Destroy Uber

Building cultures

I recently received a gift I made to myself, an Oculus device. It’s my new toy. The game I play mostly with Oculus is table tennis. It's a fully immersive experience and can't stop doing it.

I started playing on the "medium" difficulty but after I got used to it, beating the robot set after set, I decided to upgrade to the "hard" level. But that was really hard. I lost every single one of the 10 sets I played with him, but in the end, I discovered I had learned so many new tricks and techniques. Since my old tricks with the "medium guy" didn't work at this level, I had to upgrade myself. While I was losing, I was learning, because I tried new techniques I didn't need previously.

When I finished playing, it hit me: you choose who you are by choosing your competitors. I became a better player because of this new tough opponent. And then, an old story came to mind, a story that happened at a time when I first took this lesson, and I'd like to share it with you.

Going Down

By the end of 2014, I was the CEO of Taxibeat (later Beat) and we were on a downwards trend. The company was on the verge of completely collapsing. We had lost the Mexican and Brazilian market, we had lost a funding round from a major investor (right at the moment when everything was ready to have the money wired to our bank), and I had lost some of my most important partners in the company who left me.

Existing shareholders had lost any confidence in us and all we were left with was operating in just two markets on opposite sides of the world: Greece and Peru. In Greece, we were the big fish, but in Peru, we had just started and there were two major competitors, EasyTaxi and Uber, ahead of us. The company's outlook was anything but bright.

The next year started in even darker clouds: the change of government in Greece left the country amid its worst period of financial crisis which ended with the closing of banks and capital controls in July 2015. Our Greek revenues dropped by 30% overnight and stayed at these levels for long. On the other side, our Peruvian operations showed signs of growth and it looked like we had a promising market in which I applied many tough lessons I took in the previous years: full control of operations, staying close with the local team, put more emphasis on local execution.

Going Up

In the first months of 2016, I made a great new hire, Sanja Ilic, who quickly became our head of operations (and eventually our COO) with core responsibility to grow the Peruvian market. That was a tipping point in turning around the company's fortunes. We had started building more confidence in ourselves but we were still lagging behind our competitors in Peru, especially Uber.

We needed a North Star, something that will give us that extra push to accelerate. The company was missing a goal, a mission, something that will have everyone row in the same direction, in pursue of performance and results.

Then it hit me. We didn't need a goal like "change the world" or "make people happy and make transportation easy and affordable". These were mottos used by anyone. We needed something that will act as a shock, something that many people wouldn't like maybe. But it would unite the right kind of people inside the company.

"Destroy Uber" was born overnight. It was bold and hard, just like the hard level on my AI table tennis. It was ambitious but also confident. Sanja and I decided to use it everywhere: on the walls, in our all-hands meetings, in my Sunday memos, in the presentation templates, in our internal designs, "Destroy Uber" became our obsession. Everybody at Taxibeat was sleeping with it, making love with it, and waking up with it.

Many people didn't like it. I was speaking with candidates for hiring and when they heard this goal, they pulled back. It was the right move for them (and for us). Our KPIs were directed in how we compare to Uber. Our local team was spying on every move of them. Our Peruvian employees were applying for positions at Uber only to collect more information about them. Every day we had that intense feedback loop between Lima and Athens about how we compare, how much we move the needle against the #1 player in that market.

When "Destroy Uber" came to life, Taxibeat was owning a mere 15% of the market while Uber owned more than 60%. One and a half years later Taxibeat was the #1 player beating Uber and taking EasyTaxi out of the game. All of that with very minimal spending - remember, we never managed to raise a VC round after the one we lost back in 2014. The funny thing? Peru was the only market in the world where Uber was not the #1 player. That was big.

No one doubts that this incredible performance was the result of the laser focus on the one goal that matters. Internally, it became a case study. The operational processes our team had established during these times were the subject of presentations inside the FreeNow group after the company was acquired by Daimler. This operating philosophy was the raw material for our next launches in Bogota, Colombia (we quickly became again #1 ahead of Uber in just one year), in Santiago Chile, in Mexico City, and Buenos Aires.

What Beat achieved in the next 4 years came as a result of that intense period, and the execution-focused culture that was established then. That is, I think, the biggest lesson for every founder. A focus on culture is not a focus on perks and having a good time. A focus on culture means all the things you do to achieve your goals. And you have to be very diligent in writing down the ingredients of your culture and then pursue it every day.

PS: And just like we did with Uber, I have no doubt I’ll win this “hard” guy on Oculus. Just give me some time…