Innovation isn’t enough. Build a culture you’re proud of.
By Adam Tinworth
03/03/2017 | There's a phrase that's come into common use over the last couple of years that perfectly describes what's happened to car sharing service Uber: it's become a dumpster fire.
It's a wonderfully American phrase, evoking the idea of a dumpster burning in some city back alley, and it's being applied to that most American of disruptors. I won't rehash all the details of the problems that have best Uber over the past 10 days, as you can check out pretty much the whole of the rest of the tech web for that. And some more mainstream outlets, Suffice it to say, a former employee wrote a damning account of her time at the company, and the sexual discrimination she suffered, and things snowballed from there - until CEO Travis Kalanick was filmed arguing with an Uber driver in a cab.
It's not a great look on a CEO.
The two-edged transparent sword
I think it's clear that there's something deeply rotten in Uber's culture right now. And no doubt there's more to come on that front. But the interesting thing to me is that the company is being dragged over the coals by the exact same phenomenon it exploited - the ability of the internet to connect things.
Or, to put it another way, you can't pick and chose the best of transparency the internet brings to suit your own agenda. It was that transparent connection between driver and rider that made Uber so very powerful. Both have a mobile device with their location. One expresses need, one expresses availability, a connection is made, a transaction occurs. So simple. So beautiful. So compelling.
Uber did a wonderful thing. It harnessed the transparency of the internet to make an everyday process so much better than it was before - and justifiably reaped the rewards.
But disruption alone is not enough. The central idea of Uber has been easily cloned by the likes of Lyft and MyTaxi. Competition comes quickly.
One woman. One blog. One crisis.
That's not the problem, though. Goodwill attached to the original product can keep it ahead of the game. The problem is that the cultural problems within the organisation can't be hidden away any more. The engineer who triggered this crisis posted the account on her own blog. One woman. One blog. That's all it takes to lay bare a company's culture. It's harnessing the transparency of the internet to right a wrong - and expose a tainted culture. One that appears to be fighting back.
Uber banked on the transparency of the internet to build its business. But it certainly didn't bank on the transparency of the internet exposing its seedier underbelly.
That's the lesson here: you can't pick and choose th bits of transparency you want. So, build an innovative business, sure. But build it in a way you'd be proud of - and which won't embarrass you when well-regarded former employees start writing blog posts about you.