Disrupters? There is nothing revolutionary about Airbnb and Uber

These companies’ rebellious posturing is financially counterproductive
© Getty

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Will the history (e-) books describe our times as a golden era of digital disruption? Is this the dawning of the age of the “app economy”?

As the valuations attached to property rental app Airbnb and car hailing service Uber reach $30bn and $62.5bn respectively, it appears that many people think so.

Last year, a report from Cisco and the International Institute of Management Development concluded that “digital disruption . . . has the potential to overturn incumbents and reshape markets faster than perhaps any force in history”. It forecast that four in 10 companies would be displaced by digital rivals by 2020. Earlier this year, consultants at McKinsey noted that digital disrupters now “run the gamut from database software to boxed beef”.

As if to prove it, Microsoft and Dell currently advertise their soft and hard wares with the inspirational story of a metropolitan American couple who — with just a laptop and some video editing software — “evolved" their honeymoon into a travel blogging business.

With their self-regarding hipster charm and new media savvy (him: beard and indoor hat to denote freethinking; her: sort of ironic millennial Sarah Jessica Parker 2.0), they demonstrate the power of the web to disrupt . . . well, mainly the contents of any viewers’ stomach, be that boxed beef or any other app-ordered delicacy.

Because behind all the nauseating smugness and touchscreen technology, there is little new or revolutionary here. Overestimating the value that others attach to one’s travel anecdotes arguably began with Odysseus and peaked with “gap yah” students.

Much the same may be said of multibillion-dollar disrupters — and the value that investors, ranging from Google to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, are being asked to see in them. Airbnb does little that a holiday cottage brochure and a pen cannot achieve. Uber puts a taxi a few taps on a screen, rather than a phone call, away (but you end up phoning the driver when his satnav fails).

All of which makes their noisily rebellious posturing seem financially counterproductive.

Next week, Airbnb risks having New York become the latest city to ban it, ostensibly because the company refuses to admit that it is basically a short-term lettings agency whose landlords must comply with local registration and tax rules.

Berlin has already banned the letting of whole properties via Airbnb’s app, and such is the opprobrium over rule breaking that 3,000 citizens have reported transgressing neighbours. Even in its home town of San Francisco, Airbnb has resorted to a lawsuit over the registration of rental owners. Its initial response to the New York move was also to threaten to sue.

Likewise, Uber has pulled out of cities rather than have drivers submit to security checks, it has been fined €850,000 in France, and paid $100m to settle a US lawsuit.

However, as the prospect of stock market flotations heaves into view — rather faster than boxed beef on a bicycle — might this pretence to disruptive behaviour be dropped, in favour of co-operation?

On Wednesday, Airbnb offered to introduce mandatory host registration in New York and the collection of local taxes. If anything, an acceptance of conventional status, higher revenues and lower fines would benefit the very investors first attracted by the disrupter claims.

And it might also allow a couple of cash-strapped US bloggers to rent out their spare room.

matthew.vincent@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.