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Looking back over our coverage of Uber in 2017, the controversial subsidized taxi service based in San Francisco, it remains a wonder that this company survived what is arguably one of the worst years ever for a Silicon Valley startup. Stealing, lying, harassing, and bullying are just a few of the verbs that were associated with Uber’s year.
Along the way, we saw founder Travis Kalanick forced out and replaced by Dara Khosrowshahi as CEO. In between, we saw the most painful of CEO searches in which candidates either ran screaming from the chaos or were plunged into a humiliating civil war raging among board members.
Which means picking only 10 lowlights proved exceedingly difficult — ridiculously so. The appended list of runner-ups should attest to that.
But, without further delay, let us now relive the year that was for Uber, cringeworthy story by cringeworthy story:
1. Kalanick video: In late February, Kalanick was captured on video by the dashboard cam arguing with his Uber driver over declining fares. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement,” Kalanick wrote in an apology email to employees. “My job as your leader is to lead … and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away. It’s clear this video is a reflection of me — and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”
2. Self-driving theft: Google’s self-driving automobile unit filed a lawsuit against Uber, claiming Anthony Levandowski, a former Google employee who founded the unit, downloaded 14,000 files from its hardware systems on his way out the door. Levandowski then founded Otto, a self-driving truck company, which was then bought by Uber. The suit claimed Levandowski and Kalanick hatched the whole plot together, something Uber denies. In any case, the accusation eventually led to one-time golden boy Levandowski being fired in May.
3. The blog post: For all the investigations and discussions into Uber’s Bro culture, it was a blog post published in February by a former Uber engineer alleging widespread sexism and harassment during her year working there that proved explosive. Susan Fowler wrote that her claims of sexual harassment by managers were repeatedly dismissed by the company, often with the excuse that her bosses were “high performing.” That led the board to hire former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an independent investigation.
4. Greyball: Sweet fancy Moses. Uber apparently created a program called Greyball to avoid detection by authorities in places where it either faced harsh regulation or was banned. The New York Times broke the story, explaining that Greyball used data from its main Uber app to block local officials and remain off their radar.
6. Board fight, part I: VC firm Benchmark sued Kalanick and then went public with its reasons, following endless leaks. In a letter to employees, Benchmark wrote: “We know that many of you are asking why Benchmark filed a lawsuit against Travis last week. Perhaps the better question is why we didn’t act sooner… We are sorry that it has taken us so long to do the right thing.”
7. CEO search: A normally secretive process instead played out in public due to infighting by the board and incessant leaks. It got so bad that one finalist, HP CEO Meg Whitman, publicly took herself out of the running. Though she later apparently put herself back in the running and then lost out at the very last minute to dark horse Khosrowshahi. Whitman then publicly re-committed herself to HP. Then she later announced she was going to leave HP. Uber will make you do confusing things like that, I guess.
8. Board fight, part II: Hiring a new CEO brought approximately one nanosecond of peace. Ousted CEO Kalanick launched a power play to regain leverage on the board as the new CEO attempted to restructure it to limit the bad boy’s role. The result devolved into another display of public criticism from rival board factions, but it eventually ended with Khosrowshahi getting his way.
9. Losing its London license: Amid the distractions and chaos, someone forgot to make sure the lights stayed on. In September, a London transportation agency yanked Uber’s operating permits because it’s not a “fit and proper operator.” Also, the company was basically acting like jerk, the agency said: “Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications.” I say!
10. Hack: In November, the company’s new CEO dropped a bombshell. The previous year hackers accessed personal data of approximately 57 million Uber riders and drivers — a hack that previously went undisclosed. Oops! Actually, “disclosed” is being nice. The company allegedly paid off the hackers to keep quiet about it, and then decided to keep it under wraps.
11. Spying: No respite of bad news in December thanks to the disclosure of a letter by a former Uber employee in the lawsuit involving Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo. According to the New York Times: “The 37-page letter, written on behalf of Richard Jacobs, a former Uber security employee, detailed what he described as the formation of separate internal teams designed ‘expressly for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets’ from major ride-sharing competitors around the world.”
For runner-up honors, we might mention in passing the Uber driver arrested in the murder of a British diplomat; SoftBank offering to buy shares at a price far below Uber’s previous valuation of $70 billion; a federal investigation into Uber’s actions in the Waymo case; a European Union court ruling that Uber was a taxi service and could be regulated as such; widening losses in the third quarter; a suit filed in San Francisco accusing the company of race and gender discrimination; the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sanctioning Uber for failing to protect users’ data and requiring it to undergo 20 years of audits; and being subject of a report indicating it has been sued 433 times so far in 2017.
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