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The fall of Uber’s CEO reveals the power of a single blog post

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‘Twas a personal essay that slew the dragon

TechCrunch 8th Annual Crunchies Awards Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Travis Kalanick’s fate was sealed the moment Susan Fowler hit “publish.”

To be sure, Kalanick wasn’t ousted last night as the CEO of Uber solely because Fowler, an ex-Uber engineer, went public with her explosive account of sexism, harassment, and mismanagement. But her blog post will come to be seen as the spark that ultimately lit the fuse.

“Susan's post was clearly the catalyst that started it all,” said Harry Campbell, a former Uber driver who now blogs about the industry as The Rideshare Guy. “Uber had a lot of these problems boiling under the surface, but I have to give credit to Susan Fowler for having the courage to call out her former boss and at the time, one of the most powerful business executives in the world. Without her post, who knows how long this could have gone on.”

Uber’s other problems probably would have surfaced, with or without Fowler’s post. The lawsuit alleging Uber’s scheme to steal Google’s autonomous vehicle technology originated with a mistakenly forwarded email. But Kalanick probably could have weathered that storm had her story about Uber’s toxic workplace and culture not gotten out.

Fowler’s highly detailed yet dispassionate 2,910-word account, entitled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber,” quickly went viral after it was published on February 19th. Kalanick responded quickly, calling it “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” Uber launched an investigation that ultimately led to the termination of 20 employees — 23, if you include Eric Alexander, Emil Michael, and now Kalanick.

But Kalanick’s contrition didn’t stop more scandals from piling up. Two of Uber’s early investors published their own essay about their growing disappointment in the brash, headstrong CEO. The company got leaky, with stories about Uber’s ugly, misogynistic “bro” culture started popping up on multiple sites. Other female employees went public with their own accounts of harassment and sexism. Kalanick was implicated in the mishandling of the medical records of a woman who was raped by an Uber driver. The writing was on the wall.

In a statement to The New York Times, Uber’s board said Kalanick’s departure would allow the company “room to fully embrace this new chapter in Uber’s history.” Kalanick said in a statement that his decision to step down was “so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight.”

Uber employees, current and former, subscribe to the notion that Kalanick was done in by his own hubris and misdeeds, but agree that Fowler’s blog post was a defining moment for the company’s current state. “I am [a] general believer in certain natural factors being bigger than individuals,” a source close to Uber told The Verge. “We are all ultimately ships on the ocean.”

The source continued, “So yes, if Susan never spoke out or if the reaction hadn’t consumed us publicly, he would still be CEO. But something else would have happened if his pattern continued that would have likely led to the same outcome.”

A former Uber employee said, “Travis was the ideal leader when Uber was getting off the ground and he should be credited for much of its early success. But by focusing on being the dominant force everywhere, he failed to address his own shortcomings and that ultimately led to his downfall.”

There’s a case to be made that Fowler’s story may go down as the most important blog post ever written. Her decision to go public, to ability to recall step-by-step the path she took to rectify her situation, and her lack of emotion in describing how she was blocked at every turn, lent her account instant credibility. She didn’t need to give an on-the-record interview to the Times or Recode. She chose her own platform to tell her story, ensuring it wouldn’t be scandalized or filtered through too much context as to render it forgettable.

Fowler’s story was amplified by a growing anti-Uber movement online. After bungling its response to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban in late January, Uber found itself the victim of a grassroots #DeleteUber campaign online. The consumer backlash did little to impede Uber’s steady advance in the ride-hailing market, but it successfully laid the groundwork for the response to Fowler’s blog post.

Fowler’s story “was the big trigger among a hundred other things,” said Michael Ramsey, an analyst with Gartner. “The thing about the blog post was that it rang true for so many other people. It was courageous to write it, and when it hit, it came at a time when all the other questionable management philosophies were being laid bare.”