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Can Uber be saved from itself?


The week began with a terribly embarrassing video of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick being a jerk to one of his drivers, and ended with a bombshell report about a secret and legally questionable program used by Uber to evade government scrutiny globally called “Greyball.” For any other company, this confluence of bad press would have seemed catastrophic. For Uber, it was just another week in February.

Uber has been engulfed in a new scandal almost every week for the past month, and every single day for the past two weeks, from allegations of a toxic, misogynistic workplace to the revelation that its self-driving cars were malfunctioning and possibly running on stolen technology.

It’s shady business — even for a business with a reputation for shadiness

Let’s be clear: Uber’s problems didn’t just materialize out of the blue this past January. Uber has been burning through capital, pissing off drivers, alienating riders, and generally wreaking havoc since its inception over six years ago.

Uber’s combative streak served it well in the beginning, when its goals were to decimate the traditional taxi industry and barnstorm its way across the globe, gobbling up market share in its relentless quest to become everyone’s de facto mode of transportation. But now the company’s chickens are coming home to roost, and Uber appears to be at a loss for what to do.

“They have dug themselves a very deep hole,” said Freada Klein Kapor, a partner at the venture capital firm Kapor Capital; she and her husband, entrepreneur Mitch Kapor, are Uber investors. “Now they have to say, ‘We really really mean it. We really really want to climb out of this hole no matter what it takes.’ Because it’s not going to be quick, it’s not going to be easy. But it is doable.”

Uber now faces battles on multiple fronts, making it difficult to devise a strategy that adequately addresses each one. And as each day passes, more and more unseemly details about Uber’s business practices emerge.

How can the company improve dangerously low morale among its employees when Susan Fowler, the former engineer who’s viral blog post ignited the investigation into systemic sexism, is now complaining that Uber has hired an outside law firm to investigate her? Uber claims the firm is reviewing Fowler’s claims, not her life, and will report to former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is reviewing Fowler’s allegations. Still, this fits a pattern for Uber, which has a history of hiring outside groups to investigate its opponents. It’s shady business — even for a business with a reputation for shadiness.

  • January 28th: The company was accused (falsely, it turns out) of breaking a New York City taxi driver strike during the anti-immigration protests at JFK airport.

  • January 28th–29th: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to participate in an economic advisory committee for President Trump led to a grassroots backlash among customers, spawning the hashtag #DeleteUber.

  • January 30th: Lyft, Uber’s main rival, tops Uber in the iOS and Android app stores for the first time ever. The company also announces its plan to expand to 100 new markets in 2017.

  • February 2nd: Kalanick ultimately backed out of the Trump committee, and promised $3 million in aid for drivers stuck overseas. But not before at least 200,000 users delete their accounts.

  • February 16th: Jeff Jones, president of ride-sharing at Uber, was supposed to take an hour to conduct a public Facebook Q&A to try and address driver complaints. In the face of angry complaints, he cut it off after 12 questions and 30 minutes.

  • February 19th: An ex-Uber engineer named Susan Fowler publishes a scathing blog post detailing systemic sexism and harassment at the company’s San Francisco headquarters, as well as a complete failure by the company’s human resources department to address her concerns. Her story goes viral.

  • February 20th–21st: Kalanick promises a swift investigation, tapping former Attorney General Eric Holder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington, among others, to lead it. He also holds an “raw, emotional” all-hands meeting, where he apologies for Uber