When Investors Oust Founders: An Uber Story

Most ventures start with a founding partner that comes up with a great idea and then leads a team of followers through the tides and streams of investment and operations to either reach a port of success or to sink midstream and disappear.

Uber is no exception to this framework, and Uber's founder Travis Kalanick is perhaps one of the most controversial founders in the history of success stories. While Uber is still contending for true success, which is making a profit. They are successful in becoming one of the world's largest software companies that managed to survive over six years of billion-dollar losses, year after year.

Perhaps this is due to how Kalanick pushed Uber into a global position from the earliest stages of development. His unorthodox management style was a double-edged sword. While his brash attitude to law and order, disregarding regulations and plowing ahead no matter what the legal costs might have pushed Uber into a billion-dollar state, it also brought with it all the tools and ammunition to pull down the empire. With so many issues arising, it was no wonder that in Uber's case, the founder would be pushed aside, in order to save the very company, he had set up.

The instance where Kalanick was considered a threat rather then an asset was when Bill Gurley, the Benchmark investor guru started to have sleepless nights, and would tell his partners and finds that his only cause for stress was Uber. Gurley had invested heavily in Uber since its early days, and it was turning out to be a very lucrative investment. However, the investment was showing cracks, and Gurley was a nervous wreck contending with the possibility that one of his major investments could go belly up.

What tipped the scales in Gurley's decision to take appropriate action was an e-mail from Katrina Lake, the CEO of Stitch Fix, another one of Gurley's benchmark investments. Lake lashed out at Gurley stating that he was not dealing with the Kalanick issue properly and that Uber was dragging Silicon Valley's cultural face down into the mud. This message tipped the balance and Gurley did what no investment firm has done before; he sued a founder and led to an ousting of Kalanick from the CEO position.

Gurley led the first investor backed the rebellion against a founding partner in a hi-tech company. He basically stepped in to save his investment, and his pressure led to his saving Uber and his investment, for at least another year.

However, this is not only what he succeeded in doing, but Gurley also succeeded in showing the world that founders are not necessarily leaders and that management should be in the hands of capable people. You could say that Gurley turned a lose-lose situation into a win-win one, where Uber succeeded in getting rid of bad management, Kalanick succeeded in getting a few billion in cash from a SoftBank deal, and Benchmark still have their investment secured in a $48 billion company with what seems to be a major IPO in 2019.

If I ever invested my money in a venture and I felt that the founder/CEO was mismanaging the investment I would definitely try to move that person out of the driving seat. It is a fact that out of the 85% of venture failures, the failure was due to mismanagement.