The “Uber of X” Companies Are Only Halfway There

2013 was a big year for Uber. They raised a quarter billion dollars from Google, launched in dozens of cities worldwide, and they became the latest company to inspire a series of “Uber for X” copycats. Techcrunch and Inc referred to the summer 2013 YCombinator Demo Day as featuring “convenience tech” and the number of pitches I heard about on-demand product services will make your head spin.

These companies are all predicated on the fact that the mobile phone enables services to be ‘accessed’ rather than owned, at the push of a button, often powered by driver-based logistics infrastructure. Some of these companies are curated marketplaces, like Uber, while in others the supply is fully managed and owned by the company. These companies usually associate themselves with Uber because of the on-demand physical delivery aspect of their service (and some are also mobile, like Uber). But to call oneself the “Uber of X” simply on the basis of these things is to miss a crucial fact about Uber.

When Uber launched in closed beta, my first experience of it was through Twitter. Numerous friends were tweeting incredulously about how a black car showed up — sometimes an Escalade or Mercedes! — to take them to their location, and they would walk out at the end of the ride without having to open their wallet. It was magic. I distinctly remember one of my friends saying, only half-jokingly, that he wanted to take this girl out on a date just so that he could use Uber to get to and from the venue. Every time they used the service, they were tickled pink, and couldn’t decide whether to tell everyone they knew about it, or not tell a soul, to keep it to themselves. The problem Uber was solving (a personal car right now, at the click of a button) was fresh, and the experience was completely unique. It felt slick. It felt fancy.

To create the Uber of X, you not only need to be creating new convenience technology, or on-demand delivery. Your experience needs to be so cool that a user is instantly addicted, or at least instantly delighted. The only company that has done this to that degree since Uber, if you ask me, is Lyft1. The first time I took a Lyft, I was terrified, delighted, and instantly wanted to do another one, just for the thrill of it. It felt like when I first successfully IM’ed one of my friends, or accepted a friend request on Facebook. Which would explain why Lyft is growing faster than Uber today.

Our colleague Ryan reminded me that we “need to walk the line between novelty and magic. Novelty = ‘try it once or twice and feel it’s neat’ while Magic = of course that’s the way the world ought to work, and I’m the only one in this little corner of the world that’s discovered it and it seems I’m going to be consistently delighted.”

Delivery isn’t inherently delightful. Convenience doesn’t necessarily make a user feel special. Does your user experience delight, and make a user feel special? If you really want to be the Uber for X, honestly ask yourself (and your users) that question. If the answer is yes, holler at me.

  1. Yes, we are invested.