What exactly does Uber have to offer that other companies do not? The ride-hailing service doesn’t own its cars or employ drivers. It’s basically a smartphone app that connects passengers to drivers using their own vehicles. Rival apps now do much the same thing.
Uber rightly sees the future as driverless cars that one can summon to one’s doorstep for a ride to work or a coffee. But so do General Motors, Ford, Hyundai, Tesla and other auto giants currently snapping up their own ride-hailing services.
Uber does have a uniquely unpleasant CEO, in the person of Travis Kalanick. Also a co-founder, Kalanick had shown himself to be a serial breaker of social and business norms, not to mention laws. He is the face of Silicon Valley’s “bro culture.”
Dan Lyons, chronicler of the phenomenon, describes the bros as good-looking, arrogant, glib and disrespectful to women. They are “jerks,” he says, who, in addition, “don’t know how to run companies.”
Uber’s been sued for using a software tool to trick officials in cities that did not authorize its services. Managerial outings at Uber include trips to escort bars. Female employees have accused managers of groping their breasts. The company’s reputation has become so toxic that a video of Kalanick verbally abusing one of its drivers became news.
So why do capitalists put enormous valuations on companies run with all the social maturity of an unruly frat house? Kalanick’s conduct was so immature that at the age of 40, he promised investors he would “grow up.”
The answer may be that many of the investors are themselves bros. They admire those overly confident rule breakers and share their indifference to ethical concerns. Where others see arrested development, they see disrupters. Where others see repellant behavior, they see tough entrepreneurs.
Because they were hatched from the same amoral culture, the investing bros are blind to the reality that there are limits to anti-social behavior, even on the entrepreneurial frontier. An inability to distinguish between total jerks and tough but savvy managers can end in financial pain.
Why did supposedly sophisticated investors put so much money into Valeant, a company whose business model was to buy essential drugs and then jack up prices to obscene levels? Example: Valeant charged Americans $2,000 a day for a cryptococcal meningitis drug that cost $22 a day in Britain.
Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s second in command, said about Valeant, “I’m holding my nose.” And other traditional investors have echoed that sentiment.
But hedge funder William Ackman liked Valeant’s style and urged other investors to join in the pillage. Did he think such blatant acts of piracy would go unpunished? The stock cratered, and Ackman lost more than $3 billion of his nearly $4 billion investment.
Recall how 32-year-old Martin Shkreli -- the bro of bros -- shot off a 5,455 percent hike in the price of Daraprim, a 62-year-old HIV drug. A pill once priced at $13.50 later cost $750.
Shkreli liked to be seen playing video games and hanging with rock musicians. Twitter recently suspended his account for posting lies about dating a female journalist. (He Photoshopped pictures of them together.)
The bros are clearly not brimming with social intelligence, a valued skill for corporate managers. The bro culture is already the subject of parodies and TV series. That means its days, at least in the current form, are numbered.
Google’s parent company is currently suing Uber for allegedly stealing its self-driving technology. The Wall Street Journal recently questioned whether Uber can survive competition from the big boys. Really, do you want to place your chips on managers who are promising to grow up?
Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist with Creators.com.