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Most new businesses have old business models

Terms like "disruptive" and "tech business" just distract from the essential similarity between many companies.

A trophy on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt. Photograph: Getty Images

Slate's Matt Yglesias decries the over-use of the word "disruptive":

This is a shame, because while all innovation is great, the idea of disruptive innovation as a distinctive kind of innovation has real value. And while disruptive innovation is generally a good thing, nothing inherent to the idea implies it’s the only good thing or the best thing. Entrepreneurs should not be ashamed to admit that their ideas aren’t particularly disruptive.

Disruptive innovation is important because of what it's not: "sustaining innovation". The two terms come from Clayton Christensen's 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. The latter describes the innovation of building a better mousetrap, so to speak: a company looks at their products, looks at their clients, and tries to improve their products to better fit their clients needs. Christensen uses the example of IBM building mainframes in the 1960s and 1970s, but it's just as easy to turn to Nintendo progressing from the Game Boy to 3DS, or Kodak making ever better point-and-shoot cameras.

In each case, the company focused on winning an ever greater share of the market by being the best at what they do, without noticing that there's another way they could lose out: from companies doing a much worse job. So IBM, focusing all its attention on the mainframe market, failed to account for the rise of personal computers, which were far worse at the sort of jobs that businesses used mainframes for, but cheap enough that individuals could buy them; Nintendo didn't realise that the market for mobile games would be content playing simpler, cheaper games on their smartphones, rather than paying £40 for a fully-fledged port of Ocarina of Time; and Kodak didn't account for the desire of people to take truly awful quality pictures on their cameraphones.

That's disruption: competing, not by making something better than the incumbent, but by making something which, despite being worse, is so much more accessible that it eats market share from the bottom-end up.

(Incidentally, are you seeing the pattern here? Smartphones have been astonishingly disruptive in a nearly every area they've touched. As well as point-and-shoot photography and handheld gaming, they can probably be blamed for the demise of MP3 players, PDAs, most GPS navigation devices, and, if you've ever sat on the back of a bus on the school run, 1980's style boomboxes. In nearly every case – and certainly the last – they're considerably worse than a purpose-build device at doing the same thing, but you can't beat the price, nor the portability.)

In a way, it's a more specific example of the point repeatedly made: there's no such thing as a tech company. Here's Quartz's David Yanofsky on that topic:

Perhaps a tech company employs software engineers to improve product offerings and user experiences. AT&T has employed developers for years, programming the infrastructure of telecommunications to route phone calls around the world. It’s not called a tech company though. Skype is.

Perhaps a tech company uses technology to change the way we behave. Amazon.com’s business of selling countless items at any hour to anyone, then shipping them anywhere, surely fits into this category. Yet, in practice, it is no different than a Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog.

Hiving businesses off into their own little sector because they use the internet might have made sense 20 years ago, but not anymore. Amazon and Waterstones both have retail stores and online sales; Google and the Guardian both have business models focused around selling ads to firms trying to market to people using their websites.

As with "tech business" before it, "disruption" nowadays seems to just mean "doing things better than the old way because computers are involved". Which is important, but obscures the fact that disruption's a useful term which has a meaning of its own. And it also hides the fact that there's a lot more similarity between seemingly disparate fields than there seems to be at first glance.