Uber-for-X: A different kind of “disruptive?”

A thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic.

Now, you can do stuff that you could already do before, but you can do it with your phone. What it takes to make that work is incredible—venture capitalists have poured $672 million combined into Wag and Rover!—but the consumer impact is small. Instead of taking a number off a bulletin board in a coffee shop and calling Eric to walk Rufus, you hit a few buttons on your phone and Eric comes over. Very successful companies, the Ubers and Lyfts, do begin to shift urban systems—but only once they’ve been operating for long enough. Even figuring whether ride-hailing is taking cars off or adding them to the road is complicated.

It’s not hard to look around the world and see all those zeroes of capital going into dog-walking companies and wonder: Is this really the best and highest use of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem? In the ten years since Uber launched, the phones haven’t changed all that much. The world’s most dominant social network became Facebook in 2009, and in 2019, it is still Facebook. The phones look the same. Google is still Google, even if it is called Alphabet.

Alexis C. Madrigal

But does this characterization sell Uber-for-X services short? The it’s-nothing-new-just-now-on-your-phone angle?

I’m not convinced it does. I’ve used lots of Uber-for-X services just a few times—ones that are designed, really, to replace activities that I’m used to doing. Grubhub, for example. I used it once. I have an account. But I don’t use it several times a week when I probably could. I guess the value added is just too small relative to the hassle (which, I guess, means it doesn’t add value, on net). That hassle being like—30 seconds of button-pressing on my phone? That’s a very small value-added, indeed.

Another issue with these apps is the following (and I mention this a lot):

There’s only so much room on your phone. Apps like Grubhub and even Uber/Lyft can be quite useful, but not for most people most of the time. Airbnb is a great example—I’ve used it, and I downloaded the app. But after a few months of not using, I deleted it. It was just clutter.

I’m guessing most Airbnb users are like me. They use it, and they like it. But they don’t use it that often, because they don’t travel that often. Every few months, maybe.

So what about services (like Grubhub) you might use once or twice a month? Is that often enough to use up space on your phone? And if it’s not, are you going to remember that the service exists next time you order takeout?

Maybe you’ll remember if you reeeeally hate walking/driving 10 minutes to pick up your food. And then, of course, the restaurant (or, generally, product) you chose needs to be integrated with that app. And I don’t think most people like restricting themselves to just one app’s options when picking their food, or most other products (but especially food).

(This doesn’t necessarily have to be about actual hard drive space. I think many people just don’t like their screens cluttered with a bunch of apps they rarely use.)

You get my point.

The question, then: How much has Uber-for-X changed things, fundamentally?

Tech-bubble-talk on repeat

I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been busy. I started a new job two weeks ago and I still have class three evenings per week. The job is great, though. I’m a research associate at a pretty cool market research firm here in the D.C. area. My coworkers and assignment are quite engaging.

I did find time to write a piece for Enhancing Capital last week. It’s on the “tech bubble” (or lack thereof, in my opinion). Mostly, talk about the tech bubble has been based on impulsive reactions to sky-high valuations of tech startups. The old guard just can’t seem to bring themselves to believe these companies actually add amazing value to users of their products. Airbnb and Uber come to mind.

On one hand, this incredulity is understandable. These companies often have just a few dozen employees. Their products are little games and buttons that live on a little 5.1″ handheld display. Isn’t a $1 billion valuation a little high?

But on the other hand, apps these days are becoming quite sophisticated, yet simultaneously easier to use for the average person. And they’re not just fun and games. Apps like Airbnb and Uber bring the physical and digital worlds together in ways that make life easier for everyone. They solve problems we didn’t know we had in ways that add real, dollars-and-cents value to our wallets.

On a somewhat related note, I guarantee you kids in twenty years won’t believe we used to hail cabs by walking down to the sidewalk and flailing our arms around hoping a driver would see us.