How Uber Is Different In New York Than It Is In D.C. or Seattle

Fast Company‘s profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick explains how the ride-hailing app tweaks its approach in different cities.

How Uber Is Different In New York Than It Is In D.C. or Seattle
[Photos: Flickr users Ted Eytan, Anupam_ts, Eric Bas]

Since its launch in 2010, Uber has steadily expanded into more than 300 cities. With every move, CEO Travis Kalanick knew that he needed to tackle each region individually, with its existing transportation options and population in mind.


Fast Company‘s exclusive profile of Kalanick examines how, for example, Uber targeted New Yorkers with an emphasis on efficiency to appeal to its busier-than-thou populace. But in Seattle and Washington, D.C., he took a different approach, one that was customized for the city in question:

When the company launched in New York in early 2011, ­Kalanick’s ­announcement struck a no-nonsense tone. “The folks who rock Uber value their time, they appreciate nice things with a taste of luxury, and loathe inefficiency,” he wrote. A few months later, in crunchy, geeky Seattle, Kalanick sought to paint the service as utilitarian: “A big question I get here in Seattle is how we’re going to get over the whole ‘ewwww, you showed up in a Town Car?’ Well, this isn’t your father’s black-car service.” And in December 2011, in Washington, D.C., he touted the service’s populist bona fides. “These big-time lobbyists, politicos, and government officials can afford their own private driver and maybe don’t need Uber, but their staff definitely aren’t allowed to expense that,” he said.

Kalanick’s strategy makes sense: As Ryan Graves, head of Uber’s global operations, pointed out, transportation differs by market. What works in one city may not work in another, where pricing and even paint chips may vary:

This malleability, which Ryan Graves explains as a desire “to build a business that serves millions of people, not be slaves to a brand,” makes sense given how idiosyncratic transportation can be. Each city’s taxicabs have their own color scheme—yellow in New York, but beige in Berlin—pricing structure, and set of cultural norms. For years, Muscovites have used a modified hitchhiking system in lieu of cabs and, weirdly enough, so have some residents of the ritzier parts of Oakland and Berkeley.

As a result, Uber operates somewhat autonomously in each city—with the exception of select matters, such as pricing and recruiting, which Kalanick prefers to have a say in. “I don’t make decisions unless I’m all the way in the details,” Kalanick told Fast Company.

But Uber’s controversial reputation is, at least in part, a result of Kalanick taking a backseat when it comes to regional operations. Last year, an Uber manager in Lyon, France, gave the go-ahead for an ad campaign that read “Who said women don’t know how to drive?” Though the advertising was nixed soon after, it served as yet another instance in which Kalanick’s management style–coupled with Uber’s exponential growth–yielded bad press for the company.

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.