A Tale of Two Titans

A Tale of Two Titans

Last week, Travis Kalanick, ahem, tendered his resignation as CEO of Uber, the company which he co-founded, and of which he is a 30% shareholder. No mean feat holding on to that much equity, considering the many rounds of funding that the company has received – $8.8B in 14 rounds, according to Crunchbase. It took a shareholder revolt on the part of investors representing roughly 40 percent control of Uber to accomplish the task, according to NewCo.

Then again, he’s Travis Kalanick. Taking a walk down memory lane, here are 13 Instances Where Uber Screwed Up (A Brief Throwback), demonstrating a bit more ubris than was advisable or legal, including class actions; sexist comments (and Susan Fowler’s blog post that started it all); surge pricing; criminal behavior on the part of drivers who were supposedly vetted; falsifying numbers; what to speak of the number of executives who departed the company in quick succession. Uber may not have been Uber without Kalanick’s personality to drive it (no pun intended), and while it has been said that there’s really no such thing as bad press, well, there are many Silicon Valley mantras that are in need of revision.

Uber has always been a predatory, take-no-prisoners corporate culture. They cut corners (drivers were not all properly vetted, it seems; agencies that do background checks do not all follow the same set of rules), and to reach Uber-size in the amount of time it took the company to accomplish its current market share (they’ve been around since 2009 and yes, market share has been falling off of late, which has given its closest competitor a big lift – pun intended: “Uber’s US market share fell from 84% at the beginning of this year to 77% at the end of May, according to  research firm Second Measure. Meanwhile, Lyft’s bookings were up 135% year-over-year in April, according to PYMNTS.com,” says Business Insider), you have to be employing measures that simply do not pass the sniff test (Uber drivers underpaid in New York City for years).

Should be interesting what happens next, considering all of that investor money on the table, and the fact that the company no longer has a COO, CFO, CMO or CEO.

All of which has taken the spotlight off fellow tech titan Jeff Bezos, who not only announced the Whole Foods deal last week, but this week – Oh the irony: Amazon files patent to block you from online price checking in its stores. According to the Mashable piece, “The system, filed under the Orwellian title “Physical store online shopping control,” would intercept certain URLs, search terms, and other web activity that takes place on its in-store Wi-Fi. The document explains how that information could potentially be used to send you a digital coupon to cover the price difference between a product in the store and a cheaper offer you might have viewed online. Amazon could also dispatch a store employee to talk you out of a competitor’s deal, suggest a complementary purchase, or even just block or redirect you from viewing online alternatives altogether. Discounts are nice, but the prospect of Amazon effectively watching your phone screen over your shoulder or preventing you from seeing certain pages is a bit disconcerting.”

Although note to self: it only works if your using Amazon’s in-store wi-fi. So why not simply shut off wi-fi and use your cell?

Then again, isn’t price comparison how Amazon manages to edge out its competition? Bezos is moving into brick and mortar, but with the mindset of a digital robber baron, and all things considered, Amazon is no less predatory than Uber. Au contraire, considering that while Uber occupies one vertical, Amazon’s tentacles reach far and wide – and deep. AWS. Alexa. The WaPost. Its streaming service. And never mind that while Amazon is effectively watching your phone screen over your shoulder, isn’t Alexa listening in on your conversations as well? To the point where Alexa has been called as a witness in a murder trial.

Now there’s also Amazon Prime Wardrobe, thanks to which, according to Business Insider, “Amazon just hammered another ‘nail in the coffin’ for Macy’s, Sears, and JCPenney. Prime Wardrobe sends customers up to 15 clothing items to try on for free at home. Returns are nearly effortless, meaning Amazon has removed the greatest uncertainty of buying clothes online…. Amazon is also offering enticing promotions: the more you buy, the cheaper it is. If you buy 5 items, you get a full 20% off.  If customers choose to keep none of the items, there’s no penalty and everything can be packed back into the resealable box and left on the front porch.”

Next up: Amazon’s vision for the future: delivery drone beehives in every city. The company just filed a patent for “multi-level fulfillment centers for unmanned aerial vehicles” that could help put drones where they’re needed. Blueprints show that the vertical hive would also leave a smaller footprint in urban areas, where they will be needed most.

Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh away, and remember: Amazon always attempts to undercut the competition – until it corners a market, as we mentioned last week, and time will tell.

Said one of Uber’s earliest investors about Kalanick’s pugnacious reputation in matter-of-fact terms, according to a 2014 Vanity Fair profile on the UberChief: “It’s hard to be a disrupter and not be an asshole.”

Could be, considering that Amazon has had its own problems and has weathered a fair amount of allegations – and articles – about its toxic work culture (Former Amazon Employees Detail Brutal Work Environment). According to this New York Magazine piece, “advocates of the company’s pressurized work culture see the relentless focus on competition, combativeness, and criticism as integral to the company’s success. One former human-resources employee referred to this system as “purposeful Darwinism,” and employees who have fully accepted and internalized the Amazonian way are proudly referred to as “Amabots.” To that end, Amazon champions extensive performance reviews, collecting vast amounts of data and metrics to analyze, test, and judge employee performance. It also greatly encourages negative criticism, anonymous and not, of both superiors and subordinates at the company, one of many doctrines that come directly from Bezos.”

Maybe it is hard to be a disruptor and not be an asshole.

As Harvard Business Review points out and as we’ve said many times, Uber was predicated on a crime, or lawbreaking, as they put it, suggesting that Uber Can’t Be Fixed — It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down. As we’ve also long said, again and again, and which the article also pretty much says, the problem is that you have to cover a crime with another – or bigger – crime (“Uber’s lawyers were complicit in building a culture of illegality”) and thank you!

In the meantime, more and more scrutiny is falling on Bezos as well (It’s Time to Break Up Amazon With its mega-acquisition of Whole Foods, the retail behemoth moves to suck the value out of yet another market, writes Douglas Rushkoff).

“Investors often say they bet on the person, not the company,” says Quartz. “Never has this been more true than with Uber. A bet on Uber was always a bet on Kalanick, a fearless and cocky founder willing to break the rules for his company to win. Arguably that’s what Uber had to do to upend the global, $100 billion taxi market.”

Truth be told, Amazon would not have been Amazon without Jeff Bezos at the helm. Then again, unlike Amazon, Uber is losing money, and with investors, as with shareholders, at the end of the day, the bottom line is always the bottom line.

Evidently, there is a line in the sand. ‘Ask forgiveness, not permission’ has long been one of tech’s key mantras/tenets for justifying bad and/or illegal behavior. Isn’t that one of the problems of the Age of Social and Surveillance? That this is not your dad’s Web 1.0 and someone is always watching? At the very least, we may be entering an age of accountability and while it has been a great run, the waiter always does come around with the check. The masters of disruption and their business practices are at long last coming under the microscope. We’ll see how it all shakes out but in the meantime, at least, there seems to be one less asshole in the driver’s seat. Onward and forward.

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