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Book review: ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’ by Mike Isaac

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The story of a tech start-up’s rapid growth illustrates what happens when a newcomer attempts to disrupt an established business sector.

The problem faced by authors of books like ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’ (WW Norton, £19.99, ISBN 9780393652246) is the sheer pace of change in the tech sector. In London alone, for example, recent weeks have seen Uber’s right to operate extended for just two months. The ride-hailing company had just reached the end of a 15-month stay of execution granted back in 2017 after Transport for London revoked its licence over public safety concerns. The latest renewal will give it time to provide TfL with additional information about various aspects of its business.

Whether or not users will have to look for alternative ways of getting around the UK capital in the run up to Christmas, the process is a relatively small element of the dramatic story of a company whose attempts to totally disrupt how we think about transport by taking advantage of the latest technology mean it has been dogged by controversy from the beginning.

Author Mike Isaac’s solution to the ever-changing landscape is to frame his story of Uber’s ‘rise and fall’ within the tenure as CEO of controversial founder Travis Kalanick, the larger than life figure who shaped Uber’s corporate culture and grew it into a global brand before being ousted in a boardroom coup in 2017. Kalanick’s departure capped a watershed year for a business that had surged to prominence on the back of widespread adoption of mobile technology yet despite being a case study in how to grow a Silicon Valley business from concept to start-up to global behemoth was still regarded as a symbol of everything that was wrong with this part of the tech world.

Much of the story is a familiar one of frustrated entrepreneurs trying again and again. What makes ‘Super Pumped’ different, and justifies its description as a page-turner rather than a dry corporate history, is the visceral world in which Kalanick was determined to operate. It’s a gripping account of Uber’s rapid rise, its pitched battles with taxi unions and drivers, the company’s toxic internal culture and the bare-knuckle tactics it devised to overcome obstacles in its quest for dominance.

Isaac has been reporting on Uber’s ups and downs for years, and his depth of knowledge is reflected in the detail of this book, which draws on hundreds of interviews with current and former Uber employees. If anything, the claim that it’s a story of “ambition and deception, obscene wealth and bad behaviour” might even undersell it.

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