“Disruption” Sounds Great….Until Your Life Is On The Line

I was just a scrawny dude dressed in a suit walking home at 1 AM on a cold night in Spanish Harlem. He was not.

I crossed the street, he crossed the street. I sped up, he seemed to only get closer. About a minute into my walk from the subway on a deserted December night on 111th street – it was very clear to me this country kid from Indiana was about to have a nice big “welcome to New York” mugging.

That cold night in December 2012 was my first experience with how difficult it can be to have a conversation in the middle of an emergency. Fast forward two years and my family was touched by this challenge again when my father was unable to reach first responders after falling from the roof of my childhood home.

Every day across the United States 650,000 Americans call 911 facing some of the most challenging moments of their lives. Over the past four years, I’ve witnessed the incredible heroism of public safety officials to manage these emergencies with little more than a distraught caller’s voice.

Despite all the ways that technology has transformed our lives over the last 50 years, 911 still relies on a caller’s ability to verbally articulate where they are located and what is occurring. A 2015 Report by the FCC estimated that accurately locating wireless 911 callers could save over 10,000 lives annually.

Four years into building RapidSOS and thanks to the work of 5,000 public safety and law enforcement officials – we are on the cusp of forever changing the information available to first responders. Thanks to their input, we’ve built a platform to link any device directly to 911 and first responders in an emergency with rich data that is powering millions of devices.

As a former venture capitalist who grew-up immersed in a cult of disruption – the past four years building RapidSOS has been a humbling realization that the cult that I worshipped for so long is the exact wrong approach to driving innovation in public safety.

Disruption: Its Roots and Its Cult Following Today

As a young tech entrepreneur at Harvard Business School, I was immersed in a culture of “disruptive innovation.” Indeed, famous HBS professor Clayton Christensen first defined the phrase disruptive innovation to describe “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”  

Professor Christensen’s theory has been much more broadly applied to a technology culture that often glorifies companies like Uber and Tesla that have “disrupted” traditional industries, even if these examples don’t follow Professor’s Christensen’s exact theory. The result is a mantra of “disruption” that reverberates through the technology community and culminates in major events like TechCrunch Disrupt – a series of top technology conferences organized by TechCrunch.

Unfortunately, the current cult of “disruption” suggests that an industry needs to be completely uprooted to solve a challenge or drive innovation. While many successful examples exist of this approach, this perspective limits the power of a collaborative approach to innovation, particularly in industries governed by complex systems, high capital requirements, commodity products, or mission critical services.

Relearning Innovation – A Humbling Journey of Learning When Not to “Disrupt”

To a young entrepreneur immersed in the culture of disruption, 911 seemed to be an industry in serious need of a Silicon Valley process of disruption. First developed in 1968, the information flow in emergencies remains based on a 20th century mindset of voice-based communication. Indeed, in 2017 the information flow into 911 systems remains limited to 512 characters – less data than was transmitted in the first transatlantic cable in 1858 (617 characters).

When Nick Horelik and I first formed RapidSOS, we focused on an end-to-end solution to replace existing emergency call flows. Our web-browser, rich data, multi-media enabled approach – was destined to “disrupt” the emergency response sector and save thousands of lives.

All of that stopped with our first visit to a public safety answering point (PSAP – industry terminology for a 911 dispatch center). If you’ve never been in a PSAP, it’s hard to fully describe the buzz of activity. On a busy Friday evening, when most of are relaxing at the start of our weekend, a center could be managing dozens of emergencies – with a telecommunicator walking a teenager through CPR to save his father’s life one minute and silently dispatch units to a domestic violence situation the next. The Within the Trenches podcast and #IAM911 movement developed by a former 911 telecommunicator offers a glimpse into these centers and the extraordinary people who power a service that most of us take for granted.

Ten minutes in that environment and listening to my first call – a grief stricken mother screaming after walking into the bloody scene of her son’s suicide – I immediately threw away every notion of “disruption” I had previously harbored. With 457 911 calls a minute – distractions, the addition of new monitors/information feeds, even graphic video from a scene could “disrupt” the finely honed operating procedures of our nation’s PSAPs with catastrophic consequences.

That day would forever change how Nick and I viewed “disruption” and the overall approach that we would take to building RapidSOS. The next three years would be a humbling journey in relearning entrepreneurship and ultimately building a coalition of experts to drive transformative innovation in a way that supported, not disrupted, a finely-honed mission critical industry.

Over the course of this column, I’ll talk more about the journey of RapidSOS, about learning a collaborative approach to innovation, and the challenges along the way. From that first experience in Harlem, to solidifying RapidSOS at a Dunkin Donuts in Cambridge, having 50% of our engineering team quit on Christmas Eve, to raising $14 million and helping a 911 telecommunicator save a life – learning how to collaborate instead of disrupt has forever changed RapidSOS and the impact we are making in partnership with public safety.

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