A To Do List for Uber's New CEO
It was a surprise, but a pleasant one. Neither Meg Whitman nor Jeff Immelt felt quite right to lead Uber back into the world's good graces and into the public capital markets. As a shareholder, I'm economically invested in securing a new CEO who can solve the company's cultural problems and take us public. But as someone who's been there since almost the beginning, I'm also emotionally invested in the company beyond just an IPO: I want to see Uber succeed, compete and ultimately dominate for decades to come.
The good news is, because Uber's core business keeps growing (up 17% in Q2 over Q1), the job for incoming CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is more about fixing the company's culture, image, mentality, workplace and internal practices than it is about changing the company's underlying premise of connecting drivers and riders.
But while everything written so far about Mr. Khosrowshahi seems promising, there's a lot he needs to do to heal a company almost cleaved in two: one company that keeps changing the way people across the world get around and one company that's tarred and feathered in the press on an almost daily basis.
And even once he solves the internal problems, not messing with the core business isn't enough: he has to stay just as focused on innovation as Travis was, without the cultural liabilities that came with it.
Here's an initial to do list:
- Publicly implement the Holder report recommendations. While the 47 recommendations in the Holder report are fairly obvious and could have been written by most second year law students, they also didn't happen by accident. They reflect real cultural and workplace problems. If Uber were a top secret government agency, then perhaps fixing the problems privately would suffice. But Uber is the highest profile startup in the world. Consumers don't seem to care what the company's inner workings are like, but current employees, potential hires, investors, reporters, tech insiders and many others certainly do. None of the Holder recommendations are that complicated. Mr. Khosrowshahi needs to not only aggressively implement them but demonstrate the status of each one, every quarter, publicly. This is the fastest way to show he's fixing the company's culture and win back people's confidence.
- Hire a serious management team. The skill set needed to take a vague concept like "let's make it possible for people to get a ride by pressing a button" and turn it into an actual business is very different from the skill set needed to run a $70 billion global behemoth. At the same time, much of Uber's potential and survival depends on the ability to constantly innovate. Mr. Khosrowshahi seems to embody a good mix of youth, innovation and real tech expertise with a serious demeanor and the experience of running a major public technology company. His hires need to reflect that same balance: we don't need cowboys sacrificing everything for the sake of growth but we also don't need a team of lawyers saying no to everything.
- Figure out autonomous. From everything I read and hear about the Waymo lawsuit, it seems like Anthony Lewandowski certainly may be facing personal legal trouble, but it's not at all clear that anyone at Uber ever actually used Waymo's designs or technology. Obviously, resolving the litigation is critical, but beyond that, what does Uber want to be in autonomous? The owner of millions and millions of self driving cars that replace individual car ownership? A partner to an OEM that builds and owns the cars? A software provider? Whenever Uber eventually does go public, the markets are going to have three questions: (1) What's the growth like and can it continue?; (2) Is everything still so messy or has it been fixed?; and (3) Beyond the core ridesharing business, what's the future of Uber? Just solving #2 and not screwing up #1 isn't enough. Mr. Khosrowshahi has to figure out #3, and autonomous is a big, big part of that.
- Find a way to work with Travis. I've said this before and I'll say it again: the first time I met Travis - back in 2011 - he said to me, "One day, no one will own a car. All cars will drive themselves. And you'll get a car by pressing a button." Since then, no one in the world has done more to make that a reality than Travis has. He's a powerful board member (unless the Benchmark lawsuit succeeds), a major shareholder, but far more important, a true visionary. Uber shouldn't deprive itself of one of its greatest assets. Finding a way to assert his own leadership, change the cultural direction of the company and still make Travis an effective partner won't be easy, but Mr. Khosrowshahi needs to figure it out.
- Prepare for an IPO. For most the board - especially Benchmark - that's all this has ever been about. Travis was reluctant to take the company public because he feared his style wouldn't mesh with the way the market expects CEO's to traditionally think and behave. Ironically, the board's impatience with that reluctance is what drove Travis out. Like most early investors, I would like to see Uber go public as soon as possible. That may mean more partnerships similar to what we saw in China with Didi and Russia with Yandex (the Middle East and Southeast Asia are the next two most logical regions). It certainly means hiring a top CFO and taking all of the steps necessary to access the public markets. It also means being more forthcoming about the company's finances so the public can better understand why Uber should be worth so much money. This all seems well within Mr. Khosrowshahi's wheelhouse.
Five steps. None are easy. But with the right leadership, all are achievable. The initial reviews of Mr. Khosrowshahi indicate he has the right mix of experience, talent, innovation, perspective and financial acumen to complete all five items on the list.
Our job now is to give him the support he needs to make it happen.