What Does Disruptive Growth Look Like?

Dec 19, 2017

Our recent blog post on the differences between structural and cyclical themes discussed how those that are structural in nature tend to be one-off shifts that change existing paradigms, while cycle trends ebb and flow over time. In this post, we dig into how these disruptive one-off shifts tend to emerge and expand upon the characteristics of structural themes.

A Theory about Disruptive Technology

The Diffusion of Innovation Theory, developed by E.M. Rogers, holds that disruptive technologies, products, and ideas tend to follow an ‘S’ shaped adoption curve with five stages.

  1. Adoption starts slowly, as only a small group of Innovators take a flier on a new technology before it is proven or widely accepted. Consider this group the buyers of the first Apple Watch, the original Tesla Roadster, or in a failed scenario, Google Glass.
  2. The next stage is for the slightly larger group of Early Adopters to come in, who accelerate the technology’s growth and evangelize its value via word of mouth. This is often considered the tipping point in a technology’s acceptance, as the Early Adopters must convince the bulk of the population that a particularly technology is worthwhile. Currently, 4k TVs fall in this bucket, with approximately 16% adoption.1
  3. Moving to the Early Majority, we reach the part of the Adoption S-curve where the slope is the steepest, and hence the rate of adoption is at its fastest. In this phase, sales growth tends to explode. At a 36% adoption rate, wireless headphones are likely in this category.2
  4. Adoption continues growing at a solid pace as the Late Majority are convinced to participate, and the technology appears seemingly almost everywhere. With 81% adoption, social media is likely somewhere in the Late Majority stage.3
  5. Finally, the Laggards, or the holdouts, begrudgingly acquiesce and accept/adopt a technology. We might remember this group as the Blackberry keyboard truthers who eventually caved and bought a full screen smart phone. By this point, however, sales growth has cooled off and virtually all of the potential market for a product has been captured.

Stages of Adoption

This Theory in Practice

In practice, the ‘S’ curve prediction has held up fairly accurately. Not all products or new technologies follow the same ‘S’ shape, but by and large, historical adoption patterns for disruptive technologies and products have followed a general ‘S’ shape, as demonstrated in the chart below.

Rate of Adoption

Source: Michael Felton, The New York Times and Harvard Business Review.

The shape of this ‘S’ can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the speed of technological advancements, cost curves, regulations, competition, or even social norms. Some may never experience an ‘S’ at all, as technologies often fail to make it past the Innovators or Early Adopters stages, even if it is a superior product (apologies to Betamax fans).

What Does this Mean for Investors?

The relationship between an adoption curve and stock prices is not always a direct one. Many factors can come into play that introduce differences, such as companies taking losses to build market share, intense competition, or unproven business models. In social media, for instance, firms tend to prioritize building their user base before inundating users with ads. Therefore, the adoption curve tends to noticeably precede revenue growth. Earnings can lag even further behind, as many high growth companies look to plow their cash flows back into their businesses.

Yet while there may not be a direct relationship, investors can certainly take certain cues from the adoption curve. For example, knowing where a product or technology is in its adoption can help signal general risks and characteristics of an investment. For example, if a technology is still clearly in its Innovators stage, an investment may likely resemble more of a venture capital-like risk and return profile, given high potential returns, but also a high possibility of failure. At the other end of the spectrum, a technology that is nearly ubiquitous in the Late Majority or Laggards phase is very well established, but has less upside.

For growth-seeking investors, we believe finding tech that is somewhere between the Early Adopters and Early Majority stages could prove to be a “sweet spot.” In this range, growth potential is still high and accelerating, but the technology has undergone some level of vetting and has proven itself to a meaningful portion of the population.


Related ETFs

LIT: The Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF invests in the full lithium cycle, from mining and refining the metal, through battery production.

FINX: The Global X FinTech ETF seeks to invest in companies on the leading edge of the emerging financial technology sector, which encompasses a range of innovations helping to transform established industries like insurance, investing, fundraising, and third-party lending through unique mobile and digital solutions.

BOTZ: The Global X Robotics & Artificial Intelligence ETF seeks to invest in companies that potentially stand to benefit from increased adoption and utilization of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), including those involved with industrial robotics and automation, non-industrial robots, and autonomous vehicles.

SNSR: The Global X Internet of Things ETF seeks to invest in companies that stand to potentially benefit from the broader adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT). This includes the development and manufacturing of semiconductors and sensors, integrated products and solutions, and applications serving smart grids, smart homes, connected cars, and the industrial internet.

SOCL: The Global X Social Media ETF provides investors access to Social Media companies around the world.

Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. International investments may involve risk of capital loss from unfavorable fluctuation in currency values, from differences in generally accepted accounting principles or from economic or political instability in other nations. Emerging markets involve heightened risks related to the same factors as well as increased volatility and lower trading volume. Narrowly focused investments may be subject to higher volatility. There are additional risks associated with investing in lithium and the lithium mining industry.

SOCL invests in securities of companies engaged in the social media industry. The risks related to investing in such companies include disruption in service caused by hardware or software failure; interruptions or delays in service by third-parties; security breaches involving certain private, sensitive, proprietary and confidential information managed and transmitted by social media companies; and privacy concerns and laws, evolving Internet regulation and other foreign or domestic regulations that may limit or otherwise affect the operations of such companies. The business models employed by the companies in the social media industry may not prove to be successful.

FINX, SNSR, and BOTZ invest in securities of companies engaged in Information Technology which can be affected by rapid product obsolescence, and intense industry competition.

The investable universe of companies in which FINX, SNSR, and BOTZ, may invest may be limited. LIT, FINX, SNSR, BOTZ, and SOCL are non-diversified.

Carefully consider the Funds’ investment objectives, risk factors, charges, and expenses before investing. This and additional information can be found in the Funds’ summary or full prospectus, which may be obtained by calling 1-888-GX-FUND-1 (1.888.493.8631), or by visiting Please read the prospectus carefully before investing.

Solactive Indexes and INDXX Indexes have been licensed by Solactive AG and Indxx respectively, for use by Global X Management Company, LLC. Global X Funds are not sponsored, endorsed, issued, sold, or promoted by Solactive AG or INDXX, nor do these companies make any representations regarding the advisability of investing in the Global X Funds.

Global X Management Company, LLC serves as an advisor to the Global X Funds. The Funds are distributed by SEI Investments Distribution Co., which is not affiliated with Global X Management Company, LLC.

Shares of ETFs are bought and sold at market price (not NAV) and are not individually redeemed from the Fund. Brokerage commissions will reduce returns. This information is not intended to be individual or personalized investment or tax advice and should not be used for trading purposes. Please consult a financial advisor or tax professional for more information regarding your investment and/or tax situation.