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Show Me Disruptive Startups

I was so thrilled to read our buddy Richard MacManus come through with an honest look at the “web 2.0” world:

I also don’t see many start-ups attempting disruptive things in the non-geek space. I see plenty of events web apps, tons of RSS Aggregators, lots of AJAX-powered office apps. But what about Web 2.0 applications that will tackle things like health, finance, education, government?

Richard is talking about disruptive startups — companies who actually break the mold and innovate rather than emulate, mashup, and wait for the quick flip. The problem I see is that every new “web 2.0” company targets the same audience: 20-somethings who socially bookmark their life, use RSS to track weblogs, and seemingly can’t find any restaurants without needing someone else’s opinion. Is this the best our industry can do?

Two years ago I worked at Northrop Grumman designing missile defense software, and let me just say, it could be a HELL of a lot better. I think we should take the best designer and the best programmer from all the new “web 2.0” startups, put them all in a new company, and have them design military software. Or content management software. Screw social networking (I like actually meeting my friends), let’s make real applications better.

Colin’s take. What’s your take?

About Mike Rundle


  1. Mike says:

    I totally agree. I personally have been very inspired by this web 2.0 movement, and have considered jumping back in the deep end of web development. In this, I’ve considered many different industries which would be totally blindsided… as they’re not the type of groups who are keeping an eye on the latest and greatest technology.

    Unfortunately I’m a long way off from having the chops to do the programming myself. Maybe I’ll try and grab the ears of some real 2.0 geeks and see if they wanna take on some new projects.

  2. shawn says:

    I agree with this and roll my eyes everytime I see someone jumping into the same relatively small pool. All this web ingenuity being used to make for our peers.

    It is time to identify new markets that could use the help and apply our knowledge to solving their problems. Plus, if you choose that market wisely, you would have the opportunity to operate with very few competitors.

    We all need to look a little farther out and focus on something outside of our comfort zone and rise to those challenges.

  3. misterchris says:

    RE:missile defense software … lets just leave it as it is … whats the worst that could happen?!


  4. For me, the incremental innovation you guys are talking about betrays an overemphasis on the tools. I have *this* fancy technique that I could do *this* with. So, you end up with apps that, as you point out, bring value to a select club. Kind of inside baseball.

    For me, Peter Merholz’s sandbox metaphor and harping on real life user needs are some of the best places to start. The ‘Web 2.0 is made of people’ meme isn’t a bad simplification to get us headed in the right direction. I’m approaching it like this: what are specific communities that would really benefit from the type of swarming/sharing that Web 2.0 apps make possible? What are the super niched, hyperlocal needs we can address now? The new development environment means we can quickly trial and evolve a whole range of ideas with really small teams. That’s exciting. I have a whole list of projects I want to see happen.

    For instance, last night I had a tough time sleeping, worrying about yet another super powerful hurricane about to enter the Gulf later this week. One thing that happens as a storm gets closer is everyone starts asking each other: What are you going to do? Ride it out? Board up? Nothing? Leave town? So I outlined a little Web app that asks people what they are planning to do. You type in your zip code and it tells you what your neighbors have in mind. Here’s a specific user behavior written large (and quickly) through the power of the Web. You have more info and can make a more educated decision based on the collected insights of the hive mind. Now, let’s take it farther and start gathering up recommended backroad evacuation routes. The main arteries pack up quickly, and long time natives know the best ways out. Let’s gather them. Mash them up with Google maps. Port in hotel availability in the cities that people typically go to — like Baton Rouge, Jackson, Birmingham, Houston, etc. Flow in the updates from the hurricane center in a pane. Suddenly, we have a little dashboard people can use to make better decisions for their families & neighbors. Much better than flipping through channels or pulling up a series of bookmarked sites, burrowing through forums, etc.

    I’m just thinking here. You might also follow what is going on with Recovery 2.0. We had a meeting at the Web 2.0 conference to start talking about these types of uses of technology, and I hope to see continued, sustained work in that area. I know people in my hometown need all the help they can get.

  5. Mike Rundle says:


    Definitely all good points. I think the “web 2.0” description of it being social and people-oriented is cool, but, what worries me is that VC firms are funding these cool and altruistic projects as if they’re going to turn into a mega-company. Your hurricane application could easily be developed using given APIs for mid-5 figures, but then the bubble talk comes in and a few mil are given out to bloat the project — essentially turning an amazing idea into a 12-person clusterfuck for no reason.

    We need to be smart in this “web 2.0” world or else we’ll dive into the same trouble we got into in the late nineties. I think teams need to figure out if what they’re building would be better off made as a bootstrapped project instead of a well-funded faux-company. Because if all the startups that launched at the Web 2.0 conference a few weeks back turn out to be faux-companies and dive, the web industry would take ANOTHER huge hit, and where would we go from there? Web 3.0 eight years from now? :)

  6. James Coats says:

    Make “Web 2.0” meaningful to people that have never heard the term, who think AJAX is for cleaning toilets, who won’t be Flocking to Flock, and you’ll have something unique and enduring.

