Uber has been widely criticized for its aggressive business practices, including its price surging model and the poaching of drivers from rival on-demand car service Lyft, but its head says Uber is no Darth Vader. The big bully is simply misunderstood. Then again, Darth Vader was also misunderstood.
At TechCrunch's Disrupt SF conference in San Francisco on Monday, Uber chief executive and co-founder Travis Kalanick lamented the fact that small companies are praised for being "scrappy fierce" but big companies are blasted for doing so. The latest controversy Uber found itself in is the back-and-forth accusations of sabotage with Lyft, with both companies alleging each other of sending thousands of car requests then cancelling to clog the companies' networks.
TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, whose CrunchFund owns a stake in Uber, had plenty of bait for Kalanick, who normally appears at media events antagonizing Lyft and the taxi industry. Kalanick, however, was willing to present a kinder, gentler image this time.
"Some have called you a Darth Vader in the startup world," says [video] Arrington. "Do you feel like you're Darth Vader? Do you see yourself more as Luke Skywalker?"
Kalanick says people need to know his story for them to understand where the Uber chief is coming from.
"I don't think a lot of people know my background, where I came from," he says. "The first four years, I didn't make a salary. One of those years, I was at my parents' house."
Kalanick was referring to his six-and-a-half years working at his first startup, Red Swoosh, a peer-to-peer file-sharing company that was later sold to Akamai Technologies for $19 million. He says running a startup "requires you to be abnormally perfectionist, abnormally fierce," but the same attitude that fueled his success at Red Swoosh does not work so well for rapidly growing Uber, which continuously adds 50,000 new drivers every month.
"That scrappy fierceness works until you get big," he admits. "And when you get big, being scrappy like that and perfectionist and pushing all the way feels uncomfortable."
But Kalanick says his company isn't the Goliath in a David and Goliath success story. Uber is simply the David up against a gargantuan taxi industry opposing Uber's ride-sharing initiatives. The scrappiness Uber has been known for, he says, is needed to battle what its CEO calls the "taxi cartel," which continues to hold a strong position in the public transportation system and dominate many American markets Uber hopes to break into.