The fight between Uber and Austin took me back to junior high. Two kids with a bunch of their friends shouting “You can’t tell me what to do!” followed by, “I can too!” on repeat until the one of them finally shouts “I’m taking my ball and going home!”
It was mishandled on both sides for different reasons, but it really didn’t have to be.
There are two ways Uber could have responded if they had treated it like a marketing problem instead of a legislation problem.
I understand the basis of the fight was local legislation and undue burden on free enterprise, but, the moment it went up for public vote, it became a marketing and communications problem.
I’m not going to attempt to explain what the Austin City Council should have done. I think it was a petulant maneuver based out of ego and power disguised as “concern for the public” that started the fight in the first place. I understand the impetus because it is a distinctly human trait (somewhat magnified in Texas) to get a little bit pissed off about some outsider moving into your neighborhood and acting like they own the place.
And honestly, that’s not really what Uber did. They even tried to engage in talks, but they just weren’t willing to ask, “How high?” when the Austin City Council shouted, “Jump!”
But the moment it went into the public forum, Uber should have had this thing in the bag. I didn’t know a single person who regularly used Uber that wasn’t horrified by the idea of them leaving.
I know this is Texas. You were counting on that when you started a public battle about keeping government regulation out of free commerce, and you thought you were playing to the crowd.
But you forgot this is also Austin. The only thing we hate more than government regulation is pretentiousness. In Austin, we go out of our way to not acknowledge famous people and take great pride in allowing our favorite musicians the space to enjoy a meal or drink in peace. So when a company that makes millions of dollars a year from a service offered in our town starts bitching about how simple safety regulations would “hurt their business”, you don’t win friends.
Now remember, I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about perception.
I understand and agree with the arguments that Uber made about restrictions and regulations harming driver signups and hurting their customer base. I also understand that it would be a bad domino that could cause problems in a hell of a lot of other markets. Precedent is a bitch.
But there were two things Uber could have done to maintain hearts and minds, and never reached the point of walking home with their ball.
Option one: Agree with the premise but validate free market.
This option would take zero business changes, and they could focus all their energy on the communication of the idea. Their campaign announces,
“Yes, we completely agree with Austin City Council that safety should be a primary concern with Uber and Uber drivers. When you request an Uber ride at the end of a long night, it’s often because you don’t feel comfortable driving your own vehicle. That is not the time that you want to have to worry about your personal well being in the hands of an Uber driver.
The numbers show that Uber is just as safe as any of the ride options currently operating in Austin. We trust our drivers. But sometimes words aren’t enough.
However, we completely disagree that government regulation is the right way to solve this problem.
Uber is a prime example of the power of a free market enterprise. It saw a need, filled that need, and quickly grew to become a safe, reputable, and efficient way of getting rides in a big city. Our impact was biggest in cities that lacked a solid system of public transportation.
Austin was one of those cities. The government in Austin has not been able to solve their transportation problem. We stepped into a gaping hole, and we made a significant difference in everything from traffic to DUI’s.
We are absolutely willing to address Austin’s valid concerns of safety. We will be working on a way to do it that takes care of our riders without harming our drivers.
Give us the time to solve this problem with you, and this topic will be a non-issue in the near future.
Don’t let Austin City Council step in to try to “fix” something that was a solution to a problem they created in the first place.”
Option Two: Change your business model and make more freaking money.
This is an option that is risky to suggest, but I’m a gambling man by nature. I don’t know what plans Uber has for their future, but I saw a huge opportunity for a business gain without allowing any government regulation or restriction.
They use this moment to announce “Uber Safe”. Uber safe is another level of Uber that has drivers that are fingerprinted and have criminal back round checks. Uber drives get the option of becoming an “Uber Safe” driver, and Uber will reimburse them for their cost. In return, “Uber Safe” cars cost more than the average Uber ride, and the driver (and Uber) both make more money per ride.
Customers would have the option on their phone of seeing only the cars in their area that are “Uber Safe” or seeing “All Options”.
For the cost-focused customer, nothing changes. For the safety conscious rider, you increase profit for driver and Uber.
Uber can announce this change as “We’ve heard you, and we agree.” It makes the legislation irrelevant, and the vote completely fails.
Not only do you stay in Austin, but they get to make more money. And as they like, they can roll it out to other cities.
I love Uber. I wish it was still here. But when you fight a marketing and communications battle by treating it like a legislative battle, you set yourself up for a loss. Especially when it reveals you never really understood the people in the city you claim to serve.