Okay, WTF Is The Matter with Uber?

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November 18, 2014 3:58 p.m.

Uber CEO (seemingly in both senses) Travis Kalanick now says his fellow executive’s suggestion that Uber might oppo research and try to smear a critical female journalist was a “terrible” idea. Yes, I would say that is probably right.

Separate from the details of this incident, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen what is by any measure an amazingly successful startup manage to generate this much negative publicity based fairly narrowly on the behavior of its top executives.

To be clear, I’m speaking pretty narrowly about Internet era tech startups. And sure there’s no end of examples of CEOs and other executives behaving badly in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. But what is so odd is that Uber, at the end of the day, is in a business where the basic project is about reliability and safety. And yet the guys running the company seem kind of reckless and even a bit nuts. Unlike the men and women you’d hope would be driving your Uber ride (and, in my experience, they often are those people), the guys running Uber seem like the result of some genetic experiment marrying up the 17th century Caribbean pirate with the 21st century North American Bro.

Earlier this year Uber CEO CEO Travis Kalanick got into trouble for suggesting that the company should be called “boob-er” because of its runaway popularity with women. Then there were the dirty business practices against rival Lyft.

And let’s remember that not long ago Uber had managed to get itself into a public spat with the taxi industry about whether your taxi driver or your Uber driver was most likely to sexually assault you.

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From a consumer viewpoint, if there’s any difference between the two classes of drivers, that’s pretty valuable information to know. But from an industry standpoint, if you’re getting into this conversation, you’re doing it wrong. Indeed, the sexual assault drama was indirectly tied to Uber’s vendetta against Sarah Lacy, the journalist at the center of this smearing scandal.

You’ll notice that airlines do not advertise based on safety or which carrier is likely to fly you at 500 miles an hour into the ground and burst you into a hellish inferno. If you are in the travel and hospitality business these are not friendly topics to discuss. And yet Uber has managed to find itself there.

In most cases, the company’s product or service is what matters and if that’s good it doesn’t really matter whether the company’s executives are total freaks. And though I’ve always been troubled by the labor economics Uber is built on, there’s no question that I know lots of people who swear by it. At a certain point though, it’s hard for me to believe that all these stories won’t take a toll.

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