Uber ego

Uber is what many describe as a “disruptive technology,” that emerging portion of the so-called gig economy that is challenging traditional models of commerce with little regard for the niceties of business or, for that matter, regulations.

Uber, Lyft, Bridj, and other transportation network companies have had a chilling effect on taxis and livery; Airbnb, WeNeedAVacation.com, and other private home-sharing apps have chipped away at the hotel industry; and we don’t even need to list the threats to mainstream media.

But with Uber, it seems the culture of disruption can be traced to its CE-bro, Travis Kalanick, who is profiled in the Sunday New York Times as a risk-taker and boundary-pusher extraordinaire. The Times story lays out Kalanick’s rise from the ashes of some failed start-ups to the world dominance of Uber in the transportation network field.

Along the way, the piece details Kalanick’s disregard for rules others live by, from using federal tax withholdings to reinvest in another start-up he had prior to Uber to ignoring taxi regulations when he called his app UberCab.

The story also comes on the heels of what many say is Uber’s worst month ever, not so much from a financial standpoint but in the constant barrage of hits on its image, mainly from accusations of sexual harassment and sexist culture formed by the guy-dominated hierarchy that tolerates – even celebrates – the success of its testosterone-laden executive branch.

The Times story clearly lays the formation of that mindset at the feet of Kalanick. Kalanick, who was sleeping on his parents’ couch when he launched Uber, once told GQ that his company was an aphrodisiac that made him irresistible to women, referring to it as “Boob-er.”

His locker room bravado apparently caused some in the company to think that attitude was contagious and when a former female engineer let loose a scalding indictment of the Uber culture, many thought Kalanick was too dismissive of the charges.

“Just days after a former employee published a blog post in February detailing sexual harassment at Uber, Mr. Kalanick attended Vanity Fair’s Academy Awards party in Hollywood, stunning some colleagues with his perceived insensitivity,” according to the piece.

But it’s his stewardship of the company and his willingness, if not his need, to push the envelope that some say is chipping away at Uber’s ability to stay on top. Uber has organized a number of efforts to undercut its rival, Lyft, including mass requests for Lyft rides then not showing up when the cars arrive. Employees have also gotten into Lyft cars and attempted to recruit its drivers for Uber.

But it’s Kalanick’s brash flaunting of boundaries that many say could be the company’s downfall. The Times piece relates a recent anecdote about Kalanick being summoned to Apple’s headquarters where he was dressed down by CEO Tim Cook for violating Apple’s mandate for consumer privacy. Uber had developed an app to fingerprint and track iPhones even if the Uber app was deleted. To top it off, Kalanick ordered that Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, be “geofenced” so it couldn’t track what Uber engineers were doing.

But its engineers from elsewhere did and Cook was none too pleased, threatening to remove Uber from the iPhone app store, which could kill its business. Kalanick agreed to cease the operations but the Times piece said he saw it as yet another victory, being able to go to the edge and continue to operate.

Not everyone touched by Travis is charmed by his boyish demeanor.

“The Travis Kalanick I came to know 17 years ago was relentless in pursuit of his goals at the expense of those who supported him along the way, deluded by his own embellished personal narrative, and a serial prevaricator,” Peter Yorke, a one-time adviser to a defunct Kalanick start-up called Swoosh, told the Times.



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