Businesses across the world have taken a massive hit in terms of revenue as the coronavirus pandemic-induced lockdowns and the fear of contracting the deadly infection have kept their customers inside their homes. Now, companies, including global players like Uber, hope to bounce back amid a steady growth of coronavirus numbers in several parts of the globe. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the man who brought a revolution within the firm, financially as well as in the ethos, speaks to NDTV's Prannoy Roy, sharing his insights on how his company is adapting to the new normal.
NDTV: Hello and welcome to our series on "The New Normal". If there is one thing that is clear about the Corona virus pandemic, our world is changing forever. Fear is the new normal, technological change breaking new frontiers is the new normal, dealing with uncertainty like never before is the new norm, spending more time with the family is the new normal. And as we change the way we live our lives, businesses around the world also must adapt to our new normal. Today we look at Uber and what it's doing to face this not so brave new world. For the last 10 years or more, Uber has in so many ways been a revolution in our existence. But now the company has been hit hard by the new fear pandemic. How is it changing in India and globally to tackle this new normal? We are really fortunate to have with us Uber's global head, Dara Khosrowshahi, the man who brought a revolution within Uber, financially as well as in the ethos of the company. Dara has always been a dealmaker with a heart. But can he ensure Uber survives in this new world, which threatens its business model and its very existence.
Dara, thank you very, very much for joining us. It is really great to talk to you, even virtually, but hopefully one day soon we will meet again in San Francisco. Thank you..
Dara Khosrowshahi: I look forward to sharing a lot. But in the meantime, our virtual meeting will have to do. Thank you for having me.
NDTV: The world has been hit in so many different ways by this global pandemic. Everybody's world is transformed. In what way has it affected Uber?
Dara Khosrowshahi: Well it has been a real shock to parts of our business. As you know, Uber really started on the rides business. This is the business of moving people around in cities with either cars or autos, motos etc depending on the local means of transportation. And that part of the business, frankly, has been hit very hard. As cities closed down, and they closed down for good reason, our rides business went down and almost stopped. We are seeing that business start to return, and that return is closely associated with the opening of cities, societies, countries. But we took a hard hit. There was a point at which when we talked to investors where our rides business, which is really a profit generator of the group, was now 80% year on year. I really couldn't imagine, I'm used to parts of our business being up 80%, not down 80%. But I think Covid and what it has done has been unprecedented in many ways.
NDTV: So, when the world changes as dramatically and as suddenly as it has done, we have to change too, right? How are you changing Uber to face this new normal?
Dara Khosrowshahi: The silver lining here is that we have also built, over the last four years, a food delivery business that has turned into the largest food delivery business, UberEats, in the world, outside of China. We built it organically. Actually, we announced a big deal in that category...
NDTV: Many Congratulations
Dara Khosrowshahi: Thank you, thank you. That category has grown very quickly. So, we have an interesting hedge in that a rides business was hit by a shock that it is returning from, and our delivery business now has really had a boost, growing very, very quickly. Hopefully, we can get the best of both worlds, both sides of the business growing after this crisis.
NDTV: That really is a major, major change. Up to now, BC, Before Corona, you would have been, say 90% rides and 10% other businesses. Now what is it going to be, looking ahead?
Dara Khosrowshahi: I think it is going to be 50-50. Our delivery business is growing at rates that, frankly, I didn't think was possible. And we have doubled up on that. So, we are augmenting the organic growth with acquisition as well. And I think we are cementing a real leadership position in what is going to be a very, very big market going forward.
NDTV: So, 50:50 is Uber's new normal, 50% rides and as much as 50% home delivery, what a revolution that is. But are you being too optimistic? Yes, for each of us, as customers, we have discovered in this pandemic that delivery is great. It's so easy. Why go into a grocery store. You can get everything delivered at home now. But what makes you confident that Uber can win in this increasingly competitive space, what is different or special about Uber that is going to make it a major player in the food delivery and grocery delivery business?
Dara Khosrowshahi: The really cool thing about Uber as a technology company is that while we are a global technology company ultimately we are empowering local entrepreneurs, drivers who are building up their own little businesses. Or local restaurants or local grocers or local supermarkets. And all of the economic flow essentially is in your city or your village or your neighbourhood as well. So, we think it will be a big business, but it will be a big local powered business which for us, especially during these times, supporting your local restaurant, supporting your local small business we think is meaningful.
NDTV: You are a deal maker and you seem to have got back into your groove now and have done this huge deal, you'd been talking to them for quite a long while and it suddenly happened. So, Corona has really helped you close deals as well, is it? In this new world is the crisis in a way helping us all push deals quicker, upping the urgency quotient?
