Uber India president Amit Jain says the cab-hailing firm will keep investing and growing in India despite CEO Travis Kalanick's exit
Bengaluru: Cab-hailing giant Uber Technologies Inc. is arguably facing the most tumultuous period in its eight-year existence—over the past few weeks and months, the world’s most valuable start-up has been rocked by the departure of its enigmatic founder and chief executive (CEO) Travis Kalanick following a series of ethical and corporate lapses, including allegations of developing a workplace culture inimical to women.
Moreover, Kalanick’s departure has raised concerns over the future direction of Uber’s business in India, which is widely seen as the world’s last remaining major Internet economy where US-based firms such as Amazon.com Inc., and Uber are attempting to build multi-billion dollar businesses.
In an interview, Uber India president Amit Jain dismissed concerns over the future of the firm’s India operations and also spoke about steps Uber is taking to boost employee morale during this difficult phase, new initiatives that it will soon launch in India, the issue of driver incentives and dealing with regulators. Edited excerpts:
What kind of impact has Travis Kalanick’s departure had on Uber India? How have you gone about steering the India business through the events of the past two weeks?
In terms of what has happened in the last few weeks—it’s obviously big news about Travis resigning as Uber CEO.
Personally, I’ve known Travis for close to two years now—he was very involved with the India business, so I got a chance to work very closely with him. Obviously, we’re saddened by his decision to resign—he’s an amazing leader, an amazing visionary. His vision continues to be true even today.
What we strive to do in India is double down on that vision and continue to make investments. Today, we have close to 245,000 driver partners on our platform and we want to make sure that this number continues to grow.
Business in India is absolutely rock solid. It continues to grow at an exponential rate. We continue to grow the number of cars that are there on our platform. India continues to be a very strategic market for Uber. The investment in the India business is strong—so, nothing changes from that perspective.
Will Kalanick’s exit impact budgets and resources towards Uber India?
Absolutely not. Couple of reasons for that—as I said earlier, India continues to be a very big market for Uber and the commitment towards India is absolute. We will do whatever it takes to continue to invest and grow the market.
Secondly, for the last four years, we were in a cycle where investment was required because we were growing our business here.
Now, as we move from a start-up to a sustainable business, we’ll get to a point where we’ll need far fewer investments and become sustainable. And we’re very early in our journey to get there—so, as we progress to get there, we will do whatever it takes to invest in the market.
So, the budget allocated towards India won’t be affected by his departure?
That is correct.
Are you expecting attrition in Uber India to increase because of the negative publicity and uncertainty about the top leadership?
Our attrition in the last four years in India has been minimal. Our team has continued to grow and expand. We are close to a 1,000-person team in India right now. A year and a half back, we were less than half that number.
We continue to grow our team. I do not expect attrition as a result of this.
Any other steps that you plan to take to ensure there’s no attrition because of this?
We plan to launch multiple exciting products even faster. We just launched UberEATS in Gurgaon. We’ve got three other exciting products on the road map.
UberMoto is a product that we started investing in earlier this year. We plan to expand that to multiple cities.
How do you plan to fill the void left by Travis’s departure vis-a-vis the India business?
Travis is on our board and he will continue to be involved. He’s a very influential board member, so nothing changes in terms of how India goes forward. I’m still here. We have our local leadership in place, so nothing changes. We have very strong leaders across all our regions who will continue to run the regions like before. Nothing changes in the short term. For the long term, we will still have access to Travis’s vision.
There was an online petition in New York that was started by employees to get Travis back. Have any of your India employees signed that petition?
Travis inspired a lot of people...Travis was here in December last year. He spent a week meeting many of our employees and he travelled to Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi. He was also here earlier last year in March—so, he was close to many of the people in India. His vision, his determination was an inspiration to many. So (his exit) was something that many people are saddened about.
An Uber executive, Eric Alexander, obtained medical records of a rape victim in Delhi. Were any of Uber India’s employees involved in getting the records?
Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the issue because it’s sub-judice. I personally don’t know much more because I wasn’t (at Uber) at that time.
How far is Uber India from becoming sustainable?
(Profitability) is definitely not an endless path. We’re a four-year-old company in India. So, it’s a path and we’re on that path and we’re very comfortable with where we are on that path. We cannot give you a specific date or time.
What steps are you taking to become a self-sustaining business?
When you enter any market, there’s always an investment phase. To put it in layman’s terms, during an investment phase, you need supply on the roads because if you don’t have that, you don’t have enough demand. We have to invest to ensure a certain level of supply.
One of the areas that help a company like ours is the efficiency of cars. By efficiency, I mean—for the time that a driver partner is online on our platform, what percentage of the time is he or she actually making money? That percentage will continue to push higher and higher over time...
As factors continue to scale towards profitability, how do you continue to increase the efficiency of the number of cars on the platform, and then derive price points that are much cheaper than the cost of private car ownership, where your car is potentially used less than 5% of the time? That’s the journey that we will continue to move in to get profitable.
What kind of growth has Uber India seen over the past year?
On the business side, we’ve grown 2.5x since last June. We’ve much more than doubled. We continue to see exponential week-over-week growth.
The (2.5x) growth is for both trips and GMV (gross merchandise value). The other milestone that we’re about to hit—we will soon hit our 500 millionth trip in India in the next couple of days.
We’ve had 1 billion interactions between our riders and driver partners in less than four years.
Drivers at Uber and Ola have struck work continually since the end of last year. What steps have you taken to assuage driver concerns after you cut incentives?
Driver earnings have two components. One is organic earnings that the rider pays for and the other is incentives, what we provide over and above what the rider pays.
Our aim is that the total driver earnings have to be more attractive than what drivers get from other opportunities.
Incentives can come down when organic earnings go up. And organic earnings go up by improving efficiency and utilisation (rates of cabs).
We’ve said this before, the strikes that happened, in most cases, were driven by a handful of individuals. And many of those individuals were not even on our platform. So the strikes are not representative of the vast majority of drivers.
Any plans to expand to more cities?
We’re there in 29 cities in India and then in Dhaka and Colombo. We’ll expand rapidly in these cities but you will not see us enter many more cities over the next 6-12 months.
We may go into a few but our main focus is to figure out how to become a bigger and bigger part of the rides taken. We’re at 1% and in some cities maybe 2% of all rides taken in a city. That’s the opportunity ahead of us.
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