Behold the Uber man

Garrett Camp is the cofounder of the online transportation service behemoth that is changing the way the world does taxis. Few know he is Canadian.

In a city best known for its steel barons, landmark bridges and a certain Canadian hockey legend, a fleet of strange new vehicles took to Pittsburgh’s gnarled downtown streets this August, offering a glimpse, or perhaps a preview, of the future of urban mobility.

Uber, the San Francisco-based ride-sharing supernova, and Ford launched the first real-world trials of rider-hailed autonomous vehicles. They'll soon be joined by a set of 100 Volvo XC90 SUVs fitted out with a conspicuous battery of rooftop sensors that have been designed to automatically navigate all manner of urban landscapes while detecting and avoiding pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles. Initially, Uber users are able to hail these new automated vehicles for free — an inducement meant to show consumers that they are safe to travel in. (At first, riders will share the vehicles with an Uber engineer and a researcher there to monitor performance.)

While tech giants Google, Apple and Tesla have run more limited automated vehicle trials, the Pittsburgh pilot project, designed in part by engineers recruited from Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, represents the first big public experiment. Not surprisingly, it promptly drew a wave of media and social media attention.

“Pittsburgh has self-driving Ubers!!!!” tweeted visiting food writer Helen Rosner. “I have never wanted so badly to enter a strange car.” “The move,” noted a somewhat less breathless account in The Washington Post, “means that the streets of a large American city, one that gets an average of 41 inches of annual snowfall and has more than 400 bridges, will become the company’s laboratory.”

The Pittsburgh trial comes in the midst of what’s been a remarkably hectic period for a company that’s experienced, in the past three or four years, the kind of escape-velocity-style growth rare even by Silicon Valley’s outsized standards.

Founded in 2009 by Garrett Camp, the Canadian electrical and software engineer responsible for StumbleUpon (an entertainment search/discovery web engine) and Travis Kalanick, a hard-driving, California-born tech entrepreneur, Uber now has a theoretical market capitalization of almost US$66 billion, and its expansion trajectory is showing no sign of tapering. Both have an estimated net worth of more than US$6 billion, which makes the 38-year-old Camp — who grew up in Calgary, the son of an artist and an economist who reinvented themselves as a design/homebuilder team — one of Canada’s richest men.

In the past two quarters, Uber — with 8,000 employees and about a million and a half driver-“partners” worldwide — has made several strategic acquisitions or partnership deals, continued its strategy of aggressively experimenting with a wide range of business ventures, extricated itself from a war of attrition in China, and secured a massive US$3.5-billion private equity infusion from a Saudi sovereign fund that will likely delay the company’s hotly anticipated initial public offering. In cities around the world, Uber has survived bruising political fights with taxi regulators, and now has a presence in more than 70 countries.

At the same time, the company, according to anonymous sources cited by Bloomberg, lost more than US$1.2 billion in the first half of fiscal 2016. Uber, moreover, is entangled in a major US court challenge of its financial arrangements with its driver partners. (About 240,000 Uber drivers sued because they claimed the company had under-compensated them by treating them as contractors instead of employees, and a judge ruled that the firm’s US$100-million settlement offer was insufficient to address their grievances.) And competitors, including Lyft and mytaxi, a large European ride-sharing service, continue to carve out market share, despite Uber’s fearsome momentum and its extraordinary name recognition. According to a 2016 Reuters report, mytaxi carries 70 million passengers and has 100,000 drivers in 50 cities across Europe. Indeed, while Uber has made inroads in some European urban regions, other markets have been tougher to crack. The company even pulled out of some German markets last year. As TechCrunch reported last year, the company had signed up only a handful of drivers in Frankfurt, in part because of stiff fines imposed by German courts.

Interestingly, the so-called sharing economy has seen pain in the past couple of years as Uber- or Airbnb-like startups offering a range of services have folded, according to Duncan Stewart, director of Deloitte Canada’s technology, media and telecommunications research. “There’s been a dramatic reassessment of the whole idea of the sharing economy and how profitable it is outside of the car and accommodation industries,” he says.

Whether Uber itself is exposed to this wider retrenchment is a point of active debate. Some observers have expressed skepticism about the company’s astronomical valuations and the company’s claims, made to investment analysts on conference calls, about its operating margins. “You won't find too many technology companies that could lose this much money, this quickly,” New York University business professor Aswath Damodaran told Bloomberg in late August.