Dara Khosrowshahi: I think that while the news seems sudden, these are relationships we built over a period of time. And I think Corona is a catalyst. Moments of crisis spur change in society and in a business as well. Sometimes when you have the world changing around you, it makes you ask fundamental questions. And the relationship that I built with Bastian over a number of years, I've known him, I've respected him as a competitor. He is the CEO of Postmates, that we bought, it led to certain discussions. And the timing was right. You can never predict timing but when the timing is right, you take advantage. You push and you take a bet. And we certainly have. And we are excited about it.
NDTV: And the whole deal was done virtually?
Dara Khosrowshahi: All done 100% virtually.
NDTV: You did not shake hands, I hope.
Dara Khosrowshahi: We bounced virtual elbows.
NDTV: Virtual elbows? That's the new way deals are sealed, the new normal?
Dara Khosrowshahi: Yes indeed.
NDTV: A big factor after the pandemic is that the new normal is Fear. People want to be extra, extra careful and safe. In fact, for businesses, ensuring safety for customers is not an optional extra, it is now essential. Safety first, is now actually pre-requisite to having a successful business, safety is now integral to making profits.
Dara Khosrowshahi: Absolutely. I think based on the kind of shock that has gone through the system, some of the fears are understandable. The good news for us is that, and this happened when I first took over the company, we had a priority that we called 'Standing for Safety'. And at the time, the definition of safety was much more about personal safety, especially women riding in Ubers. Or women drivers in Ubers, making sure that you got to enjoy safe rides. So, we have a team, business leaders and technology product leaders that are completely dedicated to safety. That's all they think about.
NDTV: The work and focus of your safety team at Uber must have changed dramatically now. In addition to passenger and driver safety from attacks, there's a totally new fear for the team to deal with.
Dara Khosrowshahi: Well the definition of safety in a Covid world has changed, which is safety from the virus. And as we return from a crisis, what you have seen from us is a real leadership position in terms of making sure that your second first-ride on Uber, because that second time that someone says they're going to take an Uber is a big step, that second first-ride is a safe ride. And we've almost re-designed the app from the ground up. Riders and drivers are required to use masks. We have selfie technology that was designed to recognise the driver, to make sure you are getting the driver that you are signing up for. Now, not only are you getting the driver that you signed up for, but we're making sure that driver is wearing a mask. Drivers can cancel if riders aren't wearing a mask. We have PPE distribution and sanitation hubs all over India to make sure drivers are sanitising their cars, to make sure you get into a clean car. And we have actually innovated what we call an Uber cockpit which is essentially a barrier that we started in our project with the NHA when we launched Uber Medic to get health care workers to hospitals etc. It is a thin line to essentially separate the rider from the driver and again, to keep both parties safe. So, we think that those steps that we are taking and the innovations that we are driving on the safety front, masks, barrier, sanitation, will help society feel safe again to take that next step forward. And hopefully let the cities open up but open up in a safe way.
NDTV: It's a really difficult factor to counter, this fear factor. Are you reaching out to, not only your drivers, but to your customers as well and saying, don't worry, these are the steps we are taking, we are changing our technology a bit; are you making all this clear to people that this is the new normal now?
Dara Khosrowshahi: We absolutely are. It is funny when it was not safe to move, on the app we had an interstitial, a message that said, 'hey make sure if you're using an Uber, you're using an Uber for the right reason'. First time I had a team pitch to me a feature of that, it was essentially saying, 'don't use Uber', which we approved. And, at the time it wasn't healthy to move around. And it was the right thing to do for a company. We were making a choice for a safe society vs a choice for a better business or better financial results.
NDTV: That's amazing that at the peak of the pandemic you said "don't use Uber". So, what you're saying is, it's no longer safety vs better business. In a way the new slogan for everyone is possibly "safety is good for business."
Dara Khosrowshahi: Now when you open up Uber, the first thing we communicate about is all the safety steps we are taking so that both the rider and driver understand that it is about the safety of the platform first. And the safety of the platform isn't just a personal choice. It's a choice that you are making for the next person using the Uber or getting into an Uber. It's a community choice. So, just as the PM is saying, be responsible for your society, we are also saying the same thing. Be responsible for your next ride. Be responsible for your driver. And the drivers, please be responsible for your riders.
NDTV: I must say that I am working from home and I have never worked so hard in my life. People want the lockdown to end just so that they can relax a bit. Do you find that people are just as productive, if not more? And will you relook at whether everybody needs to go into work physically ever again?
