As Uber appoints its new CEO, Expedia’s Dara Khosrowshahi, it’s the right time to reminisce about the early days of the company, as a mental exercise for imagining where it could go next.
What don’t you know when you found a start-up? A lot. When people look at leviathans like Google, Facebook or Uber today, they often see the negative impact of their dominant market positions. They forget that these firms started small, and, in Uber’s case, with bad PowerPoint. Garrett Camp, the other founder of Uber, released the firm’s seed round pitch deck from 2009.
In 1919, as the White and Red armies fought a brutal, seesaw war for control of Russia, British War Secretary Winston Churchill prodded his government to commit troops to the fight. The Bolsheviks, he declared, were “swarms of typhus bearing vermin.” They “hop and caper like ferocious baboons amid the ruins of their cities and the corpses of their victims.” Churchill’s rhetoric was so inflammatory that, after he addressed the House of Commons on the topic, Tory Party leader A.J. Balfour felt compelled to comment. With quintessential British coolness, the former Prime Minister told the future Prime Minister, “I admire the exaggerated way you tell the truth.”
Unfortunately, exaggerated truth-telling is as commonplace in business as in politics. Walter Isaacson cites Steve Job’s “reality-distortion field” repeatedly in the go-to biography of Apple’s mercurial chief. “[Jobs] would assert something — be it a fact about world history or a recounting of who suggested an idea at a meeting — without considering the truth,” writes Isaacson. He would conjure up an impossible production date, for instance, and demand it be met. Surprisingly, as Isaacson recounts, it often was.
“In the year 2018, nations have bankrupted and disappeared, replaced by corporations.”
That’s the premise of the 1975 sci-fi film Rollerball, which follows one star employee’s awakening and rebellion against the regime embodied by a cynical leader of the global Energy Corp. Rollerball is about as 70s a dystopia as you will find, with James Caan roller-skating through a Howard Cosell remix of The Parallax View. But as the real 2018 comes into view, the movie proves weirdly prescient, as the United States morphs into a corporate state literally governed by CEOs.