Uber Off!

A short story about Silicon Valley and an escalator pitch gone wrong.

I saw him halfway up the escalator, with another blogger. I quickly shut my Macbook Air, scooped it up and told Garek that I’d catch him later. As I hurried off, abandoning my prime seat at the foot of the escalator, Garek shouted after me in our native German. “Christoph, don’t forget to give him our invite codes!”

There were just two other people in-between myself and the Techcrunch blogger: an Indian guy wearing a Google I/A tee-shirt and an older white guy with frizzy grey hair and John Lennon glasses. They were standing on the same step, so when I reached them I had to tap the Google guy on the shoulder and then awkwardly squeeze past him. “What’s the rush, dude?” I heard the older guy say, as I hurried upward.

I reached the bloggers just as they were walking onto the next escalator, going up to the second floor of the Moscone Center. “Hey, Brandon!” I puffed, relieved to have finally gotten the chance to meet Brandon Hopscotch, star blogger at Techcrunch (and ranked number two on the Techmeme Authors Leaderboard). Brandon turned and looked down at me blankly. He then eyed his fellow blogger, who I now saw was from The Next Web. Good, I can play the European card, I thought.

I stuck out my hand to Brandon, who looked just like his social media avatar — horn-rimmed glasses framing a handsome, bearded face and short, lightly tousled brown hair. When Brandon declined to shake my hand, I reached for my business cards instead. I fumbled with the cards and nearly dropped my Macbook Air and iPhone, which I was hugging with my other hand.

“Sorry,” I said, flustered and trying to compose myself. Finally I produced two business cards — the small thin ones that looked like post-it notes. I’d ordered 500 of them from MOO and had received them the day before my flight from Berlin. Hesitantly, the two bloggers accepted my cards. Brandon already looked annoyed, so I knew that I better hurry up and give him my pitch.

“Brandon,” I said, clearing my throat. “I’m a big fan, I read Techcrunch every day. I even read your tweets — the Techcrunch tweets, I mean. Even though I see the stories in my Feedly anyway. But Twitter is the water cooler, right? Oh hey, of course I follow you too. You may have seen some of my re-tweets and faves?”

“Um, dude,” Brandon said, checking his iPhone and looking over at The Next Web blogger. “I have to moderate a panel, man. Have you met Andy from The Next Web?”

“Yes, Andy, of course! We met at Le Web last year, you remember?”

“Well…” Andy said dubiously, in a polite English accent.

“I’ll tell you both anyway, since we haven’t been written up by The Next Web either — even though we’re European.”

I looked at Andy significantly, who reddened a little. We reached the top of the escalator and the two bloggers walked off and onto the next one. They were heading to the third floor. I followed them and began my pitch from the step below. Brandon continued to scroll on his iPhone, studiously ignoring me. Andy gave a little laugh and tried to make eye contact with Brandon.

“So we are Buber, an Uber for Bicycles,” I began, going into my usual elevator pitch. Then I realized that on this occasion it was an escalator pitch. I almost pointed that out to the two bloggers, to lighten the mood. But I decided to stick to my script, since I was wasting precious time.

“What we do is, we give incentives to citizens — of San Francisco, for example, this beautiful city we’re in — to leave their bicycles locked up around… er, the city.” I had forgotten my lines again, but I powered on, aware that we were nearly at the top of the escalator. “So, when you want to get from A to B, as you like to say here, you simply unlock a nearby bicycle — using a code that our app tells you — and away you go.”

We all got off the escalator and I followed Brandon. Andy decided to go in another direction. Brandon was still scrolling on his iPhone, while walking quite fast. He occasionally looked up and said hello with his eyebrows to people as we walked by.

“So, ah, the idea is to treat bicycles like Uber cars,” I continued, puffing a little. Just then I spotted Jason Calacanis coming towards us in the opposite direction, along with an entourage of mostly young hangers-on. Brandon saw him too, but immediately looked down to his iPhone again. As he walked past, Calacanis smiled at us — well probably he smiled at Brandon, but it felt like he’d smiled at me too.

