June 9, 2017 / 4:08 PM / 6 months ago

Review: Zippy Uber trip gets barely halfway there

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - In the few short months since Adam Lashinsky turned in the manuscript of his new book about Uber to editors at Portfolio/Penguin, enough has happened at the ride-hailing leviathan to fill another one. That is of course beyond the author’s control, but also creates the nagging impression that life already has sped past this literary journey’s destination.

89th Academy Awards - Oscars Vanity Fair Party - Beverly Hills, California, U.S. - 26/02/17 – Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok - RTS10HMR

Readers of “Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination” are in safe hands with Fortune magazine’s executive editor at the wheel. Lashinsky’s 228-page volume is as efficient and effective as most car journeys using Uber’s app. The events – at least the ones that already had occurred – unfold at a mile a minute. And the basic backstory of the firm and Travis Kalanick, the co-founder and chief executive, are unlikely to change, even if richer and more-detailed accounts should someday emerge.

Hard-fought access to the “cocksure” Kalanick, however, turns out to be more flash than substance. The first approach from Lashinsky in 2014, two years after he published a book on Apple, was not only denied, but threatened. Kalanick said he was a fan and flattered, but that it was the wrong time to tell his story. “I‘m not sure if you’re planning to write the book anyways,” he wrote in an email quoted by Lashinsky, “but I will make it clear to the folks I know not to cooperate and if you are still persistent, I will find another writer to write an authorized book with full access to us to compete with yours.”

The intimidation tactics turn out to be among the more revealing comments from Kalanick. Later, Lashinsky embarks on a rather uneventful trip to China with the Uber boss and the two men take a stroll around San Francisco one evening. Kalanick mainly sees the conversations as an opportunity to build his own mythology, boasting about boyhood pancake-selling skills and rhapsodizing about the details of his company’s headquarters.

Kalanick’s braggadocio and Uber’s many self-inflicted wounds make it easy to forget what an achievement the company is. In that sense, “Wild Ride” helpfully chronicles the early ideas, the $4 million valuation and the fits and starts that ultimately led to astronomical growth and a $68 billion price tag – at least on paper – just six years later.

The nitty gritty of Kalanick’s first two ventures and his angel-investing-cum-mentoring “JamPad” provide some glimpses of what follows. Like all new ventures, Uber’s arc from idea to elite limousine service to global juggernaut involves comedic missteps, too. A phone number posted on the website, for example, connects 3 a.m. calls from customers wondering where their cars are to an early employee’s mobile phone.

Uber’s stumbles grow in scale and significance. Taxi drivers and customers are infuriated, respectively, by the company’s legal oversteps and surge pricing. There are big problems with Uber’s culture and, in particular, its approach to women. Data privacy issues erupt into scandal. Local authorities, both in the United States and abroad, fight back. The obsession with worldwide dominance, including in markets like China where cutthroat competition quickly springs up, becomes exceedingly costly. All along the way, Kalanick’s ambitions are undercut by his aggressive approach to pretty much everything.

“He seemed incapable, in public or private, of holding back, as if his outspokenness were a DNA-imprinted aspect of who he was, like the pigment in his eyes or the pitch of his voice,” Lashinsky writes. “His widely quoted whoppers sometimes had an intellectually defensible ring to them. Yet they suggested a shocking lack of empathy or, at the very least, an inability to know when to keep quiet.”

None of this impeded Kalanick’s salesmanship with investors, however. He has turned over virtually every stone in the financial world. Silicon Valley venture capitalists, mutual-fund managers, New York private-equity firms, Middle Eastern funds, Wall Street banks and billionaires like Jeff Bezos have forked over some $17 billion to Uber. Whether they all will receive a return now hangs in the balance.

In just the last few months, the pressure on Uber has intensified. It has been forced to defend itself against charges of stealing trade secrets and intellectual property from Alphabet’s Waymo in a case that could imperil all-important self-driving initiatives. Uber also could be facing a criminal probe over software it used to evade transportation regulators, according to Reuters.

The company’s president and heads of finance, ride-sharing, maps, artificial-intelligence research, product and growth, autonomous vehicles and communications have departed. Multiple investigations, including into claims of discrimination and harassment, are ongoing, having already led to at least 20 employees being fired. Kalanick’s mother also died tragically last month in a boating accident.

Combined, these issues could be existential, especially for an enterprise burning so much cash. They also make one of Lashinsky’s assessments sound downright quaint. “Like any company,” he writes, “Uber remains a work in progress.” The latest siege conditions, and whether the firm and Kalanick can withstand them, may make for an even better book.

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