Uber Needed Travis Kalanick.
And it needed to let him go, for reasons every founder should understand.
The startup community is conflicted over the announcement of Travis Kalanick’s “resignation.” Alongside the predictable chorus of visible condemnation is a quieter ambivalence — particularly among young male founders — acknowledging the essential role of his bold, confrontational, and occasionally offensive style in the company’s success.
It’s a competition of narratives, really:
- A: Important global player outgrows sexist, frat-boy leader, OR…
- B: Suits and PC police turn on founder with what it took to win.
Where you stand depends on where you sit, right? The truth is more complicated, of course, and worthy of reflection by founders and by all of us.
Startups and dis-continuous change.
Discontinuous change is a sudden shift in the basic nature of something. Unlike incremental change, it reflects a binary shift from one state to another, rather than an increase or decrease in the presence of this attribute or that. Incremental change turns discontinuous in ways that are hard to measure or predict. Adding a millimeter to the height of a short person, for example, results in a slightly taller short person. Do that enough, and the person is suddenly tall.
In a startup, this process unfolds in ways that can be downright cruel. Early stage startups run on acts of individual heroism, for example, on the brute force and unnatural effort required to will something into being from nothing. Scaled businesses, in contrast, run on systems that scale. They require processes that produce predictable outcomes, and people willing to comply with them.
How often have you seen an acknowledged “hero” from the initial phase of a startup painted as a disruptive “cowboy” as that same business grows to scale? A entrepreneur’s inability to adapt to changing circumstance — particularly to abandon the behaviors that made them heroes in the first place — eventually renders them an enemy of the workflows and culture required to continue moving forward.
Such was the case for Travis Kalanick. In the end it was neither flaws in character nor the fickle hand of destiny that brought him down. It was his own inability to evolve at the same rate his business did, to adapt to its changing needs by consciously changing himself.
Your weakness is the downside of your strength.
There’s usually a relationship between the qualities that propel us forward and the frailties that hold us back. One mirrors the other, becoming asset or liability as the context changes.
Show me a hard driver and I’ll show you an insensitive leader. Most big thinkers are light on executive focus, and I have yet to meet someone with great attention to detail who was equally great at seeing the forest for the trees.
“They say best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad.” William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, act 5, sc.1
The lesson for all founders.
The divide over Travis Kalanick reflects different biases toward founders as a whole. Andreessen Horowitz is famously built on the belief that founders are always the best people to run the companies they create, despite the fact that a venture firm “bringing in a grownup” is among the most tired tropes in the business.
I really don’t think Travis Kalanick is a saintly or an evil person, or that the narrative surrounding his departure is purely that of the outgrown cad or of the betrayed hero. I don’t think this outcome was destiny, nor that it was the product of some unseen force wrestling for control of a valuable and important business.
I think Travis failed to evolve at the same rate his business did, that he failed to reflect deeply on what he needed to change about himself as almost everything changed around him.
It’s really hard to do that when you achieve the success he did, when the way you’ve been is responsible for making you and your company a star. But a founder who can’t do that… who is unable or unwilling to step back once in a while to look for discontinuous change and understand which of her historic strengths will hold her business back, needs to step aside.
That’s what happened today, I think. And we should all pause in our judgement of the individual’s morality at least long enough to reflect on the story’s moral.