disruption than bloggers and bullshitters would have us believe. Companies believe time is on their side – and it is. Aside from a handful of industries like tech and media (where all the noise-makers reside), many top incumbents can not only weather a disruption, but co-opt it.

Think of all their advantages:

  • Buckets of cash (…some floating offshore…)
  • Brand recognition
  • Global distribution and shelf-space
  • Exclusive contracts
  • Global supply chain and low cost procurement
  • Stockpiles of patents to threaten, retard, or bankrupt innovators with legal fees and resource tie-ups

Industries like insurance, finance, auto, and aerospace are besieged by startups, but have plenty of additional layers of protection:

  • Protective regulations
  • High capital requirements
  • Longevity – customers aren’t looking for their IRA’s, insurance plans, and 50,000 mile warranties to be disrupted or disruptive

So…what’s often called a “disruption” is more like an interruption.

Not only do most “disruptors” fail to put anyone out of business; the vast majority sell out to an incumbent. The numbers couldn’t be clearer:


Startups aren’t harbingers of disruption, they’re an externalized R&D function.

R&D and more broadly, innovation, has flatlined in many industries. That opened the doors for startups to provide features and functions they’ve been neglecting. The incumbent’s punishment for their R&D-linquency? Paying top-shelf prices – retroactively – to buy what they should have made.


Some incumbents are brilliantly – or deviously – seizing disruptive technology as their own:

  • Axel Springer, an old school German publisher, reinvented itself in digital, proving that if you’re smart, bold & have capital all things are possible.
  • Financial services companies are now completely neutering and seizing the Bitcoin “revolution” for themselves:
    • They’re adopting Blockchain technology, the crown jewel of bitcoin
    • Major banks are about to corner the market on Bitcoin IP
    • Others are financing Bitcoin’s biggest new “disruptors”. You’re not disrupting anything if you’re owned by incumbents.  It’s like declaring emancipation from your parents, but continuing to live in their house while they pay all your expenses.
  • Even Netflix, which looks disruptive, has nuzzled itself comfortably into the media establishment. It’s:

Of course, incumbents are far from safe. In aggregate, the world is moving faster than ever, causing many will fail. Not from disruption, but from good old-fashioned mismanagement, obsolescence, or lack of vision. I talk to companies every day that think they have more time than they do, misread market signals, or misunderstand their biggest strengths. As I wrote here, many companies sit on a sunken treasure of growth assets.

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3. Not every big company is “stacked”, but it is “saddled”

The stack fallacy contends that the companies getting disrupted are farther removed from customer desires than their disruptors are. Not necessarily.

The New York Times serves news directly to readers, same as Buzzfeed. (Contain your violent recoil…) There are no “stacks” of intermediaries at the NYT. Yet, one is a hyper-profitable ‘disruptor’ and the other is like a chimp with a coconut, trying to crack digital.

Amazon is seen as a disruptor to Walmart, but Walmart has a less “stacked” relationship. It sees customers face to face. You’d think Walmart could look deep into their eyes and know exactly what kind of Chinese-made camisoles they wanted. Not so.

The real issue here isn’t stacking, it’s saddling. Incumbents like New York Times and Walmart are dragged down by a potpourri of anchors:

  • Financial and psychological sunk costs in ancient technologies, products, and services that should have been mercifully euthanized years earlier
  • Inefficient or heavy-handed processes
  • Remnants from ill-conceived acquisitions or deals
  • Outdated presumptions about what ‘the rules’ are

4. Defensive psychology

When I was pitching my first book, I was introduced to a senior executive at a major publisher. She spent the first 10 minutes of our call consumed with how abnormal our conversation was. “Usually, people go through an agent and submit a proposal and blah blah blah……Ok, we’re on the call NOW. How about we talk about the book? She was a relic of an era that no longer existed – in a way, begging to be disrupted.

Big companies don’t defend status quo by accident. Ever try herding a group of 15 people to lunch? Now imagine herding 50,000 to do something completely new.

There’s deep individual and group psychology that explains why they don’t take the risks needed to innovate. As I deconstructed in The 9 Corporate Personality Types, big organizations have lots of anchors that keep them from innovating.

It starts with self-selection at recruitment. Most people joining large corporations didn’t opt for a beige cubicle, 401K match, and free bi-annual prescription glasses to change the world. The lunatics sleeping at their desks after coding all night did. Risk-taking is in some people’s blood and not in others.

A lot also has to do with age. By nature, individuals (and companies) with reputation, brand, and assets try to protect play defense. Those with nothing to lose are free to attack. (It also explains why the young are liberal and unencumbered, but slowly morph into Bob Dole as they have families and accumulate assets.)

So what’s a company supposed to do?

Recognizing all this, I’ve focused on helping companies create and commercialize innovations through startup partnerships and acquisitions. This eliminates months of internal politics and grounds conversation in reality, not PowerPoint. Still, even the best opportunities require healthy doses of change therapy.

Others are piling into corporate venture, hoping to mimic the success of groups like Google Ventures. But according to Harvard Business Review, the median lifespan of a corporate venture program is one year. Most corporations don’t have the stomach for the low probabilities of venturing. And as I satirized here, few can access the Google’s ubiquitous data. They know what’s succeeding, accelerating, or failing – vastly improving chances of successful investment.

What makes corporate VC especially treacherous is the added burden of trying to be “strategic” (choosing investments that can help the mother ship). On paper, that makes sense, but it’s a cross ordinary venture firms don’t have to schlep. In practice, early stage strategic investors can easily end up with a different flavor of the size dilemma I described earlier.  Premature strategic investments can also keep startups from lucrative opportunities with competitors.

Then there’s the dark side – a festering cesspool of lawyers and Tony Sopranos. There are countless examples of incumbents working to crush or slow down competitive innovation:

  • Financial services companies trying to corner the market on bitcoin IP
  • Taxi companies suing Uber
  • Hotels lobbying for crackdowns and regulations of AirBnB
  • Fossil fuel companies trying to kill solar tax breaks…while happily taking their own
  • Auto dealers trying to prevent Tesla from selling direct to consumers
  • Cable companies slowing web traffic to extract payments from providers like Netflix
  • Cable companies suing Aereo out of existence (Admittedly, this was a stupid company)
  • Lots of patent intimidation and resource-draining lawsuits

A few industries still do traditional R&D. Industries like drugs and tech have no choice, but are seeing declining yields. Similar investments in CPG can produce occasional hits, but more often product line bloat or novel, but temporary marketing bluster.

Others hold out hope for organic growth innovation groups. This infographic sums up how those can easily devolve into theatrics. There are ways to improve results with new business models, customer experiences, and systems/processes, not just products and services.

Then there’s also  open innovation…

Wow am I tired of writing. Want to know more or need help growing your business? Contact us.

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