clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Tells UCLA Students When to Quit

Don't lose your mind.

Jefferson Graham

Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick offered some advice for the 1,200 aspiring entrepreneurs who filled UCLA’s Royce Hall Monday, wondering when they know it’s time to call it quits on a startup.

“When you are talking about, ‘I will lose my sanity for real,’ that’s when it’s time to move on,” said Kalanick, talking about the moment when he decided to sell an earlier venture after four years of working without a salary.

The typically provocative Kalanick donned a professorial tone as he collected the Entrepreneurial Achievement Award from the UCLA Venture Capital Fund and offered insights to students on starting new business ventures. He briefly teared up on stage as he acknowledged his mother’s constant encouragement that he could do whatever he wanted and be whoever he chose to be. His parents were seated in the front row.

The founder of the ride-hailing service took the stage against the usual noise that surrounds his company. The Chinese government has just completed draft legislation that would make it the first government to regulate such services at a national level; a robbery suspect near Baltimore hailed an Uber as a getaway car; two women who said they were sexually assaulted by Uber drivers sued the company.

He managed to quell a brewing protest from a group of Uber drivers, who had assembled in the auditorium.

“My offer to those who are planning a protest: Let’s talk one-on-one after,” Kalanick said. “If at all possible, we could have a great conversation for an hour, and a heated Q&A for an hour offstage.”

It’s unclear whether such a meeting took place.

Kalanick said that he started his first venture as a freshman at UCLA, launching an SAT tutoring business. He would spend his Friday nights preparing Saturday morning sessions — which he described as “a performance.”

“Saturday nights were definitely better,” Kalanick joked.

He also dabbled in angel investing — backing 10 ventures — until a 2008 Woody Allen movie, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” inspired him to rejoin the startup world.

“I thought, ‘That guy’s old, but he’s still got it,'” Kalanick said of Allen. “He still has his art. He still has the ability to relate. And he’s still sharing with the world. I said, ‘You know what? Let’s try again.'”

Kalanick, who was interviewed on stage by another UCLA alum, Susan Feldman, co-founder of the retail site One Kings Lane, talked about the importance of prioritizing the problems to be solved and being “fierce about details.”

“I don’t believe that you can make decisions on anything without having all of the detail,” Kalanick said.

Kalanick said he isn’t a big believer in soliciting advice — instead, he seeks out storytellers.

“Instead of asking someone what to do, what I prefer is [having someone] tell me a story,” Kalanick said. “I can listen and hear the parts that are interesting, and apply those to the decision I have to make.”

Asked to offer predictions for 2016, Kalanick burst out with an irreverent rejoinder: “Oh my god, Donald trump’s gonna win. I’m going to move to China if Donald Trump wins.”

Then, Kalanick struck a serious tone, saying he plans to focus on the food delivery service Uber Eats and a package delivery service called Uber Rush. He said he hopes the situation in China, where the service confronts a serious domestic challenger, will be clearer in the next year. And it plans to make a big push into Africa.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.