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How Geek Can Become Entrepreneur: Advice from Uber Founder

Travis Kalanick, founder and CEO of Uber, met some HSE students and told them what qualities a successful entrepreneur should have and why there is space for magic in business.

Find something broken

We were in Paris once and couldn’t find a taxi. I thought: it would be great if you could press a button and a car came immediately to any point of the city. This is how Uber started.

What was ‘broken’ in this case? The transportation organization system. Why? Because to become a taxi driver in big cities in developed countries, you have to get a licence, and their number is limited. In New York, the number of taxi licences has stayed almost the same during the last 70 years, and the price of a licence has become very high. Taxi operators charge the drivers $140 a day for the use of a licence. The system works so badly that the drivers often struggle to make ends meet. No new jobs are created in this sphere, and moving around the city becomes harder and more expensive.

We saw this problem and wanted to change it. It was interesting for us geeks to find a solution for it, not only in our city, but all over the world, not only for the rich, but for everyone. We wanted to make transportation as reliable and affordable as the public water supply.

Determine how difficult the problem is

The difficult part was not to create an app; everyone makes them today. The difficulty was to have a free car in five minutes from any user who decides to use our service. We had to learn to predict the situation: what will happen on the roads in half an hour? Where is each of our cars located at any given moment? Our drivers get this information as a heat map. They see where the demand for their service is higher, where more cars are needed, and where there is less work.

The next task was to teach the computer system to see the streets as multidimensional (with pavements, parking signs, trash cans, and other objects). This was a difficult task. I always tell my engineers that tasks like this require imagination.

Analyze, but be creative

These roles can be split between different partners in the project, but the best entrepreneurs combine both of these qualities, analytical and creative. This is how our brain works, the left hemisphere being responsible for analysis, and the right one for imagination and new ideas. Have fun and enjoy solving problems.

And it’s not necessary to solve them with traditional tools; you can invent something new. Children in the U.S. run after ice cream trucks. And we invented such a thing for adults: once a year you press a button and an ice cream truck comes to you. It’s a great idea, but it demanded solving some complicated logistical tasks. Analysis is needed to make magic happen.

Distinguish reality and the notion of reality

Generally accepted ideas about something can correspond with the real state of things, but can sometimes be very different from it as well. The gap between the notion and the reality is the game field for the innovator. If you know for sure that the reality is not where most of the people believe it to be, you have great opportunities. But if you’re mistaken, the game field becomes hell.

Einstein once said that the person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd, and those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before. If you want to do something new, to make the impossible possible, you shouldn’t chase after other people. You have to do something that other people will see as foolish, absurd, and crazy. And at the same time, a good entrepreneur must understand what risks they are taking. Before Uber, I had several companies, and they were small, and I was poor. I didn’t have a salary in the last company for four years, and I heard ‘no’ a hundred times a day during the four years. That was not easy.

Make magic

In the film ‘Pulp Fiction’, there is a strange briefcase that attracts everyone’s attention. One glance at it, and a person can’t think about anything else anymore. To be an entrepreneur means creating things that enchant people and their imagination. At Uber, we talk about four dimensions of magic: time (find a way to give back to people the time that they were losing before, without your product or service), calm (bring calm to their daily lives), joy (bring people joy and fun), and money (for example, Uber drivers get incomes that help them provide for their families, and the passengers pay less for transportation).

And magic should be ahead of time. Making magic is creating things that no one has seen before, and that will be in demand not only today, but also in the future.

Learn to sell your story

Engineers often disregard sellers and marketing managers and don’t want to work with them. But it’s very important to learn to sell what you’ve invented. If you don’t learn to tell your story, no one would learn about your idea, not matter how incredible it is. On Cinco de Mayo, our clients can order a mariachi band to entertain friends or colleagues, and this is also a subtle way to tell those who don’t know about Uber.

Think as a champion

As a real champion athlete, give away all of your strength and emotions on the field, and don’t get knocked down in hard times. If you truly do this, you won’t fail.

One last piece of advice: how to make a team

I’m often asked how we select engineers. I once answered: how do you select who you are going on a date with? Speaking seriously, in order to make a team, look through CVs, search online, go where engineers hang out, say hello and talk to them. Be patient and persistent.

See also:

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HSE to Help Develop Legislature to Boost Technology Entrepreneurship

Artem Kritsyn, Manager of regional programmes and projects at the HSE Business Incubator, now heads the Working Group to Involve Secondary and Higher School Students in Entrepreneurship. The Working Group was created in October 2017 by the Expert Council on the Development of Civil Education and Student Socialization under the State Duma Committee for Education and Science. The Working Group also includes Tatyana Stroganova, Head of the HSE Innovation and Enterprise Office.

HSE’s Nizhny Novgorod Campus to Help RAS Institute of Applied Physics to Market its Developments

The HSE Centre of Entrepreneurship in Nizhny Novgorod has started working in close cooperation with the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Applied Physics (IAP) for the purpose of commercializing the latter’s research results. The Centre will help IAP’s scholars market their projects.

Entrepreneurship is About More than Just Money

On September 14 2015, Dr Alina Sorgner will give a talk at the annual meeting of the HSE Laboratory for Entrepreneurial Research on 'Does Entrepreneurship Pay? Empirical Analysis of Incomes of Self-employed, as Compared to Wages of Paid Employees'. Ahead of her visit to HSE Moscow, the young academic gave an interview to HSE English News  Service about variations in entrepreneurship in post-communist countries and about her cooperation with HSE.

The Future of Business Depends on Developing Countries

The 6th International Summer School ‘Exploring Entrepreneurship’ in Moscow has come to an end. At the school, students from Russian, Dutch, British and other European universities tried to identify the main factors that will influence the future development of small and medium-sized businesses around the world.

‘Our Laboratory Is an Integrated Part of International Research’

Taking part in major international conferences and getting published in international academic journals is all in a day’s work for students working at the Scientific Laboratory for Research on Entrepreneurship (NULIP) at HSE. We asked Artyom Gudkov, a master’s student at ICEF and member of staff at NULIP to tell us about his work, published in the international peer-reviewed ‘Journal of Chinese Entrepreneurship’.

If It’s Got to Be in Russia, It’s Got to Be Tide

On May 17th a presentation of the book ‘Russian Tide’ by John Pepper, former director of Procter & Gamble, took place at the HSE.


In January 2012, 13 students of the Higher School of Economics visited Singapore as part of the ‘iConnect: Connecting global Youths. Inspiring future Entrepreneurs’ exchange programme organized by the students from the National University of Singapore.

Summer School in Berlin: Discovering Entrepreneurship

From August 5th to 11th 2012, the next summer school organized by the HSE Laboratory for Entrepreneurship Research together with the Berlin Institute of Technology and the Netherlands Institute for Knowledge Intensive Entrepreneurship (NIKOS) at the University of Twente (Enschede, the Netherlands) will take place in Berlin. The deadline for applications is February 1st 2012. Alexander Chepurenko, co-head of the School and Dean of the HSE Faculty of Sociology, told us about the forthcoming event.

Handbook of Research on Entrepreneurship Policies in Central and Eastern Europe. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2011

A Handbook of Research on Entrepreneurship Policies in Central and Eastern Europe has been published in the UK. Alexander Chepurenko, Dean of the HSE Faculty of Sociology, is the author of the chapter on 'Entrepreneurship and SME policies in fragile environments: the example of Russia'.