Uber's story is one worth telling and listening to, and we’re fortunate Adam Lashinsky took on the formidable task.
Wild Ride: Inside Uber's Quest for World Domination by Adam Lashinsky, Portfolio, 240 pages, Hardcover, May 2017, ISBN 9780735211391
I’m pretty thoroughly uninterested in Uber. As a father of two young children who still need to ride in car seats, I need my own vehicle to get us around—and I am fortunate enough that I don’t need to use that vehicle in the side hustle Uber provides. That said, I’ll read anything Adam Lashinsky writes, so I picked up his new book, Wild Ride: Inside Uber's Quest for World Domination, and was immediately hooked. I’m glad he wrote about Uber, because most of what I know about the company comes from its seemingly endless string of bad press and the more brief examples of it’s success found in business books, and the story of Uber has a lot more to teach us as it moves from upstart Silicon Valley start-up to giant global corporation.
Because Uber’s story is largely the story of CEO Travis Kalanick—and vice-versa—it is a biography of a man as much as a narrative of a company. Key to both are what Kalanick learned in previous start-ups—Scour, a movie and music file-sharing service that predated and was, in some ways, preyed upon by the larger Napster—and Red Swoosh, which essentially tried to pull the same file sharing trick minus the copyright infringement. Red Swoosh did this in a way that would be echoed by Uber’s business model: by leveraging the personal computers of its clients, and in so doing bypassing the need for its own massive servers and data centers. Lashinsky explains the similarity:
Where Red Swoosh dreamed that the “unused capacity of the desktop PC represents 3,000 times the available capacity at all the CDNs [content delivery networks] worldwide,” Uber would eventually assemble a fleet it didn’t own that would dwarf the number of cars operated by any competing taxi service. In short, Scour and Red Swoosh represented, at least for Travis Kalanick, a direct through-line to Uber.
Red Swoosh was eventually bought Akamai, leaving Lashinsky with a couple million dollars in his pocket, which he would use to become an angel investor and entrepreneurial community builder in San Francisco. And that is where the story of Uber begins to form—both the longer story as it emerged in (StumbleUpon co-funder) Garrett Camp’s mind beginning in the summer of 2008, and the conversation between him and Kalanick at the top of the Eiffel Tower during a snowstorm that would become the creation myth spun by the company. It took another two years for Kalanick to join the company, and controversy would dog him from the start. The day he became CEO was the same day Uber was handed a cease-and-desist letter from the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority. At the time, the company was called UberCab, and Lashinsky tells the story of that letter arriving and what happened next:
“The name UberCab indicates that you are taxicab company or affiliated with a taxicab company, and as such you are under the jurisdiction of the SFMTA,” it read. Kalanick’s response was straightforward. The company would drop the word “cab” from its name and otherwise ignore the letter.
Uber is one of the first companies to succeed in what Travis Kalanick calls a “bits and atoms” business model—one that differs from pure technology companies like Google and Facebook in that it relies on pairing software with real-world assets, even if it doesn’t own those assets. (Airbnb is the other oft-cited, successful example.) But the Uber Kalanick took over as CEO in 2010 looked much different than it does today. It started as a more expensive, upscale service that used the professional limousine drivers with a fleet of black cars and limos—marketing itself as “Everyone’s Private Driver.” It’s a service that still exists as UberBlack, but it has been dwarfed by UberX, the service provided by private drivers and their cars that most of us are familiar with. It entered that market only in response to Lyft’s service. To tell the story of how they entered the fray with Lyft (Kalanick had learned to take such threats seriously when Scour saw Napster blow by them with what seemed like a lesser service), Lashinsky weaves in the story of that company’s much different origin story.
And because “the global infrastructure it had built around human drivers” faces an existential threat from self-driving cars, Uber has entered that fray, as well. So Lashinsky gives the history behind those efforts at Google, Uber, Tesla, car manufacturers, and elsewhere—and where they interconnect and compete with each other.
He also tells the story of how Kalanick built out his executive team, added process and structure, and scaled the company. The details of how Uber moved into new cities by going to meet with individuals in the tech communities there, doing real world, word-of-mouth marketing of the service while researching local regulations and recruiting drivers, are wonky and wonderful and full of hustle. Much of that work was done by Austin Geidt, who began as an early intern at the company and would end up running a team that oversaw the launch of the service into cities around the globe. It grew so quickly, so fast, that…
[M]ere years into its existence it had so insulated itself into the cultural zeitgeist that it joined an elite group of corporate names that double as verbs: No need to drive to the event, I’ll just Uber there.
But as much as it gained accolades everywhere it went, it has also courted almost constant controversy, and Lashinsky shows how, and how quickly, “the company’s reputation shifted from disruptive darling to brash bully, a sneering brawler waging a multifront war against all comers.”
Taxi companies, regulators, politicians, competitors, journalists, its own drivers, even women: all could justifiably feel aggrieved by something Uber said or did.
And its story of growth isn’t without its bumps in the road either. The story starts in, and eventually comes back to, China—where Uber competed fiercely with Chinese rival, Didi, losing billions of dollars a year before striking a deal that got them out of that competition with a lucrative stake in the company it was competing with. The tale is almost operatic in its drama: In the self-driving overture, Apple is a large investor in Didi; In the Lyft competition aria, Didi invested heavily in Lyft in the U.S. and other Uber competitors elsewhere. It’s a fascinating tale that, as always, has Kalanick at the center of it. In this case, the quest for world domination came ended in what looks like a good deal and smart partnership.
I’m still not a big fan of Uber or its CEO (headlines like "Uber admits underpaying New York drivers approximately $45 million" don't help, though I suppose they're at least admitting it?), but I’m glad to have Lashinsky’s reporting, and a better understanding of the company and its history. As he writes:
Uber’s story remains a tale of our times: of the transformative power of technology, the impermanence of long-term employment, and the opportunity of Silicon Valley and virtual communities like it to turn scrappiness, moxie, and smarts into vast fortunes.
It’s a story worth telling and knowing, and I'm glad it was Adam Lashinsky who took on the formidable task.