In late 2010, Uber found itself at the mercy of San Francisco city officials, who claimed it was running as an unlicensed taxi company. At the time, Uber was still operating under its original name, Ubercab, which the city argued was false marketing. CEO Travis Kalanick acted fast, clarifying that it was a technology company and trimming down the name to just Uber–and from there on out, despite the continued misgivings of taxi industry types, there was no stopping him.
Once Uber was thrust into the limelight, the company was championed by San Francisco’s tech contingent–and its CEO ran with it. Fast Company got a rare interview with Kalanick for the October issue’s cover story, which shares previously unknown anecdotes from Kalanick’s life and ongoing stint as the controversial face of Uber. To keep Uber afloat, Kalanick “took up the mantle of libertarian firebrand,” Max Chafkin writes. Chafkin continues:
[Kalanick] changed his Twitter avatar to the cover of Rand’s The Fountainhead. In a Washington Post article he not only called The Fountainhead “one of my favorite books,” but he also brought up Atlas Shrugged, suggesting that the regulatory hellscape conjured by Rand bore an “uncanny resemblance” to what Uber faced. When critics attacked Uber’s so-called surge pricing policy, a system akin to the scheme used by airlines and hotels to raise prices when demand is high, the CEO who’d been fanatical about lowering prices began publicly mocking customers who complained. “I like pissing people off,” he said in one interview. When asked about competitors, he said, “If you’re sleeping, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Kalanick earned a contentious reputation quickly, but that didn’t stop venture capitalists from falling all over themselves to secure their stake in Uber. Bill Maris, the president of Google Ventures, was one such investor:
Kalanick looked like an irrepressible jerk to many outside the company, but he was dynamite with the financial press, who portrayed him as the ultimate insurgent (“Silicon Valley’s rebel hero,” as Fortune put it). Venture capitalists fell hard for Kalanick, too. “Any time you’re disrupting an industry, people are going to try to take you down,” says Bill Maris, the president of Google Ventures. Maris says he started trying to invest in Uber as early as 2011. When he finally got his shot, in the summer of 2013, he gave Kalanick what amounted to a blank term sheet and told him to name his price. “What’s it going to take to get this deal off the table?” he asked.
Kalanick wanted more than $250 million at a valuation of a little less than $4 billion, a huge figure for a three-year-old company. Maris agreed to the deal on the spot.