Why I left Uber to join Sonder
After 4.5 years at Uber, I just finished week one at my new home.
Last week my run at Uber ended. Deciding to leave a company that I’d learned so much from and loved being a part of was one of the hardest decisions of my career. Many sleepless nights were involved. Ultimately I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and see if I could apply all I’d learned in a new environment.
Being principled in my search
Whenever I need to make a hard choice, I’ve found putting together some principles helps me make better decisions. For this search, I knew there were a handful of things I wanted in my next opportunity:
- Operations heavy — The secret sauce of Uber has always been the ops teams in every one of the 700+ cities. People talk about the magic of Uber and that is largely because of the work of the operators around the globe. Also, an ops-heavy business is harder to clone, so differentiation is built in. That power of what an ops team can do is something I wanted to continue to be able to work with.
- Digital meets physical — As a designer, one of the most rewarding parts of designing at Uber is creating digital products that enable physical experiences. The software we’ve created has enabled so much. Whether it’s allowing someone to earn extra income to send their kid to college or helping a traveler feel more secure by providing more reliable transportation in a new city.
- Real international ambitions — My favorite memories at Uber were when working on markets outside of the U.S. It felt like our work was helping make the world smaller, and by getting the non-SF user’s experience right, we made the service better for everyone. A domestic focus is a small vision but a global one built by a diverse group of makers is something that gets me out of bed in the morning.
- Not in transportation — I talked to some transportation companies, but it kept feeling wrong for me to hedge against Uber. Since Uber’s ambitions are so big across all parts of transportation, I decided it’s a good time to take a break from the area entirely. I’ll always be passionate about transportation and hope to return to it in the future.
- At the right stage — The big tech companies will always be there. I could go back to Uber at some point if it makes sense. But for my next move, I wanted to find a company that had achieved some measure of “product market fit” and was entering a growth stage. That’s where Uber was when I joined and it was a special time of unbridled optimism. Everyone was working towards a unified mission.
With those criteria in my head, I did the things you do: replying to recruiter pings, scrolling through LinkedIn a bit more and talking to friends about interesting companies. But one day in January, Khang, my friend who joined Uber right around the same time I had, suddenly announced he was leaving. I was surprised — I’d just talked to him a few weeks prior and he seemed totally dedicated to and bullish on Uber. Soon he shed some light on his decision when he shared why he left Uber and why he was joining a new company: Sonder.
That got my attention. Reading the posts, from a person I trust, and seeing the company hitting just about every one of my criteria pushed me to reach out. A few weeks later I’d gone through the interview process and in late March I signed. Now I’m drinking from the firehose at Sonder and even after just a week, I feel that I made a great decision.
What Sonder is and why I’m so excited
So what is Sonder? We’re all still working on the best pitch, but what resonates most with me is Sonder is the best parts of an Airbnb rental combined with the best of hotel service. Sonder leases units directly, furnishes them beautifully, then rents them for short and long term stays.
This model enables the units to be everywhere across the city while at a consistently high level of quality. When you book a Sonder, you know exactly what you’re getting. No negotiations with a host, no waiting for a host to unlock the unit and no one’s personal belongings to avoid disturbing. The spaces feature inspiring interior designs. On my first stay, I was flipping over side tables in search of manufacturer names. I wanted to see how to bring some of the pieces into my own home.
So that’s the short term vision: enable consistent, elevated stays in whatever neighborhood you want to be in around the world. Thinking further out, Sonder has an opportunity to reimagine the relationship people have with their long term rental as well. We talk about it as housing as a service.
Imagine a world where you could live in the Mission for 6 months, then move to Dogpatch for the next 6 months. Then you decide it’d be helpful to work out of your company’s office in London for 6 months, so your make that change in your Sonder app and within a few days, your most essential items arrive with you in your new unit. Of course, there is a lot to figure out between now and then, but you get the idea. Having a big, bold vision to shoot for from the highest levels of the company is powerful.
What my first priorities are
Like I mentioned, it’s early, but a few themes are becoming clear for me as top areas to focus on this year.
Make Sonder a household name
When my first Uber manager pitched the company to me in 2013, he told me “Uber’s a transportation network that connects riders and drivers.” That’s certainly a way to describe Uber, but today it’s painfully obvious. We all know what Uber is. Sonder will get to that point. With an upcoming rebrand launch and more outward facing initiatives, we’ll make a ton of progress on it this year.
Build incredible products that enable the real world Sonder experience
Up until now Sonder’s been focused on getting their ops and supply dialed in. Because of that, we’ve done an incredible job building city teams and getting gorgeously designed units in the right neighborhoods across North America and a bit in Europe. Now the attention has shifted to building the tech to make Sonders more accessible to users.
The website, consumer app, hospitality app and ops tools are all key parts to help get closer to the vision. There are serious design challenges, but also engineering ones: housekeeping dispatch to maximize their efficiency, dynamic pricing, and connected home with smart locks, thermostats and more. We’ll even need to build tools for our interior design team to be able to create and furnish units remotely at even higher levels of quality. Tons of challenges ahead.
Build a world class design and tech team
Of course all those products need makers to create them. One lesson from Uber I’ll never forget is to keep the bar for talent super high. Great people want to work with great people. It makes work fun and inspiring when taking on and succeeding at hard challenges with others at the top of their game. We’re starting from the foundation with that attitude.
I can’t stress enough that if you’re reading this, this is the right time to learn more about Sonder and how it might make sense if you’re ready to take your next step. I truly believe this is like learning about Uber in 2012, you just have to squint to see it.
If you’d like to learn more about design, engineering, product, data, research, product ops or any other roles at Sonder, don’t be afraid to reach out on LinkedIn. You can swing by for coffee or lunch anytime. We just moved to the surprisingly awesome Design District in SF. It’s a great neighborhood where lots of great things will be happening in the years to come. ;-)