As we ponder the fate of the company that ushered in the gig economy and changed how you got a ride, it’s worth asking: Would a stronger purpose from the beginning have helped Uber to align its internal culture, and saved it from a million headaches?
It’s easy to think that Uber has taken a wrong turn. But it’s probably more accurate to observe that it may have been headed in the wrong direction all along.
Uber’s mission has vacillated pretty dramatically since its founding, from the luxury-focused “everyone’s private driver” to “transportation as reliable as water” to the high-minded but vague “ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion.”
It’s hard to follow a red thread of purpose driving Uber throughout the years.
That’s partly because brand purpose doesn’t start or stop at the mission statement. It influences every decision at every level. More than anything, a brand’s purpose is an action, focused on societal good.
Regardless of its stated purpose, Uber’s actual actions have been focused on disruption and ride efficiency—and have frequently pitted it against the drivers, customers, and communities it claimed to serve. Its nine-year history includes a staggering litany of misdeeds that have been part of its culture from the very beginning.
One could argue that Uber succeeded by dehumanizing its workforce. Some of the lowlights: Uber employees ordered and canceled rides for its competitors as a way to drive up their costs and recruit its competitors’ drivers. It developed a software tool called Greyball to avoid giving rides to law enforcement officials in areas where Uber wasn’t legal. It fought with drivers in multiple jurisdictions to prevent them from being classified as employees, and short-changed its drivers on fares. It ignored laws and bullied cities into letting it operate there, so much so that one city official called the company a “bunch of thugs.”
Most damningly, Uber’s leadership did little to address years of concerns about sexual assault by Uber drivers. As of last year, at least 103 Uber drivers had been accused of sexually assaulting passengers over a four-year period. That’s only part of Uber’s broader issues around women. Susan Fowler, one of a relatively small percentage of female engineers, published a 2017 essay that described sexual harassment and a culture that was toxic for women. She was followed by other women who made similar claims, which led to the downfall of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
It’s not that Uber didn’t have a clearly defined culture. It’s just that the culture’s original 14 values were almost designed to bring out the worst in people, pushing a meritocracy that valued bright ideas and aggressive growth over all else. It was “an era of growth at all costs,” according to the company’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. Those values established the DNA of the brand in a way that can be almost impossible to change. They led to everything from sexual assault to a manager threatening to beat an employee with a baseball bat.
Notably, most of the original values missed the mark. The first value called for being obsessed with the customer. There’s nothing in there about listening to the customer, though—even if customers are begging for safety protections. The value that called for “principled confrontation” was used as an excuse to get rule-makers to change the rules for Uber’s growth. Nowhere in the list was safety, respect or inclusivity. Uber disrupted for the sake of disruption, and won for the sake of winning.
One of Khosrowshahi’s first acts as CEO was to swap the 14 values to eight more inclusive ones, because those values didn’t represent the kind of company employees wanted to be. For instance, “‘toe-stepping’ was meant to encourage employees to share their ideas regardless of their seniority or position in the company, but too often it was used as an excuse for being an asshole.”
Why does a brand purpose matter so much?
Like businesses such as AirBnB or Alibaba, Uber is set up as a sort of exchange whose success requires the balance of suppliers, consumers and communities. The fulcrum of this balancing act is purpose. Uber’s lack of purpose created a pendulum swing that it could no longer sustain. The repercussions of Uber’s original culture are still felt in our own, through the gig economy that Uber helped create. Uber went to war against drivers, first the taxis and then the people who drove for Uber, whom Uber refused to acknowledge as employees.
One could argue that Uber succeeded by dehumanizing its workforce. For every person who enjoys the freedom of driving a car in their off hours (or dog walking, or delivering food, or any on-call task), there are two others who are forced to drive because their employers don’t offer them stability, a livable income, or benefits.
The company has tried to map a new route under Khosrowshahi, hiring new “signals of change” like a chief diversity officer, adding board members to oversee harassment claims, eliminating its forced arbitration policy for sexual assault, and partnering with a nonprofit called Purple Campaign to help it create anti-harassment policies. It’s tough to know whether that partnership is part of a genuine desire for change or just “purpose washing”—but either way, it’s hard to scrub off nine years of behavior with one nonprofit. After years of going in the wrong direction, Uber is faced with a culture debt. In order to fix cultural issues of that magnitude, you have to retool the foundation you were built upon. Uber has yet to do that.
Giving points to the competition
Riders defected to Lyft and other ride-sharing services that were presumed dead until Uber’s public misdeeds. While Uber still dominates the ride-share market, it lost 11% of its market share during the events of 2017, and those people have never come back. Although Uber disrupted the taxi industry and built a huge network of services, the lack of a higher cause left it vulnerable.
That led to its IPO, where it lost 11% of its value, the biggest first-day drop in IPO history. Followed by its first two public quarters where it lost $1 billion and $5.2 billion on slowing revenue.
“As it turns out, you can catch a ride from anyone and not really care much about who you’re getting it from,” says Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. Why ride with a “gross, bro-tastic company” when you can ride with someone whose commitment to providing safe, convenient rides is something they can actually make good on?
Let’s imagine an alternate history where Uber started out with a singular brand purpose focused on the very real problems of the millions upon millions of people who have limited access to transportation. What if it were inspired to create its service not by an $800 limo ride on New Year’s Eve, but by an observation that when people lack transportation, they lose access to jobs and healthcare? What if it had pushed for more than being able to call a car with the press of a button so you could feel like a “frickin’ pimp”?
If the founders had built Uber around a brand purpose of, for example, providing easy, safe, and affordable transportation for everyone, they might have built everything differently. They might have partnered with local governments to solve local transportation issues. They might have built a loyal community of drivers at fairer wages and filled in transportation gaps without destroying the taxi industry.
They might have created a female-friendly culture that hired more female engineers and built in features to account for better safety for both riders and drivers. They might have avoided lawsuit after lawsuit, settlement after settlement. They might have delivered on the promise of getting people somewhere conveniently … and safely.
Uber has undoubtedly made life simpler for consumers. It’s changed an industry, cultures, and our everyday life for entire societies. But if it had poured its energy into a purpose that was bigger than disruption, it would have built these ride safety features into its app a long time ago.
If it showed so much genius in avoiding law enforcement, think of what it could have done to protect against rogue drivers and bad passengers. It could have left a very different type of lasting mark on society.
It didn’t, though. Finding its way to a brand purpose at this late stage is possible, but will require a commitment from the entire organization. Uber picked the road it wanted to travel a long time ago. There’s an increasingly slim chance of a U-turn.
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