W Power 2024

India is the toughest market to succeed in: Uber's global CEO Dara Khosrowshahi

Khosrowshahi, who led Expedia for 13 years, joined Uber when it was at its lowest point. In a conversation with Nandan Nilekani, he talked about the company's turnaround, importance of the Indian market and more

Naini Thaker
Published: Feb 23, 2024 04:10:04 PM IST
Updated: Feb 23, 2024 04:20:19 PM IST

India is the toughest market to succeed in: Uber's global CEO Dara KhosrowshahiL to R: Uber’s global CEO Dara Khosrowshahi spoke with Infosys Chairman, Nandan Nilekani on the subject of ‘Building Population Scale Technology. Image: Hemant Mishra for Forbes India

On Thursday, ridesharing platform Uber signed an MoU with Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) to explore an integration with the network to expand the range of mobility offerings on the Uber app. Speaking on the MoU signing, Prabhjeet Singh, president, Uber India and South Asia, said, “Our vision for Uber in India is to serve the mobility needs of all Indians. This is in line with ONDC’s objective of democratising digital commerce.”

The platform—which has been in India for almost 10 years now—has a presence in 125 cities, across a range of vehicles, and Uber has more than 9,00,000 Indians working as drivers. “As the Open Network is continuously evolving, MTT (Mobility, Transport and Travel) is certainly a critical sector for us. Different players together on the Network foster innovation and newer business models. Today’s MoU is a major step forward, and one we hope will enable a diverse range of mobility solutions to benefit every Indian,” said T Koshy, MD & CEO of ONDC.

At an event in Bengaluru, Dara Khosrowshahi, global CEO, had a free-flowing conversation with Nandan Nilekani, chairman, Infosys about ‘Building Population Scale Technology’. Dara said companies and governments around the world can learn from the scale and ambition of India’s Digital Public Infrastructure. He added that as a technology company, Uber views open source tech stacks with a lot of interest and recognises the opportunities they bring for everyone. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

On Uber’s turnaround

I joined the company in 2017, when the company was going through a tough time with cultural issues, leadership transformation and more. Before I joined there were 14 CEOs, which I’m not sure is a good thing.

The reason I moved to Uber after running Expedia for 13 years was that Uber is a magical product. It’s a product that had incredible impact, and it’s an intersection of the digital and physical world. While Uber was going through very, very difficult cultural issues, the talent at the company was actually pretty extraordinary. It was a group of people who are incredibly passionate about the company and wanted to bring this digital transformation to everybody. And for me as a leader, it was just about pointing them in the right direction.

Also read: How Nandan Nilekani built India's digital public infrastructure

We had to make a lot of painful decisions. We had to learn how to be a profitable company. I think the company now is in better shape than it ever has been. To me the greatest thing we did as a company is saying ‘no’…. it gives us an edge. If you say no to a really good idea, it means that the ideas that you're saying ‘yes’ to are even better. So I truly believe you should celebrate the nos.

Looking back, I did say ‘yes’ to a lot of things. But we live in a zero interest rate world, where everyone was saying yes to everything. And I do think that some companies, including Uber… we got caught up in chasing our own valuation.

On surviving the Covid-19 pandemic

Sometimes the worst things that can happen to a company, in hindsight, could be the best things. During the pandemic, we were losing $3 billion in terms of profitability. We lost 85 percent of our volumes.

We had been a company that was focussed on expansion, and we had to retrench. We were building multiple businesses such as e-bikes and scooters, autonomous technology, among others. We had to painfully get out of those businesses and lay off a quarter of our workforce. We went from a $3 billion burn to $5 billion burn, and then post the cuts back to a $3 billion burn. Fortunately, we had a lot of money in the bank.

Also read: Nandan Nilekani is overhauling the way the world sees India

Our mobility business was the cash cow, and we were using that to fund our delivery business—UberEats. But during the pandemic our UberEats business exploded. So a lot of our drivers who no longer had earnings opportunities, they moved over to Eats. And we really started building the Eats business in a huge way. That’s how we survived. Those were some dark days. But I feel the test of any great entrepreneur is not how you are doing on your best days, it is how you deal with the worst. During the pandemic, I was going crazy at home, so I would often take my bike and deliver for UberEats. It preserved my sanity during those dark days!

Also read: Can Indian startups take an Uber ride?

Also, the pandemic really led the company to double down on what we do, which is build these gigantic marketplaces that bring demand and supply for transportation together in a powerful way. Also, post the pandemic we started taking our drivers’ needs more seriously. Till then, we were more customer focussed but then we started doing everything we needed to to build a platform that is fair to both sides.

On the Indian market

I think that India is one of the toughest markets out there. The Indian customer is so demanding and doesn't want to pay for anything. I feel that if Uber can make it in India... the team here is doing a great job, so proud of the team. But India is the gateway to the world for us. This is the toughest market to succeed in, and if we succeed here, that sets a standard for us to succeed in so many other markets.

On what’s next for Uber

One of the biggest strategic opportunities for us is to extend in the low-cost base. We have been historically more four wheelers. The core of the business came from high-end luxury. But right now, the single biggest opportunity that we're very passionate about is lower cost products, three wheelers, two wheelers etc. We're also building a service for robust high-capacity vehicles that work for longer distances.

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