Not So Uber
In 2014 and 2015, I met a few of the senior and early team members from Uber. I enjoyed their personalities and vision; they were fun to hang out with and spoke eloquently. I was a big fan of their service and impressed by how fast they had grown their business. Travis and the team all seemed brilliant and the potential for creating an iconic, world-enriching company seemed immense.
Then I started sensing cracks in the edifice. Drivers I spoke with seemed less happy. Some were downright angry. Others started to publicly speak out about the company. But I was a believer in Uber and felt like they just needed some support.
Several people close to me had close connections to members of the Board, so I crafted a letter to the Board with the help of my co-founder, Matt Auron. It was early in our work at Evolution and I thought this would be the best way to reach the company. I would have done it differently today (and will), but this was what we thought was best at the moment.
I’ve copied the letter in its entirety below, with no changes, other than removing an appendix that described Evolution’s services in more detail. I’m sharing it here to show what I believe has happened to Uber. In short, the company has lost its soul. Blog posts like this one from Susan J. Fowler published yesterday show what happens when a company’s leadership is not careful to craft the right culture and maintain strong levels of service to all stakeholders.
While it is beyond disappointing to read about what Susan experienced, it is unfortunately all too common. Every week we read of some company going off the rails in one way or another, and for the most part, leadership and culture is responsible. That is what happens when business as usual is done; when a company scales too fast; when the numbers are too important; when organizational shadow is not in check.
It is not too late to save Uber. Travis and the Board have sprung to action. Internal investigations are beginning. The right words are being said and tweeted. But until and unless Travis and his team take the time to clarify their essence and name their shadows, then build appropriate behaviors and actions into all they do, the problems will continue and, eventually, the company will be a hollow shell of its former potential.
Here’s the letter I sent on June 25, 2015:
To the Board of Uber:
I’m an exuberant Uber fan and customer, also a follower of the company since its earliest days. I love how you have changed the way the world thinks about hired car service, sharing resources for the benefit of all, and creating a new way for individuals to earn income as part-time drivers. So when I read about angry drivers going on strike, my interest is piqued. And due to my mental model, I begin to wonder if you are in danger of losing the soul of the company — a company that has been of service to customers, partners, and employees, as well as shareholders, local communities, the planet, and society in general — by putting too much emphasis on maximizing benefit for one or two of those stakeholders at the cost of another.
It is quite common for a company to lose its soul along the way, especially through rapid growth. Little by little, values can be compromised in the face of tough business decisions and different stakeholder needs until they are just meaningless words on a poster on a wall in the company cafe. The company can keep hitting its numbers, but it is soulless. It seems you may be at an inflection point and may be on the verge of a crisis of culture: who is the real Uber and how do you want the world to know you (or remember you)?
I am sure you don’t want the company to be seen negatively and I know that there are always noisy people that get media attention when they don’t really deserve it. Maybe that’s the case here. But the question remains: are you clear of what you want (or value) and whether you are operating in alignment with those values?
The answer to this may be obvious just by asking the question. But more likely, a depth of introspection and consideration is required to see where there is misalignment with the values. The inquiry should be three-dimensional: with the leaders individually; through team dynamics and the organization’s culture; and with business processes and governance. Misalignment in any of these areas can cause missteps that take the company away from its essence and realizing its full potential in the world.
Maintaining alignment is not easy. Subconscious “shadow” forces undercut good intentions. In our society’s business culture, that is acceptable as long as the results are growth and profit. But in the long run, the business is also hurt. It is no longer all it could be or as it was dreamed. It isn’t as great a place to work or as delightful to customers. Partners are disappointed and shareholders are focused primarily on the numbers. And in the end, society is short changed.
I am confident that Uber wants nothing less than maximizing its potential — the business version of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy. I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you more about this and how our firm could help you to uncover any flaws — real or potential — and then support the way forward necessary to continue on your incredible mission of evolving the way the world moves.