Your Company Isn’t the Uber or Airbnb of Anything (And That’s Okay.)
By Zach Kliger
“We’re the Uber of babysitting.”
“It’s like AirBNB for bikes.”
“Imagine Uber for dog walking.”
It’s the shorthand founders of supposedly innovative companies use to describe their offering — to the point that it’s become a joke. Hundreds, if not thousands of startups have started describing themselves in these terms, and maybe it makes sense?
After all, companies like Uber and AirBNB are smart, sexy, and most importantly, successful. They have captured our collective imagination as legendary stories of how a simple idea can transform how people live their lives. These firms created a new type of service: simple platforms where people could make their own private property (home or auto) available for use by others. As other companies have copped the “gig economy” model, comparing themselves to Uber or AirBNB seems like a convenient way to explain their offering. After all, who wouldn’t want to follow in the footsteps of these billion-dollar companies?
Because true category-defining companies earn that status by standing alone, and carving out a message that’s wholly their own.
The “Uber / AirBNB for X” brand story is more than lazy: it undermines the value of product innovation, forever ties the brand to the fate of those it’s imitating, and reinforces customers’ love for the innovator, not the imitator.
Comparison is a primary tool used in decision making. Whether people are seeking to understand a company or each other, comparing a new concept or item to one who’s value is already understood gives context that might otherwise be unavailable.
It’s an often-useful approach because with a comparison there’s an immediate frame of reference — a window into understanding through shared knowledge. It’s so much harder to build context from the ground up and to shape a story and an understanding out of new parts. When a founder only has a few minutes to sell their idea to a room of people who can’t wait to turn them down, they naturally fall back on these comparisons to explain their potential.
This method is flawed not only because it immediately forces a company to chase an impossible standard, but because it ultimately obfuscates identity, rather than reveals it.
Instead of digging deeper and really working to uncover the elemental and unique ideas that define a new business, so many are content to rely on comparison without going any further. No time is spent to truly understand who and what a company is.
Uber harnessed the ubiquity of smartphones and inefficiencies of the transportation business to build a ride-hailing service that was “a cross between lifestyle and logistics.” While the company has had no small share of missteps since, the core purpose of ease of use and opportunity for drivers has remained true.
AirBNB opened people’s homes to the world. It unlocked new potential in those assets, and completely altered how people travel and how they leverage real estate. It was born out of a personal problem faced by its founders, and used the model of the gig economy to generate passive income from existing assets.
These are good stories — so profoundly game-changing that they spawned an entirely new economy. It’s no wonder that so many founders see them as motivational, and seek to follow in their footsteps, especially if their idea is similarly harnessing the potential of the gig economy. And it’s no surprise that so many then failed to accomplish anything of note. Comparisons are easy, and they are often useful, but alone they show customers nothing new — and offer little in the way of inspiration.
When a new model or category appears, there’s always a desire to copy it. But novel entrants are most successful, and enduring, when they deliver a fresh approach and story, instead of making reductive comparisons to the established player.
Imagine if iPod had been introduced as “Rio for Mac users.” While Rio was the leading MP3 player and innovator of its time, it’s hard to imagine the iPod’s rapid adoption if Apple had resorted to simple comparison, instead of crafting a wholly distinct narrative. The ability to put “thousands of songs in your pocket” wasn’t new — but the story was, and it was compelling.
As Wodenworker Kelly Sarabyn wrote about at length earlier this year, getting there first is no guarantee of success. Birchbox had everything going for it. It established a new market as the original subscription beauty box, and it was selling a solid product with demand. And yet, seven years after establishing itself, it was losing massive market share to competitors like Ipsy to the point that the company is now battling for survival. Why? Because Ipsy didn’t call itself a new Birchbox, it told a powerful story of customer-focused empowerment.
It is still possible to find a place in an established category even if a company doesn’t make it there first. But doing so requires messaging in a unique and compelling way, and not simply as a new iteration or additional feature on top of the market leader. These easy comparisons to Uber and AirBNB have become so prevalent to the point that they are an immediate signal to potential customers and investment partners of unoriginality at best and laziness at worst.
Instead, there’s more impetus and value than ever to share a compelling story, rather than leaning on comparison. As companies like Ipsy and many others prove, it’s a strategy that can even be successful if you are for all intents and purposes literally imitating the product of an established company.
As a business model, Careem is essentially Uber, adapted to the sensibilities of the Arab world. But that’s not how the Saudi Arabian company describes itself. Instead, it focuses on how it is empowering hundreds of thousands of people to support their families, simplifying lives, and positively impacting the regional, emerging economy. It shares the individual stories of its drivers — dubbed “Captains” — and firmly positions them as the hero of the story.
HomeAway takes the same home-sharing approach as AirBNB but puts its focus on vacation experiences far away in cabins, condos, and beach houses, rather than marketing itself as a resource for every type of house for every situation. With this more precise emphasis in its product offering, it’s able to tailor its message around getaways to exciting locales with new experiences and adventures. It has resulted in attracting a distinct, unique demographic — one that often pays a premium.
Despite the fact that these companies are functionally very similar to the category-makers, they found successful niches on the strength of their message alone. They paved their own way, uncovering stories that resonated uniquely with the people they sought to reach.
Meanwhile, there are so many companies out there introducing genuine innovations to the gig economy model that have been hamstrung because they stopped at “we’re the Uber or the AirBNB of.”
Companies like Homejoy (Uber for Home Cleaning), HelloParking (Uber for Parking), and Cherry (Uber for Car Washing) all presented worthwhile offers, but struggled and ultimately failed to find adoption in part because they didn’t think of themselves as anything more than a new Uber tooled for a different purpose. While there were many factors contributing to their eventual downfall, their lack of a clear and distinct message certainly didn’t help.
Uber and AirBNB are inspiring examples, worthy of thousands of comparisons. But the enduring connection that customers have with them is precisely because they are so novel: both arose out of authentic needs felt by their founding team, and connected with customers inhabiting the same broken world. And by delivering on that promise, they’ve reinforced their message to the point of widespread adoption.
Brands seeking to grow in the gig economy must go beyond riding their coattails. Like the innovators before them, investing in a clear, authentic, hero-focused message will define them on their own — and invite the most favorable of comparisons: differentiation.
Zach Kliger is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.