Uber and the Real Value of a Positive Public Image

When you get into the business of weighing value, you inevitably have to make decisions of what you want to prioritize and what you can safely leave aside. In a perfect world, your startup could account for everything equally, but that’s just not the world we’re living in.

Something that doesn’t get enough attention in this space is how important a positive public facing image really is. Look no further than Uber to make that case.

If you’re going to talk about darlings of the startup community than Uber would have to be on your mind immediately. The transportation network is constantly held up as proof of concept for how startups can revolutionize the way we live our lives.

The simple fact of that hasn’t changed, but Uber is being talked about in very different terms lately. If you haven’t heard, The New York Times has reported that for years now, Uber has used a system called ‘Greyball’ to identify and deceive local law enforcement in cities where Uber is illegal.

Now there is no doubt that this system has probably been of enormous benefit to Uber as they’ve expanded the size of their market exponentially, but we must ask the question: is this the right thing to do?

There is a sense in the business world, from some, that questions of moral goodness are very low on the value ladder, so to speak. We’ve all heard that good people don’t get very far. Now many of us don’t like to believe that. We want to think that you can do the right thing and be successful at the same time. But when you get into the nitty gritty, the first thing that gets cut are those idealistic standards.

You can get pretty far with shady tactics—especially if you don’t get caught. We would never have known about this if a few Uber employees hadn’t developed a guilty conscious and spoken to the Times.  

But being honest and being ‘good’, whatever that means, might be more valuable than you think. People seem to be pretty sick of lying lately. In an atmosphere of “fake news” and conspiracy, a little honesty can go a long way.

We saw the same thing with Volkswagen in 2015 when we learned that they had cheated on their emission tests—and they paid for it too. Even a brand as entrenched as that is not entirely safe from the damage that can be done when public opinion shifts against you.

Now it’s not like people are going to stop ordering Uber rides. At the end of the day, this whole ‘scandal’ probably won’t be too much of a blow to the bottom line. But people are going to notice and they will react. Not even this ubiquitous, ultimate example of the startup dream is immune to its own missteps.

This revelation about illegal code is just one of a long series of problems that have come out of Uber in recent months. What it all seems to come down to is a broken culture. If things are fundamentally defective on the inside, they will inevitably bleed out and people will see and they will respond.

There are a lot of transportation services out there and more by the day. Uber’s star is still high, but where is it going to be in 5 years? In 10? You’re not going to last very long if your own employees don’t believe in you. Not unless things change.

Maybe people won’t care about this in a year. Maybe this is just a minor blip on the big long success story that is Uber. But we’ve seen increasingly that people care about honesty and truth—from within and without. And not everyone has the luxury of being as deeply pervasive as Uber has become. If they were any less omnipresent, they might be going down in flames right now.

When we’re talking about public image, we’re talking about culture too. If you’re getting any amount of attention (which ideally you want), the way you run your business on the inside is going to show. And for so many reasons, that culture and that image may be something worth valuing after all.  

— ZK

Ed Lynes13p51 Comment