In his new book about Uber's rise and subsequent fall from public favor, New York Times tech writer Mike Isaac describes one particularly theatrical moment about four months before founder Travis Kalanick's resignation in which he was writhing on the floor of a marketing executive's home repeating, "I'm a terrible person."
Isaac's book is titled Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, and Wired calls it "a meticulously reported account of Uber's trajectory," and makes Uber look "less like a thoroughbred tech unicorn and more like a Wall Street boiler room Ponzi scheme."
The scene described above reportedly occurred after the public release of a video likely familiar to SFist readers in which Kalanick was seen arguing with an Uber driver from the backseat of a car, berating the driver after he complained that Kalanick was responsible for cutting driver pay. Kalanick was infamously heard telling the driver, "Some people don't like to take responsibility for their own shit," after the driver tells Kalanick that he was $97,000 in debt because of Uber — also calling the driver's story "bullshit."
The video, as Business Insider recounts via Isaac's book, went viral in late February 2017, just as company executives were huddled at a meeting in downtown San Francisco's Le Meridien hotel to discuss the result of a user survey that showed many people believed Kalanick had a toxic influence on the company. Kalanick's first reaction was to tell the company's internal PR team — headed by Rachel Whetstone and Jill Hazelbaker, the company's senior vice president of marketing, communications, and public policy — that they weren't "strategic or creative enough to help us get out of this situation." He was recommending using an outside PR firm instead.
Later that day, according to Isaac, at Hazelbaker's townhouse, things took a turn for the dramatic, and all you armchair psychologists can do with this what you will:
Meanwhile, Kalanick continued his theatrics, writhing around on Hazelbaker's carpet. Kalanick kept repeating the same thing over and over: 'I'm a terrible person. I'm a terrible person. I'm a terrible person.'
Isaac took his title from a bullet point in a presentation Kalanick gave at an internal Uber conference in Las Vegas in October 2015 — at which the company reportedly "spent more than $25 million in cash on a week of partying, more than twice the company’s Series A funding round." Dressed in a lab coat and wearing costume "professor" glasses, Kalanick reportedly laid out his idea of "Uber values," which seemed to be cribbed directly from the writings of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. As Isaac writes, "The list read like Amazon’s corporate values run through a bro-speak translation engine." Among them were "Always Be Hustlin’," "Champions Mindset/Winning," and "Super Pumped."
Wired says that Isaac's book succeed in "decod[ing] the industry’s dizzying ascent over the past decade [for the general public], to the point where decisions made by a roomful of men on Market Street now have the power to change the face of a city or dictate wages and tips (or lack thereof) for millions of drivers."
Kalanick would ultimately resign his post and pass the torch, tears and all, to current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi at an all-hands meeting in August 2017.
And Khosrowshahi has had no easy go of it either, spending the last two years trying to clean up the mess that many see Kalanick as having made. And Uber's overall reputation impacts more than just its user growth. As Isaac noted in this piece in the Times two weeks ago, "Deflation is in the air. At a recent companywide meeting, one employee asked [Khosrowshahi] if the engineering division would be next to face reductions, a bad sign for a tech company in which morale rests on the ability to recruit the world’s top coding talent."
Previously: Uber's Half-Billion-Dollar Marketing Campaign Reportedly Hasn't Helped Its Reputation