Uber is a great idea. But a great idea doesn’t guarantee a company’s success. Others are bound to try to copy it—variations such as Cabulous, an iPhone app that lets you hail a nearby cab, are already becoming popular (although Uber should have a first-mover advantage over more-direct competitors, resulting from its network of drivers and its continually improving demand-prediction algorithms).
The real threat to the company is the promulgation of new regulations that would make business expansion impossible by cutting off the supply of licensed limos, and other regulations designed to shut down Uber entirely—that is, just the sort of measures being proposed in D.C. Uber’s executives are well aware of these obstacles. Regulation, Kalanick told me, is “an issue we have to deal with in every city.” So far, they’ve been surprisingly skillful at fighting back.
Shortly after Chairman Linton’s sting, for instance, Uber began rallying its fans on Twitter, using the hashtag #UberDCLove. In late January, I attended an event the company set up at a sleek downtown club, which was crammed to the gills with Uber’s neatly dressed fans, chatting animatedly while they enjoyed free pizza and drinks.
Kalanick, a short man with spiky black hair and a genial smile tattooed on his face, somehow got the entire crowd to watch an Uber PowerPoint presentation, which he narrated double-time, dropping the company’s apparent motto—“A convenient, classy ride” roughly every 30 seconds.
The result was, incredibly, the nation’s first populist limo movement. Whenever Kalanick mentioned Ron Linton’s name, the crowd booed—one particularly enthusiastic fan kept shouting “Fuck that guy!” Kalanick’s smile never wavered. He finished by telling the crowd: “I need you guys. So, one, stay on Facebook, stay on Twitter. Two, hearings—go to hearings. Go to political events.” For the first time in 20 minutes, he paused. “The bigger we get, the harder it is to take us out.” The crowd roared.
As I made my way toward the door, I bumped into Robert McNamara, the attorney fighting against many taxi regulations, who was there as an interested observer. “I’m impressed by how professional this is,” he told me.
I must have raised an eyebrow, for he hastened to explain: “When you have an issue like this, the first thing you do is, you have a town hall. You find an excuse to get people in a room, and then you make them angry.” For the moment, Uber’s angry fans seem to be carrying the day. Though the D.C. Taxicab Commission has not recanted its position on Uber, it also hasn’t made any further moves against the company.
That may change, of course. But every customer Uber gains in D.C. (and even out of it) makes the company harder to attack. Uber set out to change the taxi market. In enlisting scattered consumers against well-entrenched interest groups, it may end up doing something more revolutionary.