Last week, I wrote about an article here for Medium entitled "Can We Trust Uber?" in which I described a ridiculous incident a couple of years ago where the company used what I thought was my private Uber location data without my permission to promote its brand at one of the company's launch events.
That article went viral and I received dozens of notes in response -- from many "thought leaders" to everyday customers -- all of whom expressed their disbelief and shock. Several people in the media asked if the company had offered a response or apologized? Uber leadership had not, and so on the advice of Medium Editor Steven Levy, I sent the following email five days ago to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and cc'd Garrett Camp, a co-founder and chairman of the company:
I hope that this finds you, and that you had a good weekend.
I'm emailing you to follow up on the below piece that I wrote at the suggestion of a few people, including Aaron Blackledge, who suggested that the incident described below was likely a mixup, and suggested that I connect with you and Garrett. This was also the suggestion of Medium editor Steven Levy. I can believe that would be the case, and would be very open to a brief chat with you to clear it up. I'd also be very open to publishing a follow up with Medium.
I'm traveling for a friend's memorial service early this week, but if you're available, I could come by Uber SF this Wed. afternoon or Thursday or Friday. Or we could speak by phone if that'd be easier.
Thanks for letting me know.
I have not heard back from Kalanick, nor did I hear from Camp. (I've also asked Uber's media relations team for comment.)
Perhaps Kalanick is too busy to respond to such concerns, but at this point, after getting a great deal of feedback about the operations of the company over the past week, I've come to believe that Uber is in a very precarious position right now.
Uber leadership not only consistently acts as if it is not only above the law, they act as if they are above everyone and every ethical norm.
I'm not here to write an article about Travis Kalanick and his management philosophy. Business Insider already did that in an article entitled: "All Hail The Uber Man! How Sharp-Elbowed Salesman Travis Kalanick Became Silicon Valley's Newest Star." The title nearly speaks for itself, although I will also include a key passage here:
Acquaintances seem to be of two minds about him: On the one hand, many agreed he is a phenomenon. "Travis is smart," says Kalanick's former investor Mark Cuban. "Busts his ass and is a true entrepreneur. Can't be much more complimentary than that."
Equally common was the view of Kalanick as -- in a word that came up again and again in interviews, "an asshole."
Or as one entrepreneur who has worked with him puts it, "Travis is ego personified."
Often, those impressions overlap.
"Sometimes," an acquaintance of Kalanick's told Business Insider, "assholes create great businesses."
Perhaps Kalanick is the next Larry Ellison, but far more often than not, assholes run businesses into the ground. As someone who has appreciated many aspects of Uber's product and service, including the convenience and the fact that the business model is challenging a stale status quo, I now hope that the Uber board will show some leadership at this time.
Uber suffers from a paradoxical challenge. Its leadership is clearly smart and strategic as hell, yet at the same time, the company's culture reeks of immaturity and a lack of ethics.
At this point in time, the company that Uber reminds me of the most is Groupon three or so years ago. At that time, Groupon was on top of the world. In 2011, as Groupon's IPO approached, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company would be worth up to $25 billion. But thanks to voice of reason in Silicon Valley, most notably Vivek Wadhwa who called the IPO a "scam," the IPO valuation landed at $12.65 billion.
I joined Wadhwa in voicing the belief that Groupon was over-hyped. The reason I did that was in part because of accounting gimmicks, yet also because I had seen Groupon CEO and founder Andrew Mason at events, and judged him to be very immature.
Groupon's atrocious and immature leadership took the company down with it. Today, Groupon's valuation stands at $4.4 billion. But, while many investors lost their shirts on the company, what's worse are the countless employees and stakeholders who suffered from the exodus after an awful morale set in.
Wadhwa was right. Had only Groupon's board listened to him and cleaned things up, the result could have been much different. It's not too late for Uber's board.
The canary in the coal mine has been singing about Uber's immaturity and arrogance for months. The most interesting comment I received on last week's article came from an Uber driver who described the math for how Uber makes promises to drivers, then cuts back fares without any regard for drivers. They aren't employees, so why should Uber management care. As Kevin Roose described in a masterful article for New York Magazine, "Silicon Valley's Contract Worker Problem", contract workers have no voice.
So, while Kalanick and company enrich themselves, the joke is on everyone else. An arrogance and tone-deafness comes through in everything I see from the company, including its recent announcement pitching teachers to drive on Uber part-time. Several teachers emailed me in disbelief. Here's an excerpt, presented as Uber doing good for the world:
As communities are heading back to school, we'd like to take a moment to celebrate the educators who are also our Uber partner drivers. Whether it's an afternoon shift or a summertime gig, partnering with Uber provides teachers with the flexibility and opportunity they need to continue creating a foundation of excellence for students across the country.
Every day teachers are asked to do more with less, constantly faced with new challenges and limited resources. Uber opens the door for more possibilities and delivers a meaningful impact to the communities we serve.
What a bunch of bullshit. Who do they think will fall for this nonsense?
I don't expect that Travis Kalanick will ever apologize to me for using my Uber location data to promote his brand at a launch event without my permission, but I haven't given up hope in the Uber board's ability to step up and lead. (There are no women on Uber's board, by the way.) Bill Gurley of Benchmark is a respected guy in Silicon Valley, especially for his analytical mind. David Bonderman co-founder of TPG Capital has been a buyout king. David Drummond has impressed me from afar as the chief legal voice at Google. And, as I wrote last week, Garrett Camp, co-founder and now chairman of Uber, once impressed me with his product savvy. Now he must lead.
Now is the time to act, before Uber disappoints the public markets at the IPO and after.
Peter Sims is a best-selling author and social entrepreneur. His latest book is "Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries" and he was the coauthor, with Bill George, of "True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership."