The Uber-Didi Backstory
The manoeuvring of big tech companies are what grab headlines, but we often get little perspective on the individuals who slog tirelessly to build a company. In Asia in particular, the work ethic can be particularly intense – but also comes with a strong sense of camaraderie and solidarity. The article below was originally published in Ren Wu (People), a Chinese publication, but was so nicely written that I did a translation into English. (It can definitely be improved – but this what happens when you are translating mechanically as you read, without much thought!)
We were bleeding in the trenches, while the general had surrendered.
Author: Xie Mengyao
Interviewers: Xie Mengyao, Qian Tong
Publication: Ren Wu
Note: People (Ren wu) is the name of the publication. Interviewee names are falsified to protect identies.
The culprit which created the chaos during the date of acquisition entered Uber’s employees’ computers two weeks before. Only, at that time, they did not know. In fact, many people do not know to this day.
From the Uber headquarters in San Francisco came an email, asking them to install a piece of software known as “Global Protect”, without which they would not be able to access Uber’s systems. As for what this software was for, the email simply said – it would make the work environment safer.
“Global Protect”. A very innocuous name. Almost no one suspected. However, Shufen was an exception. She was a senior manager who had joined Uber in the early days and also a technologist at heart.
After she followed the instructions to install the software, her curiosity was piqued and led her to check the software’s root certificate – something a regular employee would not do. “I felt a chill,” she later recalled to People.
Highlighted in red were the permissions granted to the application: to wipe all data off the user’s computer. Other privileges granted included locking the screen, changing settings, media management, etc. Apart from reinstalling the operating system, this software could not be uninstalled.
“Anything you were doing could be monitored by someone in HQ’s IT department. He could read any internet data of yours, know exactly what you were doing.” Wang Shufen said, “If you were anyone with some work experience, you knew what was coming.”
She did not raise this with anyone, but backed up some personal documents.
On 1 August morning, a few hours before the announcement of the merger between Didi and Uber, “Global Protect” activated itself, releasing a wave of destruction. Almost everyone was hit. Any documents in the computers – not just key commercial secrets but driver lists, memorandums of understanding with external parties, daily photographs and even an intern’s graduation thesis – were overwritten, much like how a army scorches the earth in retreat.
There were exceptions. An Chengdu employee (Liu Quan) managed to escape. He was in charge of social media and used his personal computer for work and never requested an Apple computer from the company. At the time, the office head urged him to install “Global Protect”; otherwise, he would be unable to connect to the office wifi.
In retrospect, that was just a smoke bomb – the office head was also kept in the dark. Liu was able to access the wifi even without installing that software.
Even if you ignored those rumours of merger in July, there were still some signs which indicated where things were going.
30 July was Uber Nanjing’s first year anniversary. The office was filled with exhilaration and pride. Uber and Didi were in a bitter fight city-by-city and many cities had not seen the worst of the battle. But at least in Nanjing, they had achieved a milestone victory with a 60% market share. After three rounds of drinks, the normally composed general manager of Uber Nanjing, Wen Yilong, lost control and began sobbing. “I’m sorry everyone, I also do not want to lose, I have done my best…” Some employees guessed that he likely knew what was to come.
This should have been Wen Yi Long’s moment of pride. Born in 1988, the areas he were managing (Zhengzhou and Hefei) were leading Didi. But that Saturday night, his odd behaviour did not raise any suspicious. He was so young – Uber had many managers who were younger than 30 but had taken up huge positions of responsibility and were under great pressure. Perhaps he was just drunk.
Then it was 1 August. Black Monday.
What disturbed people was not just the wipeout of computer data. Even control systems could not be accessed while there was no way to login to the corporate email. At the same time, an open letter reportedly from Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick was circulating on the Internet, declaring that Uber was merging with Didi.
A feeling of unease pervaded the office, but no open letter was seen nor did senior management address the team. At that point, acquisition was only known to the head of strategy and a few members in senior management. Other Uber employees had heard the news leaked from other sources.
A rapidly moving machine had lost its source of power. “The feeling was terrible. The systems could not be used, nobody could do anything,” Wang Shufen said. She said to her team, “Go home first – let’s calm down.”
But some people still did not get the message.
In Uber’s Chengdu office, Liu’s work in the marketing department did not stop. At 1pm, he was writing the company’s updates on Wechat – Uber has no clear lunch time or times to knock off – and felt that something was amiss. He was a contractor, and was the lowest ranked employee. Like him, many interns after graduating from university became contractors with only a few fortunate individuals could become formal employees as Operations Coordinators (OC). OCs sat on one side of the office while interns sat on the other side.
He saw the OCs beginning to drink and take photos. Opening his Wechat Moments, he saw many people broadcasting Uber’s slogan “Celebrate Cities”. These should have been acts of celebration but Liu felt that these had an air of gloom.
There was nothing different amongst the contractors. In Liu’s words, everyone was still “in battle mode”. He could not help but ask the people next to him, “Do you not feel that something is amiss?”
“Why are they all updating their Wechat statuses?” other contractors said.
Instead of the usual social media updates, Liu had a moment of inspiration. “Let’s change the update,” he said. They used Uber’s slogan and placed it on 9 scenic pictures, expressing a vast and desolate feeling. Apart from sharing these pictures, they also broadcast these pictures to the Wechat friends circle.
A few hours later, the news of the acquisition (merger, according to Uber) was officially announced. Liu Quan’s graphic flooded Uber employees’ Wechat news feeds.
What sort of feeling is that – carefully constructed wooden blocks collapsing all at once? Like a banquet that has suddenly ended. Like being knifed by a person close to you. One employee employee recalled, “Like being sold by your father.” Another said, “A tumultuous, young love affair – where any new love will never be like the one you lost.”
These feelings were released in an almost uncontrollable fashion that evening.
No one from Uber China slept that evening. “At 2, 3am we were still posting on Wechat, and everyone was ‘liking’ each other’s posts,” Liu Quan recalled.
Some reminisced about their first da at Uber, some expressed thanks. “In the end, there was a feeling that we were a bunch of normal kids who have stumbled into the top class, and wished that we could be just that much smarter.” Someone wrote poetically, “The mountains and the lakes are where we build our dreams.”
So much pain. So much love. So many regrets. So much pride.
It has to be admitted that “Uberness” was what attracted them to join in the first place. “The feeling was that if you had Uberness, then you were someone special,” an Uber employee said. It’s hard to describe this quality. One aspect is, “Always be hustling” – be the guy on the basketall team who is always hurtling forward to save the ball. “Super-pumped” was another attribute. A pump that was about to burst.
All the Uber slogans were in English, which were succinct; it was hard to find a Chinese equivalent. From the hiring process to daily work, they would use these words. Travis Kalanick had raised a raging unicorn and Uberness gave the new joiners a sense of superiority.
Many employees were talents from investment banking, consulting or multinational companies. Pay cuts of 30% were common; some received pay cuts of 50%. They were fluent in English, and an overseas education was common. Uber had a strict selection process, and early employees had to go through at least six rounds of written and face-to-face interviews before being selected. They had equity in the company – but more importantly, they had dreams. Change the world, that was their personal creed and meaning of their work.
They had an immense admiration for the competitive, rock-star founder Kalanick. Kalanick had repeatedly said he was seriously considering Chinese citizenship. We previously asked an Uber manager about this, who smiled and said that he was willing to believe that. “Travis will always be someone who will do the unexpected. If he really moves to China, I wouldn’t be surprise.”
This pride was the backdrop of the drama on 1 August, and perhaps seemed arrogant and deceptive. But behind this pride was a common identity. Didi would poach people from Uber but Uber would never do the reverse. Someone told reporters for People, the Uber head of strategy said, “We will never accept people from Didi.”
Making urban travel was the common goal of both Uber and Didi, but those who worked from Uber would never believe that they had anything in common with Didi. Many employees raised this code of conduct: do not request for exclusive agreements, do not “buy” rankings created by advisory firms and do not bring local leaders out for dinner.
Some Uber employees pointed out to People that if Didi’s users called for more rides, their discounts would shrink, because the system would recognise that users had already developed a habit of using the product. If users did not call as many rides, the system would then increase the level of subsidies. But Uber’s philosophy was to give a fair system for everyone and give every user the same discount. (On this, Didi’s public relations manager’s response is that “this is not entirely true, the discounts are related to the market environment and city’s transport environment. For instance, I am someone who uses the app frequently but I also receive many discounts and promotions.”)
Feelings attracted them and protected them. Feelings became something which released their greatest potential. Everyone could tell a story about how they achieved the impossible.
In February, the Changsha office organised a marketing campaign around “helicopter hailing” – from conceptualisation to implementation, it took only a week. At the beginning, the manager in charge of the programme Fi Dixuan had no projections nor a helicopter, and only had 4 interns. She brought them to the right people and liaised with the airport and also created the marketing collateral. They worked through the night creating a 30 second video, using cut paper and hand models to promote the activity. The cost was only RMB 32 spent on printing. The day the activity ended was Valentine’s Day. Exhausted, she returned home at 8pm and promptly fell asleep.
Chengdu market manager Gong Ziyu’s story was that once, when they were running a promotional campaign for a children’s car, the partner’s decals on the car were not perfect enough. Short of time, she brought her interns to the factory to redo the decals. There was a power failure; the intern turned on the lights of his own car to help the workers complete the job, until 4am in the morning.
Now, everything had come to an end.
On the second day, they found their eyes swollen with the tears from the previous night. Someone who was particularly affected was Liu Zhen. According to someone close to her, her expression was stony, her voice hoarse and you could tell that she had “cried many times”.
Many people were idle. The system was still running and there were many Uber cars you could still call. But all forms of manual intervention and data analysis tools were taken over by HQ. According to original plans, Harbin, Xuzhou, Nanchang and other cities were going to open in September and required an advance party to be sent there. But now, there was no need. Apart from a few ongoing campaigns – like Huang Pu Jiang’s hot air balloon activities – the marketing activities were called to a halt in other cities.
Some employees did not even report for work. In the office, there was a lot of mutual commiseration with the occasional person bursting into tears.
In Uber Chengdu, Liu Quan noted with surprise that even a new manager who had recently joined was in tears. He remember that just a day ago, the manager was expressing anger. “You were acquired just like that? You hid information from me. You did not hire in good faith!”
“I felt that startup culture was like a multi-layer marketing scheme. They were selling our feelings – it was foolish, naïve.” At that moment, this idea flashed across Liu Quan’s mind but he thought “from a commercial perspective, this was extremely successful.”
In the afternoon, Didi President Liu Qing came with 4 senior officials from Didi to Uber’s Beijing office. This was the first time she had entered the office. She displayed no airs and was extremely graceful, but also “there were no signs that she was sympathetic towards the company” according to a person at the scene.
A national Uber video conference began. Liu Qing began to speak, her face appearing on every office’s screen.
To everyone’s surprise, she chose to speak in English and spoke extremely fluently. This was a side of Liu Qing that few people had seen and had taken into account the fact that English was the working language within Uber. When employees interacted, they used a mix of English and Mandarin. Liu Qing was possibly trying to show a friendly face to her former enemies.
But to the Uber employees, the entire proceedings felt like “a very humiliating meeting of defeat.” Their hearts were heavy. As Liu Qing spoke, there were no rounds of applause. Liu Qing used the phrase “a noble opponent, a historic showdown” to express admiration for Uber, reaffirming Didi’s values. She emphasised, “we are all the same.”
“Who is the same as you?” Wang Shufen instinctively thought. “I felt that everything you say is BS, I don’t believe it.”
After that, the other Didi officials also addressed the company in English. The Kuaiche business head and human resources head apologised for his poor command of English, and then spoke in Chinese.
When the issue of merger was raised, the atmosphere grew tense. Some asked what would happen to leasing company. Didi gave a vague answer, we will cooperate in the best way possible. Another asked whether marketing activities would continue; Didi would not give a firm answer. Yet another asked how Uber’s fate would compare with Kuaidi – the Kuaidi app was last updated in Nov ’15 and had barely any users. In the last round of financing, Kuaidi’s name was also eliminated from the brand, from “Didi Kuadi” to “Didi Chuxing”. Didi’s management gave no direct answers but only repeated the merger statement.
