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Every company is a tech company now (yes, even Blue Apron)

  • Blue Apron may sell food, but it's still a tech company, just like Amazon was once a bookseller.
  • Tech has quietly become the beating heart of efficiency in every firm.
  • Big firms in every sector are looking to tech start-ups to add digital expertise.

Young couple communicating via two smartphones
Bernhard Lang | Getty Images
Young couple communicating via two smartphones

Is Blue Apron a tech start-up or a food company? Your answer may depend on which coast you live on.

On the East Coast, people tend think of it as a food company. When I lived in New York City I ordered Blue Apron because I wanted to cook something but also didn't walk to walk 10 blocks and up and down five flights of stairs for fresh produce.

On the West Coast, it's very much considered a tech company. Blue Apron is, in many ways, just another start-up that's using high-tech logistics to do what other, older companies, like shopping markets, never did: deliver meals you can make yourself.

If you're thinking of Blue Apron as a food company, you're missing something important -- just like the people in 1995 who thought Amazon was just a bookseller, selling a super-low-margin product over what happened to be a new channel, the web.

That doesn't mean Blue Apron has a sustainable or defensible business. But it is a tech company.

Then again, the term "tech" has almost become meaningless when talking about business. Because these days, every company is a tech company.

Mayonnaise is tech

Just Mayo by Hampton Creek
Source: Hampton Creek | Facebook
Just Mayo by Hampton Creek

You've heard of Just Mayo. It's made by Hampton Creek, which makes food using only plants, with no animal products.

Sure, it sells a food product in grocery stores, which makes it a food company and part of the retail sector.

But it's also worked to bioengineer food that tastes like what we're used to squirting on our burgers without the eggs. What's not technical about bioengineering?

Any company that starts up today has to change the industry it's competing in in order to excel. That comes through clever application of technology.

This is how Amazon has flipped from just a retailer to one of the most valuable companies on the planet. It used its expertise in logistics to allow customers to order goods and have them on their doorsteps in two days. As it learned how to do this, it applied its hard-won expertise to move into new businesses -- for instance, it learned how to run massive data centers at scale, and turned that expertise into Amazon Web Services, the market-dominating cloud computing service.

It's why Wall Street went bonkers when Amazon reached a deal to buy Whole Foods, suggesting that the company is about to do the supermarket industry what it did to retailers such as J.C. Penney, Macys and Nordstrom.

Luxury brands are becoming tech companies. Hermes teamed up with Apple for the Apple Watch. Louis Vuitton, Montblanc, Movado and Tag Heuer all build Android Wear smartwatches and more seem to enter the market monthly. Companies like Levis are working with Google on smart clothing that allows you to answer your phone. Shoes have built-in step counters.

Cars are often at the forefront of modern technology. Tesla is making big splashes with its new electric cars, but now every major automaker is also building competing technologies. Automation, which just a few years ago seemed decades away, is now just over the horizon. Google, Uber, Volvo, GM and other companies are all working on self-driving cars.

And speaking of Uber, the very idea of a sharing economy is itself a tech story. How many times have we heard the phrase "It's the Uber of X" when start-ups begin pitching new ideas? We use apps to book rides, reserve tables at restaurants, and to pay our bills and send money to friends. Uber might just be a "ride sharing service" or a business but it's very much a tech company. It exists almost entirely on its logistics and data collection.

Efficiency is the beating heart of business. Technology is what businesses use to become more efficient. It's like electricity, or air.

This is what Nicholas Carr foretold in 2003 when he wrote an essay called "I.T. Doesn't Matter" -- he wasn't saying that information technology was useless. He was saying it was becoming essential that it would no longer provide any business advantage unless you were better at it than your competitors. Most companies, by definition, are not.

That's why larger companies that may have dominated their sector for decades are now looking to invest in or swallow tech start-ups as a sort of heart transplant.

That's why Wal-mart bought Jet.com -- a $3 billion heart transplant. Or why Ford invested $1 billion in self-driving car start-up Argo.

"Simulacrum"

Catfish tacos from Amazon, vs catfish fillets from Blue Apron
Catfish tacos from Amazon, vs catfish fillets from Blue Apron

The reason I bring all of this up is because Bloomberg's Matt Levine recently wrote a compelling article which contended that Blue Apron isn't a tech company but a grocery company whose products are "simulacrum."

"What it delivers is the idea of creating a home-cooked meal for fresh ingredients, without the tedious shopping and chopping work that would otherwise require," Levine said.

This is to suggest that Blue Apron as a company is the end product, which it is not. It is a tech company using new methods of logistics and data gathering to provide consumers with compelling meals. The end result is the meal, just like the end result of Amazon is the book or pair of slippers or soup ladle that just arrived on your doorstep.

Amazon isn't these things the same way Blue Apron isn't a meal and Juicero isn't a glass of juice. To his credit, Levine even admits Juicero is "over-engineered" -- it is fundamentally a high-tech product built by a technology company trying to make some sort of weird pivot in the juicing industry that nobody asked for in the first place.

Tech's sneaking grip

Silhouette of a man and his dog at sunrise.
David Aaron Troy | Taxi | Getty

Unlike the industrial revolution, loud and filled with smoke, the digital revolution happened quietly.

It curled up around us and now touches every part of what we do, from how we eat to how we sleep, move, exercise, work, love and interact. It's the overpriced juice machine in our kitchen or the clunky touchscreen in our cars and the wristband telling us we didn't walk enough. The mattress telling us we didn't get a good enough sleep. The scale that knows our name and says we're still overweight.

It is nearly impossible to escape. Perhaps it's also why those moments away from it — on the beach, in the woods — should be more cherished than ever before.