The most important lesson from Uber’s travails is that bad culture doesn’t scale. Talented teams with bad culture can build fantastic businesses, but not businesses that last. A unicorn with bad culture is a unicorn with a bomb strapped to its back — it’s only a matter of time before bad culture catches up and forces disruptive change. Sometimes bad culture rears its ugly head quickly, as it did with Zenefits. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until after multi-billion dollar per year business is established, as it did with Uber.
The culture at Uber wasn’t a secret. It had always been known as an aggressive one, and that culture deserves some credit for helping Uber transform the ride hailing industry; however, the bigger and more established a company becomes, the harder it is to maintain bad culture. Rumors spread, lawsuits happen, and good hires leave because it wasn’t what they signed up for. The media will report every painstaking detail. Advanced companies like Uber also face public backlash from customers, impacting revenue. If Uber were a publicly traded company, the stock would be down at least 30% in the past month given the CEO turmoil. Maybe down 50% for the year adding in the Google lawsuit and other well-publicized troubles.
During our time as public equity analysts, we’ve had the opportunity to cover some great, lasting companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. A common thread between all four of those companies is great culture. When Steve Jobs passed away, we wrote that his greatest achievement wasn’t the iPhone, the iPod, or the Mac, but Apple itself. He left behind a culture of good people driving revolutionary innovation. That might sound simple, but not compromising on your values and consistently hiring the right people that share those values is hard. It’s especially hard for a startup trying to build quickly while bearing the pressure of venture investor expectations.
It’s hard to determine the long-term fallout of Uber’s culture problem. The company has “verbed” itself, much like Google, which allows it a significant brand advantage. One of our teammates has joked that he would, “uber us a Lyft.” With broad leadership change, including the departure of its CEO, Uber has a chance to grow new roots and overcome the negative culture that’s now detracting far more than it ever added.
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