Uber CEO cites 'scrappy,' 'fierce' methods in fighting taxis, Lyft

Travis Kalanick speaks out on the firm's aggressive business strategies

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Sept. 8, 2014.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Sept. 8, 2014.

Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick has no qualms over wanting to succeed in every city in which the firm operates, even if it means getting rough and dirty.

Uber has cited taxis as a major competitor, but startups like Lyft and Sidecar may pose a more immediate threat, Kalanick signaled Monday during the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

"Of course our opposition is the taxi cartel, but there's a primary race going on now, and some scrapping happens in that primary race," he said.

During an on-stage chat with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, the Uber CEO defended the company's aggressive moves to defeat traditional taxi competitors as well as other ride-sharing startups like Lyft.

Kalanick said that in 2001 when he started a previous company, Red Swoosh, he was required operate in a "scrappy" and "abnormally fierce" way to keep it afloat. Red Swoosh was a peer-to-peer content delivery company acquired by Akamai. Now that he's running Uber, that mentality remains, he said.

If you're a little guy, aggressive behavior is fine, Kalanick said, but as people start to perceive you as the "big guy," you have to approach things differently, and maybe be more gently.

But, he said, "we're not there yet," he said. "Those are the challenges we're facing."

The tactics Uber uses to poach drivers from other platforms have raised questions. Uber has a US$500 driver incentive program to recruit drivers from other platforms, but a recent report in The Verge revealed a level of sophistication that sparked debate over whether Uber was crossing any ethical or legal lines. Uber has hired contractors and armed them with "burner" phones to request Lyft rides with the intention of recruiting drivers during the rides, according to the report.

When asked whether Uber would consider buying Lyft to end the kerfuffle, Kalanick said, "We're not in acquisition mode right now. We're focused on the product and building the business," he said.

Uber currently operates in about 200 cities in 45 countries around the world and employs hundreds of thousands of drivers, Kalanick said Monday.

The CEO did identify one troubling spot in the U.S.: Las Vegas. Uber does not operate there yet, partly because of local laws, he said.

To help it enter new markets and fight its political and regulatory battles, Uber recently hired David Plouffe, former campaign manager for President Barack Obama.

But in the end, Kalanick said stress -- not competitors or politics -- was his biggest threat.

"We're getting bigger," he said. "You have to find ways to find that center, to find balance and sanity."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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