Semantics for Startups, or, Unpacking “X for Y” Company Descriptions


Venture capitalists and certain technology publications love to sneer at derivative product ideas. Startup founders peddling goofy “Tinder for Cats” ideas become the butt of cruel jokes. And like all things, when it comes to joking about derivative startup ideas, there is an app for that: ItsThisForThat. Joking aside, explaining startup ideas by comparing them to successful companies is, at least from a social and linguistic perspective, an extremely efficient way to identify the nature of a company’s core product or service offering. By invoking an archetypal company and declaring the niche the startup wants to exploit, one-line startup pitches take the general form of “I’m building [archetypal company] for [niche market]” or, more simply, “X for Y”.

It is difficult to pinpoint when technology entrepreneurs began explaining their products and services in “X for Y” terms, but this explanatory heuristic has firmly ingrained itself in the startup ecosystem. Searching on Product Hunt for “tinder for” we find a plethora of startups: 208, Tinder for investors; Karma Swipe, Tinder for Reddit; and KickOn, Tinder for house parties and events. Searching again on PH for “uber for” we find Lugg, Uber for moving stuff; Nimbl, Uber for cash (because apparently going to the ATM is incredibly difficult); and perhaps my favorite company, MOWARES, a rather meta startup platform for building and launching your own Uber for X startup.

The question we want to answer here is, “functionally speaking, what do we mean when we say that a company’s product or service is ‘Uber for X’?” On the one hand, these upstart companies are defining their identity through a well-known (if not necessarily well-understood) company of some notoriety, and on the other hand, the very reason why these successful companies have become archetypes in the first place is because they were the first (or at least fastest) to build a company around what a16z partner and researcher Benedict Evans refers to in his blog as “pieces of psychology” in the context of mobile messaging platforms:

New pieces of psychology – new behaviors or attitudes that an app can enable or ride on. Sitting on that underlying social platform, an app that finds one of these can go viral. Examples include Instagram, Snapchat, Yo, Yik Yak, Secret or Meerkat.

If we’re not comfortable thinking about now-archetypical applications like Uber as exploiting a “new piece of psychology”, perhaps a better and more parsimonious statement is that these companies either invented or combined models for interacting or transacting. (For the sake of consistency, we will continue to use Uber as an example.) Like I mentioned in another post, “Uber is a synchronous, location-aware spot market that connects things that need to move with a transportation layer to convey them to their desired location, just in time.”

However, in more general terms, we can understand the company’s service in a number of ways:

  • it’s enabled by the wide distribution of smartphone technologies,
  • it renders a service on demand,
  • it is location-aware,
  • it stores payment information to reduce transactional friction
  • and it is a marketplace that connects service providers to customers through an “intelligent” platform or protocol.

In the semantic map embedded above, I took a sample of companies which can be described in “Uber for X” terms. It’s important to note that many of these companies do not openly describe themselves as such, but rather that this is the way others describe them. This is to say that the language the companies employ in marketing materials does not overtly mention Uber, just facets of the company’s service (such as “on demand”, “delivery to your location” and “easy payment”). Nonetheless, company founders and the tech journalists which cover them are still wont to describe them in “Uber for X” terms, because referring to the archetype and the features/attributes thereof is a much more efficient way to explain a product or service than it is to explain the features themselves, over and over again.

It’s also worth noting that Uber is by no means the only entity in the set of archetypical companies. Similar semantic maps could be made for companies like Yelp, Tinder, AirBNB, Yo and many others. Just as we refer to a service that is mobile-enabled, location aware, and delivers service on demand in terms of “Uber for X”, sites which allow “the crowd” to review, comment on and develop a consensus on a given entity within the system can be described in terms of Yelp. Searching Product Hunt for “Yelp for”, we find sites like:, Yelp for [startup] accelerators; CopScore, Yelp for cops; and HonestTown, Yelp for people.

The core (and now iconic) functionality of Tinder is the ability to swipe left or right to very quickly process huge quantities of information and express preferences. In the case of Tinder, that information comes in the form of pictures of potential dating partners, but the app 208 allows people to swipe through startup profiles and allows investors to see which other investors also liked a given startup. Twindr gives users the ability to quickly unfollow people on Twitter through that same swipe mechanic, and Nibbly lets users quickly discover local restaurants based on swiping through pictures of dishes at local restaurants.

AirBNB is fundamentally a marketplace for peer-to-peer accommodations. Accordingly, sites like Rover give dog owners a market for dog-sitters; HipCamp lets campers browse through and pay for camp sites before ever arriving in the mountains; Breather lets people rent out their apartments or other spaces for very short periods of time; and Can I Stay With You lets enterprising rent arbitrageurs find an apartment to stay at on AirBNB while they rent their own place… through AirBNB.

Yo, the content-free contextual liminal-space-between-gesture-and-messaging app I’ve previously written about, finds itself among the first of several improbable (and ALL-CAPS) contextual applications. AHOY is Yo for locations; MEETING? lets friends and co-workers ask each other if they’re free to meet; and BEER?! is perfect for asking those same friends and co-workers whether they want to get a beer (presumably after the meeting).

This could go on and on. Again, these companies are now used as archetypical reference points because they either “discovered” a new interaction model (Tinder’s left and right swipe action is most notable here) or capitalized on an emergent piece of psychology.

The final question I will explore here is, “At what cost do we make these comparisons?” From my own experience as the founder of a startup, and a frequent if reluctant user of “X for Y” descriptions, I learned that the supposed convenience of explanatory shorthand does not come cheaply. It’s usually the case that products diverge from the archetype to which they make reference, not only in the niche they serve, but sometimes in core functionality as well. The line between the identity of a given company and the identity of its archetype is usually quite stark, but sometimes it isn’t.

My first real startup, Mergenote (rest in peace), was described as “Github for notes”. I referenced Github because that company facilitates the open-sourcing of code, just like I wanted Mergenote to be a platform for composing, hosting and sharing notes. Most people understood the comparison, but others – especially software developers – took issue with the comparison. For one, Github does not have a feature for writing code on their website. (They do, however, have a really nice text editor available for download called Atom.) Mergenote was not as focused on version control, and was needless to say not built on top of git version control software. There were countless ways in which Mergenote diverged from Github (not the least of which was its focus on notes, not code), and yet the “Github for notes” explanation stuck, and ultimately served as a nucleation point for further discussion about the application and its functionality.

I believe this is the ultimate function of all X for Y descriptions: they are just a “hint” at what the company does, and serve as a spring board for discussions that start with “Oh, interesting, tell me more,” or “Oh, hey, there’s this other company, _____, which is doing something similar. How are you different?” Yes, the explanatory shorthand employed by referencing successful companies with similar interaction models and business mechanics is helpful for framing further discussion, but it is woefully insufficient when it comes to explaining the operations, objectives, and ultimately the identity of any given startup company.



2 responses to “Semantics for Startups, or, Unpacking “X for Y” Company Descriptions”

    1. Jason D. Rowley Avatar
      Jason D. Rowley

      Thanks, Pete! I could have gone on with more “vintage” references. Back when social networking was becoming a real industry, there was a whole spate of “Facebook for X” companies. Little did the investors in those companies know that Facebook would swallow that entire industry, and aggressively litigate against any companies which invoked Facebook in their product descriptions.

Leave a Reply