Silicon Valley bad boy and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's crash and burn over 2017 was a lot more manic and disturbing than people knew, and there's a reason why he's held up as the poster child for everything wrong in the tech business in America today.
A year ago, before the investor lawsuits and the federal investigations, before the mass resignations, and before the connotation of the word “Uber” shifted from “world’s most valuable startup” to “world’s most dysfunctional,” Uber’s executives sat around a hotel conference room table in San Francisco, trying to convince their chief executive officer, Travis Kalanick, that the company had a major problem: him.
The executives were armed that day with something unusual for Uber Technologies Inc.: the results of a survey. Kalanick operated by gut feeling and with a stubborn sense of how people should feel, not how they did. Jeff Jones, Uber’s new president and former chief marketing officer for Target Corp., wanted more substantial insights. Conclusions drawn from the survey were printed and hanging on the walls. About half the respondents had a positive impression of Uber and its convenient ride-hailing app. But if respondents knew anything about Kalanick, an inveterate flouter of both workplace conventions and local transportation laws, they had a decidedly negative view.
As usual with Kalanick, the discussion grew contentious. Jones and his deputies argued that Uber’s riders and drivers viewed the company as made up of a bunch of greedy, self-centered jerks. And as usual, Kalanick retorted that the company had a public-relations problem, not a cultural one.
Then a top executive excused herself to answer a phone call. A minute later, she reappeared and asked Kalanick to step into the hallway. Another executive joined them. They hunched over a laptop to watch a video that had just been posted online by Bloomberg News: grainy, black-and-white dashcam footage of Kalanick in the back seat of an UberBlack on Super Bowl weekend, heatedly arguing over fares with a driver named Fawzi Kamel.
“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit!” Kalanick can be heard yelling at Kamel. “They blame everything in their life on somebody else!”
As the clip ended, the three stood in stunned silence. Kalanick seemed to understand that his behavior required some form of contrition. According to a person who was there, he literally got down on his hands and knees and began squirming on the floor. “This is bad,” he muttered. “I’m terrible.”
Then, contrition period over, he got up, called a board member, demanded a new PR strategy, and embarked on a yearlong starring role as the villain who gets his comeuppance in the most gripping startup drama since the dot-com bubble. It’s a story that, until now, has never been fully told.
The melodrama began, in a sense, with Donald Trump. On Jan. 27 the newly inaugurated president issued his executive order imposing border restrictions on people from seven Muslim countries. Outrage erupted. People took to the streets; tech workers in Silicon Valley walked out of their offices in symbolic protest. And in New York, a small union called the New York Taxi Workers Alliance declared that there would be no taxi pickups from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
For Uber, that would create extra demand at the airport, which meant it could charge more—but this would probably cause a backlash. That had happened before when the company let its “surge pricing” algorithms do their thing. So the New York managers decided to be good citizens and suspend surge pricing for the night.
The backlash hit anyway. After years of negative revelations—spying on passengers, dubious driverless-car experiments in San Francisco, the CEO’s bragging about sexual conquests, to name just a few—the public was already inclined to believe the worst of Uber. If the company wasn’t price gouging this time, maybe it was trying to break up the JFK strike. A new hashtag was trending on Twitter: #deleteuber. Users deleted their accounts by the thousands. Lyft Inc., the rival service that branded itself the anti-Uber, capitalized on the moment and donated $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Further stoking the flames was Kalanick’s decision to join Trump’s business advisory council. Kalanick argued that his participation in the council wasn’t an endorsement of the president; he just wanted a seat at the table, along with Elon Musk, International Business Machines Corp.’s Ginni Rometty, and Walt Disney Co.’s Bob Iger. But intentions didn’t seem to matter. Criticism from riders and drivers intensified, and Kalanick spent days talking to his executives about what to do. They considered whether he should go to the first meeting and find some pretense to object and leave; he even floated the idea of wearing a protest T-shirt to the council meeting, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Ultimately, Kalanick decided the whole thing wasn’t worth the trouble and his minders set up a call so he could politely say no to Trump. A chronic pacer, Kalanick walked away from his desk at the appointed time. The first call from the White House came—and went to Kalanick’s voicemail. Then came the second call. Trump was on the line, and Kalanick walked into a glass-walled conference room to deliver the news. The conversation apparently went as one would expect. Kalanick emerged to tell his colleagues that the president was “super un-pumped.”
And from there, Kalanick's enfant terrible story just got worse. Pretty sure there's going to be a book and a movie about this implosion actually, and the story is pretty shocking.
The bottom line remains however that Silicon Valley is in desperate need of being bulldozed if only to get San Francisco housing prices back into the realm of reality.