Written by Books

Super Pumped

As I write this, WeWork, the office sharing business, has just been taken over by its primary backer Softbank, themselves having invested more into the business that its current valuation.

I confess that I’m a sucker for stories like this – over valued Silicon Valley “unicorns” that can’t possibly deliver everything they’re promising investors.

Having previously read Bad Blood, which was more an out and out fraud than some other unicorns, I was keen to get stuck into another book, and Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped seemed the obvious book. Indeed, there was a period in September this year when just about every US podcast I was listening to included New York Times journalist Isaac talking about Super Pumped and Uber, its subject.

The book tells the story of Travis Kalanick and the foundation of Uber, the car ride sharing company that has become a [loss-making] behemoth in the world of taxis and private hire vehicles.

He details Kalanick’s early struggles and moderate successes until he was able to begin to build Uber, filling a problem that was being particularly felt in San Francisco, where getting a taxi was hard work and you couldn’t ever be sure that the car would actually come.

Uber grew, and the ambition of Uber grew at the same time. If that was the whole story, then perhaps things wouldn’t have been so bad, but the management mantra of the business – it’s where the “Super Pumped” title comes from – it’s “bro” culture, and the way they just walked all over local rules and authorities, all eventually saw the demise of Kalanick.

Although you think you know the story of Uber, what you get here is a fully rounded picture of what was happening, and the various investors and players who were largely letting Kalanick get on with running things the way he wanted. While the spectacular growth of many Silicon Valley businesses means that we are often in awe of them, the fact that some of these founders begin to run amok and believe in their own greatness, becomes troubling to say the least.

And as much as anything, this book is about Kalanick’s downfall, as a series of disastrous decisions and especially behaviours, in due course forced him out of his own company.

It’s also an insight into how these businesses are built, the funding mechanisms and it gets into shareholder structures that provide some shareholders with more voting rights than others (It’s always been unclear to me why other shareholders would ever be willing to accept this structure, but in Silicon Valley it has become the new norm).

Maybe Uber will one day start to turn a profit. It’s not entirely clear to me that its business model scales the way it perhaps wanted it to. It certainly improved the taxi experience – live tracking and so on becoming regular across the industry.

Thoroughly recommended.