Review: Brad Stone’s Lively ‘The Upstarts’ Chronicles Uber, Airbnb and the Sharing Economy

Uber and Airbnb have radically impacted taxis/car rental, hotels and vacation rentals. If they have their way, they’ll soon be disrupting a whole new set of adjacent local industries, including food delivery, local tours and “experiences.”

Business Week’s Brad Stone, author of “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and The Age of Amazon,” and one of our keynoters, has been tracking both companies and their industry segments from their emergence, roughly six years ago. In “The Upstarts,” he provides a sustained look at their founders, their evolving missions, their competition, and especially, how they are using social media and intense lobbying to take on local authorities and entrenched industries.

Superficially, the two San Francisco-based companies don’t have much in common. But they know each other as tech industry peers. In alternating chapters, Stone lays out how they have both embraced the use of other people’s property – cars and apartments —- to build new businesses based on smartphone messaging, geolocation and automatic payment processing.

Granted, the public images of the two companies couldn’t contrast more. Of the two founders, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky is generally seen as the idealistic visionary, who was inspired by Neal Gabler’s great biography of Walt Disney, “Triumph of the Imagination,” to build his worldwide community of friendly Airbnb hosts.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, meanwhile, has built a reputation as a hard driving and coarse businessman. As such, he’s often villianized as the creator of a relentless, bulldozing (and anti-women) culture that smashes its way to success, crushing taxi owners, local politicians, critics and journalists along the way. #DeleteUber, indeed.

The reality is that the leaders of both companies are hard and sometimes, perhaps, unethical drivers, as Stone aptly chronicles. Airbnb, especially, is not entirely a viral success story. Rather, it used the questionably legal, growth-hacking skills of co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk to spam Craigslist and build its base of apartment listings.

Unless they have to, neither company intuitively looks out for the interests of their drivers or apartment owners. Kalanick, especially, eagerly embraced the vision of Google’s driverless car to accept a multi-billion dollar investment from Google (before they went their separate ways). And Airbnb has left apartment owners on their own to take on local authorities and insurance companies.

The Upstarts is a terrific read from start to finish, and provides strong insight into the mindsets and history of the companies’ leadership. At the same time, Stone doesn’t seem convinced that the Sharing Economy is a true paradigm for the future, as some social scientists are contending. It is really just about growing their individual companies, pushing down the barriers, and innovating with an eye to win.

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