What are Uber's ultimate goals?
According to author Douglas Rushkoff, it's to create an automotive logistics company and expand into driverless cars, something that's a hot trend now that GM is about to acquire Cruise Automation. Rushkoff's Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity was just published by Portfolio. His comments during a panel at the SXSW 2016 conference were quite controversial, so much so that I started to wonder if he's ever had someone give him a wild ride.
I sure have. Last year at SXSW, someone gave me a lift (excuse the term) in downtown Austin. I hung on for dear life. The driver almost rear-ended two different drivers, almost ran over someone walking through an intersection, and was obviously in a big hurry to get to the next pick-up. It's why I've thought for a while now that Uber needs to start a certification program for drivers. (I'd pay a little more if I knew the driver had at least gone through some sort of remedial training program.)
Rushkoff made some excellent points. Uber wants to give everyone--but mostly investors--the impression that it is providing jobs for the world, that it is taking on the taxi industry, that it is a proponent of the gig economy. Yet, he claimed many of the drivers are broke. Some are unemployed, so Uber is a last-ditch effort to create a stable form of income.
The underlying point with his message is that companies are driven to attract investment capital as a way to generate more revenue and eventually go public. They are not driven to make their customers successful, even though that should be the ultimate goal of every great company. Rushkoff said this capital investment mindset was created 400 years ago when the modern bazaar came into existence--along with the early forms of currency and marketplace trading. He argued that it's OK to want to create a small, local company that makes a profit. The goal shouldn't always be to create a massive company bent on adding shareholder value.
I've wondered what Uber is trying to do at times. At SXSW, it's a zigzag of budget cars prancing in and out of the maze of congestion. It's nuts. At one event, I saw multiple people jump in and out of Uber and Lyfts cars and then watched as multiple people jump in and go, and never noticed any taxis. In fact, I haven't seen the traditional yellow cab yet, even at the Hilton. It looks like Uber is printing money.
But where does it all go from here? Rushkoff used the word "pivot" like it was a buzzkill. The original vision of a company is squashed, so they reinvent themselves. If the vision of Uber is to build up revenue, go public, and become a peer-to-peer logistics company, that might be a good thing for some, maybe not for the drivers.
I wanted to find out, so I risked taking another Uber. Honestly, I prefer to walk. I took Rushkoff's advice and asked my driver how much she makes. "You don't want to know," she said. My guess is that it is fairly minimal. I can see how this might be a good fill-in job. I can't imagine driving around Austin every day in your personal car making about the same wage as a Fed-Ex clerk. She wouldn't elaborate--I imagine there are rules against that--but judging by her reaction, it seems like this is a temporary business model. I wonder if it is temporary for Uber as well.