Opinion: Uber, Airbnb, Booking.com … these new players who are reshuffling the cards

Gérald Karsenti
PDG / CEO @Hewlett Packard France SAS and distinguished affiliate professor at HEC Paris

NATU? Who is hiding behind this new acronym? It actually stands for four new distruptors of the traditional economy – Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla and Uber – who seem to send their elders back to the stone age, i.e. the GAFA, an acronym that groups together the brands that have since become emblematic: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. In the real world, this isn’t the case as the latter have never seen better times. But it is true that NATU – by defining new game rules – has come along to shake them up, shifting the boundaries and not merely stopping at devouring the world of the so-called classic economy, like hungry ogres.

These fiery entrepreneurs suddenly appear where you’re not expecting them and challenge the established order, reinventing the fundamentals of a new form of capitalism. I remember the coverage of the June 2015 edition of L’Expansion, entitled: “Uber, Le bon coin, Airbnb, Blablacar … et les autres – L’invasion des barbares. Comment ils sont en train de dynamiter tous les pans de l’économie” (Uber, Le bon coin, Airbnb, Blablacar… and the others – The Barbarian Invasion. They certainly have a taste for conquest, but it goes much further than that. This new generation of “startupers”[1] is evidence of unprecedented inventiveness which is shaking up everything we have known up to now. Even more so because they are an embodiment of the overhaul of our economic, social and environmental system.

Who are they?

There is no company, business sector or job that is not potentially at risk of uberization[2]. “Startupers” do not hesitate to take on the most profitable monopolies, in the most unrivalled positions. “Looters! ” I’ve heard. Crossing the yellow lines doesn’t worry them. They constantly reject the limits of what is possible, brave all obstacles and defy belief. Who could have imagined that an individual could offer their apartment to strangers in return for payment? Nobody… except them in fact! As they don’t ask themselves any questions. They don’t dither, but just take a chance. Nearly “digital natives”, this generation Y was almost born with a key at its fingertips. They encode, they think in digital and live in a virtual reality. They create businesses based on simple ideas that they transcribe into effective applications. Just imagine where we will be tomorrow with generation Z!

A world in disruption

These new players cause the chaos that in turn generates renewal. We are happy with this scenario. A circle which is virtuous in the end. These new entrepreneurs are behind major disruptions. They change our way of life and our work and consumer habits. And even sometimes how we think. We are at the heart of a major revolution. It hasn’t come about overnight. It has followed the long path of technological innovation in which the acceleration of recent years has been dazzling. Digital technology promises the advent of a new era full of pledges, just like before the arrival of printing or electricity.

Where do these new startupers come from?

They are the product of history and have followed the evolution of technical progress. This has taken place in stages. During the post-war boom, engineers dominated a world that needed rebuilding after the devastation of the second-world war. They were predictable and rigorous. “Making trains arrive on time”was their slogan. Two oil price shocks tarnished the 1970s, pushing the world into the red. They followed a long period of growth. So new input was needed. This came through the financial markets. A new phase began dominated by the world’s money mongers. Their profile was no different from their predecessors. The 1990s marked the birth of the internet for the general public. The age of IT reared its head. Dozens of startups were created. They were in contrast to traditional businesses, “bricks and mortar” [3]. At the beginning of the following decade, it was the the bursting of the internet bubble, marking the end of this first wave of online entrepreneurs. A few years later, due to technological advancements, everything sped up and the economy changed scale again. Social networks, connected objects and cloud infrastructures changed the scenario. Innovation and creativity became the new generators of world growth. Startups developed and leaders keen to change the world with applications appeared here and there. As soon as they notice a gap they dive straight in. It is this spontaneity and this mistrust of the world which makes them surprising and often irresistible. They suddenly appear and gain significant positions in a very short space of time. Just enough time for the others to realise that they’ve lost out!

Which lands do they lust after?

 These new web giants are animated by the spirit of conquest. It’s been that way since the dawn of time. In the case in question, they simply want… everything. As soon as they believe they can unlock value, they take action without delay. They take on all business sectors and all jobs. They also go for both businesses and individuals.

Who are the lords of the threatened lands?

In the vast majority of cases, today’s leaders are narcissistic productivists, very often with a Cartesian background and cortical spirit [4]. Having graduated from the best universities, with dazzling CVs and solid support, their rise is by no means left to chance. While their numerous assets are clearly presented – they are often leaders at heart – their downfalls are equally well known. The latter largely explain the dead-ends into which we have now been led. They particularly experience some difficulty navigating in this highly digitalized world.   

Why are they in danger?

In the first place because their results are not always very convincing. The 2008 economic crisis revealed their weaknesses. They were supposed to bring about a better world, but we know that this didn’t happen. Obviously, technical progress is encouraging but, even so, inequalities haven’t been reduced, the economic and financial system appears less solid than before – the collapse of Lehman Brothers affected everyone’s trust – wars are still being fought in the four corners of the world, terrorist attacks have multiplied pretty much everywhere and the ecological divide doesn’t cease to cause concern. In other words, the copy hasn’t reached the expected level! And we can’t see a way out without changing everything.

In second place, because they’ve often shown their limits. Generally very talented, they have undeniable qualities that make them natural leaders. But they are also guilty of many deflections. Their ego is often disproportionate – characteristic of narcissistic profiles – and when they are no longer under control, anything can happen. There’s no need to mention the recent episodes of sex scandals or financial malpractice which have filled the news over recent years.

So, threats or opportunities?

They are a threat to anyone who refuses to move and take a new look at themselves. The hotel business is an instructive example of this. Attacked on all sides, the big chains must react or disappear. At best, they will be reduced to the status of being simple service providers. But they will no longer have control of events or the value chain. The startup Airbnb is not content just to take parts of their market – it defines the price of an overnight stay in cities throughout the world. Booking.com takes possession of the booking, while Trip Advisor becomes a sort of online Michelin. To keep a foot in, the only thing to do is to stay vigilant and not get stuck on old outdated models. I would like to think that these new players represent more of an opportunity. They even represent a great chance for our businesses and our economy in general. They are actually going to push traditional societies to reinvent themselves. And we have to admit that there is no player nowadays who doesn’t ask themselves the question about the dangers awaiting them if they don’t take any action. Thanks to them, everyone is taking another look at their model from start to finish! It’s finally an unexpected and healthy benefit.

But which roles will startups play in the future? Will they be tomorrow’s leaders? That will be the subject of my next note… to be published shortly.  

[1] Founders of startups.

[2] According to the formula of the Chairman of the Publicis Group, Maurice Levy.

[3] Businesses made of bricks and mortar.

[4] This relates to the rational part of the brain, the cortex.