Editor's note: Inc. magazine will announce its pick for Company of the Year on Monday, December 11. Here, we spotlight a contender for the title in 2017.
It's impossible to talk about Uber in 2017 without talking about the scandals. They seemed endless. But throughout its spate of astonishingly bad PR, Uber's business has continued to grow. Company leadership is confident that 2017 was the peak of its notoriety, not of its fortunes. "We've actually come out a much stronger company, I think, than when we went into the year," said Uber VP and general manager Rachel Holt, who runs the North American division and global customer support.
The biggest bombshell dropped in February, when former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post about her experiences of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the company. The outrage was immediate, and it didn't die down. The company's seemingly ruthless business practices were well-known, but the brokenness of its internal culture came as more of a surprise. Not a huge surprise, granted, since bad behavior from Uber executives had gone unpunished in the past.
The startup's board was finally shocked into action. By June, founder and CEO Travis Kalanick was successfully pushed to resign. In August, the job was offered to Dara Khosrowshahi, then-CEO of Expedia. (At this point, Kalanick was being sued by one of the venture capital firms that invested in Uber.) Khosrowshahi accepted the job and immediately set about rehabilitating Uber's image.
Throughout its troubles, Uber has remained an attractive asset, valued at upwards of $60 billion by private investors. The company maintains a burn rate to match, although losses are reported to be shrinking. Holt confirmed this, with a touch of defensiveness. "The path to profitability is actually quite clear," she said. "We've seen it in our most mature cities, city after city. We now literally have hundreds of proof points." If Uber were to hold off on investments "in things like Eats, or autonomous [cars], sure, the burn rate could go down tomorrow," she said, but that's not the kind of company that Uber is.
New CEO or not, the startup is oriented toward aggressive growth, and its tendency to push boundaries likely hasn't vanished after a handful of months without tempestuous Kalanick at the head. Growing pains are to be expected, Holt added. "We are actually unbelievably advanced in terms of some of our training or culture stuff," she said, "versus what you'd expect in a three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-year-old company." The larger problem is this, she said: "We're just also incredibly un-built-out for a 15,000-person company." Holt said that Khosrowshahi's experience at Expedia will be useful when it comes to catching up.
As for this past year, a challenge with skyrocketing growth is that "you only fix the thing that is broken in front of you that moment," she said."And, obviously, this year [Uber's culture] was the thing that was breaking." The hope is that in 2018 it won't be.