Inside the new Uber: Vanishing perks and fast-deflating morale

THE WASHINGTON POST – Tech IPOs have long been viewed as a boon for Silicon Valley workers, ushering in a new era of corporate stability and stock-driven wealth.

That’s not been the case at Uber, where the stock price has fallen roughly 30 per cent since going public in May.

Uber is changing as it shifts from a closely held unicorn start-up to a publicly traded company that appears to be losing investors’ confidence, according to interviews with current and former workers. Those changes include laying off more than 800 workers over the summer. Meanwhile, stock units are valued at a fraction of what many employees were led to believe. And executives are imposing workflow changes aimed at improving the company’s efficiency, adjustments that strike some employees as stifling innovation.

“We need to ship more quickly and operate more effectively and efficiently than we are today,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a recent company email following the announcement of engineering and product team layoffs. “We are not doing this for Wall Street. We are doing this for Uber. It’s critical we get our edge back and continually push ourselves to do better.”

Uber was the second of what was supposed to be a blockbuster summer of public offerings. But many haven’t gone as expected, raising questions about a potential tech bubble. Rival Lyft was the first. Its stock price plunged in the days following its USD72-per-share opening, rounding out the summer more than 40 per cent below that price. WeWork, which was set to go public this month, was forced to postpone its IPO date amid billions in losses and conflicts of interest for its embattled Chief Executive, who stepped down from that role last Tuesday.

In fact, the wave of 2018 and 2019 IPOs largely driven by the tech sector have been among the worst performing since the dot-com bubble in 1999, according to Goldman Sachs analysts.

“In terms of profitability, IPOs from the current cycle look more like Tech boom IPOs than offerings completed during the 2001-2009 period,” they said in a report that examined 4,481 United States (US) IPOs over a quarter century.

Uber, a company once supposedly valued at USD120 billion in the most optimistic projections now has a market cap of USD51 billion. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

At Uber, the company’s initial market value was roughly two-thirds of the top end of what was expected. A company once supposedly valued at USD120 billion in the most optimistic projections now has a market cap of USD51 billion. And many are questioning whether the money-bleeding company can succeed amid slowing growth, when investors are holding it accountable.

As a result, Uber is “turning [into] an operations company – not a product/tech company,” said one former senior employee, who declined to be named publicly, citing a separation agreement with the company. Executives inside Uber have told employees they will devote fewer costly resources to user experience and research – including teams who worked on those issues – and conduct more direct testing of in-app features for riders and drivers.

“We will deliberately rely less on user research for tactical features and instead rely more on experimentation,” Uber’s Chief of Product Manik Gupta wrote to employees in an email the day of this month’s layoffs. “We will focus on fewer projects with more direct business impact.” The new strategy surfaced at a product event in San Francisco last Thursday, when Uber announced a redesign of its app that will place the menu of mobility and food delivery options – bikes and scooters, ride-hailing, transit and Uber Eats – all together. It’s an effort, Khosrowshahi said, to make Uber the “operating system for your everyday life.”

Uber will test out the redesign on some, while maintaining the classic version built around the map for others in an effort to see how users respond. Gupta, in an interview at the event last Thursday, acknowledged the growing pains that accompanied going public and the ensuing layoffs, adding it was difficult.

“From my standpoint the important thing is we’re all focussed on execution,” Gupta said in the interview. “What people who are really motivated, what they really want, is a set of problems to work on which are very exciting, they are world changing. I think we have a lot of them and we just have to make sure that we continue to build incredible products.” Workers have paid close attention to the scrutiny the company has attracted in the months since its IPO. They’ve grown agitated as top-down changes have been imposed that they saw as stripping away their autonomy, and they’ve become vocal at increasingly contentious all-hands meetings, where the tensions between workers and management have manifested.

For example, Uber’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Public Affairs Jill Hazelbaker was asked at a team meeting this month what her team would do about the company’s reputational crisis, particularly as a new book focussed on the company published.

“I think we need to put our heads down and execute,” she said, according to excerpts of her comments provided to The Washington Post. “I’d just say we’ve got to get a bit thicker skin about this stuff.”

The mantra doubles, perhaps, as a guiding light of the Uber of new. Uber declined to make Khosrowshahi or Hazelbaker available for comment.

Uber went public in May at a time when it had spent a decade establishing itself as the dominant player in ride-hailing. Since then it has slashed its staff of 27,000 by more than three per cent.