Why the QR code can't save the world

Sticky helps you solve physical problems with our no-code platform and branded stickers. We give you everything you need to improve convenience and make more money in hospitality, retail, the enterprise and more.

One of the most common (if not the most common) questions we get is:

Why doesn't Sticky run on QR codes?


  • They take too long to scan; the very process of scanning one is not transactional
  • They will solely be associated with COVID and the gold rush of terrible "order-at-table" apps or "track and trace"
  • They create a significant risk of real world phishing, especially if QR-based payments really took off
  • They can never be a mark of something good because anyone can print one that shows something offensive, something poor (like a PDF menu), or something that doesn't work.

Thinking beyond the table

Alongside "track and trace", "order at table" is the only mainstream example of a physical↔digital app - the kind of app we know will define how we live in the future.

"Order at table" apps operate from a QR code. This seems good because QR codes have a low barrier-to-entry (anyone can print one), making distribution at scale a non-problem.

Yet anyone who thinks QR codes are good enough to make true physical↔digital apps doesn't get what we are trying to make possible.

Our goal is to make interacting with the world as easy as a contactless payment through a kind of app that's both transactional and stateful (read: quick and with memory). That means the time for the whole job to be done needs to be 10 seconds or less - for both the physical interaction and the digital flow.

Imagine: 2 taps to check in, no app. Or 4 taps for a glass of wine (including payment). Always 10 seconds or less.

Improving the digital flow by 10x is not enough

Today's "order at table" apps take so long to use digitally (dozens of taps) that scanning a QR code is only a small part of the time it takes to finish the job to be done overall. In other words, people don't notice how long it takes to scan a QR code because they already have to spend minutes on the phone itself.

Let's assume the ratio of time spent in a physical↔digital app is ~1:50 - 5 seconds to scan a QR code; 4 minutes to get anything done. That's the average time - anything that makes you sign up for an account, choose a password and type in a card number takes 5 minutes or more. Flows that show a PDF menu seem quick, but if you still have to order with a waiter or waitress, the time to get anything done has to include all of the human interaction too.

Here's a classic example of a poor digital flow. A popular town centre app's QR codes only work from inside their app - scan one through your phone's camera and nothing happens. The first time user experience is totally broken. When you do download their app, the first thing it does it ask for location, notifications and Bluetooth permissions, then makes you create an account.

Sticky could solve only the digital flow, taking the ratio from 1:50 to 1:1 - 5 seconds to scan a QR code and 5 seconds to see what's nearby. Still, half of the whole interaction is spent getting to the job to be done.

An interaction that uses a QR code can never be transactional: the friction is too high, even if the digital flow is excellent.

"I have never seen anybody willingly scan a QR code, because their mind is already programmed to expect something either related to COVID, or something painful, or both."

Time is just one reason QR codes can't be a part of Sticky's vision. There are other problems.

Low barrier to entry is a fallacy

The low barrier to entry of the QR code is specifically problematic. Letting anybody print one has led to a gold rush of poor order-at-table flows, like hard to read PDF menus, or tedious "track and trace" forms which are actually an email marketing funnel.

These poor quality flows are inherently linked to the QR code's appearance. Any work on the digital flow can't overcome the physical interaction's reputation.

On the other hand, stickies have an opportunity to not only be known as the quickest way to do any job, but also to act as a quality mark of a good, safe and valuable experience. The "tap me" frame is the consumer promise that the interaction will always be as easy as a contactless payment - something that always works, and quickly.

QR codes can never have that mark because anyone can print one.

Only stickies will be the mark of a best-in-class physical↔digital interaction.

Zero marginal costs is not the goal

Tech's conventional wisdom is that the only way for a startup to be valuable is to reach virtually infinite distribution with zero marginal costs; after all, that's why pure software plays have such high valuations.

This is a fallacy too. The world's most valuable company, Apple, can't make infinite iPhones, and each iPhone is expensive to make. But does it matter? Making iPhones (the hardware and the software) is what makes Apple unique and special. The margin on iPhones is good, yet every iPhone is also a flywheel to selling Apple services with true zero marginal costs.

By making both the hardware and software itself, it gives consumers a value proposition (experience) that's impossible to compete with.

In other words, Apple is a more valuable company because it controls distribution. Apple's limitations are what make it valuable.

Every new company with the potential to change the world has to be a hardware company in hiding - a company controlling distribution and owning the experience end-to-end, even if how is non-obvious. Our hunch is that in the future, every software company will wish it could escape the zero marginal costs trap - the zone where pure software plays will be indefensible and commoditised.

Sticky will be a billion dollar company because it controls distribution and has a flywheel to zero marginal costs just like Apple: the technology layer and consumer mark behind the future of payments, discovery, retail, hospitality and more.