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Travis Kalanick, CEO of the global ridesharing service Uber.
The reset has finally come. Uber’s board unanimously accepted the recommendations in a report by former Attorney General Eric Holder following an investigation into the company’s culture. Longtime CEO Travis Kalanick may take a leave of absence to deal with a personal tragedy. Some new senior hires have been made. Other longtime senior executives have left.
As we saw in the first-quarter numbers the ride-hailing company released about two weeks ago, customers don’t seem to care about any of Uber’s scandals, with net revenue on track to hit nearly $15 billion this year alone. Which all means we’re at a crossroads. The company can now embark on the road to redemption. But one decisive board meeting isn’t enough. Not by a long shot. A lot more needs to be done. Here’s a primer:
- Don’t mess with the core business. Given the scandals of the past eight months, it’s easy to forget that Uber fundamentally transformed how people get around. The entire notion of not only how people use taxis but the future of human movement itself has changed because of this company, and because of Travis specifically. The people who actually run Uber’s day-to-day business are exceptionally good at their jobs. The new leadership will feel tempted to review and meddle with everything – and in many cases, they should. A lot at the company needs changing. But the core business does not.
- Bring in real management. My first boss out of college was a legendary, brilliant, kooky public servant in New York City named Henry Stern. One of the first things he said to me was, “I want someone who will tell me no, even if it will cost them their job.” By and large, that has not been the hiring philosophy for Uber’s management team – and it shows. The board and interim CEO should choose a seasoned COO, a seasoned CFO, a seasoned General Counsel and a seasoned CMO now, if even over Travis’ objections. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
- But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, the culture needs change and reform. And some of the people who were able to take an idea and turn it into a $70 billion company were not the right people for this stage of the business. But a lot more good than bad has happened. Don’t discount the expertise of the people who’ve been there (especially the people who actually run the platform itself).
- Implement the Holder report. The board voted to accept the report’s recommendations. What else were they going to do? But a vote is just a vote. They need to implement the recommendations aggressively and should consider publicly reporting on the status of each recommendation quarterly.
- Make the most of Travis. Travis is one of the most brilliant, visionary, iron stomached people I’ve ever worked with. He may deserve blame for Uber’s current troubles but he deserves just as much credit for its revolutionary success. Whether it’s as CEO with a special focus on innovation and product or, over the long-term, as the genius behind the company focused on radical change over the next twenty years, Uber needs him at his best, doing his best.
- Keep innovating. Maybe a court will shut down Uber’s autonomous program and send it back to stage one when the pending litigation with Waymo is resolved. Maybe not (I’m guessing not). Either way, autonomous is only one element of how Uber can innovate (especially if autonomous technology becomes commoditized anyway). New ways to haul freight. New ways to deliver goods and services. Drone powered vehicles. Fractional car ownership. Uber’s valuation is so high because investors believe it will figure out and conquer the next trend before anyone else does. That can never change, no matter who’s calling the shots.
- Keep fighting. Uber would have never gotten off the ground and transformed our transportation networks had it lacked the courage to stand up to the taxi industry and the many politicians taxi controlled. With the return of ridesharing to Austin and Uber’s statewide launch in New York, there aren’t that many regulatory fights left in the United States, but the rest of the world remains (especially as European regulators sneer at Trump for trying to take us back to the 1950s and then turn around and do exactly the same thing to protect the taxi industry in their home countries). Just because the media and regulators have adopted the narrative that Uber’s a bully doesn’t mean the company should just roll over (you can play by the rules and still win). It’s imperative the new leadership understands this.
- Keep an eye on Washington. Congressional Republicans aren’t dumb. They see the writing on the wall. Absent something tangible and positive to point to, the GOP is going to lose the House and lose opportunities to gain seats in the Senate. That’s why tax reform, infrastructure spending and Dodd Frank reform are all possible (the only thing in politics that overcomes polarization and dysfunction is self-preservation). If that happens – if the market’s appetite for tech IPOs is so overwhelming – then Uber should strongly consider making as many of the adjustments above as quickly as possible and going public when the new laws pass. Missing out on the momentum may be the biggest mistake of all, and if any company could use the discipline of the public markets and the constraints of SEC regulations, it’s probably Uber.
Absent the revelations of the past eight months, it’s possible that none of the steps above would have been necessary or even feasible. But we are where we are, and that makes all of them imperative. Customers may not care (their ever-skyrocketing usage of the service shows they don’t). Drivers just want customers and the best deal they can get from each ride-sharing platform. The media doesn’t want the circus to end. But for Uber’s employees and investors, there’s no more wait and see. This is the moment. The reset is here. Let’s make the most of it.
Commentary by Bradley Tusk, who leads political advisory firm Tusk Strategies. Tusk served as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign manager, guiding Mayor Bloomberg to a third term. In 2016 he advised Bloomberg on a potential presidential run. His career in the public sector began at the New York City Parks Department in 1995, acting as spokesman and then senior advisor to Commissioner Henry Stern. Tusk then served as communications director for U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. From 2003-2006, Bradley was Deputy Governor of Illinois. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyTusk.
Disclosure: Tusk was an early investor and close advisor to Uber. He began working with Uber in 2011 and has continued to work closely with the company in multiple cities and jurisdictions to navigate regulatory hurdles.
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