Can Kalanick mend his ways and reform Uber's toxic culture? Highly doubtful. Does he even want to? Uber's product teams are still functioning in a business-as-usual manner, but this mess won't get cleaned up until the CEO mess gets cleaned up.
Travis Kalanick lost his job as chief executive officer at Uber Technologies Inc. in June. That, it turned out, was just the beginning of the latest chapter in the roiling Uber saga.
A month after Kalanick’s ouster, Bloomberg reported that the Uber co-founder had been angling to retain influence in management and was looking to eventually secure a new role for himself inside the company. Recode’s Kara Swisher reported that Kalanick was telling friends he was “Steve Jobs-ing it”—plotting his eventual return to the helm of the $69 billion ride-hailing company.
We now see what he might have meant. After relinquishing the chief executive’s seat on Uber’s board, Kalanick immediately took a new seat at the table and has kept a tight grip on two other unfilled board positions. He might be hoping to use that influence to appoint a CEO who will serve as an ally—or somebody so weak that Kalanick might one day supplant them.
All of this was the subject of a very unusual lawsuit filed last week by early Uber investor Benchmark, accusing the 40-year-old Kalanick of fraud and asking to have him removed from the board. (Kalanick’s spokesman called the lawsuit “without merit and riddled with lies and false allegations.”) Olivia Zaleski wrote about the case and its implications for Uber at a crucial time, with much of its management ranks empty.
But it’s worth taking a closer look at the hero-founder narrative, the one that’s being pushed by Kalanick allies and apparently by the man himself. Because Kalanick’s version of “Steve Jobs-ing it,” as it’s currently playing out, bears little resemblance to Jobs’s legendary ouster and return to the helm of Apple Computer, a story that now has a central place in Silicon Valley lore.
Let’s go back to the summer of 1985. The then 30-year-old Jobs was obnoxious and famously loose with the truth. He was a charismatic product pitchman but a terrible manager, producing the Macintosh late and way over-budget. Apple CEO John Sculley and other board members had lost patience with him and over two months that summer—marked by plots and counterplots, shifting loyalties and frequent office shouting matches—they managed to strip Jobs of all his authority at the company. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, they wanted the guy out. But Jobs, like Kalanick now, still had his seat on Apple’s board.
Nevertheless, a heartbroken Jobs stopped attending Apple board meetings and took off for Europe. He biked the hills of Tuscany, toured Florence and visited Moscow. When he got back that fall, he started talking to medical researchers at Stanford University about the kinds of supercomputers that might be needed to simulate biology experiments.
When he finally did attend an Apple board meeting that September, he told the board, “I’ve been thinking a lot, and it’s time for me to get on with my life.” During his travels and discussions with academics, he had started formulating the idea for his next company: NeXT. Plenty of drama followed—I guess you could say that Apple in the 1980s was the Uber of its time. Jobs took five Apple employees with him to NeXT, and Apple sued his company, claiming he was stealing confidential information and breaching his fiduciary duty. (They settled a few months later.)
Jobs also quit the Apple board and sold all of his Apple stock within five months, famously keeping only one share so he could attend annual shareholder meeting if he ever wanted. He never talked to John Sculley again and didn’t set foot back in Apple headquarters until 1996. That’s when a beleaguered Apple—its creative juices all dried up and according to Jobs’s retelling, just months from insolvency—bought his little computer company for $400 million, paving the way for Jobs’s eventual return as Apple CEO.
It was a move rich with irony and satisfaction for Jobs and his supporters. But he had been forced to wander in the entrepreneurial desert for nearly a decade and watch his original company face possible extinction to get there.
By contrast, Uber’s controversial co-founder hasn’t even been gone two months. That’s not Steve Jobs-ing it.
Venture Firms Looking To Buy Uber Shares
Three investment groups are circling Uber. To some, the turmoil at Uber looks an awful lot like a summer sale sign. At least two firms, SoftBank and the Dragoneer Investment Group, are looking to buy shares at a discount, while a third group lead by Uber investor Shervin Pishevar wants to maintain the $69 billion valuation.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.
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Photo credit: Then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaks onstage at TechCrunch Discrupt at Pier 48 on September 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California. TechCrunch / Flickr