On being … disruptive

By Ingrid Sapona

At the risk of sounding like I’m setting up a joke, I can’t help but begin this column with: I remember when… In this case, I remember when being called disruptive was a bad thing. When I was young, the worst thing a teacher could tell your parents was that you were disruptive.

Well – in case you haven’t noticed – being disruptive has apparently become a virtue. If you need proof, just listen to the admiration in the voices of silicon valley-types who busy themselves coming up with what they see as the next best piece of technology. Chances are they’ll proudly describe it as disruptive – like that’s a good thing. Uber, the “ride sharing app”, is a prime example.

Uber lets folks who have cars (like you and me) become, in effect, taxi drivers. The fact that riders pay a fare for rides kind of undercuts the friendly “sharing” idea, but never mind. Potential riders download the free app. When potential riders sign up to use Uber they provide a credit card that’s charged when they use the service. When they want a lift, the app shows them the location of nearby drivers and they order a ride. The app lets riders know what the rates are for that city, and it will provide a quote if the rider specifies a definite pick up and drop off point. At the end of the ride, the fare is automatically charged to their credit card, so no cash is needed.

Folks interested in providing rides sign up as drivers and, as the Uber website touts, they can then earn money with the tap of a button.  Once they’ve successfully registered under Uberx (which is the version aimed at individuals – there’s also an Uber version for licenced cab drivers), all the driver has to do is turn on the app and start accepting ride requests. Uber even provides drivers with a smartphone if they don’t have one. Drivers have total freedom regarding when they provide rides.

The fare is set by Uber and it can vary based on a number of variables, including distance and time, which makes it pretty darned similar to regular cabs. Uber is touted as cheaper and friendlier than taking a traditional cab. Apparently, however, it isn’t always cheaper. Unlike cab fares, which are regulated, Uber changes its fare structure as it sees fit. There have been reports of Uber implementing “surge pricing”, with rates going up when the weather is bad, or during high-volume times, like Halloween and New Years’ Eve.

Uber earns the mantle of disruptive technology because it has impacted the livery industry on many levels. Uber was in the news here in Toronto last week because the City has gone to court seeking an injunction to stop it from operating in Toronto on the basis that Uber is in violation of a municipal bylaw by operating without a taxi license. Other cities have also taken steps to ban Uber.

After the City filed the injunction, John Tory, our mayor elect who takes office on Monday, went on record as saying he’s opposed to trying to shut it down. As he put it, Uber and services like it are “here to stay”. Tory went on to say, “It is time our regulatory system got in line with evolving consumer demands in the 21st century. As Mayor, I intend to see that it does, while being fair to all parties, respecting the law and public safety.”

On one level, I think Tory’s approach is right – after all, the genie is out of the bottle. But the problem is, the disruptive tech folks don’t buy into Tory’s idea about being fair to all parties and about respecting law and public safety. Uber’s response to the two-year old battle with City Hall (and many other cities that have taken similar steps) has been that it won’t change its operations. It sees the matter as simply the livery industry successfully lobbying to protect its profit margins. Uber doesn’t see any public safety issues and so, as they see it, case closed.  

The folks behind Uber don’t see their intransigence as being an attempt to protect their profit. Though Uber users – riders and drivers – may see the free app as just a cool service that’s making their life easier, let’s not forget that Uber is a business – and a lucrative one at that. Venture capitalists have sunk U.S. $49.5 million into it and a recent Bloomberg story pegs the value of Uber at between $35 and $40 billion. So clearly the owners of Uber have a lot they’re interested in protecting – they’re not in it just to “share” their smarts with us all.

To a large extent, I think my inherent irritation with things like Uber is that the folks who create them are so proud of being “disruptors” that they then adopt an in-your-face attitude of: we’re here – get used to it! That kind of thing just gets peoples’ backs up. Maybe if everyone – including the self-proclaimed disruptors – would just think of what they’re doing as inventing things and innovating processes that are mutually beneficial, we’d all be more inclined to find ways of working together, rather than resisting each other.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … below average

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m not a clothes horse. Never have been, never will be. Maybe that’s why a statistic that I heard earlier this fall left me gobsmacked. According to the co-founder of Rent the Runway, the average woman (I’m assuming she’s referring to women in the U.S., but never mind) buys 64 pieces of clothing a year.

CBS Morning News was profiling the company (RTR, as their five million members refer to them) and, because I thought I misheard, I hit rewind on the PVR and re-played it. (I love that my PVR lets me do that with live t.v.!) Sure enough, I heard right: 64 pieces a year. Well, even if you count each sock in a pair of socks separately – I don’t come anywhere close to the average. In fact, I don’t think purchases of clothing by me and my two sisters combined total 64 in a year. (Though our combined total may be close because one sister has a sock fetish. But even so…)

I had forgotten that story until the other day when I was chatting with the wife of a friend at a social function. Somehow the conversation turned to clothes shopping and she enthusiastically mentioned she loves this one outlet mall. Apparently she always finds great bargains there. As an example, she mentioned she recently found a pair of Ralph Lauren winter pants and they were only $22.  

She went on to say that she bought six pairs and now she’s “set for the season”. Though I did my best to expressed approval and admiration for her bargain hunting acumen, the voice inside my head shouted: “Why on earth do you need six pair? You’re retired. It’s not like they’re your work uniform. Besides, what are a washer and dryer for?” Of course, I didn’t say that – I just smiled and nodded as that RTR average came to mind. Afterward I was thinking about it and I realized that clearly, though folks like me and my sisters might be bringing down the average, there are plenty of others bringing it up!

Anyway, this column isn’t about the number of pairs of pants my friend’s wife bought (or needs), it’s about the use of averages. Though I realize deriving averages is a pretty standard exercise in many fields, whenever I hear an average for this or that, my knee jerk reaction is to compare myself to it. I imagine this goes back to my youth, when school performance was graded by comparison to some mythical average that was represented by a C.

Part and parcel of my early conditioning around the notion of “average” was the idea that the goal is to always be above average. Please don’t misunderstand – my striving for above average grades is not something my parents are to be blamed for. Far from it. My mother always assured us that all she ever expected of us was to bring home average grades. Proving mothers can’t win, I used to get so mad when she didn’t understand my frustration at a B. Her telling me that a mere C was enough seemed genuinely insulting.

Obviously I’ve been out of school a long time, but I still find that whenever a news story mentions an average, before I realize I’ve really processed the topic, I feel a twinge if I’m below that average. So, when I heard the Rent the Runway figure, even though shopping and new clothes really don’t matter much to me, my first thought was that there must be something really wrong with me, as I am woefully below that average.

Fortunately, most of the times when this happens, after taking a breath, I manage to regain some objectivity. Usually I find that when I’m nowhere even close to the average, it’s because it’s something that’s irrelevant to me. In those cases, whether I’m above or below doesn’t matter as I don’t really care about the spectrum the average is measuring. Mind you, some days it takes me awhile to come around to that realization.

Gosh, do you suppose this means I have more low self-esteem days than average?

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona