Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber

By Karl Schwonik

by Mike Isaac
W.W. Norton
2019/$36.95/320 pp.

Modern comforts such as home delivery of nearly anything imaginable, powerful search engines
and computers on your phone have all come about in the past two decades. This technological sea-change has facilitated the growth of the “sharing economy”—also known as the “gig economy” or the “access economy,” in which peer-to-peer “sharing” or renting of items or services is made possible through the internet. The economics behind modern sharing tools are simple: everyone has something they use, just not all the time. Why not let others use it for a price? When a family goes on vacation, they can rent out their house (AirBnB). When a carpenter is off the clock, they can find odd jobs (TaskRabbit). If someone is not using their car for 12+ hours a day (very few do), they can give others a ride.

This last example is Uber, the world’s pre-eminent ride-sharing company. Co-founded in 2009 by Garrett Camp (who was born and raised in Calgary and is credited with the original idea for Uber) and by former CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber has become an aggressive, international behemoth that now offers ride and delivery services in nearly 800 cities around the world, including Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and Lethbridge. In that expansion Uber has caused financial hardship for legacy businesses such as taxi companies.

Super-Pumped: The Battle for Uber chronicles the company’s rapid rise. Author Mike Isaac, a technology reporter for The New York Times who had close access to insiders, focuses on Kalanick, Uber’s CEO from 2010 to 2017. Kalanick took a no-holds-barred, count-casualties-later, who-cares-about-rules-when-everyone’s-making-money approach to growth. “To Kalanick,” writes Isaac, “local ‘laws’ were hypocritical rules that city officials put together at the behest of transportation groups.” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (recorded while riding with rival Lyft in Boston) famously had choice words for Kalanick when Uber came to Alberta. He later apologized, but the tensions are emblematic of those seen around the world.

Isaac had a seemingly endless list of insiders willing to give him documents and detailed information, and Super Pumped tells a series of well-written, salacious backroom stories about corporate bro-culture and a founder/CEO who didn’t know when to stop (until investors finally forced Kalanick out). The book reveals how a small startup grew into a $50-billion+ household name. But rather than a story about leadership, economics and strategy, it’s more a cautionary tale about how a CEO’s pursuit of profit above all led to the disregard of social norms, traditions and even laws in our interconnected age.

—Karl Schwonik is an associate dean at Medicine Hat College.

 

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