At its inception, Uber touted itself as a shining example of the “sharing economy” described by Jeremy Rifkin, in this now famous book, The Third Industrial Revolution. As time has passed the reality has been radically at odds with a sharing economy. Among the many issues that have emerged has been the legacy of Uber’s ugly corporate culture, secret apps used to confound regulators, and to intimidate journalists, a Justice Department investigation of illegal practices, including 200 Uber employees conspiring together to attack Lyft’s operations. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost, as municipalities around the world have begun to regain control of transportation policy within their jurisdictions, and the inflated valuations of these unicorns begin to deflate.
Another Silicon Valley reckoning is on the horizon. We have seen cyclical events like this before, the 2001 bubble burst being the most recent memorable reckoning. The talk in 2001 was about too much “dumb money.” The coming reckoning, however, is on a massive, unprecedented scale, fueled by the same excess of global capital that has fueled the bubbles in housing markets in attractive locations around the World. The problems with Uber, Travis Kalanick, and the now obvious difficulty of the Uber Board of Directors to exercise meaningful governance should have been the “canary in the coal mine.” CNBC’s reporting on the excessive Silicon Valley “unicorn” valuations and media reports that New Enterprise Associates would divest $1 Billion in startup investments that cannot be made liquid have made the situation blatantly obvious. After a long silence, the Wall Street Journal has finally joined the reporting on the crisis. What more does one need to take to the exit?
The genius of Steve Jobs lies in his hippie period and with his time at Reed College, the pre-eminent Liberal Arts college in North America. To his understanding of technology, Jobs brought an immersion in popular culture. In his 20s, he dated Joan Baez; Ella Fitzgerald sang at his 30th birthday party. His worldview was shaped by the ’60s counterculture in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he had grown up, the adopted son of a Silicon Valley machinist. When he graduated from high school in Cupertino in 1972, he said, “the very strong scent of the 1960s was still there. After dropping out of Reed College, a stronghold of liberal thought in Portland, Ore., in 1972, Mr. Jobs led a countercultural lifestyle himself. He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand.
For over a year now I have blogged here about the red flags flying about Travis Kalanick and Uber. Many investigative articles have been published over this time, in the New York Times and other publications, which have raised disturbing questions about Uber, Kalanick and some members of his team. The Board of Directors has finally taken action but it feels like its a day late and a dollar short. Why did it take so long? I have bluntly used the epithet that “Uber is Trump,” but now on reflection, it is more apt to describe Uber as Enron the sequel, and “deja vu all over again.” Remember the audio of two Enron electricity traders laughing about “screwing grandma?” That is Uber.
Perhaps the premiere of Season 4 of “Silicon Valley” twigged me to share this post. but despite the title, the HBO series only connection may be the now viral “mean jerk time algorithm.” The real “Silicon Valley jerk” has been around for decades, buried with all the other dirty laundry. Uber’s Travis Kalanick has only brought it front and center at this moment. It is something of a conundrum as some of the jerks are also the most successful. We all now know about the “bad” Steve Jobs. Oracle for years had a very bad reputation that came directly from Larry Ellison himself. Microsoft was long known as a “sweatshop” with a highly negative culture led by Steve Ballmer. Even venture capitalists themselves have caught the disease as evidenced by Reid Hoffman and the late Tom Perkins of KPCB. The best assessment I have heard is that these aggressive unrestrained corporate cultures destroy their own goals. Or better yet, the saying that “culture trumps strategy.”
UPDATE: KALANICK VIDEO SURFACES. Suffice to say, people are angry with Uber, and things aren’t getting better. This is actually deja vu all over again. We have seen this before in Silicon Valley. The hubris of a company founders or founders creates an ugly overly aggressive and unrestrained culture in its employees and before long things begin to unravel. This has been quietly observed at Uber for some time, and can be gleaned by its own actions as reported in the press. Now, new self-inflicted cracks are appearing. More than 200,000 people have deleted the UBER app off their smart phones in the past month. After former employee Susan Fowler Rigetti published a detailed blog post about the sexual harassment and discrimination she allegedly experienced at the company, people began deleting the ride sharing-app again. As more and more employees have spoken out about the alleged poor working conditions, Uber’s customer base is dwindling … and the company is getting desperate.
UPDATE: This February 3, 2016 post on Uber deserves an update. This week Uber announced that it lost $800 Million in its 3rd quarter. That’s correct, $800 Million in only three months. The Uber announcement tries to spin the loss as good news for Uber as ” increased by only 25% over the third quarter last year. An $800 Million quarterly loss is right up there in the same league with Trump lost money. I guess we need to remember Trump’s admonition that debt is good, and it’s ok to lose other people’s money. Uber’s announcement goes on to project continuing losses projected to be greater than $3 Billion next year, as Uber continues its plans for an apparent IPO for brain dead investors.