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.’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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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.