Travis Kalanick's Relentless Ambition

How the Uber Co-Founder Built A $68 Billion Empire

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Travis Kalanick

Travis Kalanick - Uber

Travis Kalanick is most well-known for being the Co-founder of Uber, one of the most innovative and disruptive startups since its founding in 2009, and a company that was worth tens of billions of dollars by the time of his departure.

I remember the early days of using Uber and it felt like magic being able to tap on your phone and have a car show up in 5 minutes.

As of this writing, I haven’t owned a car in more than 5 years, even while living in Los Angeles, largely due to the availability of Uber.

But it’s also a company with a past that many would like to forget, riddled with scandals, PR nightmares, and a history of a toxic culture that’s been written about publicly ad nauseam.

The story of the company was even made into a book and a SHOWTIME series called Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.

Today’s deep dive focuses on Travis himself while telling the broader story of Uber until his departure, with many of the details and insights most people haven’t heard about.

Travis, in many ways, has had to pay for his sins at Uber, many people would say not enough, and yet, I don’t think Uber could’ve existed without him. Furthermore, few people could’ve accomplished what he did. This is what I find most fascinating.

So, who is Travis Kalanick, what shaped him, and how did he build a company that disrupted an entire industry, one with highly entrenched incumbents who were incentivized mightily against change?

Let’s get to it.

Early Days

Travis was born in Northridge, California in 1976.

His dad was a civil engineer and his mom was an ad sales executive.

Growing up, he mentioned that his mom told him every day, “Do your best” and that he could do anything or be anything he wanted.

He certainly seemed to take that to heart as he was highly ambitious from an early age and, as he would say later, he never lacked self-belief.

In the 6th grade, Travis started learning how to code.

By high school, he was selling Cutco knives, even making $20,000 in one summer.

Those two experiences, learning to code and selling knives, set the foundation for later companies he’d start, where his variety of skill sets, combined with his tenacity, allowed him to succeed.

Prior to starting college, Travis scored 1580 out of 1600 on his SAT, giving him the pick of essentially any college he wanted.

He chose to stay near home, attending UCLA, where he’d start his first company at 18 years old, partnering with another student’s father to create an SAT prep company called New Way Academy.

The first student Travis tutored improved his score by 400 points and they were off to the races, with his business partner finding more students to tutor through the Korean church, where there were many parents eager to have their kids improve their scores.

One summer while at UCLA, Travis actually did an internship at BCG.

It didn’t go well.

He was basically walking around like he was a Partner, but he was only a summer associate.

He was that guy.

And the entrepreneurial bug hit him hard. It was clear he wasn’t meant for the likes of a consulting firm, he was meant to build companies.

The next company?

It was a memorable experience, to say the least, and it built in him a view of venture capitalists that would stick with him for years to come.


Travis dropped out of UCLA in 1998 to work at a company called Scour with a classmate, Vince Busam, and a few others.

Travis claims he was a Co-founder, while others dispute this, but nonetheless, it was Travis and a handful of others working on the company that was doing peer-to-peer file sharing and was described as a multimedia search engine.

The role Travis adopted was that of sales and marketing and, while the company grew, they were running out of cash when they got connected through a friend to two venture capitalists - Ronald Burkle and Michael Ovitz.

For those who don’t know them, those were two heavy hitters.

Burkle is a billionaire private equity investor and Ovitz is a talent agent who started CAA and was at one point in time arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood.

Travis and his business partners were obviously not nearly as experienced, just a bunch of 20-somethings who hadn’t really built much yet.

And they badly needed the funding.

So they agreed to an investment deal that gave up 51% of the company, in common stock, evenly split between Burkle and Ovitz.

But it had a 30-day closing term, so Travis and his partners wouldn’t receive the money just yet, they only had an agreement to eventually get funding, one that came with a no-shop clause so they couldn’t talk to other investors in that time.

As time went on, while they were desperately running out of money, Burkle and Ovitz were wavering on their terms and wanted better ones knowing they were negotiating from a place of strength, and Scour had no choice but to search for funding elsewhere.

3 days after they did so, Scour got sued for breach of contract.

That’s right, Burkle and Michael sued Scour to get them to take their money.

As the drama unfolded, Ovitz distanced himself from Scour, and then, in 2000, the hammer really dropped.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) also brought a lawsuit against Scour.

And the size of this lawsuit?

$250 billion.

Yes, that’s right, billion with a “b.”

They alleged that Scour had infringed on copyright.

Scour had no choice but to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They paid the associations $1 million cash, turned the technology off, and sold their company in a courtroom in a matter of 20 minutes.

But with his next company, Travis would get his revenge.

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