March 11, 2017

Uber and Corporate Culture

          Uber was known in 2015 as “the world’s most valuable private startup” (NASDAQ), but the company’s recent PR nightmare has really taken a toll on the company’s reputation. If you haven’t yet, you should check out Susan J. Fowler’s original blog post about the situation. Since the incident, there have been many discussions about the nature of Silicon Valley tech companies and their common tendency toward sexism. There have been protests against them recently with Uber at the center as well as widespread campaigns asking people to delete their Uber accounts, but this hasn’t yet affected Uber’s actual company value. And frankly, I don’t think it will.

          It’s not that Uber is too big to fail or that people need Uber too much to stop using the service it provides. I think the problem is that people already know what they think when it comes to gender issues. The entire topic has, unfortunately, become political. No one on the left can convince anyone on the right to come over to their team and visa-versa. Though this is horribly unfortunate and dehumanizing, it is the case. We all know where we stand on these issues. We’ve traded what should be human empathy for politics. But that is all beside the point. I think that these particular problems that Uber has had are a byproduct of something much bigger and unmoving. This HR problem is a product of the backbone of Uber. It is a product of Uber’s corporate culture.

          Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, is a very driven man. He is known for being vocal and stubborn, but he built a heavyweight company from the ground up in the matter of a few years. Two years ago, I had never heard of Uber. They were making waves in the investor community, but the company had not yet reached the public eye. Now, my grandpa knows what Uber is. He thinks it’s a German company making desktop computers, but he knows the name nonetheless. This extremely rapid growth and large-scale success is great, but there are a few structural problems with this kind of company superstardom. The main problem can be defined by the startup mentality.

          The startup mentality is when anyone in the company would do anything to help the thing succeed. To a startup, the rules aren’t as important and HR is more of a passing legal consideration. The startup mentality is a certain kind of beautiful hive-mindedness that results in a culture with fewer HR issues. This is a necessary, driving component in a young company, but when a corporation becomes a heavyweight, it needs to start acting like it. The rite of passage for an adolescent company to enter into a stable adulthood is the tedious process of defining internal policy. They must extract the DNA of the company, type it up, 3-hole-punch it, bind it, and place it on the desk of every executive. This is how a company grows up; it is a necessary step for a successful business to take. Most importantly, it defines the corporate culture. For these kinds of fast-growing, San Francisco businesses, that very binding will inevitably be the very lifeblood of the founders.

          This effect is obvious in other Silicon Valley heavyweights. The companies tend to reflect the founders. For example, look at Apple’s internal policy and their corporate culture. They are devoted people who share absolutely nothing with the public. Steve Jobs was a private, focused man; that is reflected in the company he built. In sharp contrast, there stands Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. If you have a Facebook page, you’ll know about Facebook’s openly unfair algorithm system. When something is posted to your page, the algorithm shows it to a percentage of the people who like your content, and then you are asked for money if you want more people to see it. Whether good or bad, at least they are transparent. A lot like Zuckerberg's glass office. It’s the foundation of the company’s policy because it’s the spirit of the founder. These two companies are going to stick around because they have successfully grown up. They have bound the fundamental traits of the young startup. They are structurally stable in their corporate culture.

          Eventually, every successful startup has to grow up into a stable corporation. Stable growth is fundamentally how we define success. Uber has obviously not done that - at least not well. Frankly, it is absurd that we are dealing with piggish men sexually harassing well-performing female employees in 2017. I’m all for feminism in the sense of equality, but I think there is something bigger, uglier here. This is a sign of a toxic corporate culture at Uber. The company is an extremely powerful child, and it has shown that in the childish behavior of the executive responsible for this debacle. If this kind of problem happens once, without serious restructuring, it will happen again. Uber needs to grow up and get it together before they suffer a death by lawsuit.