Dara Khosrowshahi: We are finding that our programmers are more productive than they ever have been in terms of checking code, the amount of code that they're checking. The productivity has increased. I also think the productivity of our employees has increased because we are facing a crisis. People are working faster; teams are coming together more quickly. Sometimes meetings that weren't meaningful, people aren't bothering to have these meetings. Business is moving very, very quickly now. And I think this crisis is going to teach us lessons. There are different ways of working. There are different ways of being productive. We should probably be more flexible in terms of folks if they want to work from home one or two days, or if they want to work from a different location. Right now, we are in the middle of a fright. And it's hard to step back and halve perspective. But I do think that there are going to be some real lessons learnt coming out of this crisis. And while it's not fun right now, I will be honest with you, I think we will be a better company for it. And we will be a closer-knit team as a result of it. And the funny thing about our becoming closer as a team is that distance is making us closer as a team. We will come out of this stronger. I will have some more grey beards over here. But we as a company will come out of this stronger, out of crisis.
NDTV: What would you tell your shareholders and employees about the future of Uber? Are you going to be as profitable as you ever were? Or is it going to be a really tough time for Uber ahead?
Dara Khosrowshahi: Well I think that because we have such a big business in terms of food delivery on a global basis, I think we are uniquely positioned here. We have an incredible balance sheet. It's a fortress balance sheet. And having a balance sheet like that, we have over 8 billion dollars of cash, allows us to be more aggressive, and more innovative, and take risks in overall business. For example, it's a risk to some extent telling people not to ride. It's a risk saying safety comes first before business. The balance sheet allows us to make those kinds of choices. And what we have seen with the rides business is that when cities open up, when societies open up, Uber opens up as well. And these are deeply uncertain times, I will give you that. And even CEOs have their doubts and even journalists have their doubts as well. But I do believe that society is going to open up. I believe that countries are going to open up. And I think our rides business is going to return. And it is going to return even stronger, because some of the entities that don't have the kind of balance sheet that a company like ours has may not survive or may come out permanently weaker.
NDTV: There may be an argument that as this pandemic passes and the world gets a treatment or a vaccine, Uber Rides will pick up in a V shape, but food delivery will not. It may go the other way. So, how do you forecast these demand and behavioural changes?
Dara Khosrowshahi: You can't forecast them. You just position yourself to essentially perform in any market. What you've described is a great hedge, right. If the rides business recovers more slowly, then our delivery business will continue to grow at accelerated rates. If the rides business comes back, then you could expect some slowdown on delivery. But I will tell you that the evidence shows delivery is a delightful product. You push a button and your dinner shows up in 30 minutes. Hot, ready-to-eat. You've got anything that you want to choose from. You don't have to deal with traffic. You don't have to deal with parking sometimes, especially in the developed markets. These are issues you don't have to deal with. And you can eat at home. You can eat with your family. You can eat at your dinner table. So, the evidence that we have seen with delivery is, yes. We think it is good for people to go out for dinner. We look forward to that day. But they're experiencing our Uber Eats products or Uber grocery products, it will stay with them and they will become customers for life.
NDTV: Now one of the big changes in the near future at least is that people are worried about taking public transport. Again, fear of various unknowns. Is that another area where Uber is going to benefit because people might switch from public transport to more personalised movement.
Dara Khosrowshahi: Our view is that public transport has to play a significant role in transportation going forward. Especially as it relates to avoiding congestion, avoiding pollution etc. We have seen some evidence early on that there has been some switch over from public transport to Uber. As you said, there are some people who are nervous and they're rightly nervous about transportation going forward. But we want to be proponents of public transports. And we are actually building technology to power public transport in some cases. And also, for example, when you launch your Uber app for us to show public transport choices.
NDTV: Is there any part of the world where the number of Uber rides daily has bounced back to a pre-Corona era?
Dara Khosrowshahi: We are getting very close in Hong Kong. It is getting very close to pre-Corona levels. We are having positive volumes in some countries. Not quite pre-Corona levels. But positive volumes as well. You look at a New Zealand, an Australia, even a France, the uptick in business is looking quite healthy essentially as those countries and societies open up. So, I'm pretty optimistic.
NDTV: And what is the situation in India, not yet back to pre-corona levels, still much lower?
Dara Khosrowshahi: I think India was a little slower to be affected. And is a little slower coming back. But I will be honest with you. Some of the tough calls that PM Modi has made, those are necessary calls because you want the response and you want the rebound to be a lasting rebound. You don't want the up and down and to some extent you see that in the United States. You could argue that there are certain states that opened up too quickly. That weren't too careful, that were a little carefree in their opening. I am optimistic about India. Yes, it is slower than some of the other countries. But I think the care is warranted.
NDTV: Can you give us some examples of environmental sustainability that companies like yours and others could and should do to make sure we don't get back to bad old habits.
