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Book review | Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac

Isaac’s story is more a story of Kalanick, and less of Uber, and it could be argued that no matter the company, a good story is always about a person


If Uber is one of the most influential companies of all time, then this book is one of the most influential works of business journalism in a while. That’s saying something, because this millenium of business and technology, particularly the Silicon Valley giants, have brought with them some well-told astonishing tales of corporate ambition and prowess.

New York Times technology reporter Mike Isaac tells an incredibly important story about a company that is a household name today. Ride-hailing firm Uber is important for many reasons. Its core business, as fundamental as transport - as broken as it gets in big cities - is only one reason. Uber heralded the era of seemingly forever loss-making Silicon Valley startups, a trend which is also seen in the consumer internet markets such as India, Indonesia and China.

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The “Uber of XYZ” became a part of pitch decks that startups presented to investors. Uber’s breakneck pace of growth, its scant regard for regulation, dramatic fights with all stakeholders putting soap operas to shame, and the creation of the gig economy are a part of modern technology lore.

Co-founder and CEO (until mid 2017) Travis Kalanick built Uber into a juggernaut, raising truck loads of venture capital from blue chip investors in every part of the globe, expanding to multiple countries double-quick, and driven by “growth at all costs”, another phrase synonymous with startups everywhere in the past decade. The cost of that growth becomes clear later on.

Isaac’s story is more a story of Kalanick, and less of Uber, and it could be argued that no matter the company, a good story is always about a person. He starts with Kalanick’s first two startups; Scour- a failure, and Red Swoosh- a smaller outcome than expected. Kalanick’s experience with VC investors in Scour- they led him on without investing, sued him and finally forced Kalanick selling Scour for scrap- defines his turbulent relationship with investors at Uber. Isaac paints a picture of a defiant, brazen Kalanick.

Except its core business and the challenges and opportunity in mobility, Uber’s narrative is defined by two things- capital to support loss-making upstarts and the culture of a boys college hostel at a multibillion dollar company.

Capital has played a critical role in technology startups of the past decade, right from Facebook. But no company biography breaks down the profession of venture capital in the context of hot flashy startups the way Super Pumped does. The book draws an intimate portrait of how investors work, what do they look for and the idiosyncrasies of large funding rounds. Uber’s early investor Benchmark- one of the Valley’s top firms- and its partner Bill Gurley play a defining role in the book.

Chapter 7 of the book- “The Tallest Man in Venture Capital” is a brilliant and memorable read profiling Gurley- one of the most important investors of this generation. As are the parts where Isaac outlines Kalanick’s fundraising strategy- creating Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), strategically keeping meetings shorter than they need to be, and even pitting investors against one another, so that they all queue up to invest one way or another at consistently higher valuations.

Flush with capital and expanding to dozens of countries and hundreds of cities, Uber’s work culture, or the lack of a decent one, took shape. Drinking parties filled with debauchery, making women feel uncomfortable, and sexual harassment- Uber became the poster bad boy of corporate America, and the startup world at large, by 2017. Isaac calls it the most turbulent period in American corporate history.

This story is important enough just for everything that happened at Uber. But it is so much more. Uber also spurred a cultural shift- of raising billions of dollars with no end in sight, staying a private company for as long as possible, of regulations not being something to comply with as much as to deal with if push comes to shove, and of a harmful corporate work culture fueled by testosterone- also a trait many other startups possess. Isaac’s book is peppered with great details and anecdotes to illustrate all these.

The book ends with Kalanick’s eventual ouster as CEO and Uber’s eventual listing as a public company - seminal events in corporate and tech history. Kalanick’s exit is as harsh an exit as he was aggressive, and as important as the company he built. This section too is wonderfully detailed, from the Holiday Inn where Kalanick wrote a letter to his team, to the contents of the letter itself, to the speculation around the new CEO- which happens with most big companies and is a circus unto itself.

Above all, Super Pumped can serve as a reminder that the best ideas can go awry and create havoc if basic values- of economics, of ethics, laws and of humanity are taken for granted. Because all said and done, Uber’s true valuation can be debated. How much of a technology company it is, and whether its plans of upending the entire transport industry will work, is unknown. But the value of its core ride hailing service is indisputable (There is admittedly, a certain irony to writing that sentence in a pandemic where the world is at home for months, and Uber Eats made more money than cabs last quarter).

To shake up the taxicab business from its very roots, and to make it consumer-friendly, comfortable, standardised and internet-enabled all over the world, takes some doing. But can it be done without making huge losses for a decade (including 18 months as a publicly traded stock)? Can it be done without breaking the law, trying to fool Apple’s App Store, and trying to ban law enforcement officers using secret software? I guess we’ll never know.


Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber
Pages: 34
Publisher: Norton and Company Inc.

Available on Amazon

First Published on Aug 8, 2020 10:34 am
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