Others dismiss those doubts. “They’ve got a huge amount of cash and they’ll spend it until they’ve grown as much as possible,” says Joshua Gans, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “They’ve been plain about that.”

THE UBER CREATION MYTH

Many tech giants — from Hewlett-Packard to Microsoft, Apple and Facebook — trace their roots to an intriguing and quirky genesis story or creation myth, and Uber is no exception.

In the case of the ride-sharing giant, in fact, there are a few variations to choose from.

According to one telling, Camp — a young Calgarian living the good life of a flush San Francisco tech entrepreneur — circa 2008 decided he wanted to be able to get around the Golden Gate city in a style befitting his success. He figured he and some friends could acquire a small fleet of upscale vehicles, which they could summon as needed using a GPS-equipped phone app — a kind of exclusive limo club for the millennial millionaires who lived in San Francisco’s hipster South Market neighbourhood.

In a slightly different telling, Camp, who doesn’t drive, finds himself in Paris for a conference and discovers how difficult it is to hail a cab, that aha moment when a problem collides with an entrepreneurial mind and begets a business model.

A third, which he related at a University of Calgary event last year, implicates San Francisco’s cabbies. “I was frustrated that they would never show up,” he said. “I would be watching these cabs go by me and think, ‘These cabs are empty, why are they not stopping? They are not coordinated at all!’ I remember one day — after watching James Bond and seeing him tracking his car on his phone — I was looking at my iPhone, waiting for the cab company to call me and I thought, why can’t I just push a button and they would come? And that was the initial idea.”

All the versions eventually include the catalytic encounter with Kalanick, a young California tech entrepreneur who’d just sold a startup for US$19 million in stock. As Kalanick told The Times of London, Camp’s vision was way too niche, and he initially rebuffed his offer to run the service. “I was not ready to get in the game and give 100% or 150%,” he told the Times. But, Kalanick added, if Uber could be scaled and made available to anyone with a smartphone, it would become a viable business. Camp, according to a recent profile in The Globe and Mail, anted up US$200,000 to build the initial app, and, in 2010, the fledgling firm piloted the idea with a few Lincoln Town Cars in Manhattan and then San Francisco.

By the time he’d met and pitched Kalanick, Camp had come a long way in a short time — the classic rocket trajectory of a tech superstar. “In 1996,” Camp wrote in an essay on entrepreneurship, “I enrolled in the University of Calgary for a degree in electrical engineering. After my junior year I lived in Montreal, working on speech recognition technology during an internship at Nortel Networks.” After taking courses at Concordia, he returned to Calgary to finish his undergraduate studies.

In 2001, he had a freshly minted electrical engineering degree and found himself casting about for something to do. Soon, he and three acquaintances, Geoff Smith, Eric Boyd and Justin LaFrance, launched StumbleUpon, which Camp described as “the Internet equivalent of channel surfing, but more informative, entertaining and addictive.” (Camp declined to be interviewed for this article, as did University of Calgary officials.)

The inspiration behind StumbleUpon involved Camp’s love of photography, and the difficulties he encountered finding really good photo sites online. Google searches threw out huge and indiscriminate lists of links, and Camp wondered if there was a way to curate the Internet with a service that would provide users with links to sites they’d actually want to visit. As he described the company to the Los Angeles Times in 2006, “StumbleUpon is more of a recommendation engine than a search engine.”

Camp and his partners soon raised US$1.5 million from 10 angel investors, among them a senior Google executive and Mitch Kapor, who founded software company Lotus. But he had to go to California to do it. “When I went into meetings with [Silicon Valley] guys,” he told the National Post in 2006, “I had never seen so many people get so quickly what we were doing.” As he added, pointedly, “I never met anyone in Canada with that kind of grasp.” That year, he moved the company to San Francisco. “Before long,” Camp recalled, “we were getting buyout offers.”

(Interestingly, his ascendency closely parallels that of Stewart Butterfield, a laid-back BC software developer who set out to build a multiplayer computer game in 2002. While the game cratered, Butterfield and his team created a photo-sharing program while building it, and subsequently figured out how to transform an internal tool into the photo-sharing service Flickr, which he sold to Yahoo in 2005 for a reported US$25 million. Butterfield is now at the helm of Slack, a company that is looking to displace email as the backbone tool of work-related communication.)

