This book gives the inside story of Uber - but is Travis Kalanick 'epically vulgar'?

REVIEW: Wild Ride is a lively account of Uber's journey and its CEO Travis Kalanick, who has steered the company to global fame. But events are already overtaking the book...

by John McLaren
Last Updated: 25 May 2017

The problem with writing a book about something as topical and newsworthy as Uber is that it can get out of date awfully fast - in this case, before publication. Not long after the text was put to bed, an ugly video of CEO Travis Kalanick berating one of his drivers went viral, and one of his top henchmen quit over the company's values, both of which moved the reputational needle sharply south.

In the week I was reading the book, Uber was booted out of Denmark, the FT graphically highlighted the unenviable lot of their drivers in India, suggestions emerged that David Cameron exercised improper influence in smoothing the path for the company, and a US court case over accusations of theft of technology, which could throw a mighty spanner in Uber's strategy for autonomous cars, took an ominous turn.

Lashinsky, a Fortune magazine journalist, previously wrote a fly-on-the-wall book about Apple, which won more praise for the 'how?' of what Apple does than the 'why?'. When he suggested following up with a volume on Uber, he was initially met with threats to obstruct him and commission a competing authorised version. However, two years later, Kalanick relented and offered his guarded blessing.

The result is a lively, highly readable account of the story (nearly) so far. The story itself goes like this: although Kalanick later claimed to have been there at the birth of the idea, actually a Canadian called Garrett Camp, frustrated by difficulties in calling regular cabs, conceived of a service allowing young professionals to whistle up a black limo without the need to phone or pre-book.

Kalanick consulted for this start-up and later joined, contributing the key insight that Uber was about technology, rather than being basically a limo company. When rival Lyft started to eat their lunch by offering an app-based ride-sharing service, Uber responded by allowing unlicensed drivers to use their own cars, thus creating the outfit we know, and either love or loathe, today.

Kalanick, the veteran of two other file sharing start-ups also brought two other vital skills - the ability to tell and sell a story, and a talent for fundraising. Uber raised prodigious amounts and adopted the ultimate land-grab strategy, so that it now dominates in most major cities worldwide except in China, where after losing billions it folded its cards lucratively by selling out in return for a 17% stake in local behemoth, Didi.

Although notionally about the whole company, Wild Ride feels more like a biography of Kalanick. However, either because the main man never let his guard drop, or because access to him was spasmodic, the portrait is less than 3D. Instead, Lashinsky falls back on his own version of the enigma variations - is Kalanick a creator or an opportunist, a team player or a bully, mulishly stubborn or pragmatic, a rough diamond or an unconscionable thug?

What does seem clear is that he is epically vulgar. Since his fame and wealth allegedly makes him a babe magnet, his nickname for the company is 'Boober' (I'm surprised he doesn't also describe it as 'asspirational'.). He revels in confrontation - at any one time Uber is involved in hundreds of disputes with regulators, disaffected drivers, and competitors worldwide - but the rhino-like thickness of his hide doesn't extend to himself.

The author claims that Kalanick is obsessed by the much-debated lofty question of whether or not he's an asshole. Kalanick is convinced he is not: most people disagree. Lashinsky himself swerves the question (probably a sensible decision given that he may have other corporate books in the works and more egomaniac CEOs to placate). However, he doesn't stint on research.

Deeming it vital to try out being an Uber driver, he is surprised that his ancient Nissan is considered fit for purpose, and shocked by the ease with which he's approved, but soon concludes that, while it's OK for getting pin money, it's a very tough way to make a living. He also canvasses the views of Uber drivers and punters, and delves into the eco-system that has sprung up around the company (check out therideshareguy.com).

Perhaps the most telling anecdote is of one Uber customer who was driven so dangerously, he asked the driver to pull over and let him out. But, having escaped with his life, he realised that he was in the middle of nowhere and the only way to get home was - you guessed it - to summon another Uber. This is the message that dimwit regulators in places like London fail to understand - that by rolling out the red carpet for fashionable 'disruptors' and ignoring all the signs that licensed cabs will soon be driven to extinction, they are well on the way to creating a monopoly. And, if Travis Kalanick stays in charge, once he has us all by the cojones, boy will he squeeze!

Wild Ride: Inside Uber's Quest for World Domination, by Adam Lashinsky, is published by Portfolio Penguin (£14.99)

John McLaren is chairman of the Barchester Group and Eagle E-Types, a non-executive director of several companies, and the author of the novel Black Cabs


Next: Travis Kalanick is still the right man to lead Uber


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