Where Are the Fishtanks?! Touring Uber’s Surprisingly Sober New Office.
Travis Kalanick, the co-founder and CEO of car-and-driver rental company Uber, paced quickly as he led me on a tour of the company’s brand new mid-Market Street HQ in San Francisco.
The company, known for its black SUVs that can be hailed from an app, is already in 118 cities globally and expanding rapidly. It’s said to be valued at $10 billion. The new Uber office is 88,000 square feet, with an additional 132,000 square feet contracted and ready to go. Yet there was little sign of either chaos or celebration on Day One.
Kalanick had set out bottles of Martinelli’s apple juice at the front desk, but otherwise it was business as usual. The decorations were similarly sober: The color scheme was grayscale, with a few eggplant-hued chairs. There were no trampolines, no fish tanks, no Uber SUVs parked ceremonially in the center of the room, a la Airbnb. In the city’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, where parking is easier, the company also opened a new lounge for Uber drivers on the same day. No bouncy castles there, either.
Kalanick, who wore a crisp blue suit and shining black-leather dress shoes, said it was all in the details. Perforated steel dividers broke up the open-plan space. He rubbed his hand across one.
“It’s super nice, right? Polished. Like Uber Black,” he said, raising his hand above his head. “And yet it has a grit to it, like Uber X,” he said, dropping his hand to his hip.
On the floor, a grid-patterned trail wrapped around the office.
“It’s a path?” I asked.
“We call it the path,” Kalanick said, as he strode down the quarter-mile track. “We have meetings here. If you follow the path, you will see the whole office.”
He swung by a long expanse of screens flashing blue-and-white city grids — decorative representations of where people had dropped Uber pins.
How long is that expanse of screens?
He stood next to it, looked at his feet, and started counting his steps.
“Twenty-five feet,” he said firmly.
Kalanick pointed to an open meeting room in the center of the office.
“It’s a new thing we’re trying out,” he said. “Fifty-fifty shot it’ll be like this in six months.”
The room’s two walls were covered in thick felt. The 37-year-old CEO rubbed his hand against it.
“It’s felted-out. I’m not good with noise, so I try to create spaces that are …” He paused. “If we weren’t talking, you could hear your heartbeat.”
Within a second, he was halfway across the office, tapping a sheet of opaque plastic that divided another little meeting room. “Super cheap, but done well, which is kind of how Uber X rolls.”
“Our phrase is: We pack as much value into every price point, but it’s always aspirational,” he said.
In the game room, there were black-and-tan beanbag chairs. Kalanick pointed out that the wall’s perforated pattern is a map of Amsterdam. “Which seemed fitting for a game room, right?”
It’s still pretty demure, though, compared to other startups.
“If you went to Dropbox, it’s maybe more fun,” he said.
He walked into the “war room,” where chairs circled a large, wooden “living edge” table made from a single tree.
“When we have regulatory flare-outs — maybe Taxi [Services] is trying to get city council to pass a law to put us out of business, like they do,” he said. “This is central command for major situations.”
Uber has had its fair share of legal and public relations setbacks, as it has rolled out its car-hailing service. To call on the overused Silicon Valley phrase, Uber has been disruptive to a long-standing, powerful and unionized industry. And Kalanick seemed ready for the battle as he stood with international clocks arrayed on the walls around him.
“The war room is a fully functional unit. You could live here,” he said.
Kalanick popped his head into a windowless booth within the war room. Inside was a cot and a chair. He tapped the felt walls and commented again on his “noise treatment” of the little nook.
Has noise always bothered him so much?
“Since I was like 10. I’ve just never been able to do anything about it until now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s weird or anything. We all like quiet. It’s just human.”
He walked over to the war room’s door.
“And if the shit’s really hitting the fan,” he said, flipping a switch. The glass walls fogged up.
An Uber employee said that people had been playing with the fog effect all day.
“Yeah, I don’t think it’ll last long,” Kalanick said.
“Somebody’s gonna break it.”