Tech world talk on Twitter yesterday was devoted pretty much entirely to a profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick by New York Times writer Mike Isaac, a persistent tweeter and thorn in the ride-hailing company's side. Although the thesis of the article will be familiar to many — Kalanick has "openly disregarded many rules and norms" and his philosophy has become the defining strategy at Uber — some new details, including a telling tiff with Apple, illustrate that claim to great effect. Kalanick, writes Isaac, is a man driven to the point that "he must win at whatever he puts his mind to and at whatever cost." From the piece, we even learn Kalanick once held the world’s second-highest score in Nintendo Wii Tennis — who knows what he did to achieve that result, and the lengths to which he might go to take the top slot.
Uber is currently under siege for using questionable tools and tactics to evade regulators, allegedly stealing technology from Google's self-driving car program through the defection of a former Googler to Uber, and fostering an environment in which "high-performing" male employees are allegedly granted impunity for harassing female employees (the subject of previous reporting by Isaac). From the new reporting, we learn of an, until now, undisclosed incident in which Uber was caught deceiving Apple. "Uber had been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines," Isaac writes. When the deception was discovered, Apple CEO Tim Cook summoned Kalanick, demanded Uber stop the practice or be kicked out of the Apple App Store, and Kalanick gave in.
"Crossing that line was not a one-off for Mr. Kalanick," Isaac asserts. After interviewing more than 50 current and former Uber employees, investors, etc., Isaac's portrait of Kalanick, 40, is one of a guy whose deeply driven attitude could also be a fatal flaw. Kalanick declined to be interviewed for the piece.
"Mr. Kalanick’s pattern for pushing limits is deeply ingrained," the piece states, starting with his childhood in suburban Los Angeles, "where he went from being bullied to being the aggressor." Kalanick was also entrepreneurial from a young age, starting his own SAT test prep company before entering college at UCLA, where he dropped out to work on a startup called Scour, a Napster-like file-exchange site which was sued for 250 billion for alleged copyright infringement and filed for bankruptcy in 200 to protect it from the suit.
Kalanick's next venture was Red Swoosh, where "Mr. Kalanick started exhibiting his hallmark aggressiveness," according to Isaac. "When the company struggled, Mr. Kalanick and a partner took the tax dollars from employee paychecks — which are supposed to be withheld and sent to the Internal Revenue Service — and reinvested the money into the start-up, even as friends and advisers warned him the action was potentially illegal." Despite serious investments from the likes of Mark Cuban, Red Swoosh struggled to the extent that Kalanick moved back in with his parents. Kalanick eventually moved to San Francisco and sold the company for $19 million. Some advisers, like Pete Yorke, were disillusioned already: Kalanick, said Yorke, a longtime tech executive, was "relentless in pursuit of his goals at the expense of those who supported him along the way, deluded by his own embellished personal narrative, and a serial prevaricator.”
Kalanick, who lived in a Castro townhouse he nicknamed the "Jam Pad," got onboard with the idea for Uber, née UberCab, which friend Garett Camp in 2009. The rest is a history we're more familiar with, although there are some new details here. Kalanick, for example, considered running for governor, even registering a website, travs4gov.com, to position himself as a potential independent candidate. At one point during Uber's rise, he and Gary Cohn, the Goldman Sachs president-cum-chief economic advisor to President Donald Trump, spoke daily. He also began palling around with LA celebrities like Leo DiCaprio, many of whom invested in the company.
In this phase, and until today, Kalanick's philosophy has been "growth above all else," and some described the exec as "emotionally unintelligent." A funny example there: "One friend recalled a night out with a group of married couples at the Gold Club, a San Francisco strip club, a few years ago. Mr. Kalanick, who was single, pulled out a laptop to work on a spreadsheet, crunching Uber’s numbers while friends watched the dancers onstage."
Some of the tactics Uber employed to fulfill Kalanick's goals have already been revealed, but in the new piece, Isaac adds details like the fact that Uber dispatched employees to order and cancel Lyft rides en masse to frustrate its drivers. "Uber employees were also told to create computer programs known as scripts that would automatically vote for the ride-hailing service in city-administered surveys," Isaac reports.
To get a sense of how Lyft was doing, the piece reveals that Uber bought info gathered by an email digest service, Unroll.me, run by Slice Intelligence. Unroll.me is a free email client that purports to help clear your inbox. What happened there is that "Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts [through Unroll.me] from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber." Uber then used the data "as a proxy for the health of Lyft’s business." This revelation, by the way, has Unroll.me apologizing profusely on its website.
Uber responded to the NYT story in a statement to TechCrunch, addressing in particular the claim of tracking users after they delete the app. “We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they’ve deleted the app," a representative said. "As the New York Times story notes towards the very end, this is a typical way to prevent fraudsters from loading Uber onto a stolen phone, putting in a stolen credit card, taking an expensive ride and then wiping the phone—over and over again. Similar techniques are also used for detecting and blocking suspicious logins to protect our users’ accounts. Being able to recognize known bad actors when they try to get back onto our network is an important security measure for both Uber and our users,” an Uber spokesperson said.