Companies often try to learn from disruptor brands and to mimic those practices that have allowed those disruptors to be successful: This could mean company culture, the kind of talent hired or the types of values preached.
And then there’s Uber . . . It’s safe to say that brands won’t be taking many pages out of Uber’s playbook any time soon, but there is something to be learned from the on-demand company’s current unfortunate situation.
That situation, of course, has ranged from allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, and complaints over company culture, to a Department of Justice investigation and a slew of driver complaints (including a very public showdown with founder and CEO Travis Kalanick). The newest wrinkle? This former CEO’s leave of absence has morphed into a resignation.
Uber, in short, hasn’t had an easy few months of it.
But what the rest of us should take away from all this is how, leading up to Kalanick’s departure, various unrelated situations collided to create this dynamic and complex situation — simple bad timing being just one.
At this point, the company has the opportunity to devise the new, improved strategy that will pivot the organization enough to put the brand’s ideals back at the forefront. Here are four things we all can learn from the Uber disaster.
Don’t focus just on the end-user.
At many tech companies, leadership’s main concern is typically, and solely, the end user — and this is a mistake.
While it goes without saying that consumers are vitally important, these people are not the only constituents that brands need to worry about to truly gain momentum. Instead, rallying their internal audience with the right message — prior to rallying the external one — allows for an authentic, united voice to better communicate to the masses.
In fact, Uber’s been dealing with a lot of “business insider” challenges that don’t even concern their consumers (nor are those people likely aware of those challenges). These include a questionable workplace environment, a below-average corporate culture and scandalous employee controversies.
Clearly, Uber needs to hit “refresh” on its engagement tactics and to better communicate its core messages to its wide range of audiences, including employees, investors, partner organizations, promotional contemporaries, drivers, local communities and consumers.
It’s okay to go through leadership change.
It’s not uncommon for one leader to successfully start and grow a company to a certain point, only to see that company need leadership change in order to continue scaling and evolving effectively.
Certainly, leaders need to stay true to their vision, but they also need to adapt to the challenges they’re dealt, while surrounding themselves with talented team members.
If there comes a time where CEOs can’t successfully cultivate their companies with their unique skills, while balancing the needs of various constituents and sustaining brand ethos, it’s time for a leadership change.
Many CEOs just aren’t that self-aware, or they tend to have big egos and to struggle with accepting that the company is now bigger than they are.
A success story in this regard? Dyn is a company that we helped for a period of about ten years. To do this, we continuously refined its brand and promotional strategy, in line with smart changes in business direction and leadership shuffling.
Dyn was founded by college students and first operated on a “free” consumer model; it adopted a donation system before switching leaders when it came time to embrace the freemium model. A B2B offering was then launched — first to start-up companies, then to SMBs and, ultimately, enterprises; and different leaders with various skills were required along the way.
When the company needed to grow rapidly to gain credibility and VC funding — eventually determining that its ultimate goal was acquisition — still more changes were needed. And then still more changes came when the company was acquired by Oracle, in 2016.
Just as Dyn’s experience illustrates, it’s critical to adjust at different levels of your company’s journey — through all the pivots — in order to continue growing. This was exactly what Kalanick couldn’t do at a certain point, although no one else could, either.
Few tech companies have CEOs able to withstand extreme growth while balancing all constituents; but it’s not impossible for a leader to reign successfully and consistently. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has continuously led Facebook’s growth and innovative offerings, despite multiple pivots in strategy and various controversies. (Let’s not underestimate the importance of Sheryl Sandberg, and don’t think that he doesn’t know it.)
At the end of the day, pivots have a before, during and after phase; they’re multifaceted. Through all those phases, leadership must be able to align the motivations of all stakeholders in order to maximize the company’s potential.
CEO reputation is key.
Your leader = your business. It’s as simple as that.
Kalanick didn’t have public opinion on his side, which augmented his downfall. Similarly, Safr, the upstart Boston ride-hailing app catering to women, has been dealing with its own dissolution since its CEO was recently arrested on fraud charges.
Alternately, your CEO’s good name can carry your organization. Take Elon Musk, who holds multiple CEO titles in divergent industries and is known for revolutionary concepts. His name and history of innovation in and of themselves hold value — and have been enough to deem him successful whether his companies were or not.
That being said, it’s okay if your front person needs to hang out backstage for a bit.
Some founders should hang out “backstage.”
Another example from our own experience demonstrates what “backstage” means.
We helped an apparel company pivot with its positioning, packaging and promotional approach. That company was The Mountain, and the ultimate win was its acquisition by Gladstone Investment Corporation.
Major celebrities and even your neighbors regularly wore the product; you’d recognize the brand by its distinctive shirts, not the company name. While the leaders were known in the design world, they weren’t familiar to consumers or potential investors.
That’s where we came in, to define the brand and accelerate growth of its business with direct-to-consumer ecommerce. In order to do this, we encouraged the founders to step back and bring in a hired-gun CEO, along with a new leadership team with a great track record in digital marketing and media.
We continued to leverage the founders once they were in the background; and sales grew by 30 percent, which led to that acquisition.
That story brings us back to Uber. This is Uber’s chance to step back and look at what makes the brand genuine, different and appealing while reconsidering its business strategy.
Will Uber reign the sharing economy and dominate as the go-to ride-sharing app? Or will it switch gears and focus on autonomous vehicles? Maybe it will delve more aggressively into territories like delivery services or errand running.
Whatever it decides, its departed CEO, Travis Kalanick, founded a company that is revolutionary, and he drove it further than almost anyone ever does any company. But now? It’s someone else’s turn to steer it to its next destination.
Travis York is the President and CEO of GYK Antler.