    Produce something needed for a non-profit, and/or government agency that is incapable of producing it for themselves. You will have met a legit need and solidified your company with a solid $ gain. I work for a non-profit that’s in contract with the state of Texas; I know of such needs, and opportunities certainly exist.


  7. I agree completely. There are still real problems to solve.

    My partner and I are working on bringing the “Web 2.0” experience to K-5 teachers. Based on what has been learned recently, a lot can be improved in that field to build teacher’s relationships with parents and we’re working hard to strenghten that.

    One thought is that there still needs to be time for experimentation and that the benefits will be passed along soon enough. We’re still learning how to use this stuff correctly and honestly I’d rather not see version 1 webware/ajax/whatever end up in the mass marketplace. Let’s give them something better, backed by more experience.


  8. kevin says:

    This is happening. They might not be “start-ups” but these things are happening on a daily basis for management applications in industries of all types.

  9. Sam says:

    I think you are talking about two different things that can not be confused. One is the trend of new super-secret-sauce ‘web 2.0’ projects. the other is the lack of disruptive software *anywhere*. We have to remember that the term ‘web 2.0’ is and will always be confined to one industry. Every other industry just knows it as “that software that does that thing we need it to do.” Put another way, of course a guy who makes a new type of tire is going to talk shop to the other guy that makes tires. If he’s trying to sell it to a housewife, he’ll use different language. Sure, I’ll tell you about some new ajaxy software becuase you know what ajax means. If I’m working for a corporate client, I’m just going to say “check it out, your customer doesn’t need to refresh!”

    The other point about no new disruptive software is *very* valid. Anil Dash just wrote about this… about companies that are built to flip. It’s a lot more of a safe bet to write software that you can sell to a big guy for millions instead of software that can make you *into* a big guy. I agree, let’s start thinking about other groups that are in desperate need of new software (like missile defense, yikes!)

  10. I think the development of the Web 2.0 is tracking very closely to Web 1.0 (and that is not necessarily a bad thing). Bubbles occur in nature and on the Internet – expect them and you will prosper – ignore them and you may pay a hefty price. Who can argue that the Web 1.0 was a bad thing? It was necessary. Now we are seeing Web 2.0 and we will get a mixed bag of the good and the bad.

  11. Ryan Heneise says:

    Well, not to toot my own horn, but my audience is not exactly your normal 20-something geek-demographic. Nice thing about this sector (ministry/nonprofit) is that there is a lot of room for improvement in the available software.

  12. I had always hoped GainCMS would be that 2.0 app that redefined the CMS market. Too bad I could never find the time to build it.

  13. So let me get this straight, are you saying that we should move to building applications that “normal” people would use and that there is something else out their besides bookmarking, socializing and RSS feeds?

    Sorry man, that world sounds too scary to me. I will stick with this kick ass aggregator I am working on. Quark is looking into buying it to complement their dominating desktop publishing software…

  14. Entrepreneurs getting into this space (like me) are stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one. If you aim low, you get accused of not being disruptive enough. If you aim high, you get accused of not having a viable long-term business plan, since GEMAYA will inevitably eat your lunch if you get too uppity (or so the experts say). You can’t win. From the perpective of the people starting up these businesses, the point should not be how disruptive you are or how much you resemble a temporarily outsourced GEMAYA R&D unit, it’s what contribution you can make to the new economy. If that contribution is incremental, that’s not a bad thing. If that contribution is monumental, that’s not necessarily a good thing either – maybe the older way was better.

  15. Danny says:

    A few months Northrop Grumman bought Tucana, a company which has developed an RDF store (it has an open source counterpart, Kowari). By exploiting Semantic Web technologies, I’d say they were actually ahead of the curve on Web 2.0.

    (I must declare ethical issues on the application domain, but weapons of war are certainly disruptive).

  16. It is unfair to say that Web 2.0 is being limited to the geeky side of “I-dont-really-use-it-but-i-love-the-flashy-site”.

    It is true that in proportion to the hype created by Web 2.0 (and PLEASE people, it is MORE than JUST “AJAX”) the take-up has been limited and no one has come up with anything ground-breaking in the business software space.

    I personally use Web 2.0 technologies like tagging, ajax, blogging and syndication tools to enhance the experience our corporate Intranet and in-house MIS delivers.

    Everyone in IT is now hooked onto AJAX based reports and are even foretelling the death of SQL Reporting Services due to the flexibility and illusion of speed AJAX is providing us.

    Syndication and tagging will help our company disseminate information on an opt-in model through the subscription model.

    It isnt just startups that promote and excel in disruptive technologies but it is easier for them due to a visible lack of need for change management and control.

  17. evan says:

    The sad news is, that industries like health, finance, education, government don’t have the money or education to put new innovative web software in place.

    And a company that is in that industry for web work is going to have a very difficult time getting funding if they need it.

  18. Anthony says:

    Evan, you’ve gotta be kidding. Health, finance, education and government are exactly the areas that do have the money to fund new apps just that developers haven’t blown their socks off with anything. It’s not for industries to be educated about technology it’s about technology people educating industries what can be done.

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