The head of Uber Toronto recently made what passed for a New Year's resolution when he vowed that the rogue and rebellious ride-sharing company would be "more humble" in 2015.
It turns out this wasn't Ian Black's idea. The Uber Toronto general manager was just spouting the latest talking points used by the taxi-industry disrupter, whose bad behaviour is catching up with it. The rules-are-made-to-be-broken attitude it once bragged about is turning off current and potential customers, especially women and the city's politicians Uber needs to woo.
So, Uber is starting out 2015 promising to be more contrite and co-operative.
As Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick, wrote in a blog post this month: "[T]aking swift action is where Uber shines, and we will be making changes in the months ahead. Done right, it will lead to a smarter and more humble company that sets new standards in data privacy, gives back more to the cities we serve and defines and refines our company culture effectively."
The thing about New Year's resolutions, though, is that you only keep them if you're truly serious about them. But every fibre of Uber's corporate being is built on hubris. The humble gene is not part of its DNA. Why else would the company be worth a purported $41-billion (U.S.)?
The investors – including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google and Goldman Sachs – that have so far pumped $2.9-billion into Uber didn't bet on humble. What they saw and liked in Mr. Kalanick and his team was their act-first-ask-questions-later brashness.
Since its 2009 creation, Uber has systematically ignored existing laws to launch its ride-sharing app in more than 250 cities. It insists the laws are irrelevant because it's not a taxi service – it's a technology company. Its smartphone app merely connects credit-card-bearing riders with drivers, whose services range from higher-priced UberBlack limos to cut-rate UberX compact cars.
Uber takes a cut of the fare and collects mountains of data on its customers, allowing it to monitor their movements in what many consider truly creepy ways. The company remains haunted by a 2012 blog post (since deleted) that showed it could track customers' Rides of Glory – late-night weekend trips to red-light districts or one-night stands.
Uber is accused of doing insufficient background checks on its drivers. Drivers have stood accused of assaulting passengers or carrying inadequate insurance. The company's "surge-pricing" model, which ties fares to demand, resulted in allegations of price-gouging as passengers fled the Sydney district where a hostage taking occurred this month. A top Uber executive privately urged digging up dirt on journalists critical of the company.
Citing security concerns and bylaw violations, Toronto is seeking a court injunction to stop Uber from operating. Similar challenges are under way in dozens of cities. Although the Toronto case won't be heard until May, Mayor John Tory has already acknowledged that Uber is "here to stay."
But is it?
Much of Uber's future success will depend on how well it exploits its so-called first mover advantage. There is nothing particularly special about Uber's technology, which appears to be easily replicable. Indeed, it already has competitors in Hailo (in Europe) and Lyft (in the United States). And though Uber is trying to patent its surge-pricing algorithm, that, too, can be easily copied.
That's why Uber needs to go big or go home. It needs to become the Amazon of intracity transportation services, displacing not only traditional taxis but couriers and shippers, too. And it needs to do it fast, to crush potential copycats before they have a chance to grow.
That's also why so much of that seed capital isn't being spent on technology development but on lobbying. The company has hired an army of the highest-priced lobbyists available, led by 2008 Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, to thwart efforts to regulate it. Its already scored major successes in diluting or rolling back laws in Virginia, Illinois and California. It's now launching a similar lobbying offensive to sway Toronto city councillors.
"We are six times bigger today than 12 months ago," Mr. Kalanick said on his blog. "But it is in the coming years that Uber truly scales [up] and the impact in cities becomes visible. In 2015 alone, Uber will generate over one million jobs in cities around the world, and with that millions of people may decide that they no longer need to own a car because using Uber will be cheaper."
Does that sound like a humble New Year to you?