It took me 2 days of fast paced reading (skimming) to complete the book that is about of the founding of Uber. The book by Mike Isaac felt more like a fiction drama than a book about a technology startup. The book was released in Aug 2019 and is about 400 pages. I would give it a 3.5/5. Fast paced, many twists and is a good read.
That is if you have not read any of the previously published stories and followed Uber at all. Most (of the passages and stories I highlighted – nearly 80%) had made it to the press way before 2019.
The book itself starts with the story centered around the founder, Travis Kalanick. Uber itself started in 2009, but the story of Travis and his previous startups were a precursor to his behavior. He had moderate success as an entrepreneur, but Uber was a very different league obviously.
There are about 10 main stories that I recall, but the main theme I took away was how focused on growth over all else Uber was – which was an extension of Travis’s personality.
While reading Bad Blood (a story about Theranos) it was clear to see that Elizabeth Holmes idolized Steve Jobs. Travis had that kind of an obsession with Jeff Bezos.
The difference here is that Uber was a wildly successful and entirely real company. Like Holmes, Kalanick was slowly found out, leading to Uber’s disastrous 2017, but still a great outcome for him (he is now a billionaire several times over).
He carefully studied the 14 leadership principles of Amazon and mirrored them at Uber with a twist of words on the same.
The list read like Amazon’s corporate values run through a bro-speak translation engine”Mike Isaac
There is misogynic behavior, reckless law breaking, drugs, alcohol, surveillance of government officials, lack of privacy policies, blatant disregard for laws, in this startup story.
Travis was let go from Uber in 2017 after a coup by the board, but not after he had built a culture that was toxic at best.
Many of Uber’s employees seemed to share that value system. It was an environment where the risk prevention team might voluntarily figure out how to break Apple’s rules for the App Store or the fifth floor of Uber’s downtown headquarters may erupt in a round of cheers when someone who was sexually assaulted in an Uber “decided not to pursue litigation or if the evidence in a police report was not conclusive enough to prosecute”.
The question of potential consequences for any of the misdeeds detailed in the book is still up in the air. The trial of Anthony Levandowski (prison term) and review of other growth-at-all-costs tactics are still ongoing.
There are many sub plots – #MeToo, #DeleteUber, the parties, rape trial in India, that I found it hard to see how Uber did not end up as a bigger disaster.
Travis viewed Uber as a crusader “battling the under-handed, street-fighting entrenched interests … who were colluding to keep taxi service bad and overpriced.” He would launch Uber into city after city without going through the usual regulatory channels, such as paying medallion fees required of cab drivers.
There is an entire section and set of pages devoted to how they tried to go around Apple’s privacy rules by “geo fencing” the app when used by the Apple store reviewers. On reading that I was shocked Apple allowed them to continue on the app store.
Super Pumped does a terrific job, however, of untangling the ethical and personality shortcomings of Uber’s early executives (which were many) with the broader meaning of Uber’s impact on transportation and employment.
Was Uber Travis’s idea?
Garrett Camp, a successful entrepreneur, was annoyed that he couldn’t catch a cab quickly in San Francisco (SF). He sold StumbleUpon to eBay for $75 million. He tried several hacks to solve the “dial a cab” problem, but then finally settled on the app on the IPhone strategy.
Garrett became obsessed with the idea of Uber, a black car service that would be a market leader in private transportation. He shared it everywhere he went, even replacing the word “great” with “Uber” in his vocabulary. It took more than one conversation with Kalanick to convince him that Uber was a good idea.
Travis had a home in SF, he called the “Jam Pad”. It was there that he would jam on business ideas with friends. Camp happened to be one of those friends, and after some convincing, Camp persuaded Kalanick to join him as CEO of UberCab.
Were the investors complicit in this behavior?
First Round Capital, Lowercase Capital (Chris Sacca), Benchmark Capital (Bill Gurley), Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, Google, TPG capital were all the early (Series A, B, and C) investors in Uber. Only Bill Gurley and David Bonderman were on the board, besides Travis, Garret Camp and Ryan Graves (early CEO).
The investors however were happy to see the growth of the company and although they complained when Travis let go of the CFO, they did not do much. The book talks more about the board’s issues with not having a CFO and reckless spending of their invested dollars on pursuing the China market than the issues around the culture or the legal frameworks Uber was circumventing.
It was not until much later (2016 / 2017) when they were worried that their investment might amount to nothing that they took action.
What were the things that were most egregious?
- Uber built a system to evade authorities called “Greyball”.
- Uber evaded Apple’s app store privacy policies by tracking users even after they left the app.
- Uber turned a blind eye to employees and managers who were accused of sexual misconduct.
- Uber had a security breach of nearly 50K driver’s information and they never reported it.
- More than 16 drivers were murdered in Brazil before they improved the identity verification process and security in the app.
- Uber booked over 5000 fake rides on Lyft to prevent them from growing. They would book Lyft rides and cancel them, resulting in non-availability of Lyft rides for customers.
- Uber “hell” was a secret program to track drivers who drove for Lyft and Uber to entice them to drive exclusively for Uber.
- Godview or “heaven” was another program that tracked users extensively without their approval or permission.
Overall, I’d recommend a quick skim if you are into reading non fiction that reads like fiction – in the genre of “The Social Network”, ‘Bad Blood”, and “Hatching Twitter”.