When Uber and Airbnb meet the real world

Yet, it’s one thing to say that a business has no control over the conduct of online commentators, and quite another when its users are in people’s homes or cars. Airbnb, like others, has been forced to learn the limits of its platform status. In response to reports that tenants damaged and ransacked homes, he added a 24-hour hotline for people in danger and a policy covering $ 1 million in loss or damage.

The second business principle of the Web is to minimize the number of paid employees. Tech companies have long shied away from the idea of ​​hiring lots of salespeople or call center workers. Instead, they automate ad sales with auction algorithms or offer help forums where other customers offer advice on their sites. When Instagram was taken over by Facebook, it employed 13 people; Kodak, at its peak, employed more than 140,000 people.

This mentality is perhaps the reason why new on-demand companies have problems with workers. Most of these companies avoid having employees by using contract workers. But some wonder if companies are pushing the definition of contract worker too far. Uber drivers have filed class actions in Massachusetts and California, and advocates are demanding benefits and disability awards for workers at many start-ups.

The third related principle is to automate everything, whether it’s selling ads, reporting inappropriate content, or evaluating employee performance. This notion also meets its limits in the real world. When Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, responded to complaints about vandalism, he pointed out that Airbnb has “algorithms that identify suspicious behavior.” This is good, but algorithms, when the safety and well-being of people are at stake, are not enough. Airbnb said it was combining automation and human involvement with 100 people who looked into suspicious activity.

The belief that problems can be solved without involving people is probably the reason why many of these companies have not met with regulators and officials before launching services in new cities. And he came back to haunt them. Luther Lowe, director of public policy at Yelp, gave some basic Uber advice that could apply to Airbnb, Lyft, and others: Hire a lobbyist and meet with the mayor and city council before you settle in.

Uber appeared to put this lesson into practice in August when it hired David Plouffe, a popular campaign expert and President Obama’s 2008 winning race director, as a senior policy and strategy executive. “Our roots are technology, not politics,” Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick wrote of the hire. “The result is that too few people here in America and around the world know our history, our mission and the positive impact we have. “


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