Suddenly Brandon came to a stop, which forced me to stop too. Brandon looked at me, quizzically. “Wait, did you say you were the Uber of bikes?” I nodded and grinned, pleased that my messaging had made an impact. Imagine how many times Brandon Hopscotch gets pitched every day! Much of it must go in one of his ears and out the other.

“So people borrow each other’s bikes, to get around the city. Is that it?” he asked, his eyes narrowing and his face a picture of concentration. I smiled triumphantly — I had his complete attention! “Yes,” I nodded vigorously, “that’s it exactly. We have a couple of investors so far. Well, they are my family, but we’re here in San Francisco to get seed — “

“Wait a minute,” Brandon interrupted, holding up his palm to my chest. “Aren’t you more like an Airbnb of bikes? I mean, you’re using another guy’s bicycle, just like you use someone’s apartment or whatever. If you were the Uber of bikes, then you’d need one of those double-seater bikes. Because someone would have to drive you. Come to think of it, has anybody done this in Austin, with the pedicabs? Now there’s a market for you, man! Even better, launch at SXSW! You’re welcome. Hey, I gotta go buddy.”

At that, Brandon slapped me good-naturedly on the shoulder and disappeared into a stream of people coming out of a conference session. I stood there, a little stunned. Then I remembered the invite codes that I’d forgotten to tell Brandon about. Well, never mind, probably better to save those for Scoble — another of my targets at the conference. I pulled out my iPhone and tweeted to my personal account: “Just met the amazing @BHopscotch. Told him about @UseBuber. @Techcrunch post coming? #fingerscrossed”. I then re-tweeted that to the @UseBuber twitter account. I checked that it had automatically posted to Facebook, which it had. A notification popped up from Twitter: Garek had re-tweeted my original tweet and faved it.

Satisfied that the message had propagated, I now scanned the third floor. I was looking to see if there were any other A List social media types here (wasn’t Anil Dash supposed to be at this conference?). I saw danah boyd talking intently to Amber Case, but nobody else I recognized from their headshot. I decided to make my way to the media room, to hang around on the seats outside. With any luck, Scoble will be there.

An hour and a half later, I’d seen no sign of Scoble. In fact I’d only managed to speak with one blogger, a young American woman from Mashable. I don’t even think she was twenty years old, but she had politely listened to my pitch. I asked her what she thought and she replied that she was tired of “Uber of…” pitches. She was trying to track down the whereabouts of MC Hammer, who was rumored to be attending today. Had I seen him? I admitted I hadn’t and then she ran off. I didn’t have high hopes for a Mashable post.

I walked back to the escalator, worried that I wouldn’t have many further chances to catch Scoble; this was the third and final day of the App Summit. About where I’d pitched Brandon Hopscotch, I spotted Dave McClure talking to someone outside a session room. He looked back at me, but I hurriedly averted my eyes. The last time I’d spoken to Dave he had sworn heavily at me.

Getting back on the escalator, I checked my iPhone and saw that Garek had left a message. He’d spotted Chris Saad, who works at Uber, and had tried to pitch him on Buber. Garek didn’t say so directly, but I got the impression he flamed out. His english isn’t as good as mine and he doesn’t have my gift of the gab. Also, to be blunt, Garek doesn’t make a good first impression in the flesh. He’s tall, very skinny, can’t grow a beard (he has bits of fluff on his face instead) and his yellow-blond hair is always flopping over his eyes. He looks about 15, especially when he wears those comic book tee-shirts.

I on the other hand am a spitting image of Jack Dorsey, post-beard. I keep my dark brown hair looking as trim and sharp as Jack’s and I try to follow his inspiration in fashion: currently my “uniform” is a crisp white button-down shirt (sleeves rolled up) that hangs loose over a pair of Calvin Klein blue jeans. Admittedly my beard isn’t as full as Jack’s, but then I’m still in my early twenties.

