On Uber

Uber is very much a part of the new economy, freeing work from jobs, allowing anyone to be an entrepreneur. They are in many ways, the epitome of a “sharing economy” business model. In a very short few years, it’s become a company that has amassed uberpower, ubermarketshare, and uberfunding. In June, they got about $1.4 billion (yes, that’s a big B) in new investment at a $17 Billion valuation.

Because of that, it worries me that Uber’s management appears to be indifferent or callous for to how it wields its power. So I wrote a piece on my Time Column, here: http://time.com/3595318/uber-sexism-tech-delete-app/

Key call to action was this:

Rather than waiting for “those in power” to act, we should start with each of us acting. So, today, you should delete your Uber account and put a dent in their estimated annualized billion-dollar revenue stream. In the social era, connected individuals can now do what once only large centralized organizations could. Yes, you can be as or more powerful as any top tier venture capitalist by banding together with others in this protest.

You might not agree. You might not even know who Uber is. Sometimes an issue takes over the online megaphones and it’s unclear what is “right” because so much noise is being made. It’s hard to see clarity through the dust-up. Yet, the reason I jumped on this issue with my column is because Uber reflects both the promise and the peril of business culture today. It is because Uber is operating as an “social era” company, but operating with “old power” values. Meaning, once power is gained, it is jealously guarded, and the leaders become interested in hoarding that power, and directing all their efforts to keeping that power in a top-down, closed loop way.

My concern — one I hope you share — is old power values focus on capturing value more than it enables many to create value. It limits who plays, and what opportunities exist. It keeps a bunch of us people parked on the sideline. It limits prosperity.

Dave Winer, a tech entrepreneur, wrote an interesting take this morning, entitled “Stuck in the Middle“. In it, he argues that this issue is more nuanced — that both sides are “wrong” and that both sides need to grow up in maturity and approach. His disrespect for the Pando journalist involved is surely affecting this take. And I get what he’s pointing to. But I wonder if the focus on the individual causes us to dismiss or diminish the larger pattern at play.

Just last week I was having dinner in Paris with two friends from the US. We were out late and at the end of the dinner, I started to call Uber rather than trek back through the metro system by myself late at night.

Robin Chase, Jean Russell and Nilofer Merchant, Paris October 2014.

My dinner mates questioned me on this, pointedly remarking that Uber’s values were not ones I respected. And yet I clicked the button. (But then a taxi whipped up … )

This Uber issue not an easy issue to parse, but one I hope gets each of us to think. And ask ourselves some questions: What values do we want to support. Business cultures influence our broader culture… What are we allowing by our commentary, actions and silence? What will we do to create change — to create the “world we want to see”?

As always, I welcome your thoughts, ideas and reflections. Maybe we can help each other at Yes & Know think about these issues and formulate smarter questions and frames by which to make decisions and navigate the Social Era, powerfully.

2 Replies

  1. Nilofer, I remember hearing about Uber 4-5 years ago and I honestly didn’t get it at the time. It seemed like Uber was the smallest possible particle going up against a Universe-Mass Transportation Industry.

    Today, I use Uber regularly and I’m trying to throw a few bones to Lyft (great pink mustaches). $17B valuation is absolutely enormous. I believe that we the people, vote with our wallets more often than with our mind or heart. A $10 Uber ride vs a $28 cab ride (last week for me in San Jose) the financial delta is a hard obstacle to overcome. It will be interested to see how the Crowd will vote.

    As you say, we the people have never had this amount of collective power.

  2. Consumers have always had lots and lots of power: buy or don’t. And yes with more choices we have even more power. You may be too young to remember the power of getting better working conditions for farm workers or boycotting Nestle (because of their atrocious anti breastfeeding work) or any number of hundreds of consumer movements designed to send a message to the board rooms of the multi-national corporations of the world.

    Good news now is that it is easier for you and me and all those to whom we are connected to communicate about the issues (thank you social media) bad news is that many of these corporations have better access to a larger marketplace/audience and think they can afford to ignore many of us who use our wallets to send a message to them.

    I didn’t realize Uber’s values were like this. Frankly I mostly only use them when in NYC and can’t find a cab (got to love how there is ALWAYS an Uber nearby!). When in my home base (bay area) I mostly drive. But I will think twice before using them again!

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