“With few answers to any questions, they were extremely uneasy,” Wang Shufen said.
Whether out of sarcasm or otherwise, someone asked, “Can we still wear slippers?” Another asked whether they could bring dogs into the office. Uber had an informal office culture and had specific policies on pets, and employees could apply for pet spaces were provided for in most areas.
Such questions seemed out of place in such a grave moment and elicited a rare moment of laughter. “You guys are really asking irrelevant questions,” Wang Shufen thought.
Based on Wang Shufen’s understanding, Liu Qing did not expect such frivolous questions and “was at a complete loss”. She evaded these questions as well.
Before the end of this war, Uber and Didi were like water and fire.
The two companies had many similarities, but in terms of temperament and their views of the world there were subtle differences. Uber attacked with small teams and had a total of 800 people. Didi organisation was much larger with more than 6000 people. Uber viewed Didi as an unsophisticated upstart – “a wild coyote” was the nickname given to Didi’s founder Cheng Wei, while Didi saw Uber as a barbarian attacking from beyond the great wall, because Kalanick from the start made the outrageous offer of acquiring 40% of Didi.
After Uber Chengdu’s Wechat account shared the nine landscape images, one comment said, “Hope that everyone can grow together –The colleagues from Didi Chengdu”.
What stung was the word “colleagues”. Everyone was infuriated. “Who wants to be your colleague? We are leaving,” the furious replies came.
“A large part of our work was because Didi was around. This is what competition looks like. When your competitor plays a card, you retaliate,” Wang Shufen said. “Almost all Uber employees had an intense hatred towards Didi. Without hate, you would have no competitive spirit.”
Hate is as contagious as pride. The Uber employees we interviewed all denied ever meeting Didi employees. “It was like fighting with your enemy.” In a moment of agitation, a female city manager said, “<expletive> Didi”.
In the marketplace, Uber was a colourful player. When Didi occasionally exhibited similar creativity, the Uber team would fume, believing that they had been copied. When it came to driver incentives, in various cities Uber had a tight grip on Didi. “For example, when it came to full day incentives, when Didi offered an incentive of RMB 50 for 12 rides and RMB 100 for 22 rides, we would respond – and respond with more,” a Beijing Uber intern explained.
Uber’s tactic was to act after Didi. If Didi released a set of incentives at midnight, Uber would follow at 1am. If Didi released them at 2–3am, Uber would follow in the morning.
This was a game of attacking and counter-attacking. Every city team in Uber had a team to “follow the competition” – for a long time, these were somewhat secretive groups, analysing Didi’s product strategy, drivers and passenger incentives, and quantifying how much their opponents had invested in certain milestone developments. “As long as we were awake, our phones were always online, constantly refreshing. If there were any changes, we would pursue them.” The intern explained. She had been part of this group for six months.
To prevent themselves from being monitored, the Uber team had abandoned Wechat from an early stage and used Telegram as their main communication tool. Uber had openly blamed Tencent for being Didi’s strategic investor and shutting down some of the Uber city teams’ Wechat accounts. Tencent had responded with technical explanations that were incomprehensible, blaming the incidents on “system instability.”
The city managers for Didi Huanan and Huabei were poached from Uber. While they worked together, Wang Shufen would always video chat with them and also met up for meals, and they were “colleagues with whom she had fought with together” But very quickly, they were blocked from each other’s WeChat friend list.
This essence of this war was in raising money and burning cash, and the key to victory was how to burn cash effectively and have the opponent suffer bigger losses to the point of bankruptcy or defeat.
“If I burn a billion and the enemy burns 3 billion, and there are no accidents and we are at similar levels of service, as long as we spend continuously, we shouldn’t be badly off.” Wang Shufen said. “In this market, if we are 40% and the opponent is 60%, we believed that is a reasonable position to be in. 30% is a fine line – that means that customers believe that you have no value or don’t like you, and can drop at any time. If you are below 30%, you would have to write to HQ to request more money to burn and spend that cash quickly; otherwise there would be no chance.” But the decision makers in San Francisco would never provide China with a carte blanche. The city maangers would have to present concrete challenges and solutions to persuade them.
