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I No Longer Want to Build The Next Uber

Most Silicon Valley investors are sick of hearing startup founders finish their elevator pitch with “We are building the Uber of (blank)!”

“Blank” often refers to whatever on-demand industry they are disrupting.

Uber is a symbol for disruptive innovation, the rise of the gig economy and rule-breaking. The shining example that entrepreneurs try to emulate as they create technologies that change the world. “Building the next Uber” is the dream of most startups.

Travis Kalanick’s mantra of “growth at all costs” led the company in unprecedented growth and a $70 billion valuation. But it came at a price.

With his resignation late Tuesday evening, being “the next Uber” will take a slightly new meaning.

Perhaps a cautionary tale that investors can use to scare young founders about the importance of… what exactly?

Avoid patent lawsuits? Immediately address sexual harassment claims? Don’t break state laws? Treat everyone with respect?

I don’t want to focus on the internal company issues (which I am not qualified or well versed) but rather the behavioral impact on startup founders and investors.

The issue is ethical leadership.

Your Soldiers are always watching

In 2009, when Uber was in it’s infancy, I graduated from West Point and commissioned as a 22 year old Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I was doing my best to learn how to lead my Soldiers and did not have any interest in black cars or private drivers. My first NCO (non-commissioned officer) reminded me a very important lesson: choose the hard right over the easier wrong. Your Soldiers are always watching.

I precisely remember my first experience after downloading the Uber app in 2013. Long story short, I ended up getting punched in the face by an Uber driver while holding 7 Fatburgers walking across the street in LA. Not exactly the best first impression. But after a police report and bad rating I assumed he would never be on the road again. No harm, no foul. I quickly became a regular user.

In 2014, I met Ryan Graves at a Dreamforce event for veterans in San Francisco. I was mesmerized by his story. He became employee #1 by responding to a tweet! He became CEO and ultimately COO of a billion dollar startup by age 30! Could I do that?

Quickly after that I watched the YouTube video with Travis Kalanick getting interviewed by Jason Calacanis at Launch conference. I thought he seemed a little weird, aloof and a bit arrogant but you could see the wheels turning as he saw the world differently. I spoke with startup founders in the crowd who desperately wanted to be like him someday. He was as close to a rock star as it comes.

I remember listening to a podcast with Chris Sacca in which he mentioned that Travis would spend hours in his hot tub discussing how to move atoms across the world. He was creating the future. Growth at all costs.

The story of Uber unfolded before my eyes. I was not a diehard fanboy or anything, but it feels different when you are part of the story. I used the app. My colleagues talked about being the “Uber for dog walkers.” Investors were looking for “the next Uber.” My mom (!!!) downloaded the app and used it to go to the Oakland Airport. They were the gold standard.

For Travis Kalanick, it wasn’t just his employees watching. It was the world. He was smart and passionate about the future. We followed his lead. But he did it the wrong way.

Silicon Valley has an Ethics Problem

Folks have started to write more about this over the past few years (these are good reads from the New York Times, Inc, Fortune, 360 Payments). Peter Thiel said in 2014 that Uber was “ethically challenged.” Companies like Zenefits and Theranos are well documented. More will come out about Uber.

In the Army we say, “Soldiers do what Leaders check.” So who has the responsibility for checking for ethical behavior?

Is it the investors? Ultimately Travis Kalanick was forced to resign by his investors. So if they feel compelled to step in when the ship is sinking shouldn’t they be checking it for leaks? The culture of “growth at all costs” and pressure to move fast is suffocating for many founders.

I have no idea if Travis is as bad of a guy as the media portrays. Former colleagues are showing support. He is the easy scapegoat but there were leadership failures by his colleagues, mentors, employees — and definitely his investors. To which degree I have no idea.

I am not looking for scapegoats. I am looking for progress. I am looking for leaders of character.

How do we collectively do a better job of training leaders of character in the startup world?

We know that giving twentysomethings millions of dollars might have pitfalls. If only there was an organization that had 200 years of experience training twentysomethings how to manage millions of dollars and lead teams in stressful situations…

In my time at West Point and the Army, we studied leadership constantly. But we lived ethics. It was drilled into us every single day. The Honor Code. The Army Values. In my current role at The Mission, we work with mission-driven companies and ethical leaders. No surprise that our founder is an Army veteran.

We need to leverage best practices from industry leaders and the military.

We need to learn from the mistakes of Travis Kalanick and Uber.

Our VETCON team is working to gather top venture capitalists and military leaders to discuss how we can effectively build leaders of character in the startup world. Announcement coming soon.

At VETCON 2017, Steve Blank asked the crowd of military veteran entrepreneurs “who wants to build the next Google.” Many hands shot up.

Next year, if he asks, “who wants to build the next Uber?” My hand will remain by my side.

There are better leaders to follow.

Thanks for reading, you can follow me on Medium and Twitter.

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