So there he was back in early February, Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber, king of his own making, a big bro baller in his own mind, seated in the back of an Uber Black car as if upon a throne.
He held a smartphone with both hands between his legs. He had a woman seated on either side of him.
“When's your birthday?” one of them asked,
“August 6,” Kalanick said,
“A Leo,” she said.
Kalanick began working his shoulders and swaying back and forth to the music on the sound system, Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know.” One of the women announced that she was going to guess his age.
“Over 25,” Kalanick laughed.
“I would guess 37,” the woman said.
He is in fact 40, but he did not say so, He had been 33 back in 2010, when he and Garrett Camp started UberTAXI in San Francisco to facilitate their uber existence as tech guys with money.
“It was a lifestyle thing,” Kalanick later told Fast Company. “Me, my co-founder, and our hundred friends could roll around San Francisco like ballers.”
The name became just Uber after local authorities contended that the company was operating an unlicensed taxi service. Uber insisted that the drivers were not hacks but independent contractors.
Any good idea is worth stealing, and soon Lyft and other startups were on it, only aiming down-market, offering convenience more than comfort, at a lower price.
In 2013, Kalanick issued a “policy paper” announcing that the ballers of Uber had also become brawlers, taking on the down-market upstarts. UberX quickly all but vanquished its competitors, and the company came to be valued at $70 billion.
“The early app was an attempt at something luxury,” Kalanick told the press. “That’s where we came from, but it’s not where we are today.”
Those who felt they owed themselves luxury and could afford could still use Uber Black, as Kalanick did so resplendently with the two women in San Francisco this past February, on what happened to be Super Bowl Sunday. One of the women remarked that Uber seemed to have had a hard year.
“I make sure every year is a hard year,” said the brawling baller. “That’s kind of how I roll. I make sure every year is a hard year. If it’s easy I’m not pushing hard enough.”
That elicited a squeal from one of the women, as he had no doubt intended with his tough-guy talk. He was now slouched back, his two hands between his legs as if holding a part of himself more private that his smartphone. One of the woman asked his destination on a trip of some kind.
“I’m just not allowed to say where I'm going,” he replied “It’s private.”
He then allowed that he could understand why she might be curious.
“I get it,” he said. “It’s all good.”
The Bay Bridge came into view, made gorgeous with lights installed by the artist Leo Villarer.
“I’m so glad the Bay Bridge inputted it,” Kalanick said.
“It’s so beautiful,” one of the women exclaimed.
“It’s so much better than it used to be,” Kalanick observed.
The car reached its destination a moment later. The two women thanked the driver.
“Thank you, you have a good one," the driver said. “Thank you. Thank you.”
Kalanick held out his hand.
“Good to see you, man,” Kalanick said,
The driver, 37-year-old Fawzi Kamel, took the hand.
“Good to see you, too,” the driver said. “I don’t know if you remember me, but it’s fine. The new people, the old people, 2010.”
Kamel was telling Kalanick that he was one of the original Uber Black drivers.
“So, we are reducing the number of Black cars over the next six months,” Kalanick said.
He did not have to say that fewer Black cars meant less competition for customers.
“Yeah, that’s good,” Kamel said.
“You probably saw some emails,” Kalanick said,
“I saw the email, starts in May,” Kamel replied. “You’re raising the standards, and you’re dropping the prices.”
“We’re not dropping the prices on Black,” Kalanick said,
“But in general the whole price is…” Kamel said.
“We have to; we have competitors; otherwise, we’d go out of business,” Kalanick said.
“Competitors?” Kamel exclaimed. “Man, you had the business model in your hands. You could have the prices you want, but you choose to buy everybody a ride.”
“No, no, no,” Kalanick said. “You misunderstand me. We started high-end. We didn’t go low-end because we wanted to. We went low-end because we had to, because we’d be out of business.”
“What? Lyft? It’s a piece of cake right there.”
“It seems like a piece of cake because I’ve beaten them. But if I didn’t do the things I did, we would have been beaten, I promise.”
“We could go higher and more expensive,” Kamel suggested.
“Here’s the thing we could do, luxury San Francisco,” Kalanick said. “I have guys working on luxe, which will be 50 to 75 percent more expensive than Black.”
“But people are not trusting you anymore,” Kamel said. “You think people would buy cars anymore?”
Back in 2010, the company had required Kamel and other Uber Black drivers to buy particular high-end luxury cars at a considerable cost. They had been stuck with the expenses while their revenue fell, the business siphoned away by less expensive UberX, whose drivers were allowed to use more modest cars.
“I lost $97,000 because of you,” Kamel told Kalanick. “I'm bankrupt because of you. Yes, yes, yes.”
