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Technology

Silicon Valley's Problem-Solving Bubble

The insanity of gas-delivery startups and what they say about inconvenience inflation.

[Photo: Flickr user Steve Snodgrass]

"Every day, in every way, the things that matter to our lives are coming to us," begins the pitch for an on-demand fuel startup called WeFuel that is launching on Tuesday. "But there’s something that still forces us to get in our car, fight traffic, and go through a ritual that is more than 100 years old. Filling up our cars with gas."

Since 2014, at least three startups that deliver gas to parked cars have launched in California, and with them, they’ve brought a new problem to affluent convenience seekers. Once a minor inconvenience, stopping for five minutes on the way home to refuel your tank, they’ve explained, is now a major impediment to life. "We all lead busy lives, running to and from appointments and trying to balance time with work and family," explains a video from WeFuel competitor Filld. "Something always gets in the way: the gas station."

Sure, refueling is an errand. But is it really preventing anyone from leading a balanced life?

"You’ve got places to go, but hate stopping at the gas station," posits another fueling startup, Purple. "Whether you’re home, at the office, or out on a date, Purple will handle the unpleasant experience of stopping for fuel."

We can all agree that refueling is not an awesome experience, but unpleasant?

Probably not. Rather, the few minutes it takes to top off a tank has been awkwardly wedged into a classic marketing formula. The Silicon Valley disruption narrative is only effective, after all, if there’s an archaic and broken industry to disrupt. And thus, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tells the press, "We don’t want to be like the taxi guys who came before us—we embrace the future," and Airbnb casts hotels as cookie-cutter sterile experiences, as opposed to its "trusted community marketplace" that "connects people to unique travel experiences." Transportation and lodging are hard to live without. But as the on-demand trend has exploded, the problems addressed by one-touch services have become smaller and smaller—and thus further magnified by the companies solving them.

Minor errands morph into huge obstacles ("No more planning ahead, sitting in traffic, or running to the store," booze-delivery startup Foxtrot promises). Simple tasks become dreaded time sucks ("So, it looks like you’ll be traveling next week," begins a video from suitcase-packing service Dufl. "Time to fold the laundry, pick up the dry cleaning, and of, course, pack. There goes your Sunday night"). And mildly inconvenient chores are reframed as terrible experiences ("Other cleaners have dirty storefronts, incomprehensible paper receipts, and nonexistent customer service," explains the website of on-demand laundry service Dashlocker).

WeFuel’s ultimate vision is to distribute fuel-tracking hardware that plugs into a standard drive inside most cars. The device will keep tabs on when cars need to be refilled and where they are located. WeFuel drivers will travel to refill them as needed, without the driver even pressing a button (WeFuel will charge $7.50 per fill-up). This would unarguably be an easier way to keep a car tank full of gas than stopping at a gas station. But that doesn’t mean that stopping for gas is really all that difficult.

Creating problems is not new terrain for advertising. Ads have successfully convinced us that we smell bad, that bad breath is a medical condition, that hair doesn’t belong on women’s legs, and that a marriage proposal is empty without a diamond ring. "Make your life a tiny bit more convenient" is just not quite as compelling as "avoid an incredible hardship."

But Silicon Valley’s problem inflation is more than a shopworn advertising trope—it's evidence that entrepreneurs are tackling issues that are really only problems for people much like themselves. Tech companies offer perks like free meals, dry cleaning, and bike repair to their workers (indeed, fourth fueling startup Booster Fuels sells its refueling services to companies that want to offer it as a benefit). Their veteran employees launch startups that make conveniences once enjoyed only by extremely wealthy people—butlers, on-demand drivers, personal assistants—accessible to the creative class, who as the WeFuel ad points out, have become accustomed to a world in which "every day, in every way, the things that matter to our lives are coming to us." It's only when you consider the stereotypically overworked and unprecedentedly privileged lifestyle of the Silicon Valley tech workers who invent and consume these services—as opposed to those who do the work to perform them—that these ho-hum errands that make up everyday life begin to look anything like actual problems.

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