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Disruptive Entrepreneurship

MDST 2011

Disruption has become a hallowed achievement in contemporary business culture, to the point that we forget it used to be a bad thing. What, exactly, do entrepreneurs, investors, and internet evangelists mean by the word? What have been the great disruptions of our time, and who wound up disrupted?

This course is a hands-on exploration of disruptive media cultures, intended for entrepreneurs, critics, and activists alike. We will encounter disruptions in the world around us and devise some of our own. Students should expect to enlarge their entrepreneurial repertoires, but also to experience fresh trepidation about entrepreneurship's possible effects.


Nathan Schneider (“Nathan” or “Professor Schneider”)
Armory Building, 1B24
Office hours: Wednesday at 4-5 p.m., or by appointment (via email)
Website: nathanschneider.info


  • Gain familiarity with discourses surrounding media entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation
  • Encounter the social impacts of economic disruptions
  • Cultivate habits of ethical entrepreneurship in media economies

The business model

The course consists of five evaluated components; three are consecutive “phases” and two are ongoing.

Phase one: Report

20 percent

Early in the course, each student produces a brief, researched report on a past disruption. Write an internal memo by an employee of an incumbent organization as it comes to terms with a potentially threatening disruption taking place. Explain it clearly to colleagues and suggest possible responses that their organization might take. The report should be between 1,200 and 1,500 words, formatted and written appropriately (and creatively) in the guise of an official document from the organization. Here and in future projects, engage with assigned materials for the course in a way that demonstrates a sophisticated grasp and that integrates usefully with the argument. Evaluation criteria are as follows:

Phase two: Presentation

25 percent

The second project for the course is a presentation to the class about the effects of a disruptive innovation. Students should interview at least two people (outside the CU community) with direct experience of having their way of life or livelihood challenged by the disruption. In the presentation, students will share interviewees' insights, alongside an explanation of the nature of the disruption and its broader context. This assignment is conducted in pairs, who will present 10-to-12 minute presentations with slides. Students may form groups of three as well; these will required to present three interviews and three peer-reviewed sources, rather than the otherwise required two.

Each presentation should cover a unique topic. Evaluation criteria are as follows:

  • Completion of the assignment with clarity, stylistic correctness, and creativity
  • Comprehension of the disruption and explanation of what qualifies it as disruptive
  • Insightful interviews in disrupted communities, along with contextual data on social impacts
  • Evidence of self-directed research beyond assigned materials, including at least two peer-reviewed scholarly sources, and appropriate citation

Phase three: Whitepaper

25 percent

At the conclusion of the course, students produce a whitepaper outlining an original proposal for a disruption involving networked digital media. In between 1,500 and 1,800 words, describe the nature of the disruption, its economic and technological context, and the means of its financing and growth. Be sure to also consider its potential social effects.

Students will twice present their ideas to the class—first as a one-minute practice run for feedback and, second, as a one-minute pitch with one parsimonious slide.

Evaluation criteria are as follows:

  • Completion of the assignment with clarity, stylistic correctness, and creativity
  • Comprehension of the disruption and explanation of what qualifies it as disruptive
  • Evidence of self-directed research beyond assigned materials, including at least two peer-reviewed scholarly sources and relevant market data, using appropriate citation
  • Clear, compelling in-class pitch

Class participation

20 percent

All students should contribute to class discussions as active listeners, question-askers, commentators, and critics. Respectful disagreement with the instructor and fellow students is welcome and encouraged. Students will also pitch their own disruptive ideas to the class. Attendance will not be taken formally, but meaningful participation is not compatible with absence. Be prepared to discuss each week's assigned materials by the start of that week's first meeting.

Evaluation takes place at the midterm and the end of the course, with each evaluation period weighted equally. Evaluation is based on the following:

  • Comments and questions that advance the conversation, with evidence of listening to others and engagement with assigned materials (10 points)
  • Flash quizzes at random intervals (10 points)

Entrepreneurial events

10 percent

Part of the course is participation in two synchronous events in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. Before the end of the day after each event, submit a discussion post in Canvas about your experience there. With this, include proof of participation (such as a photo of yourself there or of you and your screen). Evaluation criteria are as follows:

  • Compelling proof of attendance at:
  • Insightful, 300-500 word analysis of an aspect of each event
  • Engagement with at least one of the assigned materials in each analysis

Entrepreneurship-related events can be found at the campus Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative website, Silicon Flatirons, Startup Digest, and Meetup.


Based on the stated percentage structure, grades will be awarded as follows: A (94-100), A- (90-93), B+ (87-89), B (83-86), B- (80-82), C+ (77-79), C (73-76), C- (70-72), D+ (67-69), D (63-66), D- (60-62), F (0-59). The minimum passing grade is 60 for undergraduates and 70 for graduate students.

Terms and conditions

Together, we agree to:

  • Work together to foster a respectful, mature, convivial community based on mutual learning, diverse perspectives, and accommodation
  • Adhere to all university policies regarding academic integrity, accessibility, behavior, discrimination, misconduct, inclusivity, and religious observances; we take responsibility for understanding them and the relevant procedures
  • Respect student privacy, keeping any materials or statements shared in class confidential unless permission is granted to do otherwise
  • Be present in our interactions together, refraining from the use of screen devices unless for collective work or accessibility, upon agreement with the instructor

If you find yourself in a position where lack of access to food, housing, health care, or other basic necessities interferes with your studies, consider seeking support from the Dean of Students and, if you feel comfortable doing so, your instructor. We will work to assist you however we can.


The course topics, like the assignments, proceed in three phases. First, we acquaint ourselves with some processes and ideologies associated with Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial culture and discourses of disruption. Second, we consider the human impacts of disruptive change. Third, we explore a variety of strategies and shortcomings of disruptive and entrepreneurial thinking.

Except for the book we read in Phase Two, all readings should be available online. If you cannot access them, you should be able to do so using the campus network (either on campus or via VPN).

Phase one: Disruption

What does this overused word even mean?

1. A mindset

  • Mike Green, “Developing the Entrepreneurial Mindset” in Michelle Ferrier and Elizabeth Mays (eds.), Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Rebus Community, 2017–2019)
  • Brad Feld, chapters 1-3 in Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City (Wiley, 2012)

2. Theory and cliché

3. Organizational vessels

4. Raising rounds

5. Origin stories

6. The mother of the modern

Phase two: Disrupted

This year, phase two will center around how Amazon has shaped US society. We will do so through the lens of one book, available in the bookstore:

  • Alec MacGillis, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)

7. The basement to security

  • MacGillis, Fulfillment, “Introduction” to ch. 3

8. Dignity to power

  • MacGillis, Fulfillment, ch. 4 to ch. 6

9. Shelter to overtime

  • MacGillis, Fulfillment, ch. 7 to “Overtime”

Phase three: Disruptionism

What, then, can we do?

10. Disaster

11. Disrupting for purpose

12. Decentralize everything

13. The new citizen

14. Fantasies

Further resources