3 Valuable Lessons From Uber Founder Travis Kalanick's TED Talk

To call Uber a controversial company would be an understatement. At today’s TED Conference, Founder Travis Kalanick talked with TED Curator Chris Anderson about how it is how it is trying to grow up. Here are three big takeaways:

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to revise your image when your audience changes

Recently Kalanick took charge of Uber’s first logo redesign… to very mixed results. The switch from the ubiquitous U to the abstract lock-and-key logo has confused customers (TED Curator Chris Anderson admitted that, when he went to take an Uber recently, he couldn’t find the app). Uber’s head of design even left the company after the logo’s release, which is, at best, an unfortunate coincidence. But according to Kalanick, the change was absolutely necessary.

“When we first got started, it was just black cars. Literally you push a button and get an S-Class. What we did almost did, what I would call, an immature luxury brand that looked like a badge on a luxury car. And as we’ve gone worldwide, from S-Classes to auto rickshaws in India, it was important for us to be more accessible, to be more hyperlocal… We also had to become more iconic. A “U” doesn’t mean anything in Sanskrit. A “U” doesn’t mean anything in Mandarin.”

Lesson 2: The faster you grow, the more culture needs to take precedence

The last couple of years have been rough with Uber culture, in particular with journalists critical of their methods. One Uber executive reportedly threatened a female writer’s family. Anderson asked what, exactly, was going on inside of Uber during this time of chaos. Kalanick admitted that they were overwhelmed, but 

“If you go literally two and a half years ago, our company was 400 people. Today, it is 6,500. When you go through that growth, you have to cement your culture values and talk about them all of the time. Make sure people are constantly checking. ‘Are we good people doing good work?’ If you’ve checked those boxes, the next part of that is making sure you’re telling your story. I think we learned a lot of lessons and came out stronger.

Lesson 3: Assume your way of business will change in the future

Kalanick already said that he expected Uber to be run by self-driving cars in the future. Why alienate the current workforce? When pressed, Kalanick said that the self-driving car world was much further than we think (well beyond 5 years from now), but that it was better to be aware of the future.

“The self-driving world is going to happen. How do we optimistically lead through it? It is a world that is going to exist.”

The overall lesson here is to change before you need to change, something Uber successfully did with its logo and its far-reaching statements, and less so with its culture. It seems one of the biggest unicorns in the world is also playing catchup.

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