[2018-11-10] “The Upstarts”

The Upstarts” is a book by Brad Stone on the start-ups Airbnb and Uber, chronicling their foundation, growth, and travails till October 2016. Both start-ups have disrupted deeply-regulated industries around the world (hotels and taxis, respectively), grown spectacularly since their foundation, seen unprecedented investment and heady valuations, inspired several copycat companies that have not managed to overthrow them yet, and have faced heated opposition from both local governments and the entrenched incumbents wherever they launched. They are thus very similar to each other, even having been founded around the same time, and it therefore makes sense to study them together as is done in this book by a seasoned journalist.

The 12 chapters of the book are divided into three parts – “Side Projects”, “Empire Building”, and “The Trial Of The Upstarts” – each part describing a particular phase in the life of each of these start-ups, alternating between the two start-ups somewhat erratically in each part. If you are an aspiring start-up entrepreneur, this book can either be quite inspiring or somewhat dispiriting depending on your aptitude.

The first part is especially enlightening, if all you knew about these companies and the early people associated with them was from their own air-brushed founding-myths repeated mindlessly by a generation of writers. I, for one, did not know about the early connections between the founders of these start-ups and how they stayed in touch as well as learned from each other over the years.

The book is an easy read, though it does get a bit tedious repeatedly talking about very similar, but somewhat different, events in the life of these start-ups. Even then, the book completely elides talking about Uber’s battle with Ola in India, another potentially-large market for it like China, where Uber has done relatively well unlike its fate against (what has now become) Didi Chuxing in China.

As these start-ups are still growing and expanding around the world, as well as facing even more serious challenges (in particular, the allegations of sexual harassment by Susan Fowler that eventually led to the ouster of Travis Kalanick and other high-profile executives at Uber), this book is necessarily incomplete. We might perhaps see a new edition a few years down the line, or at the very least a much-expanded Epilogue.

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