When Travis Kalanick founded his Ayn Rand-themed car service, Uber, five years ago, even he didn't expect that it would so quickly become a $50 billion company/social epoch touchstone.
But here we are.
Uber is a meteorically rising company and a catchphrase for everything that is both promising and terrifying about the new tech-enabled sharing economy.
Last night, Kalanick gathered his nearest and dearest for a little anniversary celebration, honored them with a very well-scripted speech and then put the whole thing on the internet... because he's 38-year-old tech CEO and that's what they do.
The speech was cannily personal and political, a melange of shout-outs to his mom and thinly-veiled warnings to regulators and politicians. Kalanick and his speechwriters managed to strike an overtly forward-thinking tone that fits in nicely with the election cycle blooming up around us.
In terms of actual news, Kalanick's speech prompted an Atlas-sized shrug. But the tone of the speech was Randian enough to give Alan Greenspan the thickening.
Here's a good taste.
We get this great opportunity at Uber to go to a mayor and say, let us serve. Let us serve and let’s create 20,000 jobs in the next couple years. Let us serve and let’s reduce pollution in your city. Let us serve and let us take 10 cars off the road for every Uber that’s fully utilized on the road. When we show up to that new city, a lot of companies out there ask for handouts. We don’t ask for special favors or handouts. And whenever we’re asked to abide by modern regulations that protect the rights and safety of passengers and drivers, we do – because we believe in those protections, too.
All we ask of these cities is that they allow their citizens to start serving their neighbors. Our belief is that if a driver meets all the criteria for safety, for insurance, and for quality, and she wants to make a living driving people around, why can’t she?
At the 19-minute mark, Kalanick turned on some City Hall-era Al Pacino language but then scaled it back to talk more about Travis.
Kalanick took pains to acknowledge that his public persona has been less than heroic, and made a nice little joke about it.
I realize that I can come off as a somewhat fierce advocate for Uber. I also realize that some have used a different “a”-word to describe me.
Wordplay... nice. But he wasn't done.
Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect, and neither is this company. Like everyone else, we make mistakes, but at Uber we are passionate about learning from them. And the reason I’m so proud of what we’ve already done – the reason I believe so strongly in what we’re trying to do – is because in city after city, we’ve seen it work.
Kalanick likes to flirt with the Vader helmet, but he also likes for people to know that there's still some good in him yet.
Kalanick hit hard on the themes of Uber's ability to grow middle-class jobs by giving drivers an opportunity to work (he did not mention any plans to replace them all with automated cars) and the idea that Uber can help ease the load on America's failing transportation infrastructure.
In the end, the message was clear: Uber is here to save us all... so stop your whining and tap a ride.