Uber's CEO Is Just So Misunderstood

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 5/23/2017, 10:45 a.m.
Over the years, Uber's CEO has been described as arrogant and a "bro-y alpha-nerd" -- along with plenty of more ...

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Travis Kalanick does give a damn 'bout his bad reputation.

Over the years, Uber's CEO has been described as arrogant and a "bro-y alpha-nerd" -- along with plenty of more colorful terms not fit to print here. And that was before Uber's endless string of PR crises kicked off this year.

But Kalanick disagrees with that perception.

"I think there's this general question out there: Is he an ahole?" Kalanick says in Wild Ride, a book out this week offering an inside look at Uber's rapid rise. "I don't think I'm an ahole. I'm pretty sure I'm not."

When asked if he cares about the negative public image, Kalanick says, "Yeah, it's not good for Uber, it's not good for me, it's not good for the people that I'm talking to. It's bad for everybody."

The conversation took place in July 2016. A little more than six months later, Kalanick would publicly admit he needs to "grow up" and get "leadership help" after a video surfaced of him arguing with an Uber driver.

The book, by Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky, offers a unique window into the background and psyche of the man shaping one of the world's most influential and controversial young technology companies.

Uber is both a startup juggernaut and a media punching bag. Kalanick, more than anyone, deserves credit for both. But contrary to the founding story Uber tells, Kalanick was not actually involved in the company's earliest days.

Garrett Camp, the serial entrepreneur behind StumbleUpon, came up with the idea in mid-2008 after getting "blacklisted" by the two big cab companies in San Francisco. Camp brought on Kalanick and three other friends as advisers. Kalanick took an interest in the idea, but he didn't join the company full time as CEO until 2010.

As an adviser and later the CEO, Kalanick did much to shape the service and the perception of it. For starters, he pushed Camp to move away from the idea of Uber owning cars. Kalanick also drove Uber's vast fundraising machine, which helped it outpace rivals.

But it was also Kalanick who brazenly talked up Uber's fights with regulators and "an ahole named taxi." The aggressive rhetoric only helped create a bad boy image for him and the company.

In the book, Kalanick describes this as "little moments of arrogance where I say something provocative." He appears to see himself as a truth teller, however controversial the truth may be.

At least some of this posturing is said to go back to Kalanick's days of being picked on as a kid.

"I was geeky enough to get bullied. Not like physically beat up really, but just made fun of, ostracized," Kalanick recalls in the book. "That could be where the justice thing comes from."

Some have described Kalanick as a cutthroat libertarian who likely opposes government regulation, in part because he once used the cover of an Ayn Rand book for his Twitter profile image. Here, too, Kalanick feels misunderstood.