It was a mistake, Christensen argued, to find fault with established companies not drawn to small, unprofitable corners of the market. Those companies had succeeded because they had developed their own “laws of nature”—an almost intuitive sense of how to make decisions, spend money, and, most important, maintain a good and reliable relationship with their customers. But these were the very qualities, he argued, that rendered them so vulnerable to disruptive technology.
Christensen, a devout Mormon, was staking out a position that bordered on business heresy. In the face of disruptive technology, he wrote, the wise course was not to react to the demands of existing customers. It was imperative to lower revenue expectations for the products spun off by those new technologies. And it was essential to accept the inevitability of failure. If sustaining technology brought reassurance, disruptive technology sowed doubt.
Yates had been with Knight Ridder long enough to recognize how much Christensen’s case mirrored what had taken place at her company. Knight Ridder, under Jim Batten, had ended the Viewtron experiment because the market was judged too small and the cost too high. But now Christensen was presenting an argument suggesting that, in essence, the company had had it all wrong—that because it had lost so much money it could not appreciate that Viewtron did, in fact, serve a market, albeit a small one that could, over time, develop into a far larger one, once the technology became cheaper, accessible, and efficient. Once the personal computer with a high-speed modem became a household fixture, the newspaper would cease being the best way to read, and more importantly, to search for jobs, employees, cars, and homes. That was the moment of disruption. And when it occurred, the companies that had been cultivating their shares of the emerging markets found themselves no longer at the periphery, but, like eBay, in a position to dominate a market that, not so long before, did not appear to exist.
As if by chance, Ingle had in 1990 come upon the very corrective in Mercury Center that Christensen would prescribe seven years later—a small, inexpensive laboratory for trying out those disruptive technologies, a place where modest successes could be celebrated and built upon, a “skunk works” operation that the company could keep running as it waited to see whether the new markets might emerge, or existing ones catch up.
But as it was with Charlene Li’s technology fair, and with Roger Fidler’s innovation lab, Knight Ridder had shown itself to be uncomfortable with failure—failure as defined by little money to show for the effort. After she left Knight Ridder, Li, who believed the company would one day be “eaten alive,” eventually founded her own firm, consulting companies on adapting to disruptive technology.
In the summer of 1997, Bob Ingle had assumed the role of the news business’s Jeremiah. At the Newspaper Association of America’s new-media conference in San Francisco, he rose to offer his dark prediction of the fate that awaited all those unwilling to change.
“We think we’re an institution—the last bastion against greed and corruption and government inefficiency,” he thundered. “We are our own worst enemies. We have forgotten how to compete, and we better learn damn fast because we’re on Internet time.”
Newspapers were hesitating to adapt, convinced that somehow they could survive by doing things as they always had, he continued. But that meant a slow death, because soon enough the monopoly on classified advertising was going to end, and when it did the money that paid for all the journalism that made publishers and editors so proud was going to evaporate.
For all his worry about the next threat, Ingle believed he had identified his enemy, and it was not a startup, even though small firms were freer to throw their modest resources behind an innovation, if only because they had so much less to lose. The threat he saw was not the free electronic classified listings that Craig Newmark started running, part time, from his San Francisco apartment in 1995. Nor was it BackRub, a search engine being developed by two Stanford graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who in 1997 would rename it Google.