App Startup vs Content Startup

Here is something that occurred to me recently. It’s not a law or anything, but just a thought-provoking observation. I find it interesting, and maybe it’s useful as a tool in thinking about startups.

Most startups are either an app startup or a content startup.

What do I mean? Let’s back up a bit and talk about definitions.

When I say ‘startup’, I don’t mean a company that is designed to grow fast. I mean any venture that is new (and, in the context of this discussion, usually related to tech).

An app startup (where ‘app’ == ‘application’ and doesn’t mean just smartphone apps) is something that sells a technology (or an integration of existing technologies). It allows users to do something new, or do something in a faster, better or cheaper way.

A content startup is something that sells content, or sells the ability to interact with other people.

With definitions out of the way, let me repeat the above statement:

Most startups are either an app startup or a content startup.

Now, in truth, all businesses do a bit of both, but usually, a startup is dominated by one or the other. Hence, conceptually, most startups can be classified as one or the other.

(Note that I said ‘most’, not ‘all’. This is just a heuristic, and sometimes heuristics break down.)

Off the top of my head, here are some app startups:

  • Google search
  • Android
  • Tesla
  • Open AI
  • Substack
  • WordPress, Ghost, or any other CMS

These startups produce and/or sell a technology. Usually, the technology is novel or not easy to reproduce.

Here are some content startups:

  • BetaList
  • Product Hunt
  • Stratechery
  • Substack newsletter writers
  • Anyone who sells eBooks, courses, or newsletters
  • Tech media ie. Engadget, Techmeme etc.
  • Anyone who sells themes or plugins for WordPress or another CMS
  • AirBnB
  • Twitter

Content startups utilise known technology. Their technology is reproducible but the value of the startup is not in the technology. Instead, the hard-to-reproduce part is in the content side.

For example, it’s not hard to recreate the functionality of BetaList, Product Hunt or Stratechery, but it is much harder to duplicate the community.

For example, anyone can sell WordPress themes online. However, it’s much harder to create themes that people want to buy and to generate enough marketing and exposure to consistently get new buyers.

For example, anyone can create an AirBnB or Twitter clone, but they’d be useless without a community of users.

What startups can you think of? Are they app startups or content startups?

Bonus/trick question: Can you think of any startups which aren’t easily classified by this distinction?

* * *

What’s the point of thinking of startups as either app or content?

Well, it’s fun and frivolous theorising and it could be a useful aid in thinking about startups.

For me personally, it leads to a very important and relevant insight.

I think that … people who are makers/builders tend to build app startups.

(What about the reverse? Do non-technical founders tend to build content startups? Um, I don’t know. Maybe this is a question for a future article.)

For example, I like building things. As a developer/maker/hacker/whatever, I always gravitate towards app startup ideas. I instinctively try to build some cool new tech. I have never, in the past, considered content startup ideas.

This is a blind spot. It’s a very big blind spot.

I am unconsciously cutting myself off from half of the market of startup ideas.


All those stories about people who produce courses on how to use the next hip new tech stack and sell for thousands of dollars per month? I wouldn’t be able to conceive doing something similar because I’ve blinded myself to it.

Luckily for me, I’m aware of this now. Hopefully it’s not going to limit me any more.

What about you? If you are also a maker/hacker and you only consider app startup ideas, are you also limiting yourself?