Seven lessons I learned in six years at Uber

By Brent Willess

Seven lessons I learned in six years at Uber:

🕸️ Decentralized talent is a superpower

🏦 Everyone needs to be an owner

🎯 Design for what matters

🚀 Moonshots take time

🍦 Build marketing into the product

🚨 Disrupt yourself–or someone else will

📈 Use data when making bets

🕸️ Decentralized talent is a superpower

Uber treated every city as its own startup, and this attracted entrepreneurial/people who were trusted to solve hard/idiosyncratic problems.

This meant Uber was able to move as fast and make changes faster than a centralized team could.

You need to centralize eventually, but timing is key. Too soon, and you’ll be bureaucratic and slow, too late, and costs will explode and hard to deploy best practices. We waited a bit too long and paid the price with multiple painful reorgs/ office closures.

It also gave me an early appreciation for the power of “remote work.” Recruiting super talented people worldwide allowed many eventual senior execs to get started by managing local markets outside SF before taking on more responsibility over time.

🏦 Everyone needs to be an owner

In the early days, it didn’t matter if you were local ops or in HQ; you had access to all the data and metrics to identify problems/ opportunities. If you had an idea, you were empowered to go for it.

In an effort to maximize supply we would simply give taxi/limo drivers smartphones to get them on the platform. Smartphones were still a novelty at the time, and the gift of old iPhones enabled drivers to get on the road asap.

🎯 Design for what matters

The rider app has been redesigned multiple times over the past ten years, but very rarely did it lead to significant changes in engagement. Instead, riders cared way more about price (or surge) and ETA vs. how the app looked.

Design matters a lot, but it is outcomes more than aesthetics that you should focus on in the early days. Improvements in the look and feel obviously build brand trust over time, but at the start, stick to your core KPIs.

🚀 Moonshots take time to play out

There was tension at times between the EATs team and the core ride-hailing business, specifically that food delivery was taking supply away and increasing ETAs for riders. It became an important strategic debate.

In the end, clearly, EATs ended up diversifying the overall business and proved vital during COVID. This experience taught me that when making big strategic bets, make sure there’s a commensurate period of measurement.

🍦 Build marketing into your product

In the early days, Uber used the product to delight users and drive awareness in weird ways. E.g. a product sprint that allowed people to summon ice cream trucks on hot summer days created vast amounts of free media.

🚨 Disrupt yourself or someone else will

Uber first only used commercially licensed drivers for UberBlack. Then Lyft launched ridesharing and was able to win on price. Uber soon after rolled out UberX and then went even further with POOL, both of which kept lowering the price for riders.

📈 Use data when making bets

When we launched the ability to see public transit in the app, there were concerns that this could cannibalize the rides business. Turns out we got more eyeballs because there are 10x the number of users on public transit. Data wins.

I was fortunate to work with a group of brilliant/ambitious people at Uber.

I hope to help support the next great startup in my role on the investment team at @fcollective.

So if you’re trying to change the world, or simply making a market more efficient, LMK!