In that pregnant mid-’00s moment just before Facebook, Twitter and Apple’s iPhone changed everything, users flocked to StumbleUpon. The company boasted 12 million best-of-the-web sites in its database, plus at least 2.3 million registered users in 2007 — up from 600,000 two years earlier, according to The New York Times. In May of that year, eBay acquired StumbleUpon for US$75 million and Camp found his name included on various next-wave entrepreneur lists. And thanks to the pairing with the e-commerce giant, StumbleUpon’s user base doubled almost overnight.

As the National Post noted, he was enjoying “the Internet entrepreneur’s dream: living in a condo in San Francisco, hanging with the biggest names in the Internet startup world and working with his buddies to build a brand to one day rival Google.” Yet Camp also took the opportunity to finish off his master's degree from the University of Calgary, which culminated in a technical paper that focused on a visual interface for “foraging strategies which enables [the] automated creation of virtual collaborative communities of like-minded thinkers in Cyberspace.”

In other words, StumbleUpon’s foundational algorithm.

The pairing with eBay chafed almost from the beginning. Camp was an archetypal startup entrepreneur unaccustomed to the size and bureaucratic heft of a company the size of eBay. “When we sent offer letters,” he later told The Wall Street Journal, “it was on eBay letterhead. We asked, ‘Can we put our logo on there?’ There wasn’t a way to do that. There were a lot of little things like that.”

Nor was eBay’s acquisition strategy all that clear-eyed. Mashable, the oracle of the tech world, described the marriage as “bizarre.” Less than two years after the deal, with the global economy tanking in the aftermath of the credit crisis, eBay sold StumbleUpon back to Camp and some other investors for an undisclosed amount.

While it later raised US$17 million to make the platform friendly and better for advertisers, StumbleUpon was overtaken by developments in the social media and mobility sectors. The firm, which still operates, laid off 30% of its workforce in 2013 and Camp relinquished the CEO’s role in 2012 (he remains a shareholder).

By that point, though, he’d become cofounder and chair of a meteoric company attracting huge sums in private equity financing from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Google, which invested in a US$258-million financing in 2014, and thus transformed Uber into a so-called unicorn — Silicon Valley’s shorthand for tech companies so flush with cash that their theoretical market capitalizations soar above the US$1-billion threshold.

In short, Camp’s mind may have been elsewhere.

THE APP TO SUCCESS

Most people know Uber in one of two ways: either directly, as a purveyor of inexpensive and virtually frictionless rides hailed using a smartphone app and provided by independent driver-partners; or via news reports as a nasty alleycat of a company that has scrapped and clawed its way into one urban market after another, leaving in its wake a trail of apoplectic cabdrivers and defeated regulators.

Kalanick, the CEO, has become the pugnacious face of Uber, while Camp, the more low-key of the two, serves as chair. His personal website is a single page with a mug shot of him and a brief block of text: “I’m an entrepreneur based in San Francisco. Founder @ Expa, Uber and StumbleUpon.” Indeed, he spends his time running Expa, a “startup studio” he founded that has raised US$150 million to fund fledgling tech firms geared at developing apps with media, data analytics and sensor applications. (The company has launched 15 startups, including Haus.com, which is an app that automates aspects of real estate transactions and makes the bidding process transparent.)

Reflecting Camp’s interest in new ventures, the seven-year-old ride-sharing behemoth — which claims to control about 84% of the US market — has also become a kind of hothouse for all sorts of commercial spinoffs, a dynamic that invites comparisons to Amazon.

The list of side ventures is long and growing, and there’s clearly evidence that the two founders continue to run the firm with a see-what-sticks ethic. In 2012, for example, Uber launched a business similar to its ride-sharing service, but geared at executives looking for seats on corporate planes. BlackJet, noted The Wall Street Journal, would “do for private jets what [Camp’s] other startup, called Uber Technologies, is doing for car transportation.” The scheme drew celebrity backers, including Jay Z’s company and Ashton Kutcher. Despite the hype, it ceased flying earlier this year.

The company has launched a food delivery service, UberEats, and ran trials last year of UberHealth, which shuttles nurses to patients to give free flu shots. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Uber’s business model — on-demand service provided by independent contractors — proved to be exceedingly popular, with many startups approaching angel investors or venture capital firms touting “Uber-for-X” business schemes, says Stewart. The phrase, he adds, “became so overused it became a running joke in the tech community.”

Earlier this year, Bloomberg revealed that Uber and Goldman Sachs, which has been an investor for several years, had teamed up to offer a US$1-billion credit line to a Delaware vehicle leasing Uber subsidiary. Xchange Leasing offers cheap loans to buyers who aspire to become driver-partners but may not qualify for more conventional car financings. The company has also struck deals with several large car manufacturers and negotiated preferential rental arrangements with Enterprise and Hertz.

Undoubtedly the most conspicuous development these days involves driverless vehicles, which hold out the promise of even lower ride-sharing rates as well as other market opportunities. In the past year, Uber has entered into a US$300-million R&D arrangement with Volvo, as well as a partnership with Toyota. Earlier this year, it acquired Otto, a small California firm developing self-driving transport trucks. “Goods movement is an excellent candidate for automated vehicle technology and applications,” observes civil engineering professor Susan Shaheen, co-director of the University of California Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. “It is not that surprising that Uber is moving into this field with Otto.”

In the past two years or so, some of the other larger ride-sharing companies, including Lyft, Gett (an Israeli firm) and mytaxi, have negotiated partnerships with vehicle manufacturers such as General Motors, Volkswagen and Daimler (Google, Apple and Tesla are all developing their own automated vehicles). Says Gans: “There’s a big race at the moment with autonomous vehicles.”

Blanc Labs vice-president Kevin McLaughlin, a Toronto entrepreneur who founded an early car-sharing company and is now developing a cab-hailing app for Latin American markets where Uber has little presence, points out that the vehicle manufacturers see the ride-sharing firms as potential sales channels for future vehicle sales; the same logic drove the vehicle makers to invest in car rental and ride-sharing firms. “It’s all kind of converging,” he says. “How it converges is the real question.”

The convergence doesn’t just involve the carmakers. Patrick Leclerc, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, points to numerous examples where transit agencies in cities such as Dallas and Kansas City have entered into various sorts of arrangements with ride-sharing firms as a means of solving the so-called first mile/last mile dilemma, i.e., getting commuters from their front doors to and from transit stops that may not be within easy walking distance. “We believe that in the future, private companies will be involved,” he says.

Indeed, in contrast to the bitter and heavily publicized confrontations with the taxi industry and its regulators, Shaheen points to examples of collaborations between Uber and various transit operators. “The city of Altamonte Springs, Fla., subsidizes Uber riders 20% for trips in the city, and 25% for trips to/from its rail station,” she says. “And the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in Florida is running a subsidy program to provide Uber rides to its disadvantaged community.” (In Canada, where Uber’s legal and tax status remains somewhat murky in many jurisdictions, such pairings are not yet possible, Leclerc says.)

In a variation on the theme, Lyft, generally seen as Uber’s largest North American competitor, has also launched a kind of car-pooling service that uses algorithms to match commuters and destinations and provide rides in larger vehicles. Uber, through a service called UberPool, is also working in this space and, not surprisingly, dominates it. But Shaheen says it’s far too soon to say whether such services represent an existential threat to transit providers.

Nor, indeed, is Uber’s dominance assured, despite the strength of a brand that has become synonymous with ride-sharing. “Obviously Uber has huge brand name recognition,” says McLaughlin. “But there are lots of folks who would like to try alternatives.”

THE NEXT UBER?

With so many balls in the air and such huge sums of cash in play, Uber watchers find themselves wondering if the firm’s brand balloon will burst or if Kalanick’s hard-driving approach to growing the company, plus the billions of dollars it has in its war chest, will be enough to propel Uber towards an Amazon- or Google-like dominance in whatever the ride-sharing sector becomes in the next few years. “Sure, there’s a risk of having too much money,” observes Gans. “They could squander it on all sorts of stuff.” But, he adds, “I don’t think it’s a company that’s capable of tapering its growth strategy.”

Camp, however, is watching the extraordinary global dynamic he unleashed from a bit of a remove, at his perch at Expa, where he hopes to discover the next Uber, now that he no longer has trouble hailing a cab.

“Fundamentally, I want to build a product that I want to use myself,” Camp mused last year at the University of Calgary. "Will it make my life better and will other people want to use it? If I don’t want to use it myself, then I’m not going to be excited about it, and then work becomes work and it's not fun.”

About the Author

John Lorinc


John Lorinc is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

comments powered by Disqus

Highlights

Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada) annually offers its views on priorities for the federal budget. Review past submissions of pre-budget briefs and consultations, and post-budget release opinions and commentary.

Our Firm Directory allows you to search for Canadian CPA firms using our interactive map as well as other criteria.

Jointly presented by CPA Canada and CPA Ontario, The ONE is the must-attend, multi-track event of the year, designed for all CPAs who want to be at the top of their game.