Forget Uber and Airbnb: "Bitcoin of X" is the newest lazy way to describe your startup
Technology is complicated, making the natural inclination to simplify the description of new products and businesses, often beyond comprehension. And when speaking to venture capitalist, entrepreneurs like to inflate the importance of their startups by comparing them to proven successful businesses. That's why we often end up with things like on-demand marijuana apps being described as the "Uber of pot" or collaborative consumption food startups as the "Airbnb of home-cooked meals."
But the latest trend in lazy startup monikers is perhaps the most nonsensical yet. This week, an 18-month-old speech recognition startup called Wit.ai announced it had been acquired by Facebook. And thanks to its "open, distributed, community-based network of developers" it has taken to calling itself "The bitcoin of natural language."
Words are often little more than meaningless strings of symbols, especially when they come out of the mouths of entrepreneurs touting their startup. But few phrases defy logic like calling something the "Bitcoin" of a given market. Yet that hasn't stopped people from trying -- author Josh Stern has called Scribd the "bitcoin of publishing." The site Gems calls itself the "bitcoin of social networking." Perhaps most absurdly, Bloomberg reporter Isobel Finkel called Islamic State the "bitcoin of brutal regimes."
It's one thing to describe a charity-based cryptocurrency like "Givecoin" as the "Bitcoin of philanthropy" (or, maybe, "for philanthropy"); or "Coinye" the "bitcoin of Kanye." But outside of these specialized currency verticals, Bitcoin has become shorthand for anything that's "decentralized" or otherwise "disruptive" -- as if those terms weren't already enormously vague, nondescript, and overused.
It seems that when people describe something as the "bitcoin of X" they merely mean it's a product that is uniquely-suited to the Internet age. After all, bitcoin itself has often been called "The Internet of money," in reference to the impact it's had on financial asset portability and accessibility.
But imagine how silly Wit.ai would sound had it called itself "The Internet of natural language" -- let alone Islamic State being referred to as the "Internet of brutal regimes." Subbing in "bitcoin" for "Internet" isn't any less ridiculous.
Ironically, the defining legacy of bitcoin may be that it was an early iteration of an idea that hadn't yet come of age. Perhaps the most apt comparison, then, is to Netscape. It's not a new comparison, with Netscape occasionally dubbed today as "the bitcoin of Internet browsers." Every foundational piece of modern Internet browsers stems from Netscape, and yet when that product arrived the world lacked the technological infrastructure, cultural framework, and market readiness for the commercial Internet. While immensely important -- not to mention lucrative to its founders, who sold it to AOL for $10 billion -- the product no longer exists, and the average Internet user born after 1990 likely knows little about it.
So be careful next time you call your startup the "bitcoin" of whatever. It probably isn't. And even if it is, that could well mean your idea, while interesting, is far too ahead of its time to take over the world.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]