Uber’s bad boy must take a ride

#DeleteUber: A screen grab (left) of Travis Kalanick, Uber’s top executive, arguing with a driver (left) adds to the company’s persistent bad press. Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

#DeleteUber: A screen grab (left) of Travis Kalanick, Uber’s top executive, arguing with a driver (left) adds to the company’s persistent bad press. Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

After a series of embarrassing revelations, ridesharing giant Uber faces challenges in keeping growth on track, with top executive Travis Kalanick likely to face pressure to give up some control.

Analysts say Uber’s rocky past month — marred by disclosures about a culture of sexism and its covert use of law enforcement-evading software — underscores the need for more mature management at the world’s most valuable venture-backed start-up.

Kalanick, known for being brash and aggressive in propelling Uber’s rise, could now become a liability as the company deals with more complex corporate issues, say some analysts.

The firm’s founder and chief executive might help Uber by stepping aside as chief executive, possibly taking the role of chairperson, said Larry Chiagouris, a Pace University marketing professor.

“If I were him, I would remain connected to the business but I would step up and bring someone with a fresh face and a lot of maturity,” said Chiagouris.

This would “give riders and drivers a sense there is a serious and mature person running the business”, he said. “He needs to find a way to put a face on Uber other than his own.”

Uber this week began searching for a second-in-command to help Kalanick steady the wheel.

“This morning I told the Uber team that we’re actively looking for a chief operating officer; a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey,” Kalanick said in a statement.

Uber’s woes appeared to deepen last week with the release of a dashcam video of showing Kalanick cursing a driver, followed days later by its admission that the company used secret software to steer drivers away from problems, though it denied reports the “Greyball” programme was used to evade sting operations.

“They have a history of priding themselves about being aggressive in moving into markets,” said Daniel Korschun of Drexel University’s LeBow School of Marketing.

“Some of this is starting to come back to haunt them. This aggressive behaviour is coming out in ways that are disturbing to their stakeholder base.”

Uber, whose valuation is based on its most recent investment, is estimated at some $68-billion, needs to balance the interests of its investors, riders and drivers, according to Korschun.

But Uber lost tens of thousands of users from the dust-up when Kalanick joined and then quit a panel advising President Donald Trump. This and the other incidents could have dented its value, Korschun said.

“It’s clear this is a company on its heels,” he said.

San Francisco-based Uber last month hired former attorney general Eric Holder to review workplace conditions after a former employee alleged sexual harassment and sexism at the firm.

Separately, Google’s parent company Alphabet filed a lawsuit against Uber alleging the ridesharing firm used stolen technology for its autonomous driving programme.

Adding to the pile-up of woes, Kalanick last week had to make a humbling apology after a video showed him verbally abusing a driver for the service. At the same time he admitted: “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.”

Scott Galloway, who teaches brand strategy and digital marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said Uber has little room for further error after these missteps.

Galloway, who also founded business intelligence firm L2, said the news about Uber over the past month has been “very damaging” but may be surmountable.

“What the market underestimates is the importance of being likeable; the CEO needs to be likeable,” Galloway said. Having a reputation for being disagreeable “will cost your shareholders billions”.

Galloway said Kalanick’s image problems can affect not only customers but also regulators and the news media. “The media is more apt to create a pattern and publish more negative stories,” he said. “I would say he’s one screw-up away from being promoted to chairman.”

Analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group said Kalanick’s rough-and-tumble image may not be suited to being the chief executive of a major technology company.

Kalanick “doesn’t get the need for maintaining image”, Enderle said. “He is relatively young, dropped out of college, and lacks the breadth of experience in business and education to give him the skills to deal with a lot of this stuff, which is why everything is turning into a crisis.

“If this continues, he is going to have to step down to save the company,” Enderle said.

For now, Uber remains a major force in the so-called sharing economy with tens of thousands of drivers operating in dozens of countries.

The latest missteps may be “a minor bump in the road” if Uber is able to recover, said Chiagouris.

“Uber provides an enormously valuable service and in many cases there are no cost-effective alteratives,” he said. “But Uber won’t have an unlimited amount of goodwill if this continues.” — AFP

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