Venture

‘Super Pumped’ Review: The Not-So-Smooth Uber Ride That Travis Kalanick Took Us All On

The first time I used Uber, I had just moved to Boston for college. Far from being a luxury service, the app-turned-verb felt just as necessary to getting around the city as the T or taxis.

I, like millions of people, found comfort in the convenience of an on-demand taxi. And when there were huge discounts on the already discounted fare? Even better.

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However, while my first ride may have felt smooth, my feelings towards subsequent trips were complicated by Uber’s relentless pursuit of growth at all costs. After Susan Fowler’s blog post detailing the toxic, inappropriate culture at the company was published, I thought I knew how bad it was. But as the New York Times technology reporter Mike Isaac epitomizes in his new book, Super Pumped, the problems didn’t just run to the top, they were rooted there. 

Convenience came at the cost of privacy; discounts at the cost of violence—all of which is broken down by Isaac with shameless details that only someone who has covered the global ride-hailing behemoth for half-a-decade could know.

While my first ride may have felt smooth, my feelings towards subsequent trips were complicated by Uber’s relentless pursuit of growth at all costs

In this 345-page book, you will learn about Uber. But the corporate saga hinges on Travis Kalanick, the company’s reckless, brave, and eventually-ousted leader. Through Isaac, we eavesdrop on Kalanick’s “Jampad” sessions (his apartment where he brainstormed startups), stand behind Steve Jobs when he shows John Doerr the first iPhone on a sunny sidewalk, and even get eyes on the never-before-seen letter Kalanick received from the board of directors demanding his resignation. You’ll learn about the powerful forces that boosted the ex-CEO up, and how few women were part of Kalanick’s rise, beyond the savagely loyal Arianna Huffington.

Taking us through the stories that the New York Times often broke itself, Isaac sharpens old news into fresh suspense. Susan Fowler’s bravery, in her post detailing Uber’s toxic culture, made me cheer; the tension with Logan Green, the CEO of Lyft, made me gasp; and the details with Garrett Camp, the founder of Uber who brought Kalanick on in the first place, reads dramatically.

Say what you want about Kalanick—and Isaac certainly does via interviews with more than 200 people over the years—but tech observers and this book’s readers would be hard pressed to deny the controversial ex-CEO’s former and current level of power.

After all, he didn’t just get ousted and hang up his hat. He’s currently the founder of Cloud Kitchens, an on-demand kitchen space. He also netted nearly $5 billion from Uber’s IPO.

But for every absurd Kalanick move, I was waiting to turn to one chapter that never came: a deep dive into Kalanick’s mental health. We get stories on how his toxic behavior and party boy attitude impacted those around him, but I was left wondering a bit more about his vulnerability and possible mental health issues—a condition many founders face.

Yet I don’t get the impression from Isaac he wants the reader to hate Kalanick. Nor does he want us to root for him. Instead, I sense that he wants readers to be dubious of the startups they use for convenience, and journalists to be even more skeptical of the hottest new app that might “disrupt” the world.

After all, Kalanick was only as big as the investors, employees, drivers, customers, and media let him become. And Isaac’s book, beyond Uber and Kalanick, is a tale of Silicon Valley’s culture. It’s the story of a world that doesn’t just support alpha-male white men; it rewards them handsomely, even in the face of controversy, abuse, and espionage.

But Isaac doesn’t leave his readers with that conclusion. He also provides an account of how to hold the powerful responsible, whether through the press that is out for “blood” or a single, revolutionary, blog post. A tipping point, it seems at least from Isaac’s point of view, is inevitable.

Illustration Credit: Li-Anne Dias

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