[book report] The Upstarts

How Uber, Airbnb and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley are Changing the World by Brad Stone

I really enjoyed Brad Stone’s previous book — the Everything Store about the rise of Amazon and Jeff Bezos. I learned a lot from it and it is a must read I think for any aspiring product manager. That said I did come away from it thinking that Stone gave Amazon a bit of an easy ride on some of their more unscrupulous tactics — albeit he did acknowledge them and give them some context so it is no puff piece. Still is left an impression of an author with a little bit of entrepreneur fan-boy in the DNS of his writing.

This book is a sequel in many ways. It plots the rise of both Uber and AirBnB from their humble, side project beginnings to the huge, global companies they have become and in doing so adds to the mythology about start-up founders rather than punctures it.

Again I think it gives these founders and their companies an easy ride while also providing some interesting insights into how they emerged as these mega-corporations.

The book pre-dates the recent ousting of Travis Kalanick as Uber CEO due to the constant scandals surrounding the company and his seemingly consistently tone deaf responses to them. The book makes it clear that his flaws have been obvious from his earliest days of the company but that those flaws were also part of the reason he was able to drive the start-up forward from its humble beginnings. There is a cult leader like reverence around how some of his supporters speak of him — but it is clear he has made many enemies along the way. Not least the legion of public servants he has battled and run rough shod over in the last few years. The US public servants are rarely portrayed in a positive light in the book — in their dealings with either company — even those who attempted to find sensible compromises were run over by the weight of VC funded lawyers, lobbyists and ‘community’ action. There was little mention of the detail of the battles with European and Asian public servants — I suspect they did not quite meet the narrative as neatly.

AirBnB and their founder Brian Chesky are often perceived as the other side of the coin to Uber. The positive example of this ‘sharing economy’. What this book does clearly demonstrate is that they quickly evolved into every bit as ruthless and combative a company as Uber under Kalanick they are just much better at handling the fallouts of their issues and bad press. Basically a gift for spinning things with a pseudo hippy mission and a willingness to quickly fall on their swords for the good of the company rather than continue to fight in the public eye is the main differentiator rather than any grand moral difference between them.

I found myself grimacing and rolling my eyes a fair amount during my time with this story. It is hard to warm towards the ‘heroes’ of these stories, their backers or the crazy world of VC money that values asset-less start-ups at $billions only a couple of years in. Understanding what happened though and the way it was done does provide some useful lessons I think. None more so than equipping the public service with a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges that the internet offers so they can be better prepared to deal with these ‘upstarts’ for the good of everyone in their cities/towns not just those wealthy enough to benefit.

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley are Changing the World