When Uber was young: the early years

Ronny Kerr · March 23, 2016 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/43f9

Official launch of the app took over a year, but traction accelerated soon after

As our readers know, Vator has started a series called When they were young.

It's a look back at the modest days of startups, what traction they had in their first few years, and how they evolved. In the end, we hope to provide a glimpse into what great startups looked like in their first three years.

Stories like these are always well received because it reminds us that anyone, regardless of pedigree and environment, can rise above the noise and have great influence. They show us the value of being resilient, persistent, and committed. If we can follow their footsteps, maybe we too can have similar success.

My last segment in this series focused on Airbnb. This segment is on Uber.

— Uber's First Year —

Founded: March 2009 as UberCab.

Founders (ages at the time): Travis Kalanick (32) and Garrett Camp (30)

Initial company description: "Today the UberCab team is working to provide high-quality, on-demand car service booked easily through your iPhone or SMS. Our GPS-optimized dispatch platform provides elite, efficient, and simple car service using high-end sedans with reputable drivers rather than traditional taxi cabs. We’re starting in limited beta in San Francisco and rolling out to other cities in mid 2010."

Traction - at three months: With a protoype "coming along" in the summer of 2009, Kalanick officially joined the company as "Chief Incubator," aiming to "temporarily run the company, get the product to prototype, find a General Manager to run the operation full time and generally see Uber through its San Francisco launch."

Camp, his co-founder, had just returned to StumbleUpon as CEO.

First funding - at five months: In August 2009, UberCab closed $200,000 in seed financing from First Round Capital. 

Test launch - at 10 months: Though the product wouldn't officially launch in San Francisco for a few months, the first test run of UberCab took place in New York in January 2010:

"We had 3 cars cruising the SOHO/Chelsea/Union Square areas and had a few people using the system," writes Kalanick. "The core crew was Garrett, myself, and Oscar Salazar, Garrett’s friend from Grad school who helped build the prototype in early 2009."

Staff - at 11 months: Searching Craigslist, Twitter, and other channels for a General Manager, Kalanick received a reply from Ryan Graves on Twitter (screenshots below). Graves would start on March 1, 2010:

"I work with a ton of young startup executives, but rarely have I had the opportunity to work with someone as high quality as Ryan. He’s got the trifecta: Hustle, Emotional Intelligence, and Smarts," writes Kalanick. "From the day he got going, we spent about 15-20 hours a week working together going over product, driver on-boarding, pricing model, the whole nine. He learned the startup game fast and worked his ass off to build the Uber team and make the San Francisco launch and subsequent growth a huge success."

— Uber's Second Year —

Launch - at one year and two months: Less than two weeks after the app was approved and listed on the App Store, UberCab officially launched in San Francisco at the end of May 2010. (In fact, the App Store approved two different UberCab apps—one for passengers and one for drivers.) Reports said the service cost about 1.5 times a typical taxi fare, but you were treated to black car service and got to hail the car from your phone.

Here was the company's official demo for the app:


Second funding - at one year and seven months: In October 2010, UberCab closed a $1.25 million seed financing round from First Round Capital with participation from Lowercase Capital, Founder Collective, and several individual angel investors. Rob Hayes, partner at First Round, joins UberCab's board of directors.

First legal troubles and rebranding - at one year and seven months: Around the same time as its new seed round, San Francisco Metro Transit Authority & the Public Utilities Commission of California issued a cease and desist order to UberCab, but the company believed it was "in compliance with cited regulations." But because the company's name explicitly demonstrated the company advertising itself as a taxi service, the team decided to drop the "Cab" portion of the name, officially becoming "Uber."

Media coverage - at one year and seven months: Kalanick shared startup lessons at the Tech Cocktail Startup Mixology Conference in Chicago on October 28, 2010.

First airport rides - at one year and eight months: In November 2010, Uber started offering rides from SFO to anywhere in San Francisco for a flat rate of $65.

Staff - at one year and nine months: In December 2010, Kalanick officially named CEO of Uber, as Graves transitioned to SVP Global Operations and board member role.

Product update - at one year and nine months: Surge pricing, the process by which Uber's algorithms automatically increase fare prices as demand goes up, wasn't always a regular part of the platform. Initially, the company introduced the system to cope with increased demand on New Year's Eve 2010.

Third funding - at nearly two years: In February 2011, Uber closed an $11 million Series A round of funding led by Benchmark Capital with participation from previous investors. Bill Gurley, partner at Benchmark, joined the company's board of directors.

— Uber's Third Year —

Traction - at two years from being founded, ten months from launch: For the first expansion beyond San Francisco, Uber launched in Palo Alto in March 2011 with a competition aimed at attracting employees from Facebook and Google to see which company's employees would have the most signups.

Traction - at two years and two months from being founded, one year from launch: After limited testing in April, Uber officially expanded from the Bay Area to New York City in early May 2011.

Media coverage - at two years and five months: Kalanick interviewed on This Week in Startups in August 2011:

Fourth funding - at two years and nine months: In December 2011, Uber closed a $37 million Series B round of funding led by Menlo Ventures, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Goldman Sachs, with participation from previous investors, including Benchmark Capital.

Media coverage - at two years and nine months: Also in December, Uber unveiled a new logo (above) and Kalanick announced the company's launch in Paris at LeWeb:

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