Two of the top technology CEOs on the planet sat on a stage in San Francisco this morning and spoke about a company that’s grown to a $50 billion valuation in just five years: Uber. The men in question: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
The company leaders sat side-by-side for a “fireside chat” in front of an eager Dreamforce audience that queued up early to ensure they got a seat in the packed out auditorium. The pair looked at Uber’s proposition, its future and its potential to revolutionise the way people travel worldwide.
“We want transportation to be as reliable as running water everywhere for everyone,” said Kalanick, referring to the company’s ambitious mission statement.
There’s no denying that Uber has grown at a phenomenal rate. It has expanded to 330 cities across more than 60 countries. Over 1,000 Uber rides take place every minute Kalanick said today - not 600 as one media outlet recently suggested, much to his dismay.
But growing at such a pace hasn’t been easy for Kalanick, whose last company, an enterprise software firm, only ever grew to 12 employees.
“There are lots of lessons to learn,” said Kalanick who has encountered major hurdles on a global scale from traditional taxi drivers and governments.
“For me I’m still that scrappy entrepreneur,” he said. “When it gets big the expectations grow too. Learning what it’s like to be in a bigger company is one of the more recent things for me to learn in my own personal growth.”
Kalanick acknowledged that Uber hasn’t always told its story or explained its mission in the best way possible, which is possibly why he’s hired former White House advisor David Plouffe.
“As an engineer it’s about making stuff and you let the work speak for itself,” he said. “If you grow like we’ve grown then you’re like a black box. You’re not telling your story. You’re showing by example. And actions speak louder than words.”
Governments and traditional taxi drivers aren’t the only ones Uber needs to keep happy.
There are now tens of thousands of drivers offering lifts to people through Uber’s platform but an increasing number of them are starting to question Kalanick’s business model.
Uber takes a 20 percent commission for every journey, leaving some drivers earning close to minimum wage after petrol costs and maintenance have been factored in.
What’s more, Kalanick has also come out in favour of the autonomous vehicles that could one day replace Uber’s entire driving fleet.
Kalanick spoke of the safety and congestion benefits that driverless cars stand to bring but it’s worth noting that they could also save Uber a lot of money in the long run due to the fact that robots won't need paying.
“There’s a lot of promise in it if you think about it,” he said. “If you have algorithms driving people of course it’s more safe but there’s also no traffic.
“There’s an insane amount of public good that comes out of this kind of new technology,” he added, claiming that’s why so many companies are interested in it.
Kalanick admitted it’s a “little bit disruptive” to Uber’s two-sided business model but said he wants it to be a company that embraces change.
“We have to say are we going to be part of the future or are we going to resist it. We dont want to be like the taxi companies that came before us. We’re a tech company.”
He went on to day that driverless vehicles aren’t going to take off for at least 10-15 years and it’s unlikely to happen all at once or at scale initially.
“We have to try to turn challenges into opportunity and social good,” he said. “I don’t look as it as dark or light.”
Uber helicopters and deliveries
Beyond offering lifts on the road, Uber is also looking at delivering goods within cities, as well as various other modes of transport, such as helicopters.
“We’re in the business of delivering cars in five minutes,” he said. “Once you can deliver cars in five minutes there are a lot of things you can deliver in five minutes. If something is moving from somewhere to somewhere else in a city, that’s our jam.”