The company’s big bet was that customers didn’t want just a cheap ride — they wanted an experience, and given the choice between two ride-sharing companies offering similar services at similar prices, they would opt for the one with a whiff of virtue to it.
“For a while, people kept saying, ‘Oh, they’re the nice guys, they’re not going to build the right business because there’s someone that’s more aggressive,’” Mr. Zimmer said.
Lyft’s nice-guy strategy has proved to be one of the most prescient gambles in the tech world, as Uber has been waylaid by a remarkable series of self-inflicted wounds. Just to name a few: In January, the hashtag #DeleteUber spread after Uber was accused of undermining a strike by New York City taxi drivers during a protest over President Trump’s proposed travel ban, leading more than 200,000 users to delete their accounts. In February, a former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, published an essay in which she described an atmosphere of sexism and mismanagement at the company, sparking a public relations crisis and an internal investigation. And in March, The New York Times reported on an Uber program that was designed to evade regulators in markets where it operated. (The program, code-named Greyball, is currently the subject of a federal inquiry.)
As Uber’s troubles have multiplied, Lyft has remained largely quiet, preferring to let Uber’s actions accentuate the difference between the two companies.
“The general frame we have on this is, we just keep doing what we’re doing, and focusing on who we are,” Mr. Zimmer said. “If anything, we want to funnel our energy into more and more productivity.”
This month, Mr. Zimmer and Logan Green, Lyft’s chief executive, wrote an internal email to Lyft’s staff members, reminding them to take the high road. “While we are proud of the values and actions that have always distinguished us, this is not a time to gloat, particularly when many of the events are rooted in personal pain for several individuals,” they wrote.
But Lyft, which is capable of playing hardball despite its friendly image, clearly senses an opening. The company says it arranged more than 70 million rides in the first quarter of this year, 142 percent more than the same period a year earlier. In April, the company closed a $600 million fund-raising round, and it has since formed major partnerships with companies like Jaguar Land Rover and Waymo.
In Silicon Valley, where momentum and fortunes can shift overnight, people who once considered Uber’s victory a foregone conclusion are now hedging their bets.
“Investment interest has definitely increased over the last few weeks,” Mr. Zimmer said.
Even in an industry filled with rivalries, the battle between Uber and Lyft stands out for its ferocity. During Uber’s early days, Mr. Kalanick accused Lyft of operating without proper insurance policies and stealing features from Uber’s app. (In one memorable Twitter exchange, Mr. Kalanick told Mr. Zimmer, “You’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” and called him a “#clone.”)
In later years, as investors poured billions of dollars into the ride-sharing industry, Uber and Lyft responded by poaching each other’s drivers, undercutting each other’s prices and using ruthless tactics to get ahead.
Mr. Zimmer clearly hasn’t forgotten the slights. Asked whether he was surprised to see Mr. Kalanick fall from grace, he fell silent. The pause lasted a long time — longer, it seemed, than most Lyft rides take to arrive — before he finally answered.
“The fact that values matter and ethics matter does not surprise me,” he said. “To me, that’s obvious.”
Not all of Lyft’s feel-good branding efforts have paid off. During a recent interview, Mr. Zimmer invited mockery by describing Lyft’s community as “woke,” a term more often applied to social justice campaigns than multibillion-dollar corporations. (He now admits it was “a bad choice of words.”) And an advertising campaign last year that mocked an imaginary Uber-like company called Ride Corp seemed to undercut the company’s magnanimous posture.
The campaign has since been dialed back, Mr. Zimmer said, and new marketing efforts will focus on playing up Lyft’s strengths rather than poking at Uber’s weaknesses.
But for every misstep, there have been several more clear wins. In January, while Uber was reeling from the #DeleteUber controversy and anger over Mr. Kalanick’s decision to participate in a White House business advisory council, Lyft announced it was donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to fight President Trump’s proposed travel ban, a move that endeared it to many of Uber’s critics. And this month, when Uber rolled out an in-app tipping function for drivers, Lyft pointed out that it had offered the same feature since 2012.
Make no mistake: Lyft is still the underdog. Uber, which operates in around 600 cities around the world and has more than two million drivers on its platform, is the 800-pound gorilla of the ride-sharing market. Investors have valued Uber at nearly $70 billion, roughly 10 times Lyft’s most recent valuation, and according to TXN Solutions, a company that estimates sales based on credit card data, Uber commands roughly 75 percent of the United States ride-sharing market, with Lyft and other, smaller outfits accounting for roughly 25 percent. (Lyft disputes these figures and says its national market share of rides taken is closer to 30 percent.)
Still, comeback stories often take time to unfold, and Uber’s troubles may be far from over.
Last week, when news reports broke of Mr. Kalanick’s resignation, Mr. Zimmer was in his office, working late. He and Mr. Green absorbed the shock together, then shared a quiet ride home. It was a turn of events, the co-founders must have realized, that changed everything and nothing at once, that validated years of struggle while crystallizing the enormous battles ahead. If nothing else, it was a sign that maybe this time, the nice guys would finish first.
“A lot of people are asking, ‘Is this the moment?’” Mr. Zimmer said. “I’ve said for a while that we will win.”
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