Kamel had indeed filed for bankruptcy, on March 31, 2016. Court papers for case 1630342 report that he had $160,265 in liabilities. His business expenses have remained around $3,600 a month while his gross monthly income fell from $5,756 in September 2015 to $4,292 in February 2016.
“You keep changing every day,” Kamel now told Kalanick. “You keep changing every day.”
“Hold on a second, what have I changed about Black? What have I changed?” Kalanick asked.
“You changed the whole business,” Kamel said. “You dropped the prices.”
“On Black?” Kalanick asked.
“Yes, you did,” Kamel said.
“Bullshit,” Kalanick replied.
“We started with $20,” Kamel said.
“We started with $20. How much is the mile now, $2.75?”
Kamel is apparently referring to Uber Select, which is a step up from Uber X, a step down from Uber Black, and is now $2.75 a mile. UberX is now only $1.15. Uber Black is more than three times that at $3.75. And that is considerably less than the $4.90 when Kamel started.
“You know what?” Kalanick now asked.
“What?” Kamel said.
“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit,” Kalanick said. “They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!”
“Good luck to you,” Kamel replied as Kalanick climbed out. “But I know you’re not going to go far.”
Kalanick slammed the door, surely not considering that the entire exchange was on video and that Kamel would pass the recording on to Bloomberg News. The video became public Feb. 28 and immediately went viral.
The company had already been hit nine days before with a blog post by an engineer named Susan Fowler headlined ”Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” She described a place where the baller brawlers made women cringe and flee and seek help only to be met with shrug. Sexual harassment that would have gotten perpetrators fired elsewhere was simply ignored.
Fowler wrote that when she arrived in November 2015, some 25 percent of more than 150 engineers there were women. She made a final count when she departed in December 2016.
“Only 3 percent were women,” she reported.
One very, very strange and vile interlude in Fowler’s account came after Uber announced that it was buying leather jackets for the engineers.
“We all tried them on and found our sizes, and placed our orders,” she wrote. “One day, all the women (there were, I believe six of us left in the org) received an email saying that no leather jackets were being ordered for the women because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order.”
Fowler continued, “I replied that I was sure Uber could find room in their budget to buy leather jackets for the, what, six women, if it could afford to buy them for over a hundred and twenty men.”
She went on, “The director replied back, saying that if we women really wanted equality, then we should realize we were getting equality by not getting the leather jackets.”
She continued, “He said that because there were so many men in the org, they had gotten a significant discount on the men’s jackets, but not on the women’s jackets, and it wouldn’t be equal or fair, he argued, to give the women leather jackets that cost a little more than the men’s jackets. We were told that if we wanted leather jackets, the women need to find jackets that were the same price as the bulk-order price of the men’s jackets.”
Fowler’s revelations prompted Uber to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an investigation. There also came a report that Uber had obtained the medical records of a woman who had been raped while using the service. Kalanick himself is said to have examined the file, thereby giving a measure of how hard he rolls.
In another instance of hard rolling, the company had used a program called Greyball in a worldwide effort to sabotage law enforcement in jurisdictions where Uber was restricted. An undercover official in Portland tried to catch an Uber car operating illegally only for the driver to be warned away. The cars shown by the Uber app on the official’s smartphone proved to be phantoms.
Then there was a lawsuit alleging that Uber had stolen trade secrets from Waymo, the self-driving car company affiliated with Google. There was also the question of what Uber posted on Twitter during the brief cab strike to protest Trump’s immigration ban in January.
Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.”
That caused some 200,000 people to delete their Uber apps in disgust over what they took as an attempt to profit off the strike, More grumbling came in New York after Uber admitted to shortchanging its drivers there by an average of $900. There was also grumbling in Pittsburgh, where Uber promised to hire locally for its new self-driving car testing center. Uber was given a long list of candidates and it seems to have hired nary a one.
Kalanick deserved everybody’s sympathy after his mother was killed in a boating accident in May. But through all the revelations of hard rolling at Uber echoed the words he had said to Kamel about people not taking responsibility for their own shit and blaming others.
A group of major shareholders decided to hold Kalanick responsible whether he accepted it or not. He became a king of his own unmaking as he was forced to resign and he rolled right out of a job. The words that echoed then were Kamel’s improbable warning to Kalanick that he was not going to go far.
All Uber drivers have reason to thank Kamel, for his video almost certainly helped prompt the company to follow Kalanick’s departure with a promise of a series of improvements. These include a new feature that will give customers the option to tip.
“We’ve heard you,” read a message from Uber to the drivers. “You’ve told us what you want, and now it’s time we step up and give you the driving experience you deserve, because simply put, Uber wouldn’t exist without you.“
Of course, Kalanick remains on the board of directors. He turns 41 in August.