I’ve blogged in the past about The Great Disruptive Project. We should understand a company like Uber, at least in its earlier stages, as in part a moral project. By this I mean there is a vision underlying the company, a critique of the existing order associated with this vision and a commitment to changing the world in line with both. There are many other things going on here. For example it is easy to be enamoured by a vision which is also making you fabulously wealthy. But if we reduce the vision to a front for avarice then we miss an important element in why such a company comes to be the way that it is.
Reading Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber has left me more convinced of this then ever. It charts the evolving corporate culture of Uber and how Travis Kalanick sought to build a company which reflected the hyper-competitiveness with which he approached the established transportation order from the outset. The author Mike Isaac deftly explores how the rapid growth of the company was dependent on giving regional managers a wide latitude in their mission to entrench Uber within a new municipality, as well as ensuring they backed staff and drivers to the hilt when it came to the inevitable pushback.
Uber has been notorious for its willingness to flout the law, bulldozing its way through each new municipality. What Isaac conveys is how this had some of the characteristics of a movement, uniting intensely ambitious young (mostly male) staff in a project to change the world and get rich in the process. His book left me with such a vivid sense of how the pathologies of the company were incipient in its model of growth, as Kalanick’s libertarian impulses coupled with the glut of capital they had access to produce a lawless juggernaut enthusiastically seeking to destroy anything which got in its way.
While Uber might be an extreme case, it nonetheless highlights characteristics of (successful) startups which render them different to other firms: they grow at a remarkable pace with huge implications for on-boarding processes and corporate culture, access to capital can give senior management an astonishing degree of latitude, the startup’s fundraising depends on a plausible account of how it will change the world and the key people involved stand to become fabulously wealthy if they succeed in this endeavour.
It embodies the tensions of contemporary capitalism and, as Emily Chang observes in another book I’m enjoying at the moment, creates an environment in which an endeavour which involves a large amount of luck (particularly when it comes to the economic juncture in which Uber were able to raise such an astonishing amount of capital while being so far from profitability) comes to be coded as the alpha bros rising to the top. Given the persistence of the underlying conditions, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that things will get worse before they get better.