I was a big fan of the Uber service since I first saw one of the initial prototypes of the product. Yet, over time, I've started to trust the company less and less, causing me to increasingly wonder about the leadership team. The news from August that Uber gave contractors phones and credit cards to create fake Lyft accounts in an attempt to recruit drivers and create false demand (which led to 5,000 lost rides) was the last straw. I'm no longer using Uber, at least until I can trust the brand. Here's why, and my story. I'm curious how others feel.
Back in 2009, I was hanging out with a couple of friends in San Francisco at the Sheba Lounge -- a classic, near legendary little jazz club on lower Fillmore Street -- when Garrett Camp showed up to hang out. I had met Garrett previously at an event hosted by the inimitable Tim Ferriss, and got an immediate sense for his creativity and very good product instincts. Sitting there on the couches at Sheba, he demonstrated his latest project, an app for black car pick-up service, and I'll never forget either how crude the prototype looked, nor the two blinking red lights, representing the two black cars in the fleet at that time. (The prototype was so crude, in fact that my friend commented to me that night, "That'll never work!" Famous last words.)
I guessed that there would be an audience of customers like me, people who lived in metropolitan areas who needed a black car every now and then. But I would never have imagined that the company would one-day be valued at a jaw-dropping $18.2 billion.
At the same time, I became a regular user of Uber, often in New York City or San Francisco, and spent hundreds of dollars. Many of my experiences were good, though not all, and the opaque surge pricing was certainly a frustration.
Then, a funny thing happened. One night, I was in an Uber SUV in NYC, headed to Penn Station to catch the train to Washington DC when I got a text message from a tech socialite of sorts (I'll spare her name because Gawker has already parodied her enough), but she's someone I hardly know, asking me if I was in an Uber car at 33th and 5th (or, something like that). I replied that I was indeed, thinking that she must be in an adjacent car. Looking around, she continued to text with updates of my car's whereabouts, so much so that I asked the driver if others could see my Uber location profile? "No," he replied, "that's not possible."
At that point, it all just started to feel weird, until finally she revealed that she was in Chicago at the launch of Uber Chicago, and that the party featured a screen that showed where in NYC certain "known people" (whatever that means) were currently riding in Uber cabs. After learning this, I expressed my outrage to her that the company would use my information and identity to promote its services without my permission. She told me to calm down, and that it was all a "cool" event and as if I should be honored to have been one of the chosen.
As I saw during my time in venture capital, it's the little things that reveal what a company is all about at its core.
After that, I began to scale back my Uber rides, and today, much as I am impressed with the product design and many aspects of the user experience, I've given up on being able to trust the company, and am no longer using the service. It's a bit of a bummer, to be honest, and I hope that the board steps up and cleans up the way the company approaches doing business.
The irony is that Uber not only can be a great company without resorting to the hyper-competitive tactics that have gotten it into trouble, it risks a massive downfall if consumers lose trust due to less than ethical tactics.
A great, long-lived brand begins and ends with trust.
Let's hope that Travis Kalanick and company will learn from these mistakes and take Uber to a new level. I want to come back.