Sunday, April 2, 2017

Q&A with Brad Stone

Brad Stone is the author of the new book The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World. He also has written The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon and Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports. He is senior executive editor of global technology at Bloomberg News, and has covered Silicon Valley for more than 15 years. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book, and why did you choose to focus on Uber and Airbnb?

A: They’re the most interesting stories of the last wave of growth in Silicon Valley…there was duality in the stories. You could juxtapose them. There wasn’t enough story there to focus on one, like Amazon. The combination was a richer portrait.

Q: You begin the book by looking at the weekend in January 2009 when President Obama was inaugurated. Why did you start there?

A: It seems like a long time ago—a simpler, gentler time. I was worried it would seem like two books mashed together, and as I did the reporting, I was amazed at the points of intersection.

You want all your main characters in one room, and they were both kicking around anonymously at Obama’s inauguration. It was a starting point…the masses in D.C. showed the need for both companies.

I wanted to bookend the story. I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, and thought the founders would go back for the inauguration…

Q: You also look at some companies that never really made it. What were some of the differences between those companies and the successful Uber and Airbnb?

A: To me, this is a critical point. If we’re going to criticize Uber and Airbnb, we should juxtapose it with what [something] looks like with the same mentality, but trying to work within the framework of the rules. 

And we had examples. Couchsurfing took the idealism too seriously, and never got anywhere. Taxi Magic worked within the framework of yellow cab companies [and didn’t succeed]. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Uber and [its CEO] Travis [Kalanick] but had he tried to be a good boy, the outcome would have failed.

Q: I was going to ask you about Uber’s recent controversies. What do you see looking ahead for Uber, and also for Airbnb?

A: Uber had one thing after another, a lot of wounds that were self-inflicted. It has a ways to go to mature into a professional company. They’re looking for a COO. But people love the service, and they’ve integrated it into their lifestyle.

I don’t know if it will have a large impact on the business in the short term. There are a lot of places where it doesn’t have a lot of competition and Uber is a superior service.

In Silicon Valley, long-term success is [tied to] who you can hire, whether you can arrange the next change. They’ve got to get on [a more stable] footing. If they pull off a successful IPO—the drama exists in the bubble of media and technology [rather] than the customers who value the service.

For Airbnb, they’ve established a global brand. Their biggest challenge is regulatory pushback in cities. Some is fueled by the hotel industry, some is legitimate by neighbors who don’t want the home down the street turned into a tourist district. It will cap their supply, which is tough for [them]…

Now, the question on Airbnb is how much the regulatory stuff limits growth of their primary business, and how far they can take the new business of trips and other services.

Q: Are you going to work on another book now?

A: God, no!...I finished The Everything Store and now this, I have a day job, I have kids—and the next thing hasn’t presented itself. These are dynamic companies, and I wanted to be the first to chronicle their history.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s a book for anyone in business or who’s interested in entrepreneurship, who want to see what it takes to succeed in this climate. I think of these as adventure stories. In a way, it’s like the grand achievement of our age…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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