Uber 2.0 doesn’t need a Travis 2.0 — even if he does change – Business Insider
•Kalanick now needs to put his life ahead of his
•We shouldn’t expect “Travis 2.0” to be that much
different from “Travis 1.0”
•The Uber crisis provides a moment to consider the moral
fiber of the post-dot-come era.
Following the release of a withering report on Uber’s workplace
culture by former Attorney General Eric Holder, the
ride-hailing startup worth nearly $70 billion announced that
CEO Travis Kalanick would take a leave of absence.
“For Uber 2.0 to succeed there is nothing more important
than dedicating my time to building out the leadership team,”
Kalanick wrote in an email to Uber staffers. “But if we are
going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to
become the leader that this company needs and that you
There’s a far better reason for Kalanick to take a breather
at this point, with Uber going through a major crisis: his mother
tragically died in a boating accident over Memorial Day weekend,
and his father was injured. The loss of a parent is one of the
toughest things a person can go through. It’s reasonable to
expect Kalanick to step away from work to deal with his
The real question, of course, is whether he’ll return to
Uber a changed man, or whether Travis 2.0 will just be a
modified version of Travis 1.0. Having followed Uber and Kalanick
and dispensed my share of criticism about how the company
operates, I’m not optimistic about the former, but I’m willing to
give Kalanick the benefit of the doubt.
But there’s a problem …
The problem is that Uber wouldn’t be Uber without the
hard-charging, break-stuff, crush-the-competition culture that
Kalanick created and that led the company to its immense pre-IPO
valuation. Uber is unique among post-dot-com startups in that it
combines Silicon Valley high-tech futurism (“We won’t own cars —
and they’ll drive themselves!) with a political and business
stance more familiar to students of Chicago gangsters and the
plays of David Mamet.
Kalanick is a hardcore entrepreneur and the best example
yet of what true disruption means.
I wrote about this back in 2014:
The thing is, when you really and
truly disrupt established industries, you make
enemies. You take their business away, rather
than demonstrating a benignly new and different way of doing
something that can function alongside the old industry. Or only
invalidate the old industry in slow motion, giving everyone who
can read the writing on the wall plenty of time to find
something else to do.
For Kalanick, Uber is a zero-sum game: I win, you lose, game
over. Actually, it’s harsher than that. In Kalanick’s world, the
losers don’t get to play the game anymore.
The result has been a near monopoly, but a costly one: Uber is
losing vast amounts of money to retain its position and the
dominant player in ride-hailing. But Lyft, stubbornly, isn’t
going away and can’t seem to be spent out of existence.
Columbia Business School professor Evan Rawley
explained to me that this means the best Uber can hope for is
to become the leader of an oligopoly — a troubling proposition,
given Uber’s lofty valuation, the need for investors to get a
payout at some point, and the ongoing cost of being the biggest.
Enter the technocrats
Dealing with this challenge is going to require far more
technocratic leadership that what Kalanick can provide, and
that’s why the Uber board has been looking for a Chief Operating
Officer to transition the company from being a scrappy street
fighter to a mature corporation whose practices won’t freak out
conservative institutional investors.
As a practical matter, getting rid of Kalanick is difficult due
to Uber’s compliant board and his equity power over the company —
like most founders in Silicon Valley, he’s rigged his shares so
that his vote counts for far more than everybody else’s.
But Kalanick could, and I stress this, be a
person of more complicated character than Uber’s early narrative
would indicate. He’s clearly smart, and he’s clearly not devoid
of conscience, as his resignation from President Trump’s advisory
council amid protests over the administration’s failed travel ban
indicated. We shouldn’t be so cynical to assume that a hard and
damaged man can’t reinvent himself. There are second acts in
Which isn’t to say that we should accept this whole “Travis 2.0”
thing, oozing as it does with Silicon Valley privilege, at face
value. Travis 2.0 could have a higher and better future, but
maybe it isn’t with Uber 2.0. The worst case scenario is
obviously that Travis 2.0 returns to Uber with revenge on his
A more moral Uber
Early on, I liked Uber and was an avid customer. But Kalanick’s
post-dot-com approach to business always rankled me, and the
swiftness by which “Uber” became a favored verb, a signal of
one’s hipness to the disruption, was disturbing. This was, after
all, a company that seemed to enjoy skirting laws and making
life hard for its drivers.
Living in the New York area, I went back to yellow cabs. Part of
this was practical — raising my hand to get a ride is easier than
fumbling with a phone. But part of it was also the result of how
Kalanickism had suffused Uber. I figured I had to take a stand,
and so I switched over to Lyft in case I needed a backup for
None of this had anything to do with the evidently toxic
workplace culture that Uber engendered, but I’m not surprised
that the company’s crisis has revealed a morass of sexism, bad
behavior, and exploitative business practices in need
of immediate remedy. The bottom line is that I just had a
bad feeling about Uber than I couldn’t shake.
What Kalanick’s leave proves is that even with Silicon Valley
startups, there’s a moral element to how we
interact with — and, as journalists, cover — new-economy
enterprises. They don’t get a pass because a large part of their
mandate is to obliterate and dynamically replace the old ways of
doing things. In fact, they need to rise to a higher level of
ethical scrutiny due to the heavy amount of destruction that’s
baked into their DNA.
It’s difficult to not be dazzled by the billions. But you still
have to look at yourself in the mirror every morning.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.