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Transportation in SF sucks. Here's what Uber's doing about it. Written by Marguerite Imbert on 5. April 2012

Our time in San Francisco was spent taxi-dependent. Probably the most taxi-dependent we’ve been since age 14, loaded with allowance, and scared of anything past 96th and midnight. The Bart was annoying and inconvenient. It was often raining. And what’s with these blank Arrow Cab Co. tickets you get when you ask a SF cabbie for a receipt?
When we got the chance to meet with Uber’s Director of Analytics and Quality, former Goldman employee Athena Maikish at the Uber office (the company that’s revolutionizing the way people get around), we couldn’t be more thrilled. Here’s what we learned about transportation, New Year’s, and barbecue.
VV. Yesterday in our Uber car, we had water bottles in the pockets. Is this your doing? Uber: No, drivers can choose to put water bottles in the car or give other amenities in the hope of getting good ratings (a maximum of five stars), but we don’t force them to. It’s a natural incentive. We do give them information that says, “Hey, this is what customers like. If yo want five stars, put water in the car. Get out of the car and open the door, etc,” but this all started because customers were saying, “Hey, water! This is awesome.”
VV. How do you test drivers to make sure they’re great? Uber: We give them a Knowledge Test before signing them up, to make sure they know the city well enough to drive in it. Beyond that, it’s user ratings. Five stars is the best. If they’re too low, we deal with it.
VV. We heard a very recent rumor that you’re thinking of coming to Berlin. What would it take?
Uber: One very good GM. Know anyone? (she laughs) Someone who’s super analytical, passionate, who can deal with regulations….
VV: A few people have told us you’re the “hottest startup in San Fran right now.” Really? Uber: I think people like us because we’re truly useful. We’re taking the outdated process of calling a cab and bringing it to your cell phone. Places like Path are taking a social network like Facebook and putting it on a micro-level. Uber is doing something entirely new. And we’re making it easy.
VV: Uber launched in Paris in a matter of weeks for LeWeb. And you were also at SXSW this year? Uber: Yes, Paris was really quick and really intense. At SXSW, we equipped petty cars with on-demand-barbecue. For six bucks or something, you could get barbecue in your ride. That was pretty cool.
VV. Tell us a little bit about your founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. And the name Uber? Uber: Well, Travis was part of Scour and then Red Swoosh, and Garrett was the one who founded Stumbledupon. They both got together and decided they wanted a personal limo service. It was really out of a personal need that they founded this company. As for Uber, I think Travis and Garrett just came up with it? I don’t know. We used to be Ubercab when we first started.
VV. Does the Uber Staff get free limo rides all day long? Uber: For the most part, we get free rides, yes. I mean, I won’t take it on a Saturday night if we’re tapped out, we keep the customer first, but for the most part it’s a good perk of the job. It was actually really helpful to me because I moved out here for the job (from NYC). It made establishing a social life a lot easier. When you move to a new city, you don’t really know your way around or what areas aren’t safe. Rides helped. I also volunteer at a non-profit that’s between two train stations.
VV. Interesting. How much do you see nonprofits collaborating with the tech sector here?
Uber: Not as much as they could. What I’d love to see is…you know how huge banks sort of tag nonprofits and support them, for better or for worse. You don’t see that as much with big companies out here like Apple or Zynga. Apple’s now matching employee contributions, but it’s a little late in the game…
VV: You worked at Goldman Sachs. Any opinion on the recent resignation? Uber: I was actually guest lecturing about it yesterday at Berkeley. I mentioned how within hours of the leak Goldman sent out a letter to its alumni network. I mainly told students what I thought of corporate ethics from the perspective of someone who’s worked at a financial institution. I’ve also worked at the World Bank, so I brought that into it.
VV. You’re from New York too. What was the difference between launching there and in San Fran? Uber: We had to run New York completely differently. There, fleets are money-connected (we think she means mafia), meaning they control the scene and take huge cuts from drivers. There are these bases that basically create power holds on the system so that drivers need to cooperate with them. In San Francisco, it’s small-business friendly.
VV. How are regulations different for drivers? Uber: In New York, as a driver, you can only be affiliated with with one base and each needs 10 fleets under it. So there are these huge companies like Carmel and 777…you probably know them (I confirm.)
VV. How is Uber changing the system for drivers? Uber: We work with independent partners, so drivers who have fleets of 1,2, 3 cars…We’re helping these guys to grow these fleets. They’re people who have emigrated here. We don’t own cars. We just provide a driver app. So we’re stimulating business for independent fleets.
VV. New Years is the worst time to get a cab. It gives me nightmares. How does Uber prepare for it? Uber: leading up to it, New Year’s Eve was good incentive to build up each city we were functioning out of (they’re currently in nine cities.) At the same time, we didn’t want to overstock. We ended up finding a solution with surge pricing, which basically means the price is adjusted based on how badly you need a cab. (Editor’s note: This also led to complaints on Twitter and a user’s blog post about the high price of Uber rides due to surge prices)
VV. Right now, when you land in an airport, there are all these drivers holding up signs. Will this ever change?
Uber: Airport pickups are an interesting one. I don’t think we’ve found a way to nail them yet. There are just so many regulations. You can’t just park outside and come in. So right now, passengers need to call the driver. But a lot of people don’t want to have to. We’re working on it.