Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent his staff a Sunday-night email this week, setting expectations for a change toward corporate austerity measures at the ride-hailing and delivery app, just days after an earnings call where Uber’s performance beat analysts’ estimates.
In the memo, first reported by CNBC, Khosrowshahi explains that he has just wrapped up a series of discussions with investors in New York and Boston. Although media reports suggest that investors hold mixed opinions about where the tech market is going, Khosrowshahi’s conversations and his subsequent memo were colored by pessimistic forecasts.
Here are a few of the words and phrases that jump out as particularly telling:
“We will treat hiring as a privilege and be deliberate about when and where we add headcount.”
Cutting way back (or perhaps freezing?) hiring will be one way Uber is going to cut costs going forward. Layoffs are not explicitly announced in the memo, but they’re becoming more common in the sector.
“Privilege” arguably does some specific work here. Khosrowshahi seems to be plugging into the zeitgeist and, whether intentionally or not, reminding highly paid employees whose workloads are going to become a lot more intense—the email refers to doing “more with less”—that they’re already in a far more comfortable position than most workers. (That would include Uber’s “earners,” a.k.a. the gig workers and drivers, also referenced in the email, who do not have the privilege of being recognized as employees.)
“I’ve never been more certain that we will win. But it’s going to demand the best of our DNA: hustle, grit, and category-defining innovation.”
The H-word is a throwback to the mid 2010s, when Uber’s founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, personified the most questionable traits of hustle culture—a tendency toward rudeness and arrogance, a push for profits at all costs, and workaholism.
In the year or two leading up the pandemic, “hustle” lost a lot of its shine, just as a host of brash CEOs were replaced by gentler, less showy chief executives, including Khosrowshahi. Young workers began talking more openly about burnout and workaholism, and tech employees found ways to collectively push back against companies that violated ethical boundaries or chewed up and dismissed employees. Then the pandemic hit, and the conversation about work became even (rightfully) more supersaturated with words like compassion, people-first policies, work-life balance, and empathetic management.
Whether company practices actually changed in response is debatable. Here, Khosrowshahi seems be suggesting that although the pandemic isn’t over, an unofficial grace period for employees might be.
“We will be even more hardcore about costs across the board.”
Although “hardcore,” can connote dedication and intensity that’s admirable, there’s also a whiff of toxic masculinity about the word. In a corporate setting, a narcissistic CEO who plans to lead command-and-control style might want to be “hardcore,” rather than be humble and open-minded. Khosrowshahi is trying to thread a needle here: bringing a badass spin to financial discipline without inviting back the most aggressive parts of Uber’s culture.
“The average employee at Uber is barely over 30, which means you’ve spent your career in a long and unprecedented bull run. This next period will be different, and it will require a different approach.”
Striking a paternal tone, the 52-year-old Khosrowshahi speaks directly to his many employees who were only teenagers when the 2008 financial crisis upended careers and left millions unemployed, and were still playing with Hot Wheels during the first dot-com crash.
While the rest of the email shouts “tough times ahead,” Khosrowshahi chooses the less alarming “different” to describe what his young employees should imagine for the future. Different doesn’t always mean worse, but it rarely means better.
“Free Cash Flow”
“Now it’s about free cash flow. We can (and should) get there fast.”
Khosrowshahi announces a quick, meaningful pivot for a company once valued at over $100 billion (its current market cap is $46 billion) although it has never been cash-flow positive. For years, companies like Uber have been valued based on their growth potential rather than their profitability. That ride is over—for now.