An Uber ride that is a story of our times

An early morning Uber ride to the airport leads to a conversation that sums up the hopes and fears of the instant gratification economy, pervasiveness of technology and how for this brief moment Silicon Valley is more interesting than Wall Street and Hollywood. 

The alarm goes off, but I have been awake for nearly an hour. The phone says 4.45 am. The room is dark, warm, and I can see the reflected light from other apartments. New York isn’t silent, but it is quiet enough for me to hear the sound of the rain against the window. I am tired, but can’t sleep. Regardless of the level of my exhaustion, I can’t sleep the nights before I fly. It must be some deep rooted fear of missing the flight or perhaps the knowledge that lack of sleep would force me to fall sleep on the plane. The alarm forces me to leave the warm cocoon of the bed. Rainy, gray, cold, dreary morning. I am glad to be going home. It is weird to think of San Francisco s home, but after 12 years that’s what it has become.

I drink some tea, pack my beat-up leather carry-on bag, stuff a copy of The Cost of Living, a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant that I picked up a week earlier at The Strand. I want to read it on the plane, but I know I won’t. I know I will sleep. Half an hour later, I am ready to head on to JFK airport and I call an Uber, looking forward to an hour of solitude and seeing New York and its boroughs silently slip-by.

Like, the best laid plans of mice and men, fate had something else in mind. The solitude and quiet would go missing, thanks to the emergence of Keith*. A 30-something man, dressed in dark skinny jeans and a smart blazer, he was clearly in holiday mood. The Santa Hat he wore in a rakish fashion, gave away his jolly intentions and that included talking to reluctant backseat riders. He introduced himself, and even before we left Soho, he had sketched out his life for me. I refrained from telling him about myself, my work and how long I had been in the technology industry. I just decided to (mostly) listen. Making polite talk, I ask him what he thought of Uber?

Keith, who aspires to be in the fashion business was pretty ruthless in his assessment of the company and brought up many questions that have coursed through my mind. He appreciates the financial flexibility Uber has provided him — his luxury car rental business wasn’t enough and he has benefitted from this augmented income. He isn’t the first one who felt that Uber look some pressure off their back — the other day I met a $12-an-hour bouncer at a Tenderloin music venue who is happy dealing with traffic rather than drunks and strung out addicts. “It was worth $19 billion three months ago and now it is worth $41 billion,” says Keith, “isn’t that something. And yet they don’t care about their contractors.”

Still, like many others Keith is befuddled by Uber’s treatment of its contractors. Many of the rule changes seem arbitrary and he too is confused by the tone-deafness of the company. He laments the recent directive (later modified) by Uber to classify all cars before 2010 as a UberX and thus relegated them to lower money making tier. When I point out that as a customer if I am paying premium prices, why shouldn’t I get a premium experience. Today, you end up riding in “black cars” who are a pale imitation of their real self. Shouldn’t the car upgrades result in better cars and through process of elimination bring fewer, but better drivers on the road? Like most drivers, Keith agrees, but points out that logic and reality of being a contract driver are two different things.

It is very hard for people to understand that it isn’t easy to upgrade your car, especially when you are trying to make a living driving an Uber in an intensely competitive marketplace where there are more cars on the road and the pie is getting sliced into thinner and thinner slices. Still, Keith said that he was planning to upgrade, though he didn’t care much for Uber’s financial plans or deals with car companies — he is going to get a Mercedes as part of the upgrade. During our conversation, Keith points out that Uber is good for helping him and others make money in the near term, but the current model doesn’t allow much optimism for the future, thanks to too many cars, too many rules and demand which isn’t rising as fast as the cars.

Still, he believes that when it goes public, Uber should put aside some stock allocation for its contractors — an idea that I can enthusiastically champion, for it helps the company reward some of its earliest believers! Out of the blue, he asks me how much do I think Uber is worth? I say, the new new investors think it is a $100 billion company or even more, after all they expect to double or triple their investment. Keith isn’t too surprised. “There are certain ideas or people that are like imprints in cement and hard to erase,” Keith says. Others can try to copy them but they are the real deal. Michael Jordan, Nike and Uber are in that category, he points out, and clear reason why Lyft is getting thrashed in the market — it is an imitator. That is a unique perspective for someone who loves and loathes Uber at the same time. When I point that out to him, I can’t tell if he likes Uber or not, Keith laughs. I don’t think even he knows.

By now we are stuck on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The traffic is at a crawl. I see the new development in Williamsburg, the other once unfashionable part of Brooklyn. There will soon be an Apple Store in Williamsburg. And there are other chain stores like Whole Foods that are either there or coming soon. The steady rain has turned into a wet mist. I remark about all the rebuilding and the general boom. I point out that it is everywhere in San Francsico, new buildings popping up all over the place. Keith jokes, it can’t just be hipsters. “How long do you think this tech boom lasts,” he asks. And as quickly he turns this into a series of probing questions.

How much is Instagram worth? What is going on with Twitter. Facebook and its amazing growth. I am quietly shaking my head. We aren’t lamenting the Knicks or the lack of action on part of the Yankees. We are not talking about celebrities, but we are talking about Yo, fart apps, Kim Kardashian and her app empire. We are talking about what comes next — I say Snapchat and YikYak. I tell him about Trucaller. Keith, too has an app, and he has been saving up to get some developers to work on it. He doesn’t tell me the details — he knows telling your ideas to strangers with means and connections is a bad move. I guess “Execution is everything,” is a mantra for him as well.

Unless someone asks me, I don’t normally tell people how to run their businesses. By now I have told him that I have been around tech startups for a long time, but I don’t tell him that I have written about tech in the past or that now I am a venture capitalist. Keith asks me how he should go about turning his app into a business. Not knowing the details, I tell him, perhaps it is a good time for him to check out one of the many incubator programs — this way he will learn how to structure his company, find partners and eventually find investors to get going, especially if he has a good idea. By now we are curbside at the Virgin America gate — I am ready for some quiet time.

However, my mind is now whirring about all of Keith’s questions. Keith, who is fascinated by huge audiences, in many ways reflects the broader populace which is outside this bubble called “tech” and looking in. Keith in a symbol of pervasiveness of technology. He is a good example of the 1099 society we are building in this country. He is embodiment of an uncertain future for a lot of people. The transition to this on-demand society has its own set of perils — how does it impact local taxation, local traffic patterns and indeed local economies. What does American dream mean in a world of instant gratification, where the middlemen (like they always do) end up skimming all the fat?

Today, whether we like it or not, Silicon Valley is now the focus of attention. People see it as the fastest way to riches — after all the narratives around successes like WhatsApp, Uber, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook only reinforce that notion. Start an app, and you can be a star. Silicon Valley is the new Hollywood and apps are the new “scripts.” I don’t know if this is the bubble, or not. I do know that people outside our little bubble have noticed what is happening here. They want a piece of it. They don’t know how to get some for themselves. A decade ago, Wall Street was the man. Today, Uber is the man.

PS: * Keith is not the real name of my Uber driver. 

A letter from Om

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