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Uber CEO’s eight traits of great entrepreneurs

Find purpose, and close the gap between perception and reality, Travis Kalanick tells MIT students

December 3, 2015

Travis Kalanick

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Travis Kalanick, founder and CEO of Uber, counted “finding the magic” among eight traits of great entrepreneurs in a talk Dec. 2 in a packed Wong Auditorium.

Uber delivers “magic” to consumers, he said, by giving people calm, joyful rides that save time and money. But, he said, “We get used to magic. There was a time when running water was magic.”

“Customers’ expectations are always going up,” Kalanick said. “For the enduring company, for the enduring entrepreneur, you have to continue to meet those raising expectations.”

Purpose

“It means first understanding who you are, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at,” Kalanick said. “And then, when you come up with your idea, it has a bigger meaning to you.”

For Kalanick, Uber’s purpose is broader than making a profit getting customers from point A to point B. Uber celebrates the city, aims to reduce congestion, and imagines future urban centers where transportation is push-button efficient, regardless of income level, and create thousands of jobs in the process, he said.

Where’s the magic?

“What’s ‘magic’? It’s that feeling you have that something is truly special,” he said. “You know it when you see it.”

What’s hard about it?

“Go after the hard things,” Kalanick said. “Because it’s there you’ll create lasting value, enduring value, magic that can be sustained.”

He displayed a heat map of transportation demand in Manhattan, and described the challenges of creating a supply of Uber drivers that matches the map and predicts changes in real time.

“Trust me,” he said. “That is hard.”

Perceptions vs. reality

Entrepreneurs work in the distance between common perceptions and their own determination of reality, Kalanick said.

“Perception is what everybody thinks,” he said, “but what if reality is way over here? It’s hard to push towards reality when everyone thinks perception is reality. The great entrepreneur is able to see when the world is wrong. But when you see that the world is wrong, you have to be willing to go against them.”

Analytical and creative

Kalanick tests potential employees for both creative and analytical skills. Both are required and go hand in hand for entrepreneurs and engineers. A typical creativity test is to devise a promotion for Uber, and he stressed it’s a high bar given the amount and breadth of promotions Uber’s already done.

Uber delivered ice cream as a promotion, giving users the joy of having the ice cream truck come to them with the push of a button and “people lost their minds.”

That creative idea required figuring out the logistics of 1,000 ice cream trucks responding to consumers pushing a button, which requires massive analytical skills, Kalanick said.

Going to market

“So many entrepreneurs have a great idea, it’s magical, but they don’t know how to bring it to market,” Kalanick said. “You need to not be afraid to be a salesperson. Don’t be afraid to pitch people on your great idea. Don’t be shy.”

“You have to hustle,” he said.

Enjoying the ride

Entrepreneurship can be lonely, Kalanick said, and there will be adversity all the time. The key is believing in what you’re doing, solving problems, and enjoying the process. He said his startup prior to Uber, Red Swoosh (sold to Akamai Technologies in 2007) involved hearing “100,000 ‘no’s’,” and his sense of the difference between perception and reality for the file-sharing company may have been “off a little bit.” But, for the seven years prior to the Akamai acquisition, he believed in the process, enjoyed solving the problems, and enjoyed the ride and the work.

“People ask me: “When do I stop when you’re an entrepreneur and it’s not working out?’” he said. “The answer is, when severe physical or psychological damage is about to be done.”

But what makes that easier, he said, “is when you enjoy the ride every day. There are champions out there that embody this.”

Champion’s mindset

“Put it all out,” he said. “If you believe in it, put everything you’ve got into it. If you have an ounce of energy left, you didn’t put it all in.”

“But part two is when you get knocked down, get back up,” Kalanick said. “If you don’t see adversity, you’re not pushing hard enough. You have to be excited about getting back up, and, of course, enjoying the ride helps you do that.”