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Travis Kalanick’s uber-apology

“I MUST fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.” It is rare for the boss of a big technology firm to be so contrite. It is even more of a surprise to have Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, a popular ride-hailing company, go that far: he is one of the most pugnacious entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it,” he added.

Mr Kalanick had little option but to grovel. On February 28th Bloomberg, a media group, released a video showing a heated discussion between him and an Uber driver, Fawzi Kamel, about the fact that the firm has lowered the rates its drivers receive. Mr Kamel told Mr Kalanick that he had lost $97,000 and gone bankrupt because of him, at which point Mr Kalanick lost his cool: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit.”

The video capped a terrible month for Mr Kalanick. First, more than 200,000 subscribers deleted their Uber app after the firm was accused of breaking a strike by taxi drivers protesting against Donald Trump’s executive order against refugees. Then a former employee published a blog post in which she accused Uber of refusing to discipline her manager after he had propositioned her for sex. Uber’s head of engineering resigned earlier this week after reports that he had received a sexual-harassment complaint at his previous employer (he denies the allegations).

To Mr Kalanick’s credit, his reactions have been deft. He resigned from Mr Trump’s business advisory council. He created a committee to look into Uber’s culture. He also met with more than 100 female employees and promised: “I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place.” This week’s mea culpa, which also included an apology to Mr Kamel, was part of an e-mail to all Uber staff sent quickly after the release of the video.

But it will take more to burnish the firm’s brand. “Uber has been here many times before, responding to public exposure of bad behavior by holding an all-hands meeting, apologising and vowing to change, only to quickly return to aggressive business as usual,” wrote Mitch and Freada Kapor, two early investors in the startup, in an open letter on February 23rd.

The bad publicity comes at a time when Uber needs to deal with two bigger issues. First, regulators are making life harder for the firm. For example, the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s highest court, will soon decide whether Uber is just a digital service or a transport firm. If it is judged the latter, it would have to comply with a dense rulebook.

Second, Uber, which is now operating in more than 500 cities worldwide, has to find a way to make money. It reportedly lost about $3bn in 2016 on revenue of $5.5bn—a whopping cash-burn rate, even though it has raised over $11bn in capital and debt. Such numbers make it unlikely that Uber will soon follow in the footsteps of Snap, another high-profile tech startup which priced its IPO this week at a valuation of $19.7bn. At a time when Uber could use a little goodwill, Mr Kalanick’s antics do not help.