5 Entrepreneurial Lessons From Uber on Its 5-Year Anniversary

Radhika Sivadi

4 min read ·


Remember 2010? Justin Bieber was 16 years old and becoming a teen superstar, Breaking Bad was just getting really good, an earthquake devastated Haiti, an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig caused the worst oil spill in history and Uber was just a baby.

Five years later, Bieber has grown up and so has Uber.

What started out as UberCab in San Francisco has grown into a beast in the transportation world. The company now operates in 300 cities in 58 countries, has more than 1 million drivers working on its platform and is valued at more than $40 billion, with some new estimates reportedly stretching as high north as $50 billion. Along the ride, Uber’s founder and CEO Travis Kalanick has become a billionaire five times over. He is currently worth $5.3 billion.

But Uber’s rise to stardom didn’t come without some pretty controversial detours including a driver being accused of raping a passenger in India, an executive who suggested that the ridesharing company should dig up personal dirt on journalists who run afoul of the company and the transportation juggernaut is pretty regularly getting into hot water with regulators around the world.

It’s becoming clear that Kalanick has had some time to think about his maladies, though. On the eve of Uber’s five-year anniversary, he delivered a speech to employees and drivers where he reflected on where the company has come from, what it’s been through and where it’s headed.

Related: Lyft CMO: Uber Is the Wal-Mart of Transportation. We Aren’t.

Here are five takeaways from Kalanick’s speech, which, even if you aren’t sitting at the helm of a $50 billion global Goliath, are worth remembering as you launch and grow your own business.

1. Even big companies start small.

It might be hard to believe but Uber wasn’t always such a big deal. Just five years ago, the global company was only a four-person team in San Francisco.

“We couldn’t have guessed that this would be something we would do or something in our future but here we are. For a while, Graves [Uber’s head of operations] and I, we could barely keep the lights on and our thoughts in the beginning were really about surviving and making sure we had enough rides with the number of cars we put on the system,” said Kalanick. “We needed to make sure we were surviving, much less thriving.”

Launching a company isn’t always glamorous. But tough times do not mean it’s the end of the road. Keep your head down and pushing toward what you believe in.

2. Great businesses solve a problem.

If you are dreaming of being the founder of the next Uber, start by zeroing in on a very specific problem that you have. Then fix that problem.

The other founder of Uber, Garrett Camp, who now serves as a chairman of the company, wanted to be able to push a button and get a ride to wherever he wanted to go, says Kalanick. “Uber didn’t begin with any grand ambitions, it began as the answer to that simple question.”

Related: Who Exactly Are Uber’s Drivers?

3. Give people a better, cheaper option.

Part of why Uber has experienced such astronomical growth is that consumers are driven by convenience and price. And for many people who need to go from point A to point B, taking a car powered by Uber is often the fastest, most reliable way to get where you need to go.

“Uber is the most affordable transportation choice. In most cities, UberX is half the cost of a taxi and when you factor in parking, insurance and maintenance, commuting with UberX is cheaper than owning a car,” says Kalanick.

For drivers, Uber is also a convenient complement to a busy life already jam packed with obligations – and squeezed with bills. “These people tell us they drive, because they love the flexibility these jobs provide,” says Kalanick. “What other job out there can you just turn it on when you want to start and off when you want to stop – whenever you feel like it.”

As you are looking to launch or grow your business, look to solve your customers’ problems in the most efficient and convenient way possible.

4. Admit your mistakes.

Kalanick isn’t known for being a charmer. In fact, quite the opposite. But he also seems to be willing to call out himself – and his company – on tone deaf behavior.

I realize that I can come off as a somewhat fierce advocate for Uber. I also realize that some have used a different ‘A’ word to describe me,” said Kalanick in his speech. “Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect and neither is this company. Like everyone else, we make mistakes.”

This isn’t the first time Uber has made an effort to improve its PR. Six months ago, when Uber announced its $1.2 billion raise, it also expressed its remorse for its arrogance and committed to more sensitive behavior going forward.

Even the most successful entrepreneurs are also human beings. You are going to mess up or step out of turn. That’s life. But don’t think your customers didn’t notice. Fess up, apologize, learn from your mistakes and move on.

Related: Finland’s Capital Wants to Do Away With Car Ownership

5. Roadblocks may slow you down but don’t let them stop you.

Uber has had to change the laws (or just flat out ignore them) in order for it to be able to expand. “We’ve faced resistance every step of the way. Nearly every time we try to set up shop in a new city, there’s a powerful industry with powerful allies who try to stop progress — you may have read about it in the news — who try at all costs to protect the status quo,” said Kalanick.  

Not all companies are going to be working to rewrite city and state laws to be able to operate, but regardless of what you are trying to start, there will be hurdles. If you are going to build a successful business, you can’t let that halt your momentum or efforts.

Watch Kalanick’s full remarks below:

Related: The Future of the Sharing Economy Is a World Built Like Bitcoin

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Radhika Sivadi