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Uber is working hard to make itself unlikeable

It’s almost as if it’s a deliberate part of their business plan.

“We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi,” Travis Kalanick, the CEO of ride-sharing company Uber, said while on stage at a conference in late May. “Nobody likes him, he’s not a nice character, but he’s so woven into the political machinery and fabric that a lot of people owe him favors.”

Kalanick wasn’t bluffing. Uber really is the candidate: It has been interviewing potential campaign managers–real ones, from real presidential campaigns–for months. A source close to the hiring process told me, “They want somebody who has been steeped in that political warfare.”

And for good reason.

In the process of trying to force regulators to concede to its enormous popularity, “Uber” has become, in some ways, a loaded political term. And observers and participants alike are questioning, in real time, how much government interference is too much.

Uber, which in June was valued at $17 billion, appears to be launching a full-scale political operation—complete with backroom operators and face-saving strategists.

To combat governmental hostility, Uber has hired political muscle all over the country: in D.C., it has the Franklin Square Group (Apple, Google). In New York, it has Bradley Tusk (Michael Bloomberg’s former campaign manager). In Chicago, it has Michael Kasper (the lawyer who got Rahm Emanuel on the ballot). Additionally, it has lobbyists in Miami, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver.

And Uber’s not the only member of the new sharing economy who’s gone political. Airbnb, a housing and rental service estimated to be worth $10 billion, has hired one of the most-connected operators in New York—and even formed its own “grassroots” political organization.

Kalanick (who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview) looks like a television preacher, appears on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram, and once joked to a journalist about how the success of Uber increased his desirability to women: “Yeah, we call that the Boob-er.”

For a time, Kalanick’s Twitter avatar was the cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead—which he has repeatedly said was not the sort of bold political statement some have made it out to be. (In other interviews, he has indicated Rand has influenced his thinking.) But it is difficult to not see some parallels between Uber’s business model and libertarianism.

Given that, it’s not surprising that Uber is gaining friends on the right side of the political aisle. For example, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, on Thursday Tweeted “Today, there are two political parties/movements in America. One is UBER, the other is with taxi commission. Choose.”

Overwhelmingly, the political types who openly support Uber—Norquist and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, to name two—are the ones who were demonizing regulators long before the phrase “call an Uber” had ever been uttered. But now, of course, the phrase has been said millions of times in multiple languages across the globe.

Companies like Uber—along with Airbnb and less popular services like Zilok (which lets you rent “anything” from strangers)—make up the sharing economy, a community in which individuals rent out their possessions or their labor, and businesses act as middlemen, helping to arrange plans. Uber and Lyft (another ride-sharing service) will connect passengers with drivers, but won’t provide a car. Similarly, Airbnb will introduce homeowners to those looking for a place to stay, but doesn’t own properties.

The distinction of not owning any hardware, sharing economy companies would like customers and regulators alike to believe, should make all the difference when it comes to the law. Except, it doesn’t—at least not yet. The fact remains that Uber and Airbnb have built multibillion-dollar empires by operating in places where they are illegal, and so they are turning political to protect themselves.

Jesus. As you know, I’ve been basically supportive of the efforts to revamp Houston’s vehicle for hire ordinances. I believe the existing taxi industry does not adequately serve the whole city, I believe there is room for the market to grow with the new services, and I think Houston’s emerging image as a dynamic place to live would benefit from including the newcomers and would suffer from excluding them. But as I’ve also said, Uber in particular has done an amazingly effective job of alienating the people they should be courting, with their decision to go rogue and start operating as if they’d been approved even though they’re still not legal, thus putting their drivers and potentially their customers at risk while utterly disregarding the concerns of the existing players. I’ve marveled more than once at how a company with that much venture funding, and that much at stake because of it, could be so cavalier about the process that will ultimately determine whether or not they get to do business in a given city. I suppose this is one answer to those questions.

(Side note: While I have generally lumped Uber and Lyft together in these discussions, it strikes me that Uber has been by far the worse actor of the two. Lyft has also had drivers charging for rides, but they followed Uber’s lead, and overall my impression is simply that they’ve been less obnoxious, at least as far as I can see. Maybe there’s more going on that I haven’t seen, but this is how it looks to me.)

One has to wonder if Uber and its allies are self-aware enough to realize the potential for political consequences, in particular for undermining their own efforts. Campos made an interesting observation last week:

H-Town City Council takes next week off then comes back after the Fourth of July. I am thinking the next big issue before them is the vehicle-for-hire ordinance. Let me say again that I don’t have a dog in this hunt. That being said I’m thinking don’t put your money on the Uber and Lyft movements. First of all I think they have pi__ed off folks here in H-Town by operating illegally. Second of all I think they have been completely outflanked by the disabilities community. Uber and Lyft don’t have an answer to their concerns. Thirdly, their demographic isn’t a political force in our burg – they don’t vote. Fourthly, Uber and Lyft don’t have any roots in our community and that has to count for something – don’t you think? Stay tuned!

I’ve generally been of the opinion that Council would accommodate the newcomers, at least in some fashion, but I’ve also said that there isn’t much of an early indicator how the vote will go. What I do know is that if this turns into a partisan fight, the Republican side is outnumbered. Counting CM Costello, who isn’t much of an R these days but who is a self-proclaimed supporter of Uber and Lyft, there are seven Rs out of 17 votes on Council (Mayor Parker gets a vote, too), so at least two crossovers would be needed. That could certainly happen, but most other large cities are predominantly Democratic, and I don’t think having Grover Norquist and Marco Rubio as Uber’s champions will do them much good in those environs. But hey, they’re obviously so much smarter than the rest of us, so I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

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  1. voter_worker says:

    It’s a fight in which Uber expects to destroy the regulatory model that governs the taxi industry so it can then destroy that industry itself; how can they do that and be “likeable”? I stopped having one iota of “like” for them when I read that their market cap exceeds that of a major transport company, United-Continental Holdings Inc, by about $2 billion. It’s the perfect illustration of the dissonance of the current economic model when a company that DOESN’T DO ANYTHING but rent office space and employ a few brilliant programmers and hordes of lobbyists so they can match riders with contractor-owned and operated vehicles out-values a company that directly owns and operates hundreds of behemoth flying vehicles that move millions of passengers a month all around the planet. Whether or not anyone “likes” them, besides their vast pool of actual and potential customers, is abjectly irrelevant in 2014. At this point in the game, professional drivers (cabbies) should be strategizing their domination of the operation of Uber-branded vehicles and how to successfully thwart the use of rank amateurs by Uber and its copycats. It’s a long shot, but preserving the current regulatory regime is even more unlikely.

  2. bob says:

    Hold on. The taxi lobby donates thousands of dollars to city council every year, and shows up to every hearing with a band of t-shirt-wearing taxi-drivers, all in order to try and stifle competition and protect their entrenched monopoly.

    And Uber is the bad guy for fighting fire with fire and hiring its own political lobbyists? Or is it the bad guy because – god forbid – some republicans and libertarians support them? You can ding Uber for operating illegally, but there is nothing that article adds that strikes me as particularly unsympathetic.

  3. Robert says:

    I liked Uber at the beginning but recently in a few different cities I have had problems and complained to them, my complaints fell on deaf ears. So if their model is to strong arm their way in only to later provide sub-par service and leave us no better off (maybe worse for people that use wheelchairs, etc) I say let’s delay now, do it right and make sure they will do what they say and make those promises enforceable.

  4. Edde says:

    Your wrong. They are coming to Houston. I am a taxi operator and know if the city can find a way to regulate them and make money on them they will do it. They wont like it but what the people want the people will get.