The Uber rebranding has created significant buzz. It is no surprise that a rebranding based on bathroom floor tiles has underwhelmed the masses. On a more positive note, they did capture the essence of the tiles they drew inspiration from.
Aside from the problems with their design approach, there is something else that has bothered me about this rebranding. A couple years back, the founder and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, wrote a blog post about how his investors were the bits and atoms of his company. Upon release of the new rebranding, Kalanick explained how they wanted a brand that better represented the bits and atoms that Uber is built upon. In other words, Kalanick has created a brand in praise for, and after the likeness of, his investors.
So employees and customers are not most important to Uber. Big deal. Considering the billions of dollars Uber raised from investors, maybe they don’t need employees or customers to actually build a successful company. I normally let odd endeavors like this go, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. This rebranding gives us insight into why Kalanick is currently under attack for treating his non-employee-employees (or as he likes to call them: contractors) as slaves. Their description, not mine. Not to mention Uber’s mixed response to the literal raping of their customers by Uber drivers. To be fair, fellow so called unicorn Airbnb has a similar reputation.
The problem as I see it, is that no matter where you go, Uber is generally held up as an example of what everyone wants their business to be. Rapidly growing and hugely profitable. But this success does not come free. It would seem that in order to succeed we must build our empires on the bodies of nameless employees (I mean contractors…). Having built this altar, we give ourselves up to be possessed by these demons of capital. A fact that is so clearly illustrated in the Uber rebranding. These are the same demons who choose to invest wisely somewhere between 5-25%(very similar to the success rate of startups in general) of the time, but when a company succeeds they will exact their pound of flesh.
This begs the question, what is the point of taking their money if success only manifests itself in situations where success was already likely? The answer is the pursuit of rapid growth. My wife and I worked for a tech company that received capital injections from the original vampire squid in a foolhardy quest for the glory that comes with rapid growth. I experienced first hand what Matt Taibbi described as the “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” The reality for customers and employees is an ugly affair, full of exploitation and apathy, far from the glamorous facade these companies present. Perhaps I assume too much, but there are other ways to get money, e.g. grants, loans, and the vast majority of startups use these alternative, albeit conservative, means.
I have spent a great deal of time meeting with startups in London. The vast majority of the people I talk to are good folks who generally want to make a positive difference in the world. Why then do we worship companies and individuals who seemingly care first and foremost about wealth creation at all costs? Many of these people I talk to will not succeed in the ways they imagine. They are too good to succeed, and they are better for it. This is not to say that every successful company is callous or evil (Uber is up for debate), but when we constantly drink from the fountains of Steve Jobs—a man obsessed with power and control—and Kalanick, it appears that we are uncertain of what we actually want and who we want to be.
All I am suggesting is that we need to find better role models. They may be ‘less successful,’ but I imagine it’s hard to tell the difference between a bank account with $2,000,000,000 and $20,000,000,000. Nevertheless, I know these role models are out there.