Uber has generated plenty of headlines since its founding. That’s hardly surprising for one of the world’s most valuable startups. In recent times though, the headlines have almost all been of the wrong kind.
Following a revelatory blog by former executive Susan J Fowler, investigations into the company have revealed a culture of entitlement, toxic masculinity and rampant sexism. Many of the company’s most senior executives quit in the wake of the revelations. The headlines only got worse and culminated in the June resignation — under pressure from the Uber board — of CEO Travis Kalanick.
But what impact will all of these issues have on the people who most depend on Uber for their survival: the drivers?
From rebellion to entitlement: a brief history
When Uber was founded in 2009 (back then it was known as UberCab) by Kalanick and Garrett camp, it was just the latest in a string of startups aimed at disrupting an established industry. Throughout its history, it’s played up to the idea of a plucky upstart ready to fix a broken model.
And in the early years, that certainly made sense. It leveraged emerging smartphone and geo-location technologies to build something really convenient. Rather than having to call up a cab company and hope that it had a driver nearby, users could simply open an app on their phone, request a ride and get notification the moment it arrived.
It’s an incredibly appealing model and, at first, Uber was totally legitimate in the way it did things. With luxury saloons serving the high end of the market, that was pretty easy to stay within the law.
But as demand grew, it found itself in competition with, and using the same ride-share model as Lyft (meaning that drivers fell outside the remit of existing regulations). And as this Harvard Business Review article points out, the company’s use of private vehicles meant that Uber and its drivers avoided commercial insurance, commercial registration, commercial plates, special driver’s licenses, background checks, rigorous commercial vehicle inspections, and various other expenses. These savings were passed on to the consumer, further fuelling demand.
Taxi owners around the world — admittedly, also victims of their own inability to innovate — started taking to the streets to protest.
Regulators scrambled to catch up and restore peace, but Uber quickly entrenched itself as the rebel upstart, taking on unfair regulations so that people could have affordable rides and drivers could have the economic freedom they deserved.
It’s something that only served to fuel its popularity, with users taking 40-million rides a month by 2016.
But with that popularity came a sense of entitlement: Uber was right, no matter what.
Bedlam in the boardroom
It’s an attitude that was reflected in the boardroom too. Rather than acting like responsible corporate citizens, out to change the face of transport, Uber executives seemingly behaved like they already had.
Having skirted some laws, they also seemingly felt like they could skirt all of them. Uber managers green-lit practices which saw employees order and cancel trips from competitors such as Lyft. They also pushed through development of a piece of software called Greyball, which helped foil regulators.
All the while, top Uber employees (Kalanick included) walked through the world like they were in a particularly hedonistic episode of Mad Men. Perhaps the most glaring example of this saw Uber executives visit a Seoul Karaoke bar known for providing escort services.
When top executives are doing that kind of thing, is it really surprising to think others would feel entitled to sexually harass their female colleagues?
As we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Uber was no longer able to contain its toxic culture.
Details emerged in the press, an inquiry was held, people were fired, and the Uber board is currently trying to implement a turnaround strategy.
Thing is, while Uber management was concentrating on taking over the world and getting a one-up on rivals and regulators, it was bleeding money. In 2016, Uber still wasn’t profitable and was on track to lose US$3-billion in the US alone.
Any turnaround strategy therefore has to place profit over posture. And to a large degree that means either convincing customers to stick with Uber or to move over from the slightly less questionable slew of competitors that have popped up.
If it doesn’t get that right, then the people who’ll suffer most aren’t Ubers corporate employees (churn happens quickly in Silicon Valley and most of them are used to finding new work at short notice), but the drivers and UberEats delivery workers. They have, after all, been at the forefront of some of Uber’s most vicious clashes and chances are it won’t be so easy for them to switch to the other side.