Uber: Take a Ride to City Hall

I love Uber. I rode it to work this morning. I use it at least once per week.

I’m a government affairs guy for a tech company. I think a lot about the interplay between local/state/national and international governmental entities and technology companies.

For these reasons, it breaks my heart to see Uber drop the ball over-and-over again as it expands into new municipalities.

Relatively speaking, running a public affairs playbook at the municipal level shouldn’t be as difficult or expensive as it is at the state or federal levels. So why do they seem to keep screwing it up?

I have no idea. It’s possible they’re greasing the skids in city halls all over the U.S. and we just haven’t heard about it. I doubt it.

It’s also possible that taxi authorities are too powerful. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know a ton about the law or dynamics of taxi regulations, but here are a few steps I think Uber could take to mitigate their continued failings:

  1. Create a 1-pager of basic facts about the economic activity and social good Uber offers a municipality. You’ll use this to canvass influencers in city hall. It should say stuff like, “Uber creates jobs.” “It allows citizens to get from point A to point B in a safe and convenient way.” “It compliments the local transportation infrastructure.” “It reduces DUIs.” (I’m pulling these bullet points out of my ass and I don’t even work for Uber. This isn’t very hard.)

  2. Research and hire a reasonably-priced local lobbyist at least 2 months before you plan to launch in a particular city. Need help finding somebody? Find another corporate entity that has regular dealings with city hall (Waste Management, AT&T, PEPCO, etc.; you can usually find presentations from representatives of companies in minutes of city council meetings). Cold call this person and introduce yourself. Explain you’re hoping to launch a new service in the city and want recommendations for local government affairs help. Generate a good list of candidates. Reach out to those candidates, have them pitch you, and hire one of them. You shouldn’t spend more than $10K/month on this person. Unless they have a background in city hall, the local Uber community manager shouldn’t be this person.

  3. A month or two before your launch, reach out to the economic development office of the city where you’re hoping to launch. The new lobbyist you hired can help you set up high-level meetings so you’re not wasting your time with gatekeepers and assistants. The economic development people are your friends. Tell them your story and vision; discuss how you’re on-boarding a new community manager and how your technology platform creates jobs. Ask for their advice in approaching and establishing buy-in from the mayor.

  4. Working with your lobbyist and your new evangelists in the economic development office, set up a meeting with the mayor, his/her chief of staff, and his liaison to the taxi authorities. Repeat the pitch you gave in Step 3, except explain that the genie is out of the bottle: consumers want Uber and you want to partner with the city in ensuring its launched in a seamless way to citizens. It’s not guaranteed you’ll achieve buy-in at this point, but I’ve never met a political figure (or political staffer) who doesn’t at least appreciate a heads up about a potential disruption.

  5. Repeat Step 4, but with the city council.

  6. Launch in stealth mode and give selective influencers a “Demo Account”: $500 of Uber credit for the mayor, chief of staff, director of economic development, and members of city council. (Note: ethics laws may vary on this, so make sure to get your ducks in a row.)

After you’ve allowed up to 6 weeks to complete steps 1-6, you probably have enough “friends” in City Hall and enough buy-in to ensure your public launch is less painful. Voilà: you don’t have to lean upon (read: punish) your customers because you thought your service was too cool to kiss the ring at City Hall.

As the adage goes, “You’re either at the table or on the menu.”

(For additional background, see SF, Boston, DC, Chicago, and as of today, New York)