Apologies for being away from the keyboard once again. After 10 days of quarantine I found myself running faster than ever trying to catch up. Once again, writing on a daily basis for pleasure kept slipping down the list. Thankfully, a title popped up earlier today that just screamed out for me to read it. After reading, I got pulled away by dinner, kids and work. Stumbling back to the keyboard hours later hoping I can write something that doesn’t scream lunacy.
My friend Gary Leff published a story today titled “Why Uber is Great And Airbnb is Awful“. From where I sit, he got it half right. Airbnb is awful in many ways. Sure, it has a place in the ecosystem but it feels a bit like walking through a minefield trying to get to the beautiful field of flowers just beyond. If you’re lucky to survive with both of your legs you’re likely to find many of the flowers don’t look quite as wonderful up close than from afar. But, where Gary and I disagree is on his assertion that Uber is great.
Uber is Awful, But Also Was Revolutionary
It’s been over a decade since Uber launched and it was revolutionary. When it was essentially a black car service it was also frequently great. Today it’s far from great. Gary even says as much:
We can wish for ‘a better Uber’ but baked in is the idea that vehicle transit has already been revolutionized.
As a brief aside, I deal with Uber during my day job as a partner (Uber Eats). My comments here reflect only my views as a consumer.
Before Uber, taxi cabs weren’t the only option. Every major city had a list of well respected black car services. As a road warrior, I would solicit advice from colleagues when traveling to a new city. Then, I would save that information in a file that grew longer and longer over the years. Once Uber was ubiquitous, I stopped updating that list. Along the way, Uber’s service eroded significantly.
Uber has tried its best to be “everything to everyone”, offering services from dirt cheap to premium, with a few choices in between. But, the idea of what Uber was frequently doesn’t resemble what it is today. That’s especially true at the premium level. That’s usually referred to as Uber Black, though Uber has one-upped even themselves with a service called “Lux”.
But, what about services like “Premier” and “Comfort”? Are these better than Uber Black? Worse? The answer is “it depends”. Much more frequently now, I’ll request an Uber Black ride and find a driver who has the right make and model vehicle to qualify as Uber Black. However, the interior of the car is often enough not in great shape. Some drivers, not all, talk on the phone constantly, smoke in their cars and many ignored the mask rules during the height of the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, drivers used to play games with customers, calling before pickups to try to figure out whether the ride was really worth it for them. More than once, I’ve been told by a driver that they don’t have a toll transponder to take the fastest route to my destination, even when tolls are already baked into the price.
There are some gems, for sure. I’ve had some drivers that went out of their way to help me move boxes or run an errand. I’m thankful for them and leave them a generous tip. Others have asked for a tip before leaving the curb.
Gary notes that Uber isn’t profitable. If it’s one thing I’ve learned in over a decade of investing in startups, it’s that if you have a truly great product people don’t mind paying for it.
The Final Two Pennies
In the beginning, the promise of Uber Black was a driver that knew the local area, could quickly find their way around traffic jams and made sure you got to where you were going as quickly as possible. It was a breath of fresh air compared to cabs. On that part, Gary and I agree.
Now, with everyone from professional limo drivers to college students to friends borrowing someone’s car, Uber drivers are akin to Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors. Just like Baskin-Robbins, some drivers are awesome. Others are that seasonal flavor that you don’t really care for. And, still others are just a melted cone smashed on the sidewalk.
Kodak was great but they’re largely a dinosaur now, irrelevant to many. Blockbuster was revolutionary, then extinct (except for one lone store). Continued excellence over a long period of time is incredibly difficult. Companies like Apple and Google defy the odds and continue to stay relevant to large parts of the world. Are they great? To many folks, the answer would probably be yes.
Uber made taxi cabs better along the way while muddying an identity that once stood for excellence, now stands for mediocrity and might stand for flying taxis in the future. Just don’t be surprised if your pilot tries to wrangle a few extra bucks from you. All in the name of service, of course.
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