The Origins of Uber Are a Lot Wilder than You Thought

Uber Begins

As the details of Uber’s toxic culture and mismanagement begin to trickle out, you might be interested to learn that the company’s founding story is not immune to dysfunction either.

Did you know Uber’s first CEO got the job by tweeting at Travis Kalanick? Or that the company very nearly got shuttered a mere five months after launching?

So how did Uber get where it is today?

In 2008, Travis Kalanick, a serial entrepreneur, attended a LeWeb technology conference where StumbleUpon founder Garrett Camp relayed the story of the time he spent a fortune on a private driver one New Year’s.

Camp “realized that splitting the cost with a lot of people — say a few dozen elite users in Silicon Valley — could make it affordable. The idea morphed into Uber, essentially the equivalent of nightclub bottle service for the taxi industry, a premium service for more high-end customers,” Alyson Shontell relates in a Business Insider profile on the founding of Uber.

“Kalanick gives Camp full credit for the idea,” Shontell assures us.

In March of 2009, Camp worked on building the prototype for UberCab (as it was called at the time).

In January 2010, Kalanick tweeted that he was looking for “entrepreneurial product mgr/biz-dev killer 4 a location based service.. pre-launch, BIG equity, big peeps involved–ANY TIPS??”

Ryan Graves responded to the tweet with his email address. Graves was a business development intern at Foursquare and had previously worked at General Electric Healthcare. He was brought on as general manager.

first uber tweet

At the time, “Kalanick and Camp both wanted Uber to exist, but neither of them wanted to run it,” Shontell writes.

Kalanick’s role was Uber’s chief incubator. “My job was to temporarily run the company, get the product to prototype, find a general manager to run the operation full-time and generally see Uber through its San Francisco launch,” Kalanick wrote on Uber’s site. “We [Garret and Kalanick] both thought the business was going to be pretty low-tech, mostly operational – Little did we know ;)”

Ryan Graves was made CEO soon after Uber’s official launch in San Francisco on May 31, 2010.

uber's original website

Although Uber has raised more than $11 billion today, funding efforts weren’t instantly successful. Many investors were skeptical of the young chief executive and concerned that the model could not work outside of major cities. (Here’s a confession from a venture capitalist who passed on Uber’s seed round.)

By July 2010, Uber raised $1.25 million seed round led by First Round Capital.

In October 2010, UberCab received a cease-and-desist order from the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority & the Public Utilities Commission of California. Government interference was another investor concern.

At the time, TechCrunch asked “Did UberCab just crash and burn?”

uber's original logo

The same post on TechCrunch also notes that Uber’s logo appears to “be in metamorphosis.”

Kalanick revealed a new logo and explained why they ditched the “cab” in a blog post a year later: “We got a nastygram (aka, a Cease and Desist) from the city of San Francisco saying amongst other things, that our name UberCab means we are marketing ourselves as a cab company.” Uber considers itself a technology company.

(Of course, this wasn’t the last logo change or run-in with a government agency.)

Despite the cease and desist, Uber continued operations and quickly gained widespread adoption.

On December 22, 2010, in a joint post, Graves and Kalanick announced that Kalanick would become CEO.

Graves said of his demotion, “I’m super pumped about how well rounded the team has become with Travis on board full time.” Kalanick said, “I’m frickin’ pumped to be on board full-time with Uber!”

Graves later revealed that this sort of transition “definitely requires a little bit of an ego/gut check. When you spend a year investing yourself in a project, you feel pretty strongly about how it should be run or which direction it should be taken in.”

Kalanick has remained on as the CEO of Uber since. Graves became general manager and VP of business operations and is currently SVP of global operations. Garrett is currently chairman of Uber.

On that same day in December 2010, Kalanick, penned a post that tells Uber’s origin story. He included that fateful tech conference (it was apparently snowing), praised Graves, mentioned that Uber had done a test run in New York (full service in that city would launch in May 2011), and ended with “the rest is history :)”.