Welcome to the WIRED Book Club, a series where we invite you to read along with us as we delve into recent titles that give an insight into the worlds of technology, science and business.
Here’s the deal: each month we select a different non-fiction book that piques our interest, and that we think our readers will enjoy too. We’ll give you roughly a month to read the book, then we’ll discuss our thoughts on the WIRED UK Podcast and YouTube channel. At the same time, we’ll announce the next book.
This month’s book is Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. The book tells the story of Uber, tracking the company’s rise into a global ride-sharing juggernaut and the many controversies it has become embroiled in along the way. Based on hundreds of interviews with people involved, the story is an insight into Uber as both an individual company and a symbol of Silicon Valley’s broader culture.
We’ll discuss Super Pumped, and announce our next book club title, on the podcast on November 8. We’d also love to hear your thoughts on the book – send your reviews, comments and questions to email@example.com for inclusion in our discussion.
To get you started, here’s a brief excerpt from Super Pumped.
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The email blast went out to employees across the world: Uber had passed another milestone. It was time for Uberettos(1) to celebrate.
It was an Uber tradition for Travis Kalanick to take the company on the road after hitting growth targets. Funded by billions of venture capital dollars, the trips were conceived as morale boosters, a way to bring employees closer together. But they were also an excuse for a week-long bacchanal in some far-flung part of the world. For this celebration, Kalanick had a special city in mind: Las Vegas.
Kalanick would have to be creative in Vegas if he wanted to top Uber’s previous company-wide retreat. In 2013, he had organized a blowout bash in Miami to celebrate Uber reaching $1 billion in gross ride bookings— an enormous feat at the time. The trip was memorialized internally with the Chinese symbol 九, a character that stood for the number 9. He claimed it had “internal meaning at Uber,” but was “something we do not discuss externally,” according to a letter he sent to the entire company before the retreat. He went on to advise his staff not to throw large kegs off of tall buildings, and mandate no interoffice sex unless co-workers explicitly stated “YES! I will have sex with you” to one another. He also noted that any puking on hotel grounds would result in a $200 fine. The email set the tone for the rest of the retreat.
Miami would be dwarfed by what Kalanick had in store for Las Vegas. This one was special, a celebration of a key internal metric. Every time the company reached a revenue milestone that corresponded with an exponent of the number ten, Uber celebrated with a party. But as the company swelled in headcount and number of cities served, so did the scope of Uber’s celebrations. With every new zero added to the revenue figure, Uber’s thousands of employees were rewarded with an all-expenses-paid trip to another global destination.
The ten billion revenue figure was special. Everyone appreciated the significance of such a big, round number, and Kalanick in particular had an affinity for the mathematics of exponential growth. They would call this milestone party “X to the x”— ten to the power of ten. He dispatched an entire team of designers to work on the aesthetics of the trip. The invitations, the signage, even the wristbands all had the same look: A large, white “X,” raised to the power of a smaller white “x” against a square, black backdrop. It was very Uber.
High-end party branding aside, some form of celebration was appropriate. By the fall of 2015, Uber employed nearly five thousand people globally, the result of an endless talent poaching campaign across Silicon Valley. Engineers from Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, and especially Google, came flooding into the company as quickly as recruiters could pluck them from places like the Creamery, the Battery, WeWork — VC- funded startups themselves — that had become the usual haunts of coders in San Francisco.
Engineers had seen the adjectives the press used to describe the company. Uber was “fast-growing,” “pugnacious,” a “juggernaut.” They heard the whispers of staggering revenue growth, and saw the company’s surging valuation, which was already well into the billions. They loved how Kalanick brought a hacker-like mentality to the way he built and ran his company. No one wanted to miss their shot at entering the next Google or Facebook on the ground floor.
Recruiters knew exactly how to sell it, tweaking the FOMO of ambitious engineers. “You don’t want to miss this rocket ship,” the headhunters said, as they flooded the LinkedIn boxes of engineers across the Valley. Securing equity in a fast-growing company like Uber could one day let them cash out and buy a mini-mansion in San Francisco, the white-hot center of the Bay Area real estate market. Others dreamed of doing four years inside of Uber, then using their vested riches to start new companies of their own.
The Bay Area had seen this before. After the initial public offerings of Google, Twitter, and Facebook, Silicon Valley had absorbed hundreds of newly minted millionaires. And now, for thousands of young engineers who had heard stories from older colleagues about the heady days of the Web 1.0 boom, landing a job at Uber meant they, too, might realize their dreams of tech riches.
Joining Uber in those days was a statement, like driving a Tesla or wearing a Rolex. The anxiety, stress, and crushing schedule of twelve-plus-hour days was all going to be worth it. They were all going to get paid, big time.
(1) Every tech company over the course of its maturation process must create for itself a noun to describe its collective employees. Google employed Googlers, Twitter employees were called “tweeps,” and for Uber in its early days, the noun was “Uberetto.” The exact etymological origins of the noun—which confused many employees after they joined—are not clear.
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