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’?” Continue reading “Semantics for Startups, or, Unpacking “X for Y” Company Descriptions”

From Ride Sharing to the “In Real Life Transport Protocol”

Abstract/TLDR: The biggest opportunity for companies like Uber and Lyft is to expand their transportation services to third parties and diversify the type of objects they convey from one place to another. In doing so, the metaphor we use to describe these companies can shift from platforms to protocols. In short, these companies are building what I’m calling the IRL Transport Protocol, a system for routing packets (in the form of cars and bikes) and their contents from point to point.

This is a draft of a paper I recently submitted.

Continue reading “From Ride Sharing to the “In Real Life Transport Protocol””

Cloaking The Swarm

Analyzing the role encryption and meshnet communication platforms play in post-Arab Spring protest movements: case analyses of Hong Kong & Ferguson, MO in 2014.

Note: This piece was first submitted as a paper for an academic project. I plan to expand parts of it into a much longer article. It was originally published online on my Medium blog.

There is little doubt that the advent of mobile communication platforms has radically affected how protests form and manage themselves. The speed and scale at which protesters can communicate their message, galvanize a base of support and report government infringement of their free speech rights is unprecedented. Governments, citizens and traditional media outlets treat “social media” as a monolithic entity, despite the fact that different communication and publishing platforms have diverging patterns of use, different sharing mechanics, and different levels of privacy protection. In this paper, we will examine the role a particular “genre” of communication platform plays in protecting citizens’ free speech rights in protest situations. By examining two cases from the recent past — the Hong Kong and Ferguson, Missouri protests of 2014 — we seek to demonstrate that decentralized and/or end-to-end encrypted mobile messaging platforms provide a first line of defense against government crackdown on free speech. To do so we will first explain the different facets of the “social media” landscape in two dimensions: the default scope of content sharing on a given network, and the degree of privacy protection afforded to users. Then we will describe the many similarities between the Hong Kong and Ferguson cases, and explain the role of decentralized and end-to-end encrypted messaging applications at the point where the cases diverged. Continue reading “Cloaking The Swarm”

A Few Things I Learned in 2014

Note: This is a cross-post from my Medium blog, originally published in January 2015. I included it here on my website to kick off the new blog.

I’d originally intended to share this list of bullet points with a friend. Some are general, some are personal. A few are quite revealing, but I believe that personal faults and foibles are rendered less significant if they’re openly shared.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, right?

I’m sharing this list mostly because I think some of the things I learned are potentially valuable and applicable to other people* (See note at end of post.)

Here are a few things I learned in 2014:

  • Some people have a tendency to be trusting and generous to a fault, and that they let other people take advantage of that because they weren’t sufficiently self-confident to stand up for what was best for them.
  • Corollary: Some people (including me) have a hard time saying no to things.
  • People (especially in startup culture) tend to overestimate/overvalue people with well-developed hard skills, whereas it’s the people with well-developed soft skills (communication, intuition, aligning ideals with action, etc) that are often more effective and productive. (And it’s those with both hard and soft skills that rule the world.) [Edit: this is to say that, all things being equal, a brilliant designer with limited communication skills will not fare as well as a merely good designer with good communication skills.]
  • Although some people are fairly smart they can also be intellectually insecure. This compels them to keep learning about new and emerging fields and developing hard skills, but this drive to keep learning sometimes hinders their ability to seize opportunities as they’re presented. (I’ve dealt with this too.)
  • Finding partners that mesh well with you, personally and culturally, is more important than finding the most talented person to build something with you.
  • The emails I write are often too long.
  • Unsexy but easily-executable projects with a high likelihood of success are often a better time investment than ambitious, difficult ones with a greater risk of failure.
  • It really is all about people. This is a really tired cliche, especially in entrepreneurship circles, but it’s true. Ideas are cheap. Money can come from (almost) anywhere. Execution reigns supreme, and the only thing that can execute is a good group of people.
  • Despite a lot of irksome elements in contemporary startup culture, it does you no favors to shun it thinking you’re better off on your own. (This hasn’t been a real problem with me, but I’ve observed it in others.) That being said, it’s okay to laugh about it sometimes with people who also think it’s kind of ridiculous.
  • Friends = Family.
  • Volunteering for political campaigns is fun and educational. You learn a lot about your country by knocking on its doors.
  • Connecting and helping people make deals is incredibly fun and is probably what I’d like to spend my life doing.
  • ^That^ and writing. I used to write so much for public consumption, back in my college days. I don’t know why I stopped publishing stuff… because I really liked it. I’d developed a (very) small cult following that liked what I wrote, and to be honest I really miss having that community of readers. I’m making it a point to write and publish a lot more in 2015.
  • It’s easier to change a system from within it.

So, that’s about it. I hope you found parts of this post valuable. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. If not, but you scrolled down to the bottom to see the little note at the end, I hope that doesn’t leave you dissapointed either.

Happy New Years! May your 2015 be better than your 2014.