‘It’s kind of a tragedy’: behind the battle for power at Uber | American television

IIn a dark jacket, gray sweater and white undershirt, Travis Kalanick was relaxed in a comfortable chair, a cup of coffee in front of him, drawing the breeze with late-night TV host Stephen Colbert. Then came a shout from the studio audience.

“Shame! Respect the work of drivers! Respect full-time professional work! The camera caught a protester wearing a t-shirt who, standing with his hands over his mouth, shouted: “Uber is exploiting taxi drivers at profit and kills full-time professional work in the taxi industry!”

Colbert asked the man to sit down and joked with Uber co-founder Kalanick, “He’s my cousin. I apologize.”

This September 2015 incident – a rare moment when a king of the gig economy was confronted by one of his helpless subjects – was not aired at the time, but finally aired on CBS last monthwhen Colbert interviewed actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt about playing Kalanick on the small screen.

Super Pumped: the Battle for Uber is the story of how Kalanick led the fastest growing startup in history, taking on the established taxi industries in San Francisco, America and around the world. It’s a compelling portrayal of a man who is alternately charming and obnoxious, genius and madman, superhero and supervillain, and gives new meaning to the word “disruptive.”

It’s also a glimpse into a tech industry where there’s a thin line between creation and destruction and bad boys such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey are criticized for moving quickly. and break things without caring who gets hurt. .

Beth Schacter, executive producer of Super Pumped, said recently Washington Post Live Event: “They’re kind of modern kings, and in that Shakespearean way of wanting to look at what makes a king and what makes him fall, that’s kind of where most kings are, whether it’s in the realm of high finance or Silicon Valley. ”

The rise and fall of Kalanick was certainly Shakespearean. Born in Los Angeles in 1976, he learned computer code in school and dropped out of college to start his first tech company at age 22.

He co-founded Uber in 2009, launching his first smartphone app, UberCab, the following year – a revolutionary idea that allowed passengers to hail and pay for taxis on their phones and drivers to work whenever they wanted. Super Pumped’s First Episode Finds Kalanick Acknowledging Original Concept Came From A Friend Garret Camp, pitch for venture capital Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler) and challenging San Francisco city bureaucrats who want to crush him.

With the financial support and mentorship of Gurley. Kalanick embarked on a rule-breaking, self-mythologized global conquest that saw bitter battles with entrenched interests that helped bring transportation into the 21st century (“We are in the world changing business “, says the screen version of Kalanick. “At least I am.”)

By 2017, the company had grown into an international operation with a market value of nearly $70 billion. But in February of this year a blog post by former employee Susan Fowler called out sexism and “bro culture” at the company, and in May Kalanick was devastated by the death of his mother, Bonnie, 71, in a boating accident.

In June, Kalanick’s mad dash at Uber ended when he was forced to resign following a series of lawsuits against the company for workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. It was finally a toll on years of worker mistreatment and the dangerous vanity that top performers went unpunished.

In short, Super Pumped has a lot of material to work with. It does so with a well-produced, well-scripted, and crunchy taste (Uma Thurman plays Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of the Huffington Post, who was a member of Uber’s board of directors).

The series is made for Showtime by the team behind Billions. Its primary source is a best-selling nonfiction book of the same name by Mike Isaac, a New York Times technology correspondent who served as a consultant, fact-checker, and co-executive producer. He met Kalanick many times, although the entrepreneur did not want to participate in the book.

Isaac said by phone from Oakland, California, “He’s a very charismatic person. You might not immediately vibrate with the guy because he’s a bit more masculine than, say, other people you want to date, but he’s very lively, very intense, very driven, ready to argue his points, but he can also charm you.

“The last time I spoke to him was just before he went to testify in court in the Google/Waymo trial, and he was still very magnetic. People flock to him in a certain way and he has charisma, which is an important quality to have if you’re going to run the business.

Kalanick in 2016. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

When asked if he liked Kalanick personally, Isaac admits to having mixed feelings. “On the one hand, I try to see the whole person, and there’s more depth to him than you would have picked up if you read the headlines a few years ago.

“Having said that, you can’t separate the person from the kind of things they’re causing in their life. Under him, Uber has become a really dysfunctional workplace for a lot of people. Some people might say he’s created this new working model that I know a lot of people are upset about.

