Uber, The Rashomon.

Uber, The Rashomon. reposted from johnbattelle   Our industry loves a rashomon, and in the past year or two, our collective subject of debate has been Uber. Perhaps the fastest growing company in history (its numbers aren't public, but we'll get to some estimates shortly), Uber has become a vector for some of the most wide-ranging arguments I've ever had regarding the tech industry's impact on society at large. It's not that Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft didn't evoke great debate, but all those companies came of age in an era where tech was still relegated to a sideshow in the broader cultural conversation. Microsoft was taking over the computer industry in the 1990s, Google the Internet in the early 2000s, Facebook and Apple the mobile and social world in the late 2000s. But Uber? Uber is about a very real and entirely new approach to our economy, a stand in for the wealth divide festering in the US and beyond, an existential rorschach testing your values around the role of government, the social contract, and the kind of society we want to become. When an Uber glides to its appointed pickup point, what do we see? Do we see an innovator hastening the inexorable shift to a new information-based economy? Or an arrogant bully using cheap capital, greed, and a dangerous, misogynist culture of convenience to consolidate a trillion dollar market? Or do we see both? Yes - that's a cop out, but it's also an honest answer. I know people who work at Uber, and I know some of Uber's investors as well. They are in general a well intentioned group - and many of them have reservations about Uber's unbridled success and its mixed reputation. Uber's success is breathtaking. Consider: Uber's most recent round valued the company at over $41 billion - $15 billion more than Google's initial public market cap of $26.4 billion. At a conference I attended last month, an Uber executive mentioned the company was clocking more than one million rides each and every day. If you (conservatively) estimate each ride at $10, that'd be gross revenue of $10mm a day, or $3.65 billion a year. Uber takes roughly a quarter of that revenue (20% is the widely reported number, but when Iask drivers, they tell me it's 25-28%), or just under a billion dollars. And their costs are.well, assume about 2,000 employees (I've heard estimates of 1200 to 2500), for $250mm or so in labor costs. I'm pretty sure they're not spending another $750mm on marketing and platform costs. So the company is most likely quite profitable already. And my figures are conservative. Business Insider claims the company is on track to do $10 billion in gross revenue this year, and CEO Travis Kalanick last year claimed revenue is doubling every six months. In five years, Uber has expanded to 57 countries. So, yes, this company is astonishingly successful. And yetI've not met a single person in this industry who doesn't express reservations about Uber. Certainly the company stepped in it terribly with the whole Lacy debacle, but the ambivalence goes deeper still. I'm sure pure Uber defenders exist, but the truth is, most of us are worried about the sheer expression of capitalistic force that the company represents. Privately, many are heartened by the regulatory counterforces that are stemming the company's march through worldwide markets - Germany, Holland, India, Korea, Canada, Spain, France, New Zealand, and many other countries have banned Uber's services either nationally, or through local city regulations. Uber is the poster child for our global conversation about the role of work in our society, and about the kind of company we want to create, work at, and celebrate. And that conversation is deeply political and cultural in nature. On the one hand, the "1099 Economy" is providing hundreds of thousands of flexible, living wage jobs for those who might otherwise be marginalized or underpaid. On the other, it represents the systemic dismantling of our labor laws by rapacious, profit seeking monopolists. If you want to hear an unalloyed economic takedown of Uber, head over to Robert Reich's blog. And if you want to hear a reasoned defense of the company as an innovator, read what Suster has to say. But anyone who read Sarah Lacy's passionate story has to wonder - if we didn't have Uber now, wouldn't the Valley just end up creating it? Certainly that's Lacy's conclusion - Uber is the collective creation of the Valley's deep arrogance, its heartless celebration of high valuations and killer exits, and its male-dominated, aggressive philosophy of "breaking things fast" and "asking for forgiveness rather than permission." Put another way, Uber feels inevitable - a uniquely of-the-moment company, a mirror held up to the Valley's aggregate psyche. And as we all look into that mirror, we are both fascinated and appalled. All of this was at front of mind a month ago when an email from a site called FounderDating popped into my inbox. FounderDating is a LinkedIn-like service that connects entrepreneurs, and it sports a lively Quora-like Q&A forum. When interesting new threads emerge, the service notifies you. "Is Uber A Social Impact company?" was the question of the day, and it immediately sparked a strong debate, as you might expect. Is this all just calculated PR spin, or might it represent a real shift in the company's culture? I think I know where Lacy stands on this one - she was personally targeted by a senior Uber executive, and she's in no mood to give the company a second chance. But for most of the rest of us, the ambivalence - and the broader debate - continues. I personally believe that companies can change over time - Walmart, Unilever, and many others are now champions of sustainability - yet one could reasonably argue they played huge roles in creating the unsustainable world in which we currently live. But does that mean we shouldn't celebrate and encourage their corporate change of heart? If we dismiss these glimmerings of change as mere greenwashing, we are handing corporations an excuse to continue past practices. Instead, we should hold them accountable. For Uber - and all of us - that journey has just begun.

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