Most new businesses have old business models

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

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.

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

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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