Saving Uber from Itself

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There are two stories to Uber. Both matter.

The first story is this: Uber was founded in March 2009 by Travis Kalanick with a single, powerful idea: it shouldn’t be hard to hail a cab. Anyone living in a major metro area knows how important Uber and other ridesharing apps have become, rapidly turning street hails into a thing of the past. Powered by ubiquitous smartphone location tracking technology and fueled by nobody wanting to stand out in the rain waiting for that one taxi that’s not already taken, Uber erupted volcanically into the popular consciousness and quickly became a vital part of the informal infrastructure of cities around the world.

The second: Uber is a ruthless company that underpays its drivers, engages in troubling anticompetitive practices, is relentlessly opportunistic and profiteering to the point of jacking up fares in emergencies and breaking strikes in opposition to the President’s immigration ban, and fosters a toxic culture rife with worker exploitation and sexual harassment.

The second story is increasingly proving to be the dominant one.

Criticism of Uber and founder Kalanick is nothing new. From the outset, it drew criticism within the San Francisco area, where it first operated, for being essentially a service to keep rich people from interacting with the poor. Class issues have always been at the heart of Uber’s public persona; Kalanick is the sort who believes you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get, going so far as to berate one of his own drivers who complained that the pay structure had left him in severe debt. “You know what?” he said. “Some people don't like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

Statements like this are as troubling as they are emblematic of Uber’s entire philosophy, and that’s where the root of its current problems lie: Uber built itself on its take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred style of muscular capitalism, launching forward with a team of college bro executives and engineers who matched Kalanick in personality and style. It turns out that the personality of a founder really does imprint on their company, and it’s hard to avoid viewing Uber as an extension of Kalanick’s combative, aggressive identity. It has behaved exactly the way he would.

But, in today’s fraught cultural climate, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there has been pushback against the company. Tony Stark from the Avengers movies notwithstanding, nobody really likes a jerk all that much, especially when it’s a public-facing service company that’s being one. So the recent shareholder revolt that finally ousted Uber’s embattled founder from his cushy seat as CEO is a positive step in the right direction. But it’s not even close to enough.

Companies always bear the imprint of their founder. Apple may have retreated into being a full-time luxury brand, but it’s still always at least trying to stay on the cutting edge Steve Jobs so definitively put it on. Amazon’s imperious ambitions are a reflection of the outsized goals Jeff Bezos had for it all the way back in 1997. So the exit of Travis Kalanick isn’t going to change the problems the company is facing right now – the loss of consumer confidence, increased criticism of its profiteering practices, and criminal investigations by the Justice Department to name a few, including charges of corporate espionage targeting Google subsidiary Waymo’s self-driving car technology – because they’re not just about Kalanick. They’re about Uber, the company he built in his own image. Simply replacing him isn’t going to change that.

Machines do what they were designed to do, and it’s an unspoken, unacknowledged truth that this applies to companies as well. Uber was created by Kalanick to be the vehicle of his ambition and funnel money upwards by any means necessary. Resolving that problem, and turning Uber into a company with a much more human focus that doesn’t violate the second formulation of the categorical imperative – never treat people as though they were solely a means to an end – would require totally reforming the company’s culture and raison d’être from the ground up. You can’t take a machine designed to demolish the competition, spread like wildfire, spend money like there’s no tomorrow, spit in the face of regulators, and win at all costs and then suddenly ask it to behave. Like the story of the frog and the scorpion, things have their natures. Uber was built to fight.

For Uber to overcome the PR crises that have stained its reputation for efficiency and ease, well, it needs to overcome Travis Kalanick.

That’s the thing. It’s hard, when you’re inside an organization, to see it from a big picture view. It’s much easier to think, okay, we can reclaim the story about Uber through surface-level changes, maybe improve pay (although, considering its cash troubles, that may be hard to pursue), take basic steps to dampen the harassment, QED. But the implosion we’re witnessing in terms of Uber’s ability to engage effectively with the public about both itself and its services is part of a much more deeply rooted sickness. You cannot get away with running your company like it's a frat house anymore, at least not as well as in the past. And as I wrote regarding United’s unfortunate string of press, once you fully own the identity of “terrible company,” the only way to shake it isn’t just with saying the right words; it’s with a real, meaningful commitment to reform. There’s no other way to do it.

It might mean that the company has to reconceptualize itself as something much more boring than a Silicon Valley tornado: a service company whose job, first and foremost, isn’t to grow as much as it is to operate well. And as Uber’s internal troubles mount, it will find that simply being innovative isn’t enough; think about how the brightest, hottest, biggest stars burn out the fastest. Growing the way it did, with the leadership it had, has led the tech rideshare company to abandon some basic rules about fair play in the market and forgo building a healthy work environment; after all, what’s fair play compared to wiping out public transit?

This is a hard pivot, and a necessary one if the company doesn’t want to further alienate both current and potential future drivers and its customer base simultaneously, as it has been doing. It is already facing difficulties with new driver retention as the company takes a larger share of the fewer fares.

Reform means taking seriously the baseline recommendations of its exhaustive internal audit and treating them as a place to start, not a sufficient end-goal. That will require a fundamentally new way of thinking about Uber and how it interacts with the world, its employees, and its customers. It’s too big and too vulnerable to be a shark anymore.

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