Drivers were the white rats in this meat grinder of a market. Tai Lunlu is a business contractor in a city in Xinan. One programme that he participated in was to select three sets of drivers and divide them into a control group and two experimental groups and engage them via Wechat. The experimental group were exposed to different types of incentives; for instance, a fee for returning to the platform or a incentive for reaching a certain target, while the control group would have no incentives but would receive a message to “get going”.
“We wanted to conduct an experiment with these drivers, to see which incentives were most effective. We would use the successful incentives in the next month,” Tai Lunlu said.
Every new city had a budget of USD 500,000 per week. The competition internally was equally ruthless. There was a leaderboard for every city around the globe. For the same level of resources, Chengdu’s performance was clearly outstanding. Until the middle of last year, Chengdu was Uber’s leading city. The 30-year old, former investment banker Chengdu manager Zhang Yan Qi was promoted to lead one of the three major regions in China. At the global Uber gathering, when Zhang Yanqi introduced the Chengdu team, they received a standing ovation from other offices.
Without further elaboration, this anecdote alone spurred all the Uber employees. When Zhang received this global accolade, he was not yet even in his prime. A Tsinghua graduate, he was handsome and sophisticated and had the physique of an athlete. He was Uber’s new model and everyone wanted to be him.
However, pricing had become unconventionally aggressive. Profitability became the last thing on anyone’s mind. The manager for Changsha Pan Lingling recalled that last year in October, after Didi reduced fares from RMB 1.5 to RMB 0.9, she resisted the pressure and maintained the pricing for People’s Uber at RMB 1.8 per km. In March this year, Didi announced a 50% discount. “I believe that they were charging 40–50 cents for every km, forcing me to capitulate.”
In spring, Didi was burning RMB 100 million a week in Hangzhou alone. Uber’s projected that they would be unable to match them and came under enormous pressure. Like dominoes, the pressure spread. Changsha manager Fu Di Xuan recalled that the normally composed general manager Pan Lingling one day transformed into another person and constantly came over to harangue her about Uber’s market share. This questioning took place 10 times a day, despite everyone knowing that those numbers could not change over such a short span of time. At that time, Fu Dixuan and the business manager in charge of driver engagement also had a tense relationship. The two of them had to coordinate and also had to compete for limited resources. In the end, the only person she could rely on was herself.
Thankfully later in the year, Didi funding was temporarily tight while Uber spent aggressively in a week. Uber’s market share surged.
Fatigue is unavoidable and working through the weekends was normal. Physical fatigue was secondary to mental fatigue. Ride sharing was a nice concept but in reality, Uber employoees found themselves falling into a street fight against an opponent who, with a slogan of “making travel better”, similar advocated for the same thing.
Slowly, Wang Shufen began to suspect that that more incentives could be used to acquire customers but once the market had been sufficiently educated, this advantage was only temporary and had no benefit on customer behaviour. “Market share is actually a very fragile thing. You could see it as a mirage created by burning money.”
Of course, Uber’s international investors did not view this kindly. From the beginning of the year, they began to share unsettling news. One investor described the “militaristic compettion” as “entering the 14th inning of baseball”.
However, there was no sign of the final whistle. Uber employees were exhausted but they were still pumped. “We believed every day that we could win, and we only had 500 people (excluding the 300 customer service people). We did so much with just 500 people,” Wang Shufen said.
Furthermore, they had the assurances of Kalanick. San Francisco had created a “China Growth” engineering team comprising people who had experience in China – including the former GM and founder of Uber Beijing. In many management meetings, Kalanick would use the phrase “China First”.
