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When Uber and Airbnb Meet the Real World - NYTimes.com


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Web companies like Google and Twitter grew as quickly as they could, trusting that they would figure out how to make money later. Business software companies hope that if employees start using a new software tool at work, the I.T. department will give in. On-demand start-ups are betting that if they get enough consumers on their side, regulators will eventually come around.

“This libertarian, independent streak that runs through Silicon Valley compounds the issue,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Engine, which advises start-ups on policy. “The good side is, it created this environment where people came together and made crazy amazing stuff that changed the world. The flip side is, sometimes it makes it difficult for those companies to engage.”

These companies would be so much happier if they didn't have to deal with people.

The third related principle is to automate everything — whether selling ads, flagging inappropriate content or assessing employee performance. That notion also meets its limits in the real world. When Brian Chesky, the co-founder and chief executive of Airbnb, responded to complaints about vandalism, he emphasized that Airbnb had “algorithms that identify suspicious behavior.” That’s nice, yet algorithms, when people’s safety and well-being are involved, are not enough. Airbnb said it combined automation and human involvement with 100 people who reviewed suspicious activity.

The belief that problems can be solved without involving people is probably why many of these companies did not meet with regulators and officials before starting services in new cities. And it has come back to haunt them. Luther Lowe, director of public policy at Yelp, had some basic advice for Uber that could apply to Airbnb, Lyft and others: Hire a lobbyist and meet with the mayor and the city council before setting up shop.

Uber seemed to put that lesson into practice in August when it hired David Plouffe, an expert in grass-roots campaigning and the manager of President Obama’s winning run in 2008, as a senior policy and strategy executive. “Our roots are technology, not politics,” Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and chief executive, wrote about the hire. “The result is that not enough people here in America and around the world know our story, our mission and the positive impact we’re having.”

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