As I headed down the escalator, I reflected on our time at the App Summit. It was a dream come true for Garek and I. We’ve known each other since we were thirteen years old and now, less than a decade later, here we are in the great Silicon Valley trying to raise money for our first startup. We’re staying at an Airbnb, taking Ubers, visiting the Apple Store — all in San Francisco! Ok, the Airbnb was a cheap one in the Tenderloin District (Garek should’ve researched that area more before he booked it). We’re in grave danger of being mugged or worse at night, but — as I keep saying to Garek, who is prone to depression — it’s all part of the Silicon Valley adventure.

Don’t get me wrong, our home city of Berlin has a thriving startup culture too. I’ve even met Alexander Ljung, the founder of SoundCloud, twice in Berlin — although the second time he didn’t recognize me and called me Karlheinz instead of Christoph. It’s not the same as being in Silicon Valley though. Just the history of the place, plus you meet some amazing fellow entrepreneurs.

Last night, for example, Garek and I had dinner with a couple of other startups. One of them — two Dutch guys — is doing an Internet of Things startup called BitBitBit. It was written up favorably by Re/code, which impressed me. The other, a young guy from Iowa who is here on his own, is promoting an Apple Watch app. I forget the name, but it was something to do with fitness and so far hasn’t gotten much traction. Turns out we’re all looking for funding from one of the leading seed funds, or a famous angel investor like Mark Cuban. Each of us has applied to Y Combinator and Techstars too, with no luck. We all agreed though: regardless of the struggles and hardship of doing a startup, we’re living the dream.

I was now on the final escalator to the ground floor. I could see Garek at the bottom. As I approached him, I noticed that he was agitated. In fact he was just about in tears.

“Garek my friend, what’s wrong?” I said in our native German language, as I exited the escalator.

“Christoph, look at this!” he replied, also in German. “See what Brandon Hopscotch just posted on Facebook!”

“Oh, he’s posted something already?” I said, surprised. I must really have made an impression. Was this the breakthrough we’d been hoping for? I was smiling, euphoric even. But then I looked at Garek again and saw his crestfallen face.

“Wh-what’s wrong, man?” I stuttered, fumbling for my iPhone. I opened the Facebook app and went to Brandon Hopscotch’s page. I had tried to friend him months ago, but he hadn’t accepted (he must get thousands of such requests). So, along with 342,000 other people, I was “following” his public posts. I looked at the top post, a long public post which had been published in the last ten minutes. I scrolled down — it was about six or seven fairly long paragraphs. It looked suspiciously like a rant. I nervously scrolled back to the top and started to read it.

It wasn’t just a rant, it was a complete annihilation of Buber. He wrote that it was the “worst idea I’ve heard since DogTweet.” He called me, Christoph Stoltz, a “boob” and then changed the spelling of our company name to Boober. He said that our app had as much chance of being downloaded as I had of getting a Tinder date. “Boober” wouldn’t be able to raise $10 on Kickstarter, he wrote, much less attract an investor. He claimed that I didn’t even know the difference between Uber and Airbnb. He finished off by saying that Buber had “jumped the shark” and was the ultimate signal that the bubble was about to burst.

When I finished reading the post, I was stunned. I looked at Garek, my mouth agape. Garek was crying now and the two of us were attracting looks from the other conference goers, as they walked on and off the escalator. I hurriedly took Garek by the elbow and led him to a less crowded part of the Moscone Center ground floor.

“Christoph, we’re done for!” Garek choked out tearfully, his face already blotchy and red. He started to hiccup, so I had to soothe and calm him down before trying to reason with him. After a few minutes of deep breaths, Garek finally regained control of himself. Although he kept running his hands through his yellow-blond hair, in a compulsively nervous manner.

“Are you ok Garek?” I said, concerned but glancing down at my iPhone. I was getting a bunch of notifications — mainly from Twitter, but some from Facebook. I decided to sit down and assess the social media fallout. I plumped down on the floor, cross-legged, and opened up my Macbook Air. Garek sat down and did the same.