He backed this up with actions. In the past two years, Kalanick frequently came to China. In the rest of the world, Uber was known to be arrogant and unruly, but when he faced China he was particularly docile. At the Baidu global conference, he presented a slide with the Chinese word “harmony (he)” to describe the relationship between Uber and the Chinese government. During the anniversary of the Community Party, he was photographed under a sign which said “Service for the people”. When President Xi Jinping visited Seattle, anyone who opened Uber there would see a screen welcoming him.
Uber’s goal for 2016 was to enter 100 Chinese cities. In August, they had already entered 61. “Every time Travis came to China, he would say everyone needs to fight – we can definitely win; management is the type who can bleed. With words like these, wouldn’t you be convinced?” Wang Shufen said.
“Now when I look back, these all seem like lies. Very, very big lies. Many people were all fooled by Travis.”
What she did not realise is that this is how the business world turns. Tragically, without exception, a baseball game only has 9 innings.
Uber is a company that emphasises equality. This emphasis on equality, from some perspectives, is not reasonable. All employees globally had the same benefits with a daily USD 200 budget to be spent on accommodation, no matter whether you were in US, Southeast Asia or Northern Europe. Of course in China, everyone was very conscious of this and no one spent to this limit, and would normally stay in a hotel costing about RMB 500–600. A city team, apart from the city manager, would only have two levels – managers and OC (operations coordinator?). Employees had a travel budget of USD 333 and a USD 68 gym subsidy.
This was reality – with one small exception. Liu Quan was just such a contractor.
“Legally, we were graduates so we could not become interns.” Liu Quan said. “In terms of our position, what was awkward was that we did not know who exactly we were.”
What was different from Uber HQ was that Uber China heavily used interns. The same is true in India. In many cities, interns and workers were at a ratio of 5:1 or higher. Uber’s interns were more than 1,000. Across cities, the daily salary for interns was between RMB 100 – 180, with potential for a bonus if performance was good.
Contractors were between official employees and interns. They did not have travel or gym benefits nor did they have the opportunity to train at “Uberversity” in the US. They did not have a unique employee number, with their contracts assigned to a third party provider. Amongst Uber China’s 800 employee team, 500 people were core while the rest were customer service. Contractors were not included and were largely overlooked by the outside world.
“Many graduates have no experience or were not very capable. And Uber’s entry hurdle was very high,” Wang Shufen said. “We would let them do six months of temporary work before reapplying.”
In Uber Chengdu, the salaries of all the contractors were public – RMB 4,500. The initial offer was RMB 4,000 but after some objections this was raised by RMB 500. To graduates, this was considered above average and people were mostly satisfied. Contractors and interns broadly did the same basic work.
Uber trusted their interns. On many occasions, interns were asked to negotiate on behalf of the company. If interns had good ideas, these were used. “Being able to turn your ideas into reality was attractive to me. We received very good training – this was enough,” one Beijing intern said. Even now she does not consider herself as being cheaply used.
You will always find pain and regret in the camp of defeat. But on the afternoon of Tuesday other feelings began to be expressed.
“I feel that Kalanick made a mistake, we can prove it to him.” Contractor Tai Lunlu admits that he wants to work for Didi. Kalanick left China on the night the news of the acquisition was announced.
At the end of the “surrender ceremony”, Chengdu manager Fang Yin shared how his feelings had changed with his office staff. He spoke entirely in Chinese to ensure that some of the Contractors were able to understand, something which he rarely did. “At first I thought this was unbelievable, then felt gloomy, then angry.” He is a Hawaii-born American Chinese. Before he came to China, he was part of the founding team in Bangkok, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. But now he was unhappy at how sudden and final the decision was and how he was left in the dark.
Throughout his speech, the phrase he used repeatedly was “I am just like you.”
The sensitive question was finally raised. Contractors had a different status from full-time employees. After working for 30 days, employees could get 6 months of compensation (with an additional 3 months of paid separation leave). But the post-merger plans did not mention what they intended to do with contractors. “What will we do? We have served whole-heartedly, how will the company treat us?” a contractor stood up and told Fang Yin, between tears.
No one could answer her.
Everyone’s direction is different.
