Uber, which has amassed a $51 billion valuation in a mere five years of existence, has understandably elicited a fair share of interest among the business-school set. Yet the questions all essentially boil down to the same curiosity: Even in this unicorn-laden world, how did a high-tech taxi company get so preposterously rich? The latest theory was posited this weekend by Jason Wingard, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Wharton dean, who now runs the School of Continuing Education at Columbia. Writing for Fortune, Wingard suggested that Uber’s success lies not in its killer service or scorched-Earth growth tactics or even its scorcher-like C.E.O., Travis Kalanick, no. 2 on Vanity Fair’s New Establishment. Instead, its vulcan chess play lies in its ability to hire and retain talented executives. “Building a successful business,” he argues, “is about more than raising money.”
At first, this theory seems rather obvious. As Nick Bilton recently pointed out in Vanity Fair, tech companies frequently go to mind-boggling lengths to ensure they compete for and retain top talent. Snapchat, after all, has offered Stanford grads nearly $500,000 a year to come work for the start-up. Google once reportedly offered an executive $100 million not to leave for a competitor. Yahoo paid Henrique De Castro $109 million for about 15 months of work.
But Wingard’s point, which is more nuanced, actually cuts against this sort of free spending. Workers value money and security, sure, but as Millennials infiltrate not only the work force but also the executive suites many value a culture of personal learning and growth. “They want to know," he writes, "that there will be the opportunity to develop a strong set of competencies and transferrable skills that can not only be useful now, but later on as well, as their careers develop.” Or, perhaps, more succinctly: Millennials seem to inherently understand that, unlike their parents, and certainly their grandparents, they are more likely to have multiple careers during their working lives. And Uber, Wingard, argues, offers an environment in which its employees—with the obvious and quite notable exception of its massive fleet of freelance drivers—can enjoy this sort of culture.
On some level, this observation is a reflection of what appears to be the indisputable reason that Uber has achieved its enormous valuation—and the reason many investors believe the inevitable I.P.O. will shoot far higher. Uber isn’t actually a high-tech taxi company; it just happens to be one right now. During an expansive interview with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang, noted V.C. and Uber investor Chris Sacca—a.k.a “The Unabomber”—explained that he expects the company to eventually plow into all manner of other sectors. Uber is already experimenting in food delivery, but some speculate that it may one day pose as a credible threat to parcel services such as FedEx and UPS. Whatever it does, the expectation is that, unlike taxi companies of the past, Uber is going to have many careers of its own and it needs a culture, and the talent, to get it there.