Speaking to Travis Kalanick on an airport tarmac, with fine views of the private jets owned by Silicon Valley success stories, Bill Gurley likens himself to Phil Jackson, the Chicago Bulls coach who led the team to six NBA championships around his temperamental star, Michael Jordan. Bill tells Travis that Jackson built a system around Jordan, and as the guard became a superstar, “he needed Phil’s voice less.” The analogy is a great one, only not the way Bill frames it. The title of Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, an extraordinary chronicle of the team’s first title season, refers to Jordan playing by his own rules, not the system Jackson was trying to build around him. Jordan was already the biggest star in basketball, and in Smith’s telling, the Bulls were a miserable and dysfunctional unit right up until the moment they won it all. Jackson was a master at managing big egos, but they could not be corralled.
Bill would like to think that he’s the Phil Jackson type who’s guiding his temperamental star to glory, but he’ll be lucky if he’s the actual Phil Jackson, who spent that season working on a complicated “triangle offense” in the vain hope that Jordan might want to take part in it. His bit of staging does little to convince Travis to lean on him for advice. Travis is fully in “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars” mode, dismissing the private jets as if they were cheap balsa-wood airplane models. He’s after Larry Ellison money. Jeff Bezos money. Elon Musk money. It’s as if Bill wasn’t listening when he told the story about LeBron James turning down Reebok’s check because he knows what he’s worth. To him, Bill writes the checks. Any other input smacks of helicopter parenting, if not outright treachery.
One gentle piece of advice he’d like to give Travis: Don’t blow tens of millions of dollars on an employee party in Las Vegas. The “X to the X” party, which Uber had officially referred to as a “private tech conference,” takes up the bulk of this episode and for a good reason. In last week’s episode, I talked about how Super Pumped is less The Social Network than The Wolf of Wall Street, even though Travis aspires more to the casual sociopathy of Mark Zuckerberg than the bridge-and-tunnel populism of Jordan Belfort. This week has two moments that echo The Wolf of Wall Street: The first is the out-of-control nature of the party itself, which reflects the work-hard-play-hard philosophy of a boss who doesn’t like to set limits for his people (or himself). They’re all pulling off a swindle together, and they should be rewarded for it, whether that involves marching bands and prostitutes parading through the office or tossing a keg into a crowded pool from a hotel window. The second is Travis’ “core values” speech in Vegas, which may look like a Ted Talk or an Apple conference presentation, but is more like Belfort grabbing the mic at Stratton Oakmont and firing his people up.
Bill isn’t an idiot. He sees it coming because he’s seen it before. In the sharpest exchange in the episode, he shares what he’s learned about founders with his junior partners:
“When I was younger and new, I used to think they were all Jesus Christ because their followers never questioned them. They did actual, provable miracles. Then I began to see that half of them were indeed on the side of the angels and half of them were some version of David Koresh.”
“How do you see the split now?”
“Oh, they’re all Koresh. The trick is to flee the cult and get out of the compound the second before they burn it to the ground.”
Bill hints at an essential point about Silicon Valley “disruptors” like Travis: They’re eager to upend entire sectors of the economy, like the taxi and livery business, but they’re not necessarily replacing them with a sustainable business model. And they’re definitely not replacing them with a model that’s beneficial long term to employees and customers, who Travis and his brain trust are finding new ways to fleece. As Uber prepares to take on New York City — which promises to be both its biggest challenge and the gateway to its success in America and around the globe — there are dreams of “surge” pricing during those peak hours when the demand for rides outstrips availability. The taxi system lacks the flexibility to set its own price on demand.
It also lacks the moral flexibility (and technical sophistication) to eliminate threats through extralegal means. “X to the X” introduces Fred Armisen as Erich England, a code-enforcement inspector in Portland, Oregon, who gets creative in trying to slow Uber’s growth in the city by issuing citations to drivers and impounding their cars. In San Francisco, the combination of Bill’s money, Austin’s on-the-ground aggression, and a little corporate creativity were enough to secure drivers and conquer the city, but unique situations call for unique solutions. And for Travis and his team, the solution to combating Erich’s system of ticketing and towing Uber drivers is to fight fire with fire and simply not give him a ride. This involves using a digital tool called Greyball to identify individual riders like Erich and deny them service.
The Greyball deployment and the party in Vegas may be two separate narrative strands, but the show holds them in sharp juxtaposition as signs of a startlingly reckless corporate culture. The show fudges a bit on the timing of the infamous “URGENT, URGENT” company-wide email, which was actually written in advance of the Miami party rather than the Vegas party, and the scene where Travis and Emil dictate the email to Angie while drinking seems fanciful too. But it certainly doesn’t read like a sober document, and the idea of sending it out to all employees without it immediately leaking to the press is both naïve and suggestive of Travis’s cult of personality. He treats employees as disciples, turning his Sermon on the Mount into a raging kegger. The hangover that follows will throb forever.
Off The Meter
• While Super Pumped certainly doesn’t count itself among Travis’ disciples, it does share his contempt for the sniveling government officials propping up the taxi and livery industry. As depicted, England’s scheme to crush Uber in Portland is not only grossly unfair to drivers but smug in its execution, too.
• Quentin Tarantino’s narration is a seemingly fun touch, but it’s deployed so sporadically as a device that it feels out of rhythm with the rest of the show. An omniscient storyteller has a “Voice of God” quality that can be effective, but the first response to it shouldn’t be, “Wait, who’s talking now?”
• As with Billions, Super Pumped is loaded with pungent references to pop culture. Here, Travis calls transportation agencies “more incestuous than the clans in Deliverance and twice as likely to fuck you over.” And in predicting that his minions will not leak to the press, he says, “They’re going to make Silent Bob look chatty as Tracy Flick.”
• Angie’s line after Travis brusquely leaves her for another woman hits the center of the target: “I guess I was just your seed round.”
• When Travis includes Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the background of a video call with Gabi, my mind immediately drifted to the scene in Dazed and Confused where a kid who just graduated eighth grade casually mentions to his buddies that he bought “a sixer” at the liquor store.
• If you want to read the complete URGENT email — and you should because it’s deranged — it’s still up on Vox, along with some good context for it.