Lauren Goode

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Letters From SXSW: How to Be “Disruptive”

In the tech industry, we hear the term “disruptive” a lot. But what does it take to really disrupt a category of technology?

It’s certainly not easy — the road to disruption can be paved with premature launches, faulty products, tepid or negative consumer reaction and lawsuits — and that’s usually after years of research and development and dollars spent.

The minds behind Jawbone, the Nest thermostat and the new Lytro camera came together on Monday to discuss this exact topic on a SXSW Interactive panel.

All agreed on two points: Good design is critical, and even if you’re a hardware company, you’re not just a hardware company anymore.

“The way we see it, it’s hardware and software services,” said Matt Rogers, co-founder of Nest, which late last year launched a new “smart” thermostat. “You have to think of how these pieces tie together: When you pair it with your iPhone, how’s it going to work? And that’s incredibly difficult, some of the most difficult engineering we’ve done.”

For Ren Ng, founder and chief executive of Lytro, introducing a new type of camera meant not only designing a new light-capturing sensor, but also creating an entirely new form factor. “You can’t just build software, because it’s connecting an entirely new kind of data inside. So, for us, it was clear that we had to build new hardware, too.”

Jawbone, which is known for products pairing audio technology with hardware devices, said technology companies have to deliver a complete experience that’s cohesive to consumers.

“The barrier to entry for hardware has come down, but the barrier to great hardware has not actually gone down, and I think that’s given a false sense of hope to some people,” said Travis Bogard, Jawbone’s vice president of product management.

Jawbone, which uses expensive medical-grade plastic in its best-selling Jambox speaker, recently faced its first major setback with hardware — and complementary software — when it was forced to pause production on its UP wristband and fix its companion iPhone app.

“It means putting cost and good design into products,” Bogard said. “These are not easy decisions to make.”

And while many tech entrepreneurs hold Apple products up as the pinnacle of design, these “disruptors” said that reaching almost-perfection means killing your design darlings — often many times over.

Bogard said that with the UP wristband, Jawbone was actually set to launch the product six months earlier than it did, but the company decided the band needed to be 30 percent smaller. Nest’s Rogers said the company threw away many designs before settling on “the one.”

“To take something you think is beautiful, and say it’s not good enough yet, and throw it away, it takes a lot of effort,” Rogers said. “It’s emotionally intensive, and it’s also cost-intensive. It’s impossible to get to perfection, but as entrepreneurs and designers, that’s what we strive for.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald