Timing changes everything.
When Uber started illegally operating its taxi-like network in Seattle in 2013, I applauded the company’s disruptive business model because it filled a basic demand for transportation alternatives. Over the next year, the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray worked in good faith to establish a regulatory framework that allowed taxis to co-exist with ride-services such as uberX and Lyft. From my own experience using both those networks and the Flywheel app on my smartphone, as well as hailing the occasional taxi — I have noticed a shift in customer service for the better. This is why competition is good.
Seattle became the first city in the nation to embrace and work out a business environment that addressed (some, though not all) liability issues for drivers and provided consumers with more options for getting around. There was something so responsive and organic about the process. Many believed other cities would quickly embrace the same approach.
That has not happened. Something has definitely changed. What works for Seattle has not worked for our neighbors down south in Portland, where leaders have steadfastly refused to allow Uber to enter the market until they work out some sort of compromise. The network’s decision last weekend to thumb its nose at local authorities and start rolling through the Rose City anyway smacks of arrogance.
On Monday, the city of Portland filed a lawsuit against Uber. (Here’s a Dec. 10 news story by KGW.) According to The San Francisco Business Times, prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles also announced this week lawsuits against Uber for alleged consumer protection and business practice violations.
Uber can blame only itself for its troubles in the court of law and public opinion.
This company I’ve defended in previous blog posts (and in a CBC interview just last month) is beginning to remind me of the old boyfriend who acts so nice and humble at first. But once he gets what he wants, he reveals himself to be self-serving and immature. Uber dreamy? More like uber jerk.
Even worse, Uber has morphed into the guy who won’t take no for an answer; the man who believes he is entitled to the entire cake.
I don’t recognize the version of Uber making headlines for corporate raider behavior and misogynistic marketing schemes. Times like this call for a Biggie Smalls reference: “Mo money, mo problems.”
Uber’s valuation at $40 billion has inflated the egos of its CEO, Travis Kalanick, and his executive team. The last few months have been a public relations nightmare for the company, as outlined in many, many stories. Here’s a partial list of Uber’s tactics that have come to light:
- Tracking one Buzzfeed journalist‘s location without her permission, then threatening to dig up dirt on other journalists using their ride histories.
- Trying to “dupe” LA Weekly with a dubious op-ed after it published an essay critical of Uber.
- Refusing to accept responsibility for a former Uber driver’s accident that killed a child in San Francisco.
- Enticing male passengers in France with the promise they can ride with a “hot chick” driver. (The misogynistic promotion was pulled after Buzzfeed covered the story.)
- Possibly weak or lax background checks on drivers. A driver in New Delhi, India accused of sexual assault has a police record.
- Sabotaging the competition, as outlined in this damning news story by The Verge.
I want the old scrappy start-up I fell for. Until then, I have made the personal decision to delete the app from my smartphone. My intention in doing so is not to punish Uber’s drivers on the ground in Seattle, though that is the effect. Many of Uber’s drivers are immigrants and people trying to make an honest living. They have probably purchased vehicles for this very purpose. If they are going to make that investment, they deserve honest leadership at the top, not a bunch of tone-deaf executives who resort to unethical means to make money and kill competition.
Kalanick’s Dec. 4 promise in a blog post to run a “more humble company” reads as if it is from a man with a giant ego trying to buy his way out of an image crisis with expensive public relations messaging. Uber’s latest troubles in Portland and elsewhere indicate the company still doesn’t quite get it: Consumers reward sincerity, not hubris.Information in this post, originally published Dec. 10 at 12:17 p.m. was corrected at 2:52 p.m. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Uber began its taxi-like service in 2012. UberX began in 2013.