There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

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Following on our review of Mary Meeker's Internet Trends report, today we will look at the  "Re-Imagining" section.

On slides 28-44, the report looks at business processes and how they have changed over the last several decades. Here are some salient examples:

  • Document signing - ink-and-paper to DocuSign
  • Physical payments - cash registers to Square
  • Benefits - paper files and brokers to Zenefits

As exciting as the enterprise space is, not one process is new. Every single one is a process that did exist, that had to exist, yet could be done more efficiently. Ironically, many of the previous processes these latest versions replaced actually were, themselves, computerized and relatively new. Business has existed for thousands of years, corporate email only for the last 25 or so, yet it is considered "inefficient" and "semi-inflexible", to be replaced by Slack. Paper analysis of business financials and leading indicators has existed as long as business, Excel for only the last 20, yet Anaplan is replacing the Excel "pain point".

In the words of Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun." Every enterprise play here, without exception, is simply the application of advances in technology to make existing processes better and more efficient. In some cases, the advances are significant enough to enable new capabilities within those processes, but not entirely new processes.

Actually, the same is true in the consumer space. As Ben Horowitz pointed out in his commencement speech at my alma mater, Columbia University, Airbnb is just a modern version of a multi-thousand-year-old tradition, the inn (which an ancestor of mine operated in Europe). eBay is just a marketplace; the bazaar existed in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Facebook is just coffee table conversation. Email is just letters.

True, all of these are now performed on a scale and with a convenience (and, unfortunately, sometimes a frequency) that never existed before. The scale and convenience, in turn, open up new possibilities. Citizens always discussed politics around the living room table or in the inn. The New South Meeting House in Boston was where the American Revolution grew its legs; the people of Tahrir Square just used a more modern and broader medium. Then again, in 2013, the sheer size of population, police and armies required a larger "space" than any one meeting house could hold.

But in the end, humans still do the same processes they always did, both as consumers and as businesspeople.

The only truly innovative element is the technology underlying these systems. We have sent letters by mail carrier, donkey and ship since the dawn of time; sending them by changing electromagnetic waves in the air? That is revolutionary. We have read the written word (or at least those of us who were literate) since the earliest Sumerian writings. Changing them on the fly on a small surface? That is revolutionary.

Yet, as my very first true mentor pointed out, technology does not matter. In and of itself, technology is useless; often the inventors of a new technology completely miss its value and purpose. It is only when it is put to use to create real benefit for individuals and organizations does it have value. In other words, almost all innovation is in the technology, yet, technology's value only exists in its application to improve existing personal and business processes.

We see Über, Airbnb, Slack and Eventbrite, but the true innovators are hidden behind the curtain.