Uber has been in trouble for a while. The company was built on a bro-tastic, anything goes attitude that goes way back to God View and the targeted harassment of journalists. In short, it was built on an original sin that was never washed clean.
There are two takeaways circulated in the Valley this week regarding Travis Kalanick’s departure. The first is similar to this one:
And the other sounds like this:
To a degree, both are right. I’ve long prided myself on being a Valley outsider and, to a greater degree, an outspoken critic of the culture. And I’m troubled by the lionization and the abrupt destruction of a guy like Kalanick. He was and probably still is a good guy and I’m positive no one who knows him in the context of the insular world of the Valley considers what he has done to be anything but noble. But, thanks to high valuations and high expectations, his company grew too fast and too furiously to maintain anything resembling a non-toxic environment. Like Zenefits before it, the heady push of growth above all is what destroyed Kalanick and will probably gut Uber, leaving it vulnerable to a fire sale.
Uber had it all. It had a great origin story (here is our first post about the nascent UberCab) and it solved a huge problem, especially in San Francisco. In the seven years since launch it has changed the way we think about city travel and angered a lot of important people who invested a lot of money in taxi medallions. It has also made a lot of enemies.
All of these pressures create an environment that only the best managers could have handled and the worst managers would hunker down and keep quite, like a college fraternity accused of some heinous crime.
This bunker mentality hurt the company from the outset. There is a particularly Valley-based thought process that essentially boils down to “Don’t bother us while we’re changing the world.” Many companies are able to pass through this angry period unscathed – Facebook is a notable winner in this space – but many still recite that mantra as holt write. Take Twitter and the countless cries for better and easier troll management tools. “Don’t bother us,” Twitter engineers seem to be saying. “We’re too busy taking the pulse of the globe to help you avoid Nazis.”
The same can be said of Uber. They were so busy destroying the taxi cartels and spying on politicians that they didn’t have a moment to stop and build a real corporate culture. This is not what destroyed them but it definitely helped.
And this was not all Kalanick’s fault. How could he police all of the Uber drivers around the world? That there weren’t more rapes, murders, and tragic car accidents in Uber cars is a literal miracle. That the company survived this long without being shut down by government after government is another miracle. That the company couldn’t take a moment and cut out the cancer of sexism and bro-culture is a travesty.
Uber is only the latest sacrificial lamb on the altar of progress. It will not be the last. Kalanick will do something else and, perhaps, some adult supervision will convert Uber from a hot startup into a staid and boring business. Or maybe the damage is done and Lyft will win the day. Either way, this is a tale of culture, hyper growth, and fear that metastasized into a mess. And it’s a shame.