‘Super Pumped’ Benefits From Hindsight in Its Complex Portrait of Uber

In October 2015, thousands of Uber employees took their seats at the Axis Theater in Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood, where they were introduced to “Professor Kalanick”—Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, wearing a white lab coat and thick black glasses and standing in front of a rickety schoolhouse chalkboard on wheels. The employees were in Vegas for Uber’s “X to the x” retreat, celebrating the fact that the seemingly unstoppable ride-hailing juggernaut had hit $10 billion in revenue. (At the time, Uber was bleeding more than $2 billion annually on promos for drivers and riders in order to support said juggernaut.)

The trip was mostly supposed to be a good time. Between the surprise Beyoncé concert, open bars, prepaid Visa cards, and hotel rooms, Uber spent more than $25 million in cash on a week of partying, more than twice the company’s Series A funding round. But back at Planet Hollywood, the Professor wanted to get serious.

Kalanick was obsessed with Amazon, idolized Jeff Bezos, and had carefully studied the tech giant’s 14 core principles, like Customer Obsession, Bias for Action, and Think Big. Standing on stage, Kalanick presented his flock, many of whom had spent the day drinking beers in poolside cabanas, with 14 of his own core principles. The house lights beamed down on green chalkboard to reveal what Kalanick called “Uber’s values”: Always Be Hustlin’, Champions Mindset/Winning, and, of course, Super Pumped.

“The list read like Amazon’s corporate values run through a bro-speak translation engine,” the journalist Mike Isaac writes in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. The book, out this week, traces Kalanick’s trajectory from floundering startup founder to the envy of Silicon Valley to the epitome of tech evil, and with him a decade of excess and self-delusion. Isaac’s meticulously reported account still finds jaw-dropping new lows, like an executive in Thailand shoving a female employee’s face in a pile of cocaine or Kalanick writhing on the floor of a meeting room at the Le Meridien hotel in downtown San Francisco after Bloomberg published a leaked video of the CEO berating a driver.

Kalanick was ousted from Uber in 2017, following a string of scandals around sexual harassment, surveillance of government officials, and privacy violations. Still, Super Pumped is an essential read, functioning, in a way, as a reverse translation engine—techspeak to plainspeak—to decode the industry’s dizzying ascent over the past decade, to the point where decisions made by a roomful of men on Market Street now have the power to change the face of a city or dictate wages and tips (or lack thereof) for millions of drivers.

During Uber’s rise, portraits of Kalanick or Uber dutifully parroted the company’s rhetoric around empowering entrepreneurship for drivers, of connecting “bits and atoms.” But by this point, Uber’s growth tactics had run their course, freeing up Isaac to focus on impact, rather than rhetoric or emotional intent. And, stripped of the hype around self-driving cars and efficient algorithms, Uber looks less like a thoroughbred tech unicorn and more like a Wall Street boiler room Ponzi scheme.

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Super Pumped by Mike Isaac | Buy on Amazon


W. W. Norton & Company

By breaking down the actual mechanics between “regulatory arbitrage” or “strike teams,” the book suggests that Uber’s business model was based on a simple, brutal calculus: raise money, spend like crazy on incentives, drop fares for drivers or increase prices, repeat. The formula did not work without exploiting drivers, a demographic Kalanick refers to internally, Isaac notes, as “supply.”

But Super Pumped avoids the easy option of villainizing Kalanick. Many have pointed out that Uber’s rule-breaking was enabled by the culture of founder worship. Isaac pushes the argument forward, mapping Kalanick’s behavior to core tenets of the anti-government, pro-hustle tech doctrine, implying that Kalanick was radicalized by Silicon Valley’s core beliefs. Isaac’s portrayal of Kalanick, who was not interviewed for the book, makes it clear that, while the man was uniquely wired to seek total dominance and humiliate his enemies like “a master training a dog,” as one source told him, he had “absorbed the Silicon Valley maxim” that growth is good and founders should be worshipped before Uber even launched.

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