Dara Khosrowshahi: One example for us is we've introduced an Uber Green service and we've started piloting that in Europe. Uber Green is essentially users requesting an electrical vehicle. Because there aren't as many electric vehicles as there are gas powered vehicles on the street the time which it takes to hail an EV is a little bit longer. Instead of waiting 4 minutes, you might have to wait 9 minutes or 10 minutes. But we are giving users the opportunity to request these special vehicles. That creates more demands for the EVs and as a result creates more demand. Drivers then if they see more requests coming for their EVs, they will then upgrade to an electric vehicle. So, our launching Uber Green in Europe has been an example. In London, for example, we are taking a small fee from every single ride. We're putting it into a sustainable environment fund that our drivers can use to upgrade from a gas-powered vehicle to an electric vehicle as well. So, there are a number of programmes we have in place. We are going to bring it all together to have our global sustainability strategy which will have a lot more to say later this year. It's everybody's responsibility including ours.
NDTV: Coming to the new normal in your personal life. How has your life changed?
Dara Khosrowshahi: I'm at home every night for dinner. I've become a much better cook. I am cooking as well. My wife and I, our evening time is sitting down and cooking. I man the grill and I help out as well. But I think my family is pretty happy. And I think while we have lots of challenges, you take things for granted, but times like this really makes you appreciate the things that sometimes we take for granted. For me, I took for granted sometimes those evenings with the family. And now for me, it's a treasure every single time.
NDTV: Don't tell anybody, but I'm enjoying this lockdown. More than ever. Just like you, the positivity of being with family much, much more is wonderful. But I'm a bit worried about your cooking. You think it's great. I just need to double check with your family.
Dara Khosrowshahi: You're invited any time once I am allowed to invite you physically. You'll be very impressed.
NDTV: I want to talk to your family about your cooking, but when you're not in the room.
Dara Khosrowshahi: The truth will come out.
NDTV: Tell me, is this the biggest challenge you've faced in your professional career?
Dara Khosrowshahi: Oh yes, absolutely. The Uber job is the biggest challenge that I've faced. And Corona upped the challenge for us. But it is times like these you're reminded that what you do matters. When millions of people want to get back on your service in order to start earning again, in order to make a living, in order to get to their job or get to the hospital. And while it's a challenge, it also hits home that the work that we're doing is also important and that's what gets me up in the morning eventually.
NDTV: So, you have at least three responsibilities, Uber drivers, for their lives and families. Uber shareholders, who are worried about the future, they have invested in you. And your own Uber employees all across the world. One sentence for each of them.
Dara Khosrowshahi: For shareholders, I would say, 'hold and you will be rewarded'. For our drivers, I would say, 'we're going to make sure you are safe and we will do everything we can to build earning opportunities. But they have to be safe earnings opportunities.' And for our employees, 'I can't wait to see you in person. And keep building'.
NDTV: In the midst of this crisis, you're looking fresh and relaxed, so you're obviously sleeping well. But at the end of the day as you turn in, what's your one big worry?
Dara Khosrowshahi: I don't believe in worrying. I think you know this, I'm an immigrant. My family came from Iran to the US. And we lost everything, in terms of financial means. And we had to rebuild everything. And we were lucky enough to have enough for my parents to provide an education. But we lost everything financially, we always had each other as a family. And for me, I know my family is going to love me, I know they're going to be around. And worrying then doesn't enter into my lexicon. I've got to do, I've got to represent, I've got to be there for my teams. So, when I go to bed I go to bed, and I wake up fresh and I get back to work.
NDTV: And you're working harder than ever before?
Dara Khosrowshahi: Yes. I would say that's exactly right. I'm working harder than I ever have before. But this is a mission driven company and I wouldn't be doing anything else.
NDTV: So finally, in this big crisis, what have you discovered about yourself personally that you didn't know earlier? Good and bad.
Dara Khosrowshahi: What I've discovered about myself is that, it goes a little bit to what you and I talked about, I think I can be a leader who stands up to the challenge. And can represent an incredible company, and millions of drivers and riders. And represent them in a fair way. And do so being proud of what I'm doing every single day. And I think it's fun. It's an incredible opportunity and it's a huge responsibility as well. And the thing that my wife says when I sit down for dinner is, I don't carry any of that burden when I come to dinner because I know that I've given it my all at work. And when I have dinner with the kids, we talk about what they did that day, what they read, what they're doing. In the end, when you sit down and have dinner with your family, you're a father, you're a brother and that's a thing you can never forget.
NDTV: Thank you for your positive thoughts and more strength to you.
Dara Khosrowshahi: It was a great pleasure to spend at least a little part of my evening with you.