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When I was working at YCombinator’s Startup School I came across thousands of founders using the “X for Y” pattern to describe their company: the “Airbnb for furniture” or “Mixpanel for your health”.
But “X for Y” can backfire easily, so you need to see if it truly helps your pitch — or destroys it.
Read on to find out:
Problems with using “X for Y”
When it makes sense to use “X for Y”
How to test if “X for Y” works for your startup pitch
Problems with using “X for Y”
It’s not clear what part of X you’re referring to
You’re hoping to anchor yourself to some part of company X that makes sense for your startup. But company X is enormously successful already, so by this point:
Company X has dozens of products
Company X’s products have lots of value propositions
Company X has numerous distribution channels
You can’t control which parts of company X investors associate you with.
If they associate you with the ‘wrong’ parts of company X, it can backfire and completely muddle your pitch.
🏠 We’re the “Airbnb for Y”
You’re a marketplace that doesn’t own inventory? You’re focused on helping people monetize their unused physical assets? You’re obsessed with trust?
🖥 We’re the “Figma for Y”
You’re a web-based tool? You help people collaborate on tasks? You have a bottoms-up sales strategy?
🚗 We’re the “Tesla for Y”
You’re an electric version of a gas-powered vehicle? You’re vertically integrated? You make lots of batteries?
You’ve instantly inherited all of X’s problems
There were tons of issues that company X had to deal with to break through and become the success that it is. By anchoring yourself to company X, it could mean:
You’ll have all the customer acquisition issues that company X had
You’ll have to form the types of strategic partnerships that X had to
You’ll need years of R&D to develop complex technology as X did
😩 Now in addition to defending your own startup, you have to defend against all the issues that company X had, too!
🏦 “We’re the Plaid for ___”
You’ll need to form multiple partnerships with entrenched organizations to deliver siloed data? You’ll need to build complex security and privacy infrastructure?
🚕 “We’re the Uber for ___”
You’ll have to aggressively capture market share while balancing regulatory risk? In addition to dealing with constrained marketplace supply?
📦 “We’re the Amazon for ___”
You’ll have to master logistics and supply chains? You’ll have to fight razor-thin margins for years? And you’ll have to deal with … Amazon?!
Does Y even want the features of company X?
Your customers — the ‘Y’ in ‘X for Y’ — may not even want those features of company X:
Company X made things cheaper. Is cost the biggest issue for Y?
X made a market more efficient. Is efficiency the key problem for Y?
X made things simpler. Is complexity the massive pain point for Y?
❗️Your customers don’t care if you call yourself the ‘X for Y’. They just want their problem solved.
Since startups cluster around referring to the same X (whatever the most successful companies are at the time), investors will be hearing lots of pitches with that same tagline, and think the same thing: does X even make sense for Y?
💊 “We’re Ro for vitamins”
Do vitamin shoppers really want to be connected with someone to determine their plan? Do they care about discretion in their packaging?
🤲🏽 “We’re OpenDoor for cars”
Is selling your car so painful that you’d do it through a service? Can you offer competitive prices to car owners? Would buyers want to buy used cars from you?
📷 “We’re Slack for photographers”
Do photographers need to have always-on chat? Is realtime interaction that important? And if so, why wouldn’t they just use Slack?
When it's OK to use “X for Y”
Investors consider company X a huge success
It may sound obvious but the company X that you’re anchoring to has to be considered a clear success by investors.
That last piece is important. There are countless products that millions of people use, but which haven’t resulted in investor wins.
Early-stage funding economics mean investors need to believe that your company could be a massive success and return many multiples on their investment.
🚫 “We’re the Mint.com for ____”
Maybe you’re positioning yourself as an aggregator of data sources for the end-user. Everyone has heard of Mint, but its exit to Intuit isn’t considered a huge win by most investors, so that could hurt your pitch.
✅ “We’re the Stripe for ____”
If this actually makes sense in your context, it’s great: Stripe has become one of the most valuable private companies in the world, and its investors have made a lot of money in the process.
The part of X that you’re copying has to be obvious
This is to combat the first point that investors might be confused about, which is not knowing what part of X you’re referring to when calling yourself “X for Y”.
🛠 An easy fix: add a quick line after the “X for Y” description, narrowing in on exactly what you mean by the comparison.
And try to choose a company that is obviously associated with a particular value proposition!
🚫 “We’re the Google for ____”
Google is clearly a huge success, but at this point it’s associated with so much that it’s impossible to be clear on which part of it you’re anchoring yourself to.
✅ “We’re Google for ___. We index all of ___ for Y and make it searchable”
Now I have a better picture of what your company does, and since I’ve seen Google be so successful in doing this, I can start to see how you could be too.
X has to represent a better way of doing things
This is usually not an issue since most founders anchor themselves to recent companies that are successful, but it’s worth saying: company X has to be doing things in a way that is reflective of the future.
Is X capitalizing on trends that are going to continue far into the future? Do you believe that other industries —namely the one you’re after — are going in that direction too?
🚫 “We’re the IBM for ____”
IBM is a massive and successful company, but its products and services aren’t what people associate with the future and the way the world is moving.
✅ “We’re the Shopify for ____”
If you mean that you’re creating all-in-one tools to help some set of people more easily do commerce online, that’s a wave that is definitely future-proofed.
Y would want those features of company X
It has to be obvious right when an investor hears the “X for Y” that Y would clearly benefit from X’s value propositions.
🏃 The leap from where market Y is right now, and how much better they’d be with X’s features, has to be really small and clear.
It’s ok if it’s not obvious since you’ll need to explain your unique insight about why you’re so confident that Y is a perfect match for X’s model.
🚫 “We’re the Uber for valet parking”
It isn’t clear that valets would benefit from this. Uber works since demand for rides is consistent and frequent, which doesn’t seem to apply here.
✅ “We’re the Netflix for fitness content”
This could be the pitch for Peloton (or many other fitness apps). There are still lots of questions about whether this model would work, but I can already imagine that a large group of people would want on-demand fitness classes.
Bonus: Geoclones (e.g. “X for India”)
If this really makes sense, it can work wonders in explaining your company in a concise and compelling way.
Most companies can’t instantly translate their success in one geography to another due to cultural and regulatory differences, so if you have an insight about how X could work in your region, you can quickly elevate your pitch.
But you have to be careful. There are caveats here:
🚫 Competition from X
If X’s model works so well for your country, why wouldn’t X see your success and decide to enter that market itself? Are there strong reasons why it won’t be easy for X to enter your market?
🚫 Cultural differences in your market
Different regions can have vastly different cultural norms and behaviors. The way that consumers (or businesses) transact and collaborate in those regions might mean X’s model won’t work. If you don’t agree, have strong reasons why.
🚫 Regulatory differences
Countries have different approaches to regulation, which means X’s model might not work in your country. Especially in industries with a lot of goverment oversight and red tape, you need to be confident that you can jump through those hurdles.
How to test if “X for Y” works for your startup pitch
The best way to see exactly how people respond to “X for Y” is to do an email test. Send your “X for Y” description in an email to people that you know and trust to give good feedback. Ask them what they thought you meant when describing your company that way.
Subject: Does X for Y make sense for my startup pitch?
I’ve been using the following one-liner to describe my company. Could you read it and email me back about the questions I have below? Thanks!
[insert X for Y line here]
Based on this, could you tell me:
1. What exactly you think my company does?
2. What parts of [COMPANY X] I’m referring to for my startup?
3. Skepticism that comes up for you when I refer to our company that way?
4. If there’s anything unclear about what I’m building and why?
Thanks so much,
Feel free to email me with this template and I’ll give you my thoughts.
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