What Makes Uber Run
J Thoendell stashed this in Tech
They met in 2009 at South by Southwest and bonded at an all-night "jam session" about the future of the Internet. That night in Austin was a sort of satellite version of the ’round-the-clock ideas salon Kalanick routinely held at his three-bedroom house in San Francisco. These gatherings were full of young people like Kretchmer who had come up through the wreckage of the first dotcom bust, before jobs in tech were thrown around like free T-shirts at a launch party, before venture capitalists regularly talked about startups as if they were mythical creatures. They were entrepreneurs who knew about hustle, who saw opportunity even in the muck of a desperate economy and were going to take advantage. This is what drew them to Kalanick, and vice versa.
Although Kalanick had been a startup guy since high school, he was a grinder, not a mogul. He had made enough on his last one, RedSwoosh, to buy a house and do a bit of angel investing. Uber, the on-demand transportation app that he cofounded with Garrett Camp in 2009, was still more or less a toy, a personal limo service for the founders and their friends in San Francisco. When Camp, who’d bought back his old company StumbleUpon at about the same time, asked Kalanick to run Uber full-time, Kalanick said no. Uber was "supercrazy freakin’ small," Kalanick tells me when we meet in July, the first time he had given an in-depth interview this year. "I was not ready to get in the game and give 100% or 150%," he says.
I heard something similar from Ade Olonoh, the founder of another Kalanick portfolio company. "I’d send Travis an email asking, ‘What do you think about this job posting?’ and he’d send a page or two back, completely rewritten," Olonoh says. "I know him as somebody really smart and driven and hungry and also very generous."
When I first started hearing these stories, I was surprised, mostly because they seemed at odds with the portrait of Travis Kalanick that has emerged since Uber launched in 2010. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor, has called Uber "the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley," and the journalist and entrepreneur John Battelle has suggested that everyone in the tech industry is "worried about the sheer expression of capitalistic force that the company represents." Those, it turns out, are some of the more circumspect critiques. The CEO of Uber has been routinely described as a callous and ruthless capitalist, the kind of guy who jacks up prices during natural disasters, who is so fond of brotastic aphorisms that Late Night’s Seth Meyers once joked, "Are you a man, or did they just spray Axe body spray into a suit until it became sentient?"
UBER'S BIG BET #1: UBERPOOLThis service lets riders heading the same way share an Uber and save. CEO Travis Kalanick believes that UberPool "has the potential to be as affordable as taking a subway, or a bus, or other means of transportation."4.7 MILLIONEstimate of miles saved in June 2015 from all UberPool rides in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, and Paris
820Metric tons of carbon dioxide saved from those shared rides
1.95 MILLIONNumber of cars in New York
50Percentage of New York taxi trips that would be saved if users were willing to wait up to five minutes to be paired with another passenger
365,000Number of UberPool cars that could serve the same number of people and trips that those 1.95 million private cars do
Sources: Uber; "Quantifying the benefits of vehicle pooling shareability networks," Senseable City Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 2014; U.S. Energy Information AdministrationPhoto: courtesy of Uber
"The caricature you see of Travis does not come from a place that’s false," Kretchmer says of his longtime friend. "He is an incredibly aggressive person." But, he adds, as if to reconcile the caricature with the man, "he’s building one of the most important companies of all time."
He truly believes he's building one of the most important companies of all time.
Both statements can be true: he's generous with people he cares about AND he's incredibly aggressive.