In this week's interview episode of The Vergecast, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel sits down with New York Times reporter Mike Isaac to discuss Uber. Isaac has been reporting on the ride sharing company for more than five years, and he has just published a book Super Pumping: The Battle for Uber that explains The rise and controversies of Uber.
The conversation is about how Uber got to where it is now, the interactions with companies such as Apple and Google, and whether you have to be a "jerk" to start a company that is changing the world. Below is a slightly edited excerpt of the conversation.
Nilay Patel: I think the big question asked throughout the book is: do you have to be that kind of founder to make this type of business exist?
Mike Isaac: Yes, I place it less colorful or more colorful somewhere else. But it was just: do you have to be a jerk to build a world-changing company? And I don't know if you have to be a jerk to build a world-changing company, but maybe you had to be a jerk to build an Uber, you know? Just think of the barriers to entry in the taxi and transport sector and how they differ from, for example, a software company such as Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has made his share of the enemies over the years, but he does not have – or at least he was not early – mafios boss mafiosotypes ready to break his legs before entering their market or whatever.
So from the start it was definitely a harder industry. And I think that took its toll on Travis [Kalanick] in the spirit, along with the sense of distrust that he has for everyone around him to be knocked down by venture capitalists early in his career.
While you are writing the book, what did you learn most about these people?
I think the question I keep getting rid of is: what is needed to build a great company? Do you have to be ruthless? Or is it like luck and timing, you know?
Travis has its strengths, and many people still wonder if they could have built Uber without Travis. But many of the stars are really aligned to make Uber what it was at the time it was. There were lesser apps that did about the same thing as there were at the same time. But I think the omnipresence of the internet, the arrival of the iPhone, AWS became one thing … it really took a lot of stars to make this happen. And so I think part of it is happiness, part of it is timing, and then part of it is: should you just be a ruthless jerk? Or can you be a fun company builder? I mean, I'm thinking of Steve Jobs. I think about, you know, how Larry and Sergey were. I think of Zuckerberg and his kind … Zuckerberg is a ruthless businessman. I know that firsthand.
And so I wonder if those are just the laws of business. And maybe Uber was in the unfortunate position of being the poster child of all the worthless things you have to do or you could get caught on the road to building a huge business. But I would like to think that you can build something valuable and not be a jerk when you do it.