Head of cities at Uber reveals how intrapreneurship is the driving force behind sustainable cities & driverless cars

Sarah Atkinson
Stakeholder Engagement Manager | University of the West of England
3rd April 2017

Fred Jones speaks about how a culture of intrapreneurship at Uber is behind innovations such as driverless cars which are helping to make our cities sustainable before his Bristol Distinguished Address lecture:

What is the one characteristic every leader should have?

I would say leaders need to be optimistic for 3 reasons.

The first is simply this: negative people are no fun to be around!

Second: optimism is really important for problem solving and to be able to convey a really inspiring image and a can-do attitude to overcoming problems.

Third: if you’re optimistic it indicates to the people around you that it’s OK to come to you with their problems because you’re going to be receptive.

What inspires you?

I think what inspires me is a bias to action.

I’m inspired by people who see a problem, think about how they’re going to best solve it, and then get on and do it and see tangible results.

What do you do to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?

I think it’s really important to put yourself out there in situations that you’re not necessarily comfortable with and get feedback on how you’re doing.

At Uber (for example) we have a really strong feedback culture.

Sometimes it’s hard to hear feedback, particularly on your weaknesses and how you need to develop, but I think that’s really important to keep you grounded and help you focus on how to improve.

Do you have a pivotal moment when you decided to pursue this career?

I was a management consultant for about 10 years before joining Uber and in the last 18 months of my time there I spent time working in our innovation lab with start-ups; mentoring them and helping them grow and scale their businesses.

It was through that process I became really inspired by these people, who were out there giving it a go.

We’d meet every week, they’d listen, we’d chat about the problems that they had, and come up with ideas to solve it.

And they would come back a week later and they’d done something about it and made a tangible difference.

I found that really inspiring and that’s when I thought I really need to work for a start-up, then I joined Uber and the rest is history.

What characteristics would you look for in a graduate employee?

There’s obviously a set of competencies and skills that you want, but I think the real differentiators are around attitude, particularly in a start-up environment - there’s a lot of ambiguity

At Uber we’re growing so fast that the roles and our focus that we have today will not be the same in 6-12 months time, so I think having an attitude where you’re comfortable with ambiguity; you’re comfortable with change and you’re really willing to adapt yourself to any need/problem and do your best is really important.

I think that really differentiates the good from the great.

If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself as a new graduate?

When I left university I was quite caught up in thinking about ‘what I should do?’.

What is a good employer to go and join? What is the right graduate scheme to be part of? I perhaps didn’t spend much time thinking about what I really enjoy and what really motivates me.

It’s an old cliché but if you enjoy what you’re doing it doesn’t feel like work. I think that’s something that took me about 10 years to learn and understand, so if I was having that conversation with myself I’d try and make that point.

What’s the secret behind Uber’s success?

The secret to our growth is focussing on providing a really good experience to our customers, and at Uber we’ve got 2 customers.

We’ve got the passengers that use the app to go around their city and we’ve got the drivers that partner with us, who want a flexible and autonomous way to make money.

The status quo had a lot of problems on both sides of that.

What Uber has done is to really focus on how we can give a excellent experience to both those customers.

And when you get it right your popularity grows. I think that’s the core of our success.

How does Uber keep innovation going as an organisation?

I think over time Uber has been really good at disrupting itself.

When we launched Uber in the UK in 2012 just before the London Olympics we were a luxury limousine service called UberLux. Then we kind of realised that actually you could provide that premium experience to the mass market, so we launched Uber X, which is our entry level 4-seater product.

Over time we realised that actually we could provide a more reliable and affordable service by getting people to share their car and that’s when we launched Uber Pool, which is about 25% cheaper than Uber X.

I think now we realise that autonomous vehicles are going to play a really important part in how people move around our cities in the future, so we’re going to invest (and are investing) heavily in that technology - even flying cars!

I think it’s really important to understand what’s going to disrupt your business model in the future and try and be part of that trend and conversation rather than being reactive.

How would Uber contribute to sustainable mobility in the future?

We can contribute to sustainable cities in the future in 3 ways.

The first is we can encourage people to leave their cars at home or not even buy a car, and we can do that by providing a really reliable and affordable alternative to car ownership.

We’re seeing that already in many of the cities that we operate in.

The second thing that we can do is reduce congestion by getting more people in fewer cars and encouraging them to share their ride, like we are with our Uber Pool product. In the first year of Uber Pool in London we managed to take 1.3m miles off the road.

The third thing we can do is help with pollution. Not only by reducing cars on the road and congestion, but one of our big priorities for 2017 is around electric vehicles and that is something that I’m leading for Uber at the moment.

I think we can play a really pivotal role in taking that technology mainstream and really making a difference to the air pollution and air quality issues that we’re facing many cities today.

What’s the key factors to create a successful digital company?

At Uber we’re pretty relentless at finding problems and trying to solve them.

We’ve hired some fantastic engineering talent in San Francisco and around the world to help us do that.

Whilst the experience of using Uber as a partner driver or rider might seem simple and seemless it’s incredible the effort and investment that goes on behind the scenes to optimise that experience.

One of these is how we can make drivers on our platform earn more, and you do that by keeping them much busier when they’re on the platform.

We’ve built a lot of features which enables a driver to accept and confirm a booking before they’ve completed one. The beauty of this means there’s less time waiting around between trips, there’s less dead mileage and therefore you can be much more efficient and make more money.

I think the real focus of getting the best to solve these small problems by using cutting edge technology is one of the keys to our success.

UWE Bristol is taking part in developing driverless cars, how important are these kind of researches to Uber?

I think it’s critical. It’s critical not just to Uber but also to the cities we serve.

A recent OECD study said that an autonomous shared self-driving service could reduce the number of vehicles on our roads by 90%, which is pretty phenomenal.

So we see this technology as playing an important role not just for us but for our cities so we’re investing heavily in trying to make it work.

It’s really hard to do so but it’s one of the things we’re really committing to.

UWE holds the Bristol Distinguished Address series of free public lectures in partnership with Business West. For the full schedule of business leaders speaking in spring 2017 click here. If you have any queries please contact events@uwe.ac.uk. Discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures. View content from Fred Jones' lecture here.

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