It’s no easy thing to journey from being a startup entrepreneur with an idea worth sharing to the CEO of one of the largest undertakings in Silicon Valley. And indeed, Travis Kalanick fits this role just perfectly. In business, everyone likes a risk-taker, someone who is willing to go the distance and cross the line in order to get the job done. But there’s always a fine line between pragmatism and desperation, and Mr. Kalanick appears to have crossed it, and not just once. Over the years, Travis Kalanick, co-founder for the disruptive ride-sharing application Uber, has crossed many such lines. In his quest for quick success, he has surpassed legislation, exploited legal gray areas, deceived the people around him, clients and coworkers alike and driven his million-dollar company headfast into a public relations nightmare. His rash and desperate attitude has also led to a particularly toxic working environment within his company, one that borders thinly on discrimination and harassment.
In his Sunday column for the New York Times, my friend and colleague Mike Isaac did an excruciatingly detailed longform on Uber’s daredevil CEO, bringing to light some of the bigger issues in his own attitude that has led his company towards a particularly bad year in 2017. He even dug up an age-old case of public deception involving Kalanick, one where he tried to circumvent Apple’s privacy rules in an attempt to secure their company against fraud. That move nearly cost Kalanick a large chunk of his user base, not to mention months of bad press. Two years since that incident, as the incident is brought to back into perspective, Uber spokespersons were forced to engage in damage control once more. They said as much in their statement for The Verge:
“We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they’ve deleted the app. As the New York Times story notes towards the very end, this is a typical way to prevent fraudsters from loading Uber onto a stolen phone, putting in a stolen credit card, taking an expensive ride and then wiping the phone—over and over again. Similar techniques are also used for detecting and blocking suspicious logins to protect our users’ accounts. Being able to recognize known bad actors when they try to get back onto our network is an important security measure for both Uber and our users.”
However, as Isaac was keen to point out, this wasn’t closely the first time Uber CEO was involved in a major case of public deception, as the company used a secret initiative codenamed “Greyball” to strategically protect their company against being ticketed by law enforcement. By using sensitive user information such as geolocation data, credit card information and social media accounts, Uber greyballed law enforcement officials into thinking that they could hail a ride from a location around them even when there were none available. The company eventually admitted to this act to The Atlantic, while simultaneously maintaining that deceiving the law enforcement wasn’t their intention.
The real problem with Uber doesn’t just lie in their desire to circumvent law, however, it extends far into their general attitude towards the idea of disruption. Uber’s rise to power was never meant to be a pleasant one. Their very rise threatened to wipe away the full-time jobs of thousands of taxi-drivers, all of whom depended on this employment for their livelihood. Nevertheless, the novelty and confidence poured into the idea gave it a wide appeal, causing the company to grow despite efforts to the contrary.
Uber is no longer a troubled startup struggling to make its mark in Silicon Valley. It is a multinational company with millions of dollars in profits. The scenario has changed, the attitude hasn’t. Uber continues to try and claw its way up the ladder at the cost of bad reputation and a poor public image, and the recent upsurge about the company’s toxic workplace environment is more evidence of the same. In February 2017, Susan Fowler, a former product engineer for Uber, wrote a detailed blog post in which she described the highly hostile work environment within the company. She was regularly harassed and discriminated upon by her male superiors, said Ms. Fowler, who were always on the edge to try and undermine their peers in a quest for promotion. The healthy competition that once fueled the rise of Uber’s revolutionary workplace had now turned sour, and the company executives were to blame for it. This was hardly the end of it.
The fact that Uber suffers from poor management, at least in some form, is made eminent by their shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude with the protests held at the John F. Kennedy airport, where the company rushed to make a declaration without stopping to consider the possibility of misinterpretation by the public. It’s then that the company suffered in the hands of the calamitous #DeleteUber campaign, where thousands of protesters across social media urged others to switch to Lyft as a show of dissent towards Uber’s profiteering policies. A lot has happened since the incident, including Travis Kalanick offering a formal explanation and an apology and even stepping down from President Trump’s advisory committee. However, the damage was already done.
The incident was eventually followed by the stepdown of a bunch of high-end Uber executives, including its head of self-driving cars, who was accused of corporate espionage, its senior vice-president, who resigned voluntarily after being accused of leaving his previous job at Google after accusations of sexual harassment, and Jeff Jones, the president of Uber, after he decided that it was too much of a bad reputation to continue working for the organization.
The thing about Silicon Valley is, it is the very epitome of the American Dream, inspiring people with the prospect of receiving quick rewards for their hard work. While this is often a good thing and invites a healthy amount of independent thinkers, it also invites people who are desperate to make a fortune, companies like Juicero that are trying simply to make a profit of the naivete of most. While Uber’s no Juicero, and there is absolutely no doubting its prowess in the disruptive market of ride-sharing, desperation has not proved to be one of the company’s most likeable attributes as of late. What’s your say?