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Have we hit peak “tech” company?

It might not be as good a time to call yourself a tech company as it used to.

A WeWork logo printed on a glass building, with the sky reflected behind it.
WeWork tried really hard to say it’s a tech company. Public companies seem to think that designation is less important than it used to be.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

After years of slipping the word “tech” into business decks for companies that lease office space, prepare food, or drive people from place to place, public companies are using that word less often to describe themselves. That’s surprising given the recent spate of high-profile IPO filings, including WeWork, Peloton, Uber, Lyft, and Slack, were especially adamant about their “tech company” designations.

Overall, company documents referencing “tech” and “technology” peaked around August 2018, according to Sentieo data pulled from US and international public companies’ earnings calls, financial transcripts, and press releases.

Since then, the number of documents with those terms declined about 12 percent, indicating a change in the ways businesses market themselves to investors and customers — and perhaps how they perceive themselves. The trend for “tech company” and “technology company” was similar.

A lot of that decline reflects shifts in the financial industry, which has also seen a big dip in financial tech buzzwords like “payment,” “chip,” “mobile,” and “app,” as well as broad tech terms like “startup” and “disrupt.”

Of course, none of this is to say technological advancements are stalling, but rather that language and marketing tactics are changing.

And there are a few potential reasons for the decline.

For one, it could indicate that the idea of integrating technology into non-tech businesses has gone from novel and noteworthy to commonplace and unremarkable.

It could also mean that people are avoiding the term as it becomes less useful, since its overuse has rendered it basically meaningless. When companies that hawk everything from shoes to salad call themselves “tech,” what does it even mean?

“It does feel like we’re kind of past this, ‘Any internet company is a tech company,’” Paul Condra, lead emerging technology analyst at PitchBook, told Recode.

It’s also possible that the term “tech” has gone from being lucrative to being a liability.

Calling a business a “tech company” has always been about more than just semantics. It helped founders draw attention to their companies in the first place. It also supported higher valuations and higher payouts for people bold enough to claim the designation.

“There are really huge incentives for companies to present themselves as being on the bleeding edge, even when they’re not,” Nick Mazing, director of Research at Sentieo, told Recode.

“The tech sector has been extremely successful, not just in terms of changing behaviors and lives. It’s been successful financially,” he said. “There’s a tendency to imitate what has worked recently.”

That imitation also works in reverse, when companies are trying to disassociate themselves from less successful ones.

Currently, a number of the most-anticipated tech IPOs of the year are trading below their offer prices.

Uber, which some argued was just a taxi company with an app, saw its desired private market valuation of $120 billion more than halved on the public stock market since it debuted in May, with a current market cap of $58 billion. It continues to burn cash and is far from turning a profit; it also will soon have to deal with real employees, rather than contract workers. Workplace communication software company Slack is trading at 34 percent below its opening day price, thanks in part to pressure from copycats like its much bigger rival, Microsoft, which is offering its communications software basically for free as part of its ubiquitous Office Suite. WeWork, which was valued at many multiples higher than its non-tech-claiming competition but which faces many of the same real-works liabilities — such as being stuck with long-term leases but short-term customers when the economy crashes — is currently worth 70 percent below its last funding round.

High-profile struggles could be discouraging, even though the information technology sector as a whole is trading ahead of the S&P 500 so far this year.

Tech companies are also facing headwinds in the form of government regulation, which could dent their profits in the future. States and federal offices have launched antitrust probes into the biggest tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon.

That doesn’t necessarily mean new companies are at risk of antitrust scrutiny, but rather that there has been a shift in public and politicians’ perception of tech. Privacy and political missteps at Facebook have proved the adage, “People are the product.” Facial recognition technology at Amazon and Palantir is conjuring images of a surveillance state. There’s also the specter that the robots are going to steal our jobs.

Changing what companies call themselves might “deter attention away from some of the more vulnerable aspects of tech, like antitrust and data collection,” Condra said.

All this is to say that it might not be the best time to try to call yourself a tech company.

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