Uber’s Reckless Driver

May 18, 2017, 10:30 AM UTC
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Attends The Third Netease Future Technology Conference
BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 28: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick delivers a speech at the Third Netease Future Technology Conference on June 28, 2016 in Beijing, China. Concentrated around the theme of ¡°Force Sense,¡± the Third Netease Future Technology Conference invites entrepreneurs, scientists, writers, and celebrities to explore future tech and sets areas to experience virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and smart cars. (Photo by Wang K'aichicn/VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Wang K'aichicn — VCG/VCG via Getty Images

“It’s often observed with wonder,” my colleague Geoff Colvin wrote in Fortune some months ago, that “Airbnb is the world’s largest provider of accommodations but owns no real estate, and that Uber is the world’s largest car service but owns no cars.”

Each of these quintessentially 21st-century businesses connects buyers and sellers directly, instantly, and globally—dispensing with middlemen, bypassing entrenched corporate leaders and long-protected guilds, and harnessing the bootstrap entrepreneurialism of hundreds of thousands of independent contractors around the world. These companies have no inventories to stock, no supply chains to manage, very little overhead to maintain, few capital expenditures to invest in (beyond some core intellectual property), no unions to negotiate with, and relatively few employees to provide benefits for.

Indeed, in an economic sense, it’s hard to imagine business models that are this “frictionless.” And yet, both of these companies generate plenty of friction nonetheless. Airbnb, whose core business has clashed with existing short-term rental laws in many markets, has gotten pushback from regulators, unions, and—no surprise—the hotel industry that’s struggling to compete against it. And as for Uber? Well, let’s just say that if the company faces any more friction from opponents, litigants, regulators, drivers, and its own executive ranks, it may self-combust.

That’s the big-picture story—the driving tension of the 21st-century economy. And it’s only going to get bigger and more tense.

But in Uber’s case, there’s another, equally compelling tale to tell: one of a CEO foundering under the weight of his own impatient ambition. Much of the heat surrounding the ride-sharing upstart, in fact, seems to be generated less by Uber’s disruptive business model than by its disruptive leader, Travis Kalanick—a pugnacious, bro-culture brawler who, to many, has become a “corporate villain for the ages,” as Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky writes in this issue (please see “Riding Shotgun With Travis Kalanick”).

When it comes to revealing the human drivers of the tech revolution (Steve Jobs at Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Tim Cook at Apple), there is simply no one better than Adam. And he proves it again in this issue, in an excerpt from his new book, Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination. Though Fortune readers are getting a fantastic preview here, I highly recommend getting and reading the whole wonderful book. I promise you, it lives up to its title.

Throughout its long history, of course, Fortune has had no shortage of marvelous storytellers. And increasingly, those important tales are being spun out onstage—as I was privileged to witness at a private New York ­dinner for some of the world’s most powerful women. The dinner, part of Fortune’s celebrated MPW franchise, brought with it a moving speech by Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts and a stirring interview with former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson. In this roomful of CEOs, soon-to-be chieftains, and fearless entrepreneurs, there was talk of power and empowerment all night. But it was our own Pattie Sellers, the executive director of Fortune MPW summits and live content, who captured it perfectly: “Power is best measured by how far you spread it,” she said.

That’s a lesson, perhaps, for the new Silicon ­Valley titans to take to heart. As cool as it may be to create new platforms and pay models, it’s that much cooler to pay one’s success forward.

A version of this article appears in the June 1, 2017 issue of Fortune. We’ve included affiliate links in this article.

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