Uber’s board of directors met Sunday to mull over how to reverse the ride-hail company’s slow-motion implosion. Board members voted to unanimously adopt all the recommendations from a recent investigation into Uber’s culture of pervasive sexism and harassment. They also discussed the fate of two of the company’s top executives, CEO Travis Kalanick and senior vice president of business Emil Michael, in light of recent reports about the handling of the medical records of a woman in India who was raped by an Uber driver. (Michael is now leaving the company, while Kalanick is reportedly taking a leave of absence.)
By all accounts, Uber is in turmoil. No major investments have been announced since 2016, when Saudi Arabia said it would provide an historic $3.5 billion cash infusion. Morale within the company is at its nadir. Drivers are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their treatment. And a lawsuit from Waymo (neé Google) alleging the theft of its self-driving car secrets is still barreling toward to a jury trial.
But does any of it matter? Thanks to a torrent of leaks, the tech press has been breathlessly covering all that’s going on inside the company. It’s equal parts morbid and fascinating: a company that came to embody the disruption of Silicon Valley, brought low by its own hubris. Mike Judge, the showrunner of HBO’s Silicon Valley, couldn’t have written it any better. But the idea that the company is on the edge of dissolution seems wildly off base.
‘Silicon Valley’ showrunner Mike Judge couldn’t have written it any better
According to its most recent financial statements, Uber’s growth continues to outpace its losses, despite those losses seeming fairly huge on the surface. The company lost $2.8 billion in 2016, minus its misadventures in China — which is more than any startup in history. This has led some industry analysts to predict that Uber will never break even and will eventually fizzle out. But the company also doubled its gross bookings to $20 billion in 2016, and its net revenue (excluding China) was up to $6.8 billion. In short, the company continues to grow despite all its failings.
Of course, a majority of the most damaging news about Uber — from its flirtations with the Trump administration to revelations about its various secret surveillance programs (“Greyball,” “Hell,” etc.) occurred this year, and we haven’t seen the company’s 2017 financial statements yet. But Uber’s supporters predict that the company will continue to grow in spite of its many stumbles this year.
Bradley Tusk, an advisor at Uber, just penned an op-ed that declares “the reset has finally come.” The bad apples have been flushed out, Kalanick is considering taking a leave of absence to spend time with his family (which has just suffered a horrible tragedy), and the company is ready to push past its many scandals, he argues.
“No matter how bad the PR gets for Uber, consumers don't seem to care,” Tusk told The Verge in an email, “and Lyft still can't catch up.”
Lyft continues to capitalize on Uber’s slow implosion
It’s not for lack of trying, though: Lyft continues to capitalize on Uber’s slow implosion by locking down a series of deals with major tech and auto companies. Its image as the safe, friendly alternative to Uber has helped it score a number of crucial investments for a valuation of around $7 billion. But compared to Uber, Lyft still pales in size and scope. The company still only operates in the US, while Uber is in 600 cities around the world. And Lyft’s staff is a tiny fraction of Uber’s: 1,600 employees, compared to Uber’s global workforce of 12,000.
Harry Campbell, a former Uber driver and blogger at The Rideshare Guy, agreed that as long as the company’s main product, its ride-hailing app, continues to outperform rival apps, the company will continue to dominate the market. “All of the bad press Uber is getting may hurt morale internally and complicate short-term efforts but riders are still getting from point A to point B safely and for a low price,” Campbell said. “Few riders even mention Uber's problems [even though] I'm sure they've read about it on the news. Most of their interactions with the company happen with its drivers.”
The #DeleteUber campaign from earlier this year exposed the company’s problems with attracting and retaining new users, but it also exposed the limits of consumer backlash. People are angry these days, but there’s only so much outrage to go around. Lyft saw a brief uptick in the number of new app downloads, but the company hasn’t been able to surpass Uber in any meaningful way.
“If the iPhone is amazing but Apple is awful, people don't give a shit.”
“Consumers care about themselves,” Tusk said. “If the iPhone is amazing but Apple is awful, people don't give a shit.”
The real risks for Uber will happen internally with employee morale, recruiting, and partnerships — effects that won't be seen for years to come. Investors and partners are the ones who will be affected most by the long-term prospects of this company, and right now the return on those investments appears to be headed in the wrong direction.
“Chaos is bad for organizations, but it isn’t unusual,” said Evan Rawley, an associate professor of business at Columbia University. “Consider a firm that is the target of a hostile acquisition, or a firm that bungles a major acquisition, or a firm where a CEO dies unexpectedly. Those are all very chaotic situations. If the firm has a dominate market position chaos doesn’t necessarily impair their ability to dominate.”
“Chaos is bad for organizations, but it isn’t unusual.”
“In the case of Uber,” Rawley continued, “the striking thing, to me at least, is that they need to adjust their strategy fairly urgently or they are going to have to go back to the capital markets. If they go to the capital markets in disarray, there will be a price to be paid.”
To be sure, it’s a neat trick — simultaneously imploding and growing — but it’s probably not unique to Uber. Consumers read the news, but they tend to make purchasing decisions based on their own immediate needs. Sure, Uber may be a cesspool of sexism and harassment, but the rides are cheap, thanks to Uber’s willingness to continue to subsidize trips to the tune of billions of dollars a year.
Michelle Thorpe, 43, is an advertising director from Des Moines, Iowa. She told The Verge that she prefers Uber because it’s easier and cheaper than a cab. To her, safety — not corporate intrigue — is the most important issue when considering which means of transportation to use. To that end, she sometimes screenshots the app after hailing a ride so she can share it with whomever is expecting her.
“The news is so sensationalized these days,” she told The Verge. “I only take in a small portion of what I hear, and with a grain of salt. I just don't put too much into it to be honest.”
Tomorrow, Uber plans to publicize the recommendations of the law firm it hired to investigate former engineer Susan Fowler’s allegations of sexism and harassment. Many people noted that her story, which went viral in February and helped kick off this entire crisis at Uber, was nothing unusual in Silicon Valley. To be sure, sexism, harassment, bullying, and other inappropriate behaviors are rampant in almost every sector of corporate America. Fowler’s move to go public was very important, and hopefully will encourage other people to speak out when they see wrongdoing.
What are the results? A handful of people were fired from Uber. Others left on their own accord. And the company will make a big show of changing its culture. But these types of changes can’t happen overnight. And as long as Uber continues to attract new users and expand into new markets, should it really “give a shit?”