Monday, March 6, 2017

Nocera: "Uber Needs More Than ‘Leadership Help’ for Travis Kalanick"

I think this is our first link to Mr. Nocera since December's "Bloomberg Rescues the NYT's Joe Nocera". Although he covers a lot of the ground we and the FT's Izabella Kaminska plowed over the years there are some new nuggets and this is a sordid tale well told.
What more could one desire?

From BloombergView via Bloomberg Quint, March 3:
(Bloomberg View) -- ­"This is the first time I've been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it," wrote Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, in an email to his staff the other day.
In that same email, which he sent out after Bloomberg published a video showing him berating an Uber driver, the 40-year-old CEO also said that the incident reminded him that he "must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up."

To which the only proper response is: What took you so long, bro?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kalanick is a first-class jerk. And the company he founded -- and, to give him his due, built into a ride-hauling juggernaut -- pretty much takes its cues from the boss. Remember when Kalanick gave an interview to GQ magazine and said the company might as well be called "Boob-er" because he was now so desirable to women? Or how about the way the Uber staff used to mess with its chief competitor Lyft by calling for Lyft rides and then canceling them? Or the time an Uber executive used its technology to track a Buzzfeed reporter's ride without permission? Or the technological tricks the company reportedly uses to deceive the authorities in cities around the world?

Peter Thiel has called Uber "the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley," and while he's hardly an unbiased observer (he's an investor in Lyft), I’ve heard plenty of other people in Silicon Valley say he same thing.

For the most part, Uber's stumbles haven't slowed it down. Indeed, my Bloomberg colleague Brad Stone, the author of "The Upstarts," about Uber and Airbnb,  told me that Kalanick's rough-and-tumble ethos was probably necessary as the company fought regulators and the taxi monopolies in one city after another. And its first-mover advantage remains powerful: Uber has nearly achieved the status of Xerox — its name signifies not just a company but an activity.

Besides, companies are rarely punished by consumers for the sins of their executives. That Henry Ford was a bigot who owned an anti-Semitic newspaper didn't much matter to buyers of Ford cars. Some years ago, the Allentown Morning Call revealed that Jeff Bezos's Amazon didn't install air conditioners in its warehouses; instead, it kept ambulances parked outside to revive workers who collapsed due to heat. Amazon’s revenue kept rising. So long as Uber's technology worked -- and it did, beautifully -- nobody was going to dwell on either Kalanick’s or the company's immaturity.
But this time it feels different. It feels a little like the final scene in Ian McEwan's comic novel, Solar, in which all the bad things the protagonist has done throughout the course of the book come back to bite him all at once....MORE