In the first week of August, as a deep expert on Uber, Wang Shufen received 5–6 calls from headhunters. Like many Uber people, she felt dejected about going to a new job but also did not want to join Didi. But at the end of August, when we spoke to her again, she decided to stay. “It still feels unreal that this could all change in a night. It feels like a dream,” she admits.
No matter how much they battle their feelings, from 1 August, they have all become Didi employees. “You can only accept it,” Wang Shufen said. You will never understand at what point you recognise yourself as a Didi employee. It just happens. The people we interviewed constantly repeated the words, “weak”, “helpless”. Previously, they looked down on Didi, now they have an opportunity to understand it.
The situation for contractors remains unresolved. Liu Quan has decided not to wait and has found a new job. Most of the contractors that he knows have decided to avoid future sentiments of loyalty and will go wherever suits them.
Amongst the three most senior area manaers, Zhang Yanqi and Luo Gang have entered Didi and are running new segments related to second hand car transactions and refuelling. Anbao has remained, leading Uber. Now Uber has become a division of Didi but the competition remains. According to some insiders, nothing has fixed. Whoever does better will remain.
Even Fang Yin, the American-Chinese manager who felt he was manipulated has decided to re-apply for a position in Uber. He has gone to Singapore. Another significant resignation was the manager for Guangzhou, a Hong Konger, who has returned to Uber. In the future, they may have an opportunity to cross swords with their former colleagues in China. In the middle of August, Didi announced an investment into GrabTaxi. In Southeast Asia, GrabTaxi is Uber’s biggest competitor. The war in China has ended but the fire continues to burn throughout the globe.
No one has seen Uber’s strategy head Liu Zhen. Some have heard that she was extremely disappointed by the outcome and has gone on vacation.
A few details have emerged that reveal the harsh realities of business. Before August, there was a batch of new Uber employees who were sent to San Francisco to be trained at Uberversity. They learned the bad news when they got off the plane. HQ would not let them enter the compound and cancelled their hotel reservations. They had to rely on themselves for the return journey. Eventually, Didi covered their costs.
After the news of the merger was released, Uber directed all employees to sever contacts at the working level with Uber China. A senior Uber official discovered that he could not get in touch with his US counterpart, either by phone or email. The last message he received from the counterpart was simply, “Sorry.” At the same time, Uber’s “China Growth” team was dissolved.
“History repeats itself.” Wang Shufen mused. Many would think that she is referring to previous instances of acquisition, but what she was describing was the Cold War era. “We were fighting and bleeding in the trenches, but the general in the tent had already surrendered. This feeling cuts to the bone.” She admits that this is why she agreed to be interviewed by this publication. “Our efforts cannot be denied.”
She had never experienced the taste of defeat, but was determined to throw herself into an epic battle. In retrospect, she still believes that she was not wrong, and her hatred towards Didi was not wrong. But business is business, there is no sentimentality. So it was and so it will be – she understands this now.
Didi’s victory did not equate to victory for all of Didi’s employees. After the initial celebration, they would be put through an exercise of “optimisation”. The end of competition also meant that many positions were redundant, not to mention the large amount of talent from Uber that could be integrated. An unverified source reported that 20% of Didi’s staff will be let go.
On the other hand, it is hard to see Kalanick as having lost. Uber invested US$2bn and received 20% of an estimated US$35bn unicorn.
This acquisition had all the elements of a drama. It is also common – in the annals of the internet revolution, many verticals will see such pain and disruption.
At times, the future and the past converge. 28 July was the last celebratory moment for Uber. On that day, the transportation department released new ruling on car hailing apps; any private car could register itself to be on a car hailing platform, suggesting that the industry was going to be legalised. However on this day, Liu Zhen (the Uber China strategy head) and senior members met with Kalanick and were shocked to know that Uber China would be relegated to the past. No Uber China person participated in this decision.
Didi’s thinking is now of the future. In the future, perhaps driverless cars will be the new mode of transport, or maybe Didi would have completely defeated Uber globally – or maybe not. No one knows. But the whole story has nothing to do with the future, business or a possibly-great business. The important thing is how a group of idealistic youth performed in the battlefield of business. Their joys, tears and pride.
“What makes you proud is not Uber, but your youth.”