That leader was Uber’s chief, Travis Kalanick, who announced on Tuesday that he was stepping down from the company he founded.
Let’s get something out of the way to start: Kalanick is not a saint, and he did indeed bring much of his personal problems on himself. He will also likely live out the rest of his life as a very wealthy man, so we needn’t cry (literally or figuratively) over his fate. And Uber certainly is not the perfect company with a spotless ethical record.
Still, what happened to Kalanick, and by extension Uber, this week should bother every freedom and innovation-loving person in America and the entire world.
Don’t be fooled by all of Kalanick’s personal missteps and Uber’s ethical issues. They absolutely aren’t excusable, but they’re also not all that different from what dozens of other companies and CEOs face every day.
The real reason Kalanick was taken down and Uber remains in so much trouble is because it has enemies. And those enemies have power.
Most of us are familiar with who those enemies were and how they responded. Taxi companies across the world have long been one of the most politically controlled and regulated industries ever since they were just horse-drawn livery firms.
In return for undergoing often extensive licensing requirements and fees, local governments protect those taxi companies. It’s a deal made in crony capitalist Heaven—except that it often leaves people who needed rides, reliable service, and affordable fares in a commuter’s purgatory.
In many ways, the licensed taxi industry is essentially a public-private partnership wherever you go. So when you come for the cabs, you come for the government too.
When Uber came on the scene, and skirted these licensing rules by officially branding itself a “ride-sharing” business as opposed to a taxi company, those companies and taxi driver unions protested and lobbied their government friends to restrict and even ban Uber from their localities. That effort yielded mixed results, but the constant political and regulatory harassment was and is a reality for the company.
And the news media played a big role in this harassment too. At first, the media provided Uber with billions of dollars in virtual free advertising, with regular reports explaining and publicizing the startup. Then, newspapers, TV networks, and websites eventually started to report frequently on every Uber misstep, criminal incident involving an Uber driver, and almost any complaint coming from or on behalf of its employees.
Uber and Kalanick soldiered on and, thanks to it becoming the most well-funded tech startup in history, it was able to fight back with an aggressive political and media strategy that included a well-documented P.R. and policy war room.