On Facebook, I saw that the original post had already received 45 comments. New comments were being added, in real-time, as I looked at the page. I read some of them — all were in favor of Hopscotch’s analysis — and by the time I looked again at the number of comments it was up to 58. It had 292 likes right now, but that figure was rapidly increasing.

I switched over to Twitter, where I saw that @BHopscotch had tweeted the post. He’d included my personal Twitter handle, which was why I was getting so many notifications. It had been re-tweeted by a number of high profile accounts: Kara Swisher, Mathew Ingram, Ingrid Lunden, Rafat Ali, Danny Sullivan, Lauren Goode, Gabe Rivera, Liz Gannes, Marco Arment and others. Most had added either a comment that indicated they agreed with Hopscotch, or a snarky remark. Marc Andreessen had started a tweetstorm on whether or not Buber had caused the proverbial shark to jump. He was up to tweet number nineteen.

Then the notification that I was dreading popped up, right in front of my disbelieving eyes: from @Scobleizer on Twitter. “@BHopscotch @TheStoltzinator Haven’t heard of @UseBuber, but agree there are too many Uber copies. Uber = last year. VR = the future.”

I let out a rumbling moan, looking up at the roof.

“Hey Christoph?” Garek said, nervously. I looked over at him. “Fred Wilson just posted…and it’s pretty ranty.”

I shut my Macbook Air with a snap and scrambled up off the floor. I was angry now. I felt like punching that preppy bastard Brandon Hopscotch in the face. Who does he think he is, with his hipster glasses, plaid shirts and woolen v-neck jerseys! Garek must’ve heard me growling, because he closed his computer too and stood up quickly. He put an arm over my shoulder — now it was his turn to calm me down.

“Let’s go get a beer,” he sighed, patting my shoulder.


We were on our fifth or sixth Anchor Steam (I think we’d had a couple of shots each, too). We had decided to walk back towards our hotel instead of catching an Uber, and ended up at a dive-y bar at the uncool end of Geary St. Garek was crying again, which was making me even more miserable. But I had to be careful, because of his suicide attempt last year.

“Hey Garek,” I said, an idea suddenly popping into my head. “You know what I think we should do now? Wow, it’s so obvious. We pivot, my friend!”

Garek couldn’t even look me in the eye, he just sniffled and took another gulp of his bottle of Anchor Steam.

“No, listen Garek,” I insisted, “let’s brainstorm this out. After all, some of the great companies came from pivots. There’s, ah, Instagram, for one! And, ahhh… well, you know, as Steve Jobs once said — “

I picked up my phone to search for the Jobs quote I was thinking of. I typed “steve jobs persevere” into Google and clicked the first result.

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance!” I read out, emphasizing the last word.

“We have to hang in there Garek, like Steve said,” I implored, lightly shaking him by the shoulder. “Now come on, man, help me think of ways to pivot. Here we are, two young entrepreneurs — you’re Woz, the master programmer. And I’m…well I hesitate to compare myself to — “

“Ok Christoph,” Garek said, interrupting me. “I’ll bite. So we’re no longer the Uber of bikes. Clearly we want to stick with bicycles though, because that’s what we’re passionate about. Right?”

I nodded, pleased that Garek had snapped out of his funk. He was right too, we’re avid bikers and have been since we met as young boys. Nearly every weekend, back in Berlin, we go trail biking together — even when the weather is bad.

“What about that Dutch startup from last night,” I said, “BitBitBit, the Internet of Things platform. How about Internet of Things for bicycles?”

“Weeell…” Garek said, sounding unsure.

“Hey, is anyone else doing it?” I demanded. “Let’s look, right now!”

Garek smiled at me.

“Ok Christoph,” he said, “you search for potential competitors, I’ll look at what sensors are available to use.”

Garek had stopped crying and even seemed happy. I was tempted to take a selfie of us. ‘The pivotal moment,’ I’d label it.

But instead, I hunched over my phone and went to work.