Why it’s Time to Stop our Infatuation with Unicorns

Mention disruption and firms that come into the conversation include giants like AirBnB, Apple, Uber, Amazon, or the aspiring baby unicorns like Deliveroo or Monzo.

These firms are held in high regard for their ability to turn established industries on their heads. We do love a good underdog especially one that proclaims to want to make the world a better place. People talk about the shortsighted executives to blame for the demise of companies like Kodak, Blockbuster, DEC, and Sony’s Betamax. As we smugly look in the rearview mirror of history, we tell ourselves that anyone should have seen ‘that’ one coming.

Today, unicorns continue beating the dinosaurs

And today, unicorns continue beating the dinosaurs and the crowds continue to roar with delight and approval.

But might there something darker at play to which we are willfully colluding as users, employees, leaders, and investors? What happens when we let the unicorns beat the dinosaurs untrammeled by accountability for impact? What might the world look like if the collective visions of Bezos, Jobs, Musk and Kalanick come into being in their purest form? Disruption comes at a yet untold socio-economic cost. Those currently responsible for disruption are billion dollar companies whom no-one dare hold to account.

One of the well-publicized disruptors is Uber and it’s an example of what unicorns are capable of creating, the rules they are willing to break, and the damage they leave in their trail. The company has been in the news for much of it’s nine years of corporate history on topics relating to their business model, tax avoidance, discriminatory treatment of internal staff, a brutish culture and poor treatment of drivers.

The impact of their business model has been to challenge traditional taxi services in over 700 cities across the world. The resistance of the incumbents have been well publicized with marches and riots staged in capitals around the world where the changes where most keenly felt.

The unicorn that is Uber is held up as capitalism at it’s best responding to the unmet needs of consumers. The consumer rules, right? But let us explore the true costs of this disruption in more detail.

Since the courageous outing of the company’s sexist and discriminatory culture by Susan Folwer earlier this year, the full truth of what has really been built behind the walls of the company is becoming public knowledge. This courageous voice blew open the truth of what it’s like to work there.

Discrimination is only the tip of the iceberg. The real culture of any organization – in other words not the corporate PPT of corporate values – can be measured by staff engagement and behaviours. There are plenty reports of substance abuse, frat party company retreats, time of for illness, and high levels of anxiety and panic attacks.

A letter from the CEO sent to employees ahead of a company retreat reflects this bro-like culture. It’s worth copying part of it here for its’ sheer outrageousness.

– We do not have a budget to bail anyone out of jail. Don’t be that guy. #CLM

– Do not throw large kegs off of tall buildings. Please talk to Ryan McKillen and Amos Barreto for specific insights on this topic.

– Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic “YES! I will have sex with you” AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML

And what about the drivers? We should remember that without them Uber has no business. Given what we would call zero contract hours relationships with their drivers, it costs Uber almost nothing to have a global fleet. Drivers receive no benefits, earn close to minimum wage, which by Uber’s own estimates are equivalent to a McDonald’s employee.

It’s Not Possible to Earn a Living as an Uber Driver

A quick browse on the web of reports from Uber drivers makes it clear that it can only be of benefit to you if it’s a second job. It’s not possible to make a living as an Uber driver. Disruption has indeed brought us cheaper taxi rides whilst undermining the labour market.

Uber has also been breaking Apple’s privacy rules by secretly tagging iphones after the app was deleted and uses software called Greyball to deceive authorities in territories where Uber has been banned.

Everything you read about Uber culture shows that it’s encouraged to run as hard as you can at something – morals aside – and ask for apologies afterwards.

None of this would be possible without the collusion of investors such as Ariana Huffington. Strongly worded letters from investors – whilst making good press coverage (https://medium.com/kapor-the-bridge/an-open-letter-to-the-uber-board-and-investors-2dc0c48c3a7) – do little to change the dial on the behaviours of the CEO and organization.

As Alyssa Bereznak puts it so eloquently:

“No matter how sophomoric, heteronormative, and offensive he may be, his ability to make investors money has preserved his clout and position in Silicon Valley.”

Earlier this year, the company’s transgressions started to catch up with it and the company went into corporate meltdown. Two investigations were kicked off – one into Fowler’s claims and the other into the culture. Since the findings have been published, the CEO has stood down, twenty people fired, and the board accepted all the recommendations from the culture report.

Uber –  The Next Chapter

The next chapter of Uber – including it’s current battle with London’s TFL – is currently being written.

The company represents what the unleashed forces of disruption are capable of. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing that Uber is wanting to create a better world. It’s long term vision will surely be self-driving cars, thus removing the need for drivers.

Their vision of the world diverges from that I want to live in. Neatly summed up by Caroline Donovan:

“In Uber’s vision, work time is elastic, workers are expendable, and the workday itself has no clear start or end. The individual is uniquely responsible for their own financial success, and the company achieves maximum output without having to compensate people for their downtime. Uber revolutionized work by turning people into flexible, mobile, iPhone-wielding, car-driving widgets. It is a machine for squeezing value out of people.”

Uber is a manifestation of our love affair with capital over people.

Uber is the result of our valuing the balance sheet over staff engagement.

Uber is what happens when we allow disruption at any price.

Uber is what we deserve.

In our awe and admiration for disruptors lies the danger that we sell out. Not all disruption creates a better world. Not all disruptors make the world a better place. Not all change is for good. Not all the world is capable of adapting to the seismic shift of change that results from a convergence of what has been unleashed by the unicorns.

Let not the excitement of disruption cut us loose from our values and purpose in this world.

Let us end this one-sided love affair with disruption.