“So I don’t think he’s a cartoonish villain; I don’t think it’s a complete angel. He, like all of us, exists somewhere in the middle. He has some redeeming qualities as well as things he will probably have to answer for at some point.

Gordon-Levitt, widely regarded as a Hollywood nice guy, is thrown against type to great effect. At times, the viewer sees his vulnerability and complex family relationships and roots for him to succeed; at others, we wince at his gigantic ego and callous treatment of drivers and passengers like commodities.

After the first episode aired, Isaac received text messages from sources saying the actor nailed Kalanick perfectly. “Travis is a ruthless, highly driven person; megalomaniac is probably a good way to describe it.

“But I also think you wouldn’t understand that he has nuances if you just read the headlines from 2017. So I saw them bringing in Joe as someone who could bring depth to the character and complement him with a way that’s not one-dimensional was really important.

Gordon-Levitt’s performance makes Kalanick a visionary and swaggering businessman who takes on his opponents through force of will; but also as the boss from hell ready to belittle and insult his employees without mercy.

Isaac adds, “He was very good at explaining the math and the theory behind it all, but often lacked empathy for the people directly involved.

“It’s one of those things where he’s a brilliant guy and lives in kind of a fantasy world of the way things should be, but isn’t able to emotionally connect to anyone. who is struggling, or being able to empathize in the moment with someone who is going through a difficult time.

At one point in the series, Gurley observes: “The best thing about Travis is that he will walk through walls to win. The worst thing about him is that he thinks everything is a wall. Like a politician who is good at campaigning but terrible at governing , the qualities of Kalanick that helped Uber rise proved useless once he reached the top—in fact, they sowed the seeds of self-destruction.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick and Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Kalanick and Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley. Photography: Showtime

Isaac says, “The thing about Travis is that he always felt like an underdog and fighting and in a mode, and that’s good while you’re going up. But Uber ended up winning, he became ubiquitous and destroyed the taxi industry, and he wasn’t able to go from this fight mode to a normal mode, “OK, we can be peaceful and operate in the cities without having to fight everyone”.

“Maybe there’s a different version of the story if he could have figured out that it’s some kind of tragedy because he couldn’t see it until it was too late. “

A similar ambivalence hangs over the legacy of Uber, Lyft and other apps that some see as avatars of progress, just as the automobile made the horse and carriage obsolete, and others see it as new. weapons of capitalist exploitation. The gig economy is worth more than $5 billion a year worldwide and has been further accelerated by the pandemic, but offers few unions or a safety net.

Isaac reflects: “A lot of people ask, would Uber be Uber if it wasn’t for Travis? Can you create an industry like this when the people who are cut off in the first place won’t let you play ball? there a nicer version of Uber that could have seen the light of day?

“There are a lot of amazing things the company has done just by providing transportation for people who maybe were too scared to go home when they get off work at two in the morning and don’t want to wait for the bus. . I know a lot of people who have to do this kind of terrible ride and feel safer riding an Uber.

“But there are also people who feel they are exploiting the workers, and [that] this model might not be good for long-term workers. Like many types of new innovations in the world, it brings with it a multitude of problems. Like everything with Uber, it’s never easy or straightforward.

Today, Uber has around 118 million monthly active users worldwide, while Kalanick is still a billionaire and running. a real estate development company. Super Pumped is a fresh take on an old question: can you be a nice CEO while making things change the world?

Isaac comments: For really big moon swings and big ideas, you have to somehow be a bit… if not crazy, then at least an eternal optimist. It takes a lot to believe in this mission.

“That’s why you get these larger than life personalities. I don’t think it’s an accident that they tend to go together.

Another perspective is offered by the journalist Brad Stone, author of The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World, who interviewed and dined with Kalanick.

He says over the phone, “He was confident to the point of being maybe arrogant, but a lot of entrepreneurs are. There was a lot of bluster and there had to be because they were trying to change a pretty big industry.

“The whole thing was put on steroids. Suddenly, the speed at which they went from a small startup in San Francisco and Washington trying to battle regulators to being worth $50 billion and having thousands of employees, the wheels came off.

Peter adds: “At one point they were just beleaguered not only by their success, but also by the culmination of all the mistakes and problems that come with growing so fast – and the fact that his confidence turned into pride. .”