Yes, we know Uber has no cars, but what do they really sell?

So by now everyone knows that Uber has exactly zero cars and Airbnb has zero hotel rooms. But this shouldn’t really be that surprising given it has been the playbook of the internet since like Altavista was a thing. So we can stop putting it in presentations as though it is a surprise. The web is a connection device, those who make the most useful connections win. It’s all about access, not ownership. While these two tech companies don’t own the assets they rely on, we ought remember some older examples from the ‘Connection Playbook’.

  • Apple have 800,000+ app developers they don’t pay.
  • Alibaba has 4.2 million factories they don’t own.
  • Facebook has 1.2 billion content creators.
  • Amazon sells almost every author in the world.
  • WordPress has 75 million journalists writing for them.
  • eBay doesn’t own any good it sells.

The web has always been about leveraging cognitive surplus and idle assets. Owning stuff and paying creators is so Industrial era.

Now let’s consider what people are really buying when they get an Uber: Certainty & Transparency.

Uber time to arrival

For me the thing that makes Uber valuable isn’t the nice black vomit-less cars, or the random risky strangers who drive them. It’s knowing the car will be at my house in 6 minutes. It’s far superior to whenever I order a taxi – they still to this very day have the gall to tell me they’ll send the ‘Next Available’ – which does not help me get to the airport in time. I’m also a fan of just leaving the car without having to waste like 7 seconds swiping a credit card to pay. Yes, human laziness knows no bounds. Interestingly, the key features that make it work could all have been done by the taxi industry. But heck, why would they do that in monopoly conditions?

As for Airbnb, I’d much rather stay in a hotel when travelling on business. Hotels are far more convenient and have a number of services that matter when travelling for work – like late night burgers and concierge. But whenever I hear someone talk about their Airbnb experience, it’s never about convenience and amenities. And it’s not always about price. Most often it is about the story of where they stayed and how authentic it was. Airbnb sell the story of accommodation. They localise the experience for strangers.

Yes, it’s quirky that many big businesses connect things rather than own them, but it’s more important we understand what their customer advantages really are.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.