Super Pumped

I just finished Mike Issac’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.

This book has received many comparisons to Bad Blood, the story on Theranos that was released in 2018. It’s an easy comparison to draw. Both companies were Silicon Valley tech darlings, privately held and massively valued. Both were hoping to upend the incumbents in a difficult space. Both had controlling & charismatic founders flanked by an army of lieutenants willing to carry out orders. However, their stories ultimately ended quite differently.

Theranos ceased operations in September 2018 after the company was unable to find a buyer. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and CEO, is currently facing fraud charges from the SEC with a trial intended to kick off in August 2020. Uber ousted founder and CEO Travis Kalanick in 2017 and went on to IPO in May 2019 - the IPO was viewed as a disappointment with an ~$80 billion valuation, compared with the initial IPO valuation target of $120 billion.

Personally, my experience with Bad Blood and Super Pumped were quite different.

I wasn’t familiar with Theranos prior to reading Bad Blood. In this way, paging through Bad Blood was like reading fiction - I had no previous impressions on Theranos, its founder, or its story before opening the book.

With Uber, the story hit a bit closer to home. I still remember the first time I used an Uber: I was an undergraduate living in Allston, a neighborhood of Boston, and wanted to go to a bar downtown with friends. A housemate of mine, a student in the management school, ordered our group an “Uber Black”. I was supremely impressed with the service - while I don’t remember any specifics of what my friends and I did that night, the concept of using Uber to get from A to B stuck in my mind. Living in an urban environment, the convenience of Uber was obvious. Uber rendered useless the haggling with cab drivers over fare prices and needing to call a cab company well in advance to arrange a pickup. Additionally, “Uber Black” felt like using a private car to a college kid, which was a pretty cool perk all in itself.

Throughout my computer engineering undergrad program, an eye and ear was always kept pointed toward Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurship was a focal point for the program, and much attention was given by both students and professors to the top startups in SF. While I didn’t actively track Uber, it was hard to ignore them given the amount of press and attention they received. However, I had forgotten just how much bad press Uber had received in the aggregate.

Expansion into each new city brought with it local resistance to Uber’s legal grey-area residency. Multiple high-level hires came with nefarious baggage ignored by or kept quiet from Uber. There seemed to be an endless stream of reports that affirmed Uber’s tech bro reputation, from minor incidents to executive-level behavior. The volume of bad press is underlined by the numerous subsections within the Criticism section on Uber’s Wikipedia page - I don’t recall eve seeing a company Wikipedia page with that many distinct issues.

Ultimately, I was impressed with the impact Susan Fowler’s Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber had - it appears to be the impetus to Kalanick’s fall from grace. It took a lot of courage for her to write and post her experience at Uber, knowing that it could have negative ramifications on her career. Her story kicked off an internal reflection at the highest level of Uber about the culture that pervaded the company, ultimately leading to an internal investigation led by Eric Holder, former US attorney general. Paired with the February 2017 timing of other bad press (Kalanick arguing with a driver about “taking responsibility”, the hiring of Amit Singhal, who didn’t disclose sexual harassment claims from his previous employer, Google), it began to unravel Kalanick’s hold on the company and its board, galvanizing pockets of the board to begin working toward reining in Kalanick. Ultimately, it led to a permanent leave of absence for the founder and the hiring of a new CEO.

Super Pumped is a fascinating look at the rise, fall and attempted stabilization of one of the biggest tech startups during a period of Silicon Valley dominance. While a story about Uber, it involves many threads that are still unfinished today: the marginalization of women in the workplace, especially in the tech industry; the impact of technology on the displacement of existing industries and workers; and the effect the far-reaching hand of Silicon Valley can have on the underlying infrastructure of our communities.