Leaving one of the fastest growing companies in the world may seem mad to some people but that's exactly what Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen, Uber's VP of Mobile, is doing.
The Uber exec who has been with the company for just a year and a half is leaving San Francisco to join Balderton Capital as a general partner in London, where he'll be tasked with finding the most promising young technology companies across Europe.
Fjeldsoe-Nielsen, who speaks five languages and has a masters degree in engineering from Oxford University, previously worked at Dropbox and was an advisor to Whatsapp during its Facebook acquisition.
Here he tells Techworld what life was like under Travis Kalanick and why he's decided to say goodbye to a company now thought to be worth over $50 billion.
What was it like working for Uber?
It was incredible. That’s the best way to summarise. You really feel like you are part of something big and quite frankly when I joined the company, coming from Dropbox, I joined an amazing team. I really thought Travis was incredible.
The team was just about execution and doing things that people didn’t believe. When I signed up at the beginning it was to have a blast with people I thought were amazing and had very high energy and on a mission that I thought was interesting.
The service was just amazing. First I fall in love with the service; I did it at Dropbox, I did it at WhatsApp and I did it at Uber. Once you get started it just changes your life.
How big was Uber when you joined and how big is it now?
There are thousands of employees now. That was not the case when I joined. At Dropbox I joined very early on…in the late 20s. That was not the case at Uber but nobody really knew how far it could go and I think everybody was taken by surprise by how the numbers suddenly exploded. It’s almost like when the turbo sets in on an engine…that happened with Uber.
IT was the network effect that kicked in. You sort of passed the threshold of having enough supply on the road, so enough drivers on the road that means the time went down every time somebody asked for an Uber. The time is a big part of the experience - if you can wait just a couple of minutes it’s amazing.
Was it intense working for Uber?
Absolutely it’s stressful. There’s no doubt about it. It’s very stressful. You have to put all in. There’s not space for anything else. I mean nothing else. You probably feel that, right? You work on something you’re passionate about then you just close out the world. All other signals disappear so it’s all you do.
It does also mean you get so focused on it that you don’t hear or see anything else so it’s very hard.
I left the company for personal reasons. It wasn’t necessarily the stress as that comes with any high-intensity job. I have three kids and [I left] to get the kids back to the UK, my wife is English. Our parents are getting older and we want to make sure we can balance some of the personal life as well while working on something exciting. There is no balance at Uber. Well, for me there was no balance at Uber. For other people there is I think - it depends where you are in the organisation.
It’s self imposed so it’s because you want to do it and give it all you’ve got, see what you’re made of and test yourself.
It’s very easy to get sucked into the energy and pass back that energy to the system as well.
Can you tell us a little bit about your role at Uber?
I was VP of Mobile which basically meant I was running the business development so the partnerships for distribution on both the supplier side and the demand side. I made partnerships with companies to make sure the drivers got better rates for example.
It’s all about the data so we would negotiate deals with mobile operators and make sure that the teams out in the different countries got better rates so the operating cost of the line is less. We extended that on the supply side as well (the driver side) so if you are a driver on the Uber platform then you and your family would be legible for reduced prices.
We saw up to 50 percent reduced prices at some places around the world for phone lines, which is really attractive. It’s almost like British Airways executive club for drivers, so you get some extra benefits by being a driver. The flip side of that is on the demand side (the passenger side) and we did the same thing there. We pushed this almost freemium service where you get the first ride free and after the first ride you pay.
We went out and made partnerships to make that happen.
That’s quite a bold bet to do because the average ride is expensive. It’s a lot of money that you’re paying to get a user on so you make a big that the user has a good experience and therefore want to use the service again and then it pays back the initial acquisition cost of that user.
Which markets do you think will be particularly challenging for Uber?
Unfortunately I think Europe from a regulatory point a hell of a challenge today. You look at Spain, you look at Portugal, and you even look at Germany and I think there’s been a lot of regulatory hurdles.
I think that has brought up a good dialogue with the European Union and on a country level as well. How do we in Europe embrace technology that comes in and changes the status quo?
Another example of that is the drone. You suddenly see this boom in drones going from very high end, very hobbyist segment where you don’t have that many units shipping to a lot of units that have started shipping. It’s only just begun and the prices are going down. IT’s almost like this network effect that I spoke about before and suddenly you get drones flying round near airports and that’s a problem.
How do you manage the regulation which has to be there but at the same time works with the innovation that’s happening?
Privacy is another thing. That’s a global issue as well. One thing that a lot of US companies get challenged with, and we saw this at Dropbox, and that’s where do you have your servers?
Technology is moving so fast right now but regulation takes time.
What does Uber's future look like to you?
I’m very bullish. I would invest in Uber at today’s valuation. The reason I say that is because there’s still such a long way for the company to go when you think about the number of users and markets even. The US is at a good place now and I think other markets will follow.
Because of the challenges they’ve had to date in Europe, the politicians are now at the table and I think that’s going to open up and I’m hopeful that it’s going to open up.
One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Europe is I wanted to have a dialogue. I want to talk about this.
Will Uber blow other taxi app companies like Hailo out of the water?
I think there’s probably going to be some consolidation in the market which there is in any industry. Look at the telecoms industry, you have the same thing.
Even in Google’s case you never have a winner takes all scenario. I don’t have the exact numbers but last time I saw they [Google] had like 60 percent market share on search. It means there’s always space for others.
