The resignation of Uber’s Travis Kalanick this week punctuated an unusually steep fall for a highflying chief executive. But the emergence of an employee petition calling for his return — combined with his outsize voting power on a board that still includes longtime allies — makes clear that his future and the company’s are likely to remain entwined for years to come.
Kalanick’s presence could complicate Uber’s efforts to recruit and empower a new chief executive, who will have to operate under the direct gaze of the co-founder who led the company during an era of furious growth, building the most valuable privately held company in the world, investors and analysts said.
His ongoing involvement in the company also opens up the possibility of an eventual return to power, allowing him to potentially emulate the circuitous path of one of Silicon Valley’s most revered heroes — and one who, like Kalanick, had a famously demanding, often-difficult personality: Steve Jobs.
Few observers expect Kalanick to return as Uber’s chief executive — as Jobs once did at Apple — after resigning Tuesday under investor pressure. Even with a petition reportedly signed by 1,000 of the company’s 14,000 employees, Kalanick is widely seen as too toxic to lead a company hobbled by multiple, serious scandals that developed under his leadership.
But his role could remain powerful and grow with time, casting a long shadow over a company seeking to leave months of scandal behind.
“He can continue to influence Uber in a major way and potentially put himself in a position for a recoup in the future,” said James Bailey, a George Washington University management professor. “Especially if they mess up early, he could put himself in a position to come back as a hero later on.”
The possible parallels with Jobs are imperfect but intriguing. Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976, helping give birth to the seminal Apple II and Macintosh computers before resigning after a clash with the board in 1985. He returned as chief executive in 1997, after Apple bought another company he had founded, NeXT.
It was during this second act that Jobs built Apple into the modern computer and consumer electronics colossus known today, with Jobs overseeing the release of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, as well as a series of sleekly updated Macintosh computers. He died of cancer in 2011.
Although some in Silicon Valley, and within Apple, bristled at Jobs’s personality, he did not generate anywhere near the kind of scandals that Uber faced under Kalanick, including wide-ranging allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and other unprofessional behavior. That’s in addition to the company’s use of a software tool to evade the scrutiny of regulators, eventually prompting a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, and other scandals.
Investors concluded that the corporate culture at Uber was so toxic that Kalanick had to go, delivering an ultimatum in a letter. Recovering from those episodes could prove extremely difficult, especially at a time when Uber faces a backlash among riders and potential employees for whom Kalanick is the public face of corporate misdeeds — something never true of Jobs.
Sarah Lacy, founder of tech news site PandoDaily, said it would be wrong to cast Kalanick as resembling Jobs. Jobs was hard on his partners and suppliers, she said, “but his customers loved him. Everything he did was seen as in the service of customers.”
Kalanick’s Uber had an “us vs. them mentality.” They were seen as being against drivers, the media, government and even hostile to customers who complained.
“I don’t think Travis or his ‘A team’ understood how hated they were because people were scared,” Lacy said.
Similar complaints are widely heard within the tech industry, among engineers, funders and other companies. Many in Silicon Valley are looking at Uber’s travails as an object lesson in the dangers of growing too fast, with too few controls and not enough emphasis on nurturing a healthy workplace culture.
“I hope this will be a story of redemption and lessons learned,” said Shawn Carolan, a partner at Menlo Ventures, which has invested in Uber and signed the letter calling for Kalanick's resignation. “A powerful model of what lines should not be crossed in Silicon Valley hypergrowth mode.”
Kalanick’s ongoing role on the board, where he reportedly benefits from a special class of shares, gives him significant clout. Uber is a private company, but his voting power is reportedly formidable and probably bolstered by longtime allies Garrett Camp and Ryan Graves.
The board’s most important job now is finding a replacement for Kalanick. There is extensive debate over what type of leader that should be and whether it would be wise to select from among some of his former subordinates in Uber’s executive ranks.
Aside from overcoming the scandals and imposing more robust internal controls, Uber’s next leader will have to continue to plot a future almost certain to include fleets of driverless cars and other new challenges — and the likelihood of new competitors.
“You need a visionary. You can't just hire an operator,” said Bradley Tusk, chief executive of Tusk Holdings, an investor in Uber. “Travis was a visionary, and if they just hire an operator because it answers the critics but doesn’t position Uber long-term to compete in a world against Amazon and Apple.”
Depending on how the next Uber chief executive manages the company, the question that is likely to hang in the air is whether Uber’s next visionary should be its first visionary, the one who led the company from a San Francisco start-up to a global behemoth, operating in 75 countries.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Jonathan Tower, managing partner of Catapult, called such a scenario “highly unlikely.”
And yet: “If the company stumbles, if the value started to collapse, there will be a tremendous uproar from investors to do something dramatic.”
What could be more dramatic than a return of Kalanick?
“That’s an extreme scenario,” Tower said. “It’s a bit of a Hollywood movie scenario. It rarely happens in real life.”