Dreamforce 2015: Uber CEO argues how data helps drivers

"If you grow like we've grown, you're a black box," said Uber's CEO. "People fill that box with whatever gets clicks."
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO---For better or worse, Uber has a dominant presence in San Francisco, serving as one of the primary transportation methods moving thousands upon thousands of Dreamforce attendees around the city more than ever this year.

Despite fighting federal agencies and consumer advocate groups from its Bay Area home base to Paris (where CEO Travis Kalanick has said he was inspired to launch Uber after not being able to find a cab at night), the company founder defended Uber's contributions at Salesforce.com's annual expo on Wednesday morning.

"If you grow like we've grown, you're a black box," said Kalanick. "People fill that box with whatever gets clicks."

During a fireside chat, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff observed there is a lot of focus on making drivers successful, which would presumably result in happier customers. Kalanick concurred, positing everything starts with predicting demand, explaining this involves balancing long-term predictions and real-time data and ratings.

"We have to predict demand to match it with supply," Kalanick noted, adding there is a "a lot of technology to make that happen."

Kalanick asserted Uber will "do whatever we have to," whether it be regarding building technology or operations infrastructures, to ensure customers have a quick pickup at as low a price as possible for a safe ride from Point A to Point B.

For drivers, Kalanick insisted new ride-hailing companies offer "an income opportunity," touting it is a much more flexible and fruitful way to make a living than previous taxi models. Kalanick later highlighted a slew of other side benefits in defense of Uber, such as reducing pollution and creating "tens of thousands of jobs" in a given city.

"Maybe they have a normal job outside of Uber, but this is a way to fill the gaps, to put food on the table," Kalanick opined.

Benioff acknowledged Kalanick's argument could be "justification for fighting the taxi industry," but he pointed out that couldn't be why Kalanick started the company five years ago.

"I think that's half fair. But we started the company because the taxi system was broken," Kalanick admitted. "But it was about drivers filling in the gaps, for sure."

Benioff did pay credit to one of Uber's more recent projects, a carpool version of the ride-sharing service called UberPool.

The Salesforce.com co-founder described how he recently tried out the line of service and met a young professional who said he works at Goldman Sachs and didn't want to pay "$50 to get home."

Kalanick seemed both surprised and pleased that an employee from the prominent investment firm would be using UberPool, advertised as the cheapest option available and on par with taking public transportation at times.

"Time is a luxury," Kalanick remarked. "The lowest priced item at Uber is our most luxurious offering."

It was a great way to meet someone else, Benioff noted, characterizing it as a "great innovation." Benioff lightly suggested some other innovations for driver software, including "Uber Tours" of San Francisco and elsewhere.

"Life is like an Uber journey. You get on and you get off," Benioff quipped, leading the two company leaders to debate about whether life is about the destination or the journey.

When Benioff asked about Uber's future plans, from dabbling with food delivery via UberEats to renting helicopters to competing with FedEx and UPS, Kalanick reiterated Uber's focus on solving problems at the local level (meaning food and small business product deliveries) rather than between cities and countries.

"We're on the road, we're driving, it's a little bit foggy, and we don't know where it's going," Kalanick concluded. "But we're really psyched to be on this journey."

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