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How Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Is Taking On China

“That’s where the action is,” Kalanick says in an exclusive interview with Fast Company.

How Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Is Taking On China
[Photo: Flickr user David Leo Veksler]

Earlier this year, an internal email to investors from CEO Travis Kalanick revealed that Uber intended to invest $1 billion in China. During its first nine months in the country, Uber had grown 400 times more rapidly than it had in New York within nine months of its launch there; by June, Uber was operating in China at a rate of nearly 1 million rides a day. In his note, Kalanick deemed China the “number one priority for Uber’s global team” and touted it as “one of the largest untapped opportunities for Uber, potentially larger than the U.S.”

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When writer Max Chafkin interviewed Kalanick–along with important figures in his personal and professional life–for Fast Company‘s October cover story, the CEO noted that Uber had to approach expansion in China with a fresh set of eyes:

Kalanick, [Uber CTO Thuan] Pham says effusively, encourages his employees to disagree. “What Travis infuses in the company is that the best ideas win,” he says. “You have to be willing to step on toes to make sure the idea is heard, and you’re supposed to only be loyal to the idea, to the truth.”

I witness this myself when Kalanick and I discuss China, one of his current obsessions and a place where his ideological flexibility has been an asset. “It’s just different than everywhere else,” he says, referring to Uber’s recent expansion into the country. “And, so, you can’t take your pattern or your model for other places and take that to China. You just can’t. You have to do it different.” Kalanick has made numerous trips to the country to try to understand the quirks of Chinese transportation systems and its brand of government bureaucracy.

Kalanick’s insistence on winning China has forced him to spend big. In August, Gawker obtained internal documents that showed Uber was losing more money than it was bringing in–which comes as little surprise given the company is pouring a total of $2 billion into China and India. (Uber has currently raised over $8 billion.) But Kalanick is unfazed, going so far as to say that he would move to China to see his plan through:

All of this probably should scare Kalanick. Instead he seems to welcome it, telling me that he sometimes fantasizes about relocating to China. “That’s where the action is,” he says. “There are certain things in life where you have to go for it—just for the sheer adventure of it, and also for the potential,” he says, his eyes widening. “Part of being an entrepreneur is going to places that go against what the conventional wisdom might say. And when you win, well, you’ve won, right?”

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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