But I’m very bullish for Uber. At the end of the day it comes down to execution and really delivering. We could come up with the same idea with Uber. Why don’t you just tap on your phone and the car shows up in a couple of minutes but the execution behind it is like a whole different ball game.
Travis is hungry and relentless. He doesn’t stop until he gets there. I feel very bullish about the company but there has to be a dialogue and more of a partnership tone when you speak to China for example, where you have to work with the government and do things differently.
Did you talk to other venture capital companies before joining Balderton?
I was talking to others. Actually, Balderton was the last company I spoke to. I applied the same model I do when picking companies to work with. It’s the team and the culture. The culture was a really important thing for me in picking the right venture firm because the cultures are completely different.
You probably know a lot more than I do, I’ve read some of your blog posts.
Balderton has this incredible culture where you have exceptionally succesful people. You have a very understated tone in the company. So they’re not out promoting themselves, they’re promoting their portfolio companies.
They’re very humble but at the same time, aggressively hungry and I thought that was amazing. It was like a contradicting mix of traits, it was incredible. I really fell for that. The partners and I spent a lot of time together and just brainstormed about the state of what’s going on where they want to take the firm. What I realised was that they themselves are a startup. They’re a small company and they have a very long way to go. But that’s my sweet spot. My sweet spot is sort of like in the early stage where everyone is pitching in for everything. There are no rules. You create the rules on the go and you work as a startup. That’s exactly what I love.
Have you invested in technology companies before?
I have, a little bit. But I would say mainly with my time. That’s been my currency. The shift from being an entrepreneur to being an investor is very different. I’m used to closing deals and the bigger the deal the better, and the faster, the better. In the venture world it’s completely the opposite. You’ve got to take the foot off the speed and really take a step back and really analyse what’s going on. I’m not going to rush into anything, I want to get a good lay of the land and build a dialogue with the entrepreneurs in the different countries and get a feeling of the pulse of Europe.
Particular areas to focus in on?
There’s no particular area that I’m going to focus on but I think it probably makes sense for me to drop into Europe on the Scandinavian side of things just because of my Danish background as well. I want to really dig into that because I think there’s a massively untapped market there.
Education is very high in Sandinavia. If you look at engineering education in Scandinavia it’s super high. The attitude of entrepreneurs in Europe is to look across borders now. There’s no longer that “hey let’s try to do something that gets really big in Germany.” No, now it’s like “let’s try to do something that gets really big on a global scale.” I think mobile has played a big part in that’s why, with my background in mobile, I’m really excited.
I left [Europe] in 2008 when the Android Play store launched and that’s the big shift that’s happened and I think the attitude of entrepreneurs has followed that.
As an investor I can make that happen. I can fuel that innovation by taking some risk and betting some investments in entrepreneurs that I think will make it with some big ideas.
What can European startups learn from Uber?
It’s a very unique situation. I’m not sure any company has ever raised so much venture backing. I think Uber passed Facebook recently. So taking something like that [Uber’s situation] and applying that to two founders or three founders is very hard.
But I do think there are some things. You’ve got to be confident in your story and what it is you’re trying to achieve and the fact it’s big.
The other thing is use that as leverage. As an entrepreneur you’ve got to have confidence in what it is you’re doing. You’re going to get a lot of nos but there will be somebody who sees it. When Travis was out fundraising people pass on the idea and the entrepreneurs. That’s what happens. To have real confidence despite people saying they don’t believe in the vision or that it’s possible is the biggest take away.
What are you going to miss the least about San Francisco?
There’s no work-life balance. I think that’s the thing that is very hard. I have no idea [how many hours] I was doing [each day]. I would drop my three little kids off in the morning and that was very important for me to do that. I’d drop them off and head into work. There’s no return time. It’s a one way ticket to work every day. That’s just how the Valley works.
It’s also why the Valley is so successful. People have two weeks of holiday and in many cases, probably most cases, people say they haven’t taken a holiday for two years. Certainly for me with a wife, three kids and a family in Europe, it was very, very hard. But it’s very binary. Either you do it, or you don’t. If you don’t then you can’t be part of the ecosystem…that’s just how it is. I think it’s very extreme. It’s got a very high personal cost on people but I do think that there’s some lessons to take from that. For you to put in those kinds of hours and that dedication it’s because you’re very passionate about what you’re doing. It’s because you’re an artist and you can’t pull yourself away from that painting, you’re thinking about it day and night. That’s how it is. I admire that and I love that. It’s amazing to be in that zone where you are working with something that you feel is meaningful and impacting people in a positive way.
It’s a lot of fun. You keep learning. It’s really hard so you’re stretching the membranes and the barriers and you’re inventing new stuff. It’s like you’re taking a step on Mars. Every step you take is a first step on Mars. It’s amazing. You get the feeling of being high.
Did you notice the inequality in San Francisco get worse during your time there?
I did [notice inequality get worse in San Francisco]. One way it was very visible was with the house prices in San Francisco. Also what happened in the last five years is a lot of companies have shifted up to the city and it was already a small area.
It’s a result of people being young and if you’re young you want to have fun in the city. You don’t have that many hours to waste so you want to have fun with your time off. Because of that you have a lot of housing issues.
The one thing I would say is something I really admire from the Valley and America in general is that Americans are incredibly generous. There’s an obligation in the American DNA that if you make a lot of money you give a lot of it back. It’s amazing to see. When you go to fundraising events and you see what people are doing...
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