‘We have all of the disadvantages of being a public company, as far as the spotlight on us, without any of the advantages,’ said Dara Khosrowshahi in his first major media appearance as Uber CEO. It’s been some spotlight. After a torrid year, the bad boy of ride-hailing is desperate to mend fences with just about everyone involved with the service. At this week’s Dealbrook conference in New York, Khosrowshahi outlined something resembling his vision of how he might do that.
Here are three highlights:
1. Detoxify the culture
When Khosrowshahi took over in August, the company was still reeling from a damaging workplace culture investigation. Twenty staffers including some senior executives were fired for claims including harassment, discrimination and inappropriate behaviour.
‘Winning gave some excuses for bad behaviour,’ said Khosrowshahi. He didn’t ask to see the report into workplace culture when he joined, but opted to look forward instead of dwelling on previous failings. ‘Don’t tell me what happened; just tell me what we’re going to do,’ he said. Khosrowshahi has not been afraid to tackle the problem head on, as he makes clear in an article published on LinkedIn this week outlining the eight cultural norms to carry Uber forward. Examples include: ’Do the right thing: Period.’
Despite Uber’s embattled former CEO Travis Kalanick saying earlier this year that he wanted the company to float as ‘late as humanly possible,’ Khosrowshahi said that the company was looking for an IPO in the next 18 months. He also said that the board, which includes Kalanick, backs the idea. Uniting the board on this decision is pretty remarkable. Kalanick was accused of causing divisions after flirting with different investors, and disputes around how shareholders could control the board’s structure were ruffling feathers. ‘We're reconstituting the board,’ said Khosrowshahi. ‘What I told the board is, "if we're going to shoot at each other, at least let's shoot at each other with conventional weapons instead of nukes."'
On top of this, there is the matter of the potentially multi-billion dollar deal with investor SoftBank, that Khosrowshahi admitted has been going on ‘a little longer than it should.’ The Japanese telecommunications corporation is after a rumoured 20% stake, but its CEO Masayoshi Son cast doubt on the deal last week by saying that it is ‘wholly possible’ Uber could lose out on investment to its vaunted rival, Lyft. Khorowsahi said at the conference that he is confident the deal will go ahead.
‘Our making change in governance is unquestionably good,’ he said. ‘Our bringing SoftBank in as a strategic investor at the right price [is good]’. Considering how much this investment would signal Uber’s long term potential in a year of mainly bad news, Khosrowshahi may have a point there.
3. Manage Travis
‘Kalanick was the perfect leader for Uber’s meteoric rise,’ wrote MT in March. ‘Sidestepping outdated regulations, he attacked unprepared and often highly inadequate incumbents in cities across the world with superior technology’.
Kalanick was always going to be the difficult issue for Khorowshahi. Although he stepped aside as CEO in July, Kalanick hasn’t exactly ceased to make headlines. He was sued by Benchmark, an early investor in Uber, for stacking the company’s board with his allies and Khosrowshahi revealed that he had to tell Kalanick to back off a bit.
The relationship between the two has been cause for much speculation since last month, when a board meeting decided to annul Kalanick’s ‘supervoting’ shares that gave him inflated leverage on decision making. ‘Over a period of time, I would be foolish not to use Travis's incredible genius and his knowledge,’ said Khosrowshahi.’I think he understands the "why", which is that early on I've got to have my space. He wants to be involved in the company, and I've told him I want him involved.’
The question is precisely how Khosrowshahi plans on involving Kalanick, as the company tries to move away from the unsavoury reputation its co-founder left in his wake. With Uber’s contention that its UK workers are self-employed quashed at appeal, it’s clear there will still be battles ahead.
Kalanick made Uber a force to be reckoned with through a relentlessly bullish, pugnacious approach to business. It should be careful not to lose the hard edge that got it to where it is, as the regulators circle.