“Engineers are the best founders”: Uber’s CEO tells IIT students

Listen to me.
Listen to me.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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Early evening yesterday (Jan. 19), some 3,000-odd students packed the convocation hall of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, to listen to one man: the founder and CEO of one of the world’s most valuable startups, Uber.

Travis Kalanick—whose first stop in India was prime minister Narendra Modi’s Startup India event in New Delhi—took the stage with Ronnie Screwvala, an Indian entrepreneur and investor, for an hour-long chat.

Sipping on Diet Coke throughout the question-and-answer session, 39-year-old Kalanick gave tips on how to handle failure, what makes a great entrepreneur, and jugaading. He also gave away his email ID.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Engineers are the best founders

Part of the game (of building a startup) is that the problem needs to be solved. That’s why I am so pro-engineers because the engineering curriculum is all about breaking problems down. Engineers are the best founders.

Kalanick was a computer engineering student at the University of California, Los Angeles, before dropping out in the late 1990s.

How to handle failure

When you get knocked down, get back up. Failure can be a state of mind. I have had situations where I kept getting knocked down for six years straight and I kept getting back up.

Be curious, hustle, and just do it

You have to be curious. If you want to do it, then you’ve got to push till it hurts. If it doesn’t hurt then, someone else is going to do it. Once you find something that is hard but it also makes somebody go ‘wow!’, that’s awesome.

Lots of people have good ideas. Uber is a good idea. I don’t know if we were the first people to think about this idea, but we were the first ones to do it. So you gotta just get out there and do it. You have to have enough guts to go out there and try.

…If you can’t communicate, then you should probably get a co-founder who can communicate. We have this thing at Uber which is called hustle. When I came to India and asked my team what do you call this here, they said it is called jugaad. So now we have the Uber India motto which is always be jugaading. Even if you are an introvert, if you don’t have hustle in you, you better find a co-founder who does. If you don’t have enough hustle to find a co-founder who’s got hustle, then it’s going to be tough. You gotta have some jugaad and make shit happen.

How to handle investors

Do not wait for your investor to tell you anything. That is the worst thing to happen. Think of building a business as playing chess. You are playing chess and you are doing it 80 hours a week and so you should know the layout of the board and you should be five or six moves ahead. And the investor that comes in once a month or quarter and wants to give you advice can’t just come in and have any freaking idea what the right move is. Because they don’t even play chess.

I think your job as an entrepreneur is to be an expert chess player and see the move so far ahead that when you do get a question from the investor you basically go, “that’s an interesting move, I thought about it, but here are 1,800 reasons why it doesn’t work. And here is the move that for 3,650 reasons is the right move.”