Tech Q&A: Uber’s Jambu Palaniappan on driving innovation at scale

In the next in our series of interviews with tech and digital industry leaders, MBS’s Stephen Rosenthal talks rapid international growth with the head of UberEats in EMEA, Jambu Palaniappan.  

It’s testament to the transformative impact of Uber on the daily lives of so many people that more than 850,000 members of the travelling public have so far signed a petition in support of the company’s position in London. There have probably been about the same number of column inches dedicated to the business in recent times, too.

In truth, Uber has been one of the most disruptive brands of the last decade, transforming how transportation is delivered to populations and pioneering the now-widespread principles of the ‘sharing economy’.

When disruption occurs on such a scale, institutional and competitor pushback is inevitable. Companies demonstrate their greatness and durability by taking on the feedback of the establishment without losing the challenger spark that generated their success. In the shrewd appointment of new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber has installed a leader who understands how to harness innovation and disruption whilst scaling responsibly.

Recent events made a conversation I had with Uber veteran Jambu Palaniappan all the more fascinating. Jambu has been a pivotal figure in Uber’s growth story, having joined the company in 2012 at the age of 25 when the company had just 70 employees.

Brought up in Silicon Valley by parents who worked in technology, he was already familiar with Uber’s model when he joined the business, which at that time was rolling out across the US and had fledgling European markets in London and Paris.

Jambu’s extraordinary first role was as international launcher: a job title that required him to travel the globe, quickly understand the local market conditions in each city and country he visited, and then determine how Uber should localise its model to each territory.

“The combination of really strong product and technology focus with a deep local operational understanding helped the business to succeed” – Jambu Palaniappan

Astonishingly, he travelled to 30 different countries in his first 52 weeks at Uber, stopping to organise local teams, meet with local stakeholders and oversee the early rollout of Uber’s ridesharing technology.

Following his year-long stint as international launcher, Jambu became head of Uber’s EMEA and India expansion, and later regional general manager for Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa. Still just 30 years old, he is now head of UberEats in EMEA, leading another massive scale-up project for the company’s food delivery business.

I was delighted to sit down with Jambu recently to discuss a wide range of topics, including leadership, innovation and strategies for expansion.

How did you come to work at Uber – and what was the business like back then?

I was working in San Francisco at a tech company called Intuit, which was a great place to work but I knew I wanted to get to a business that was at an earlier stage. For me it was important that the business I went to had an impact in the offline world. I was an Uber customer in 2011 in San Francisco and the product was amazing. It changed the way people perceived and experienced the city.

I’d spent a reasonable amount of time as a kid outside of the US – my parents are from India and we’d spent time overseas – so for me it was always a question of whether Uber could also have a very powerful impact in emerging markets or in places where there was a real need for reliable, affordable and safe transport in communites underserved by traditional transport modes. I joined Uber in 2012 and after learning the business for a few months, my first year involved taking it overseas and working on how we should be thinking about our expansion strategy and philosophy as a company. 

How were you able to scale the business in new countries?

Philosophically we thought that this would have to be a deeply local business. We would hire teams on the ground in every city and country we went to. Ultimately they would be the ones to define how we would operate, how we’d set the strategy, how we would execute and build a really local perspective.

The technology was extremely scalable and that was very important in ensuring we had the infrastructure to support drivers in every city we went to. That combination of really strong product and technology focus with a deep local operational understanding helped the business to succeed.

I did that for about a year and a half and it was a wonderful experience. Then I started to think about what I wanted to do long term because I was jumping from city to city and working on different businesses. That was where the opportunity in the Middle East and Africa came about, which was a compelling combination for me of really being able to have an impact in a city or country while building a business. When I started there were six people working on that business, and when I left – just a couple of years later –  there were close to 300.

With all of its growth, does Uber still think of itself as a startup?

Yes – I think you have to. Now the company is evolving and that evolution is important as it scales and grows and responsibilities increase. But the mindset of being able to influence outcