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.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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