New lending companies such as On Deck and LendingClub, new media companies such as BuzzFeed and Mashable and new transportation companies such as Uber and Lyft all have something in common: In many ways, they are essentially traditional businesses wrapped in fashionable narratives to seem like visionary tech firms.
On Deck raises money from banks and retail investors and lends to businesses. So do traditional banks. BuzzFeed publishes entertaining stories with a lot of pictures (and some serious reporting). Tabloid newspapers have been doing that for years. Uber runs a taxi service in multiple cities.
Selling these businesses to investors as innovative tech companies was great marketing. Even after a sharp drop in the share price caused by dismal financial results, On Deck has a price-to-book value ratio of 1.03 (when Citigroup trades at 63 percent of book value). Uber is valued at more than $60 billion, even though it hasn’t posted a profit.
However, the actual tech innovations that these companies claim aren’t so disruptive or impossible to imitate that their “legacy” competitors can’t use them. In fact, they do.
Banks employed sophisticated scoring models before “big data” was a buzzword, and the new lenders’ delinquency problems mean their models, which pull in more diverse data, such as applicants’ social media accounts, aren’t necessarily better than those developed by traditional lenders — they are just new, and sometimes problematic. Peer-to-peer lending is just another way of using depositor funds to issue loans.
In the same way, Uber’s innovations are not particularly powerful. Traditional taxi companies quickly learned to use mobile apps that are similar to Uber’s, and some upstart competitors (for example, Gett in New York or MyTaxi in Berlin) have offered competition in the service category. Uber’s other innovation — surge pricing — is so widely disliked that few other companies want to use it.
Yet having been sold as a disruptive tech leader gives Uber its only true advantage: It’s big and ubiquitous. That only makes it useful to someone who travels a lot and lacks the will to research every new city’s taxi apps.
To be a true tech star, a company needs compelling, hard-to-imitate tech and a truly new idea. Google and Facebook are powerful examples, as is Amazon, which would be just a big store had it not come up with industry-reshaping innovations such as the Kindle or its public cloud offering. It all comes down to the quality of business and engineering ideas.