Uber launched a new product last month. It soared slightly under the press tech radar, because, alas, it did not involve puppies. Nor did it involve kittens. Nor pitching an investor in the back of a sedan.
The new product is called UberEvents. It's a simple concept: It allows an event host to gift rides to guests--and set certain parameters for those trips (so one can, say, make sure Uncle Phil gets home safe one evening--but not necessarily to the beach the following day). It launched November 4, with a blog post saying: UberEvents will "take your event to the next level."
Uber--the highest-valued American startup, at $62.5 billion--makes headlines daily for its stealthy expansion in Southeast Asia and its enviable pace of growth. But it's exceedingly rare to hear exactly how the company attains that growth. Uber has always been guarded about its operational strategy. The seven-year-old hulk of a startup rarely opens its hood these days to reporters, nor, of course, to the general public.
But recently, Inc. got an exclusive look inside the origin story of this one particular new product, through interviews with the two Uber employees who dreamed it up. They told the story of navigating around their own and their department's heavy workloads to get UberEvents made. What they explain illuminates much about how Uber as a company is maintaining its breakneck pace of growth by innovating from the inside--and by encouraging employee ingenuity. Here's a rare look inside Uber.
Midsummer Night Scheme
Earlier this year at Uber's San Francisco headquarters, a midsummer workday was ending, and employees were trickling out. But a few members of the team running Uber for Business--an autonomous group within Uber, made up of about 40 staff, including designers, project managers, marketing specialists, engineers, and salespeople--stuck around. A relatively new hire, product manager Greg Greiner, and the department's head, Max Crowley, started chatting.
"It got to be late night, and we were doing a jam session--that's something that's encouraged here," Crowley says, using Uber founder Travis Kalanick's term for a brainstorming talk-fest where thinking big and blurting out anything is sanctioned. A jam session, in fact, is often credited as the origin of the very idea behind UberCab, the company's name at its formation in 2009.
One of the services Uber for Business provided for some of its clients was the ability to pay for rides for visitors to town--say, an airport pickup of a job candidate--or rides home from a corporate event. But, as Greiner says, doing the work of creating event-specific promo codes manually wasn't scalable: "It's very high-touch, because you can't do that without actually talking to somebody about it." But both men knew that demand for guest codes for rides, particularly for guests at big company events, would accelerate over the holidays.
They tapped their fingers. While they could hypothesize that automating the creation of gift codes and adding customizable parameters to them was technologically possible, they were both project managers. They pulled a couple engineers, who were working late, into their conversation. From there, Crowley says, it became a game of "what's possible?"
"We can't be sitting on this if people are asking for it," Crowley concluded. And they'd need it by the fourth quarter of 2015. But the problem was, it would be nearly impossible to squeeze it into the team's existing workload anytime soon. "It was something that was not on our road map, so dedicating time during the workweek to it would have been sort of disruptive," Crowley says.
"But we thought: Is this a couple-day project, if we have enough people?" Crowley recalled. "Yes," they determined. "Yes, it is."
Before the week was up, the pair decided they'd devote personal time to the project, and hope some members of their team would volunteer, too. One weekend should do it, they figured. So they followed a path that was unconventional--though not without precedent at Uber--to do it.
Wheels in Motion
Crowley and Greiner booked a big house in Redwood City, California, for a weekend via Airbnb and invited members of their team--plus all the engineers they could--to join them for a two-night, two-day hackathon.
"We gassed up the Zipcar, got Postmates pizza, Instacart Red Bull, and breakfast food. And we set up shop," Crowley says, explaining the preparations organized, of course, through the appropriate startup-employee-friendly on-demand services. Nine additional Uber staffers accepted the invite for the weekend, including a couple interns. Some joined in the Zipcar ride down; one father commuted there solo for Saturday and Sunday daytimes, and got back home before bedtime.
Call it a "workation." You know, a vacation, but for work. Something of a combination company retreat and hackathon. It is not a uniquely Uber idea--but it is one propagated by the company's co-founder and chief executive. In fact, I first met Crowley more than two years ago, in Miami, when I was working on a feature on Uber and its co-founder, Travis Kalanick. Crowley was an ambitious new hire for Uber in Chicago. He was working as part of a workation crew feeling out South Florida for a potential city launch--and was eager to show off some of his launch chops, after helping debut the service to Chicagoans.
Crowley himself says he has been on three separate workations with Uber, mostly the kind the company used in the lead-up to a new-city launch. But the term--and practice--predates Uber as a company. Kalanick told me he loves a change of scenery, and learned back in the early aughts how it can help rejuvenate a team. Back before he was working on Uber, he took a team of engineers from his previous company, a peer-to-peer file-sharing company called Red Swoosh, to Thailand for six weeks, for instance.
"It definitely helps you think out of the box," Kalanick told The Wall Street Journal, about decamping to write code at a seaside café rather than in stuffy Silicon Valley cubicles. (He also took his team to the beach in Mexico--twice.)
Crowley followed suit with his own team--though a house in plain-old Silicon Valley would have to do for a quick weekend jaunt away from San Francisco, where most of the team lives. (He did manage to find an Airbnb listing with a large park just a short walk out the back door.)
So, on the last weekend of June, the team arrived in Redwood City on Friday night, piled out of the Zipcar, and began mapping out the project ahead of them, using pieces of paper and adhering large notes on the house's windows and walls. They spelled out the goal: Use Uber's existing capabilities in creating vouchers to create an autonomous system, wherein a user could set parameters for their use and distribution.
The design intern paired up with two engineering ones and built the front-end of the UberEvents prototype. The rest of the engineers tackled making it function. Crowley kept everyone in sync. To his surprise, barely anyone touched the case of Red Bull. There was even time for a few breaks to play games and take a hike in that park behind the house.
Bringing It All Back Home
On the road back to San Francisco Sunday, Crowley had a mobile hotspot running in the car he was driving. He says the adrenaline from hacking together a working product was still flowing--and the engineers were still coding away in the back seat for the duration of the drive. "It says a lot about the environment that Travis and others have built for us that even on the car trip home we couldn't stop obsessing over what we were building," he says.
By Monday morning, they had a working prototype--a "minimum viable product," or MVP, in San Francisco-speak.
"I felt extremely excited, because to be honest, it wasn't clear whether we were going to be able to do this in a weekend," Greiner says. "So I was really pumped to come in and drive it home."
Crowley couldn't wait to run into Kalanick and tell him what his team built. "I saw him the week after," and explained the product--and that it was the result of a weekend workation, Crowley says. "He was just smiling ear-to-ear. He said that this is just what we want to do, and how our expansion products should be created."
Uber for Business itself is a relatively new team within Uber. It was carved out last August, with fewer than 10 staffers pulled from other cities and departments. Today, it is nearly 40 strong, and the team reports to Tom Fallows, Uber's director of global expansion products, and Emil Michael, the company's senior vice president of business. "This team impressed me right away with a great idea that serves a real need. They impressed me even more with their hustle, use of limited resources, and ultimately the creative process they used to bring UberEvents to life and make it available to riders in plenty of time for the holiday season," Michael said.
Not just the higher-ups were pleased: The interns told Crowley and Greiner it was the highlight of their summer with Uber.
By September, UberEvents rolled out in a handful of cities, including Los Angeles, Austin, and New York, in beta, so event-creators could experiment with it. Two months later, it was ready for a full release, to every Uber user in the United States.
The benefits of UberEvents already seem clear to the team. Crowley notes it's not only a nice-to-have service for the 50,000 enterprise clients his team already serves, but also it's really good for Uber's customer acquisition. (Consider: If someone's been hesitant to download the app, but gets a free code from someone she already trusts--it may push her over the edge.)
Crowley says he can imagine taking other projects from idea to prototype over a weekend--and that if something remarkable is actually accomplished, he and his team don't mind giving up a day or two of their personal time. (He hinted that now that Uber is a larger company, it's difficult to get a team put on any project that doesn't already have market-penetration.)
"It's a culture of entrepreneurs, from the top-down," he says. "The whole environment is set up for us to be able to do that." Crowley attributes the culture to Kalanick, who he says is "an entrepreneur through and through," who "instilled that ownership in all of us."
Maybe it's true. Others are already taking a page from this playbook: Uber's API team just took a weekend and built a Slack plug-in. And now the Uber for Business team is working on potentially taking UberEvents global.
And maybe it's also true that on any given weekend, while the rest of us are raking leaves, brunching, or napping, some enterprising and scrappy team within Uber will be assembling its next project. The pursuit of world domination in the ground transportation business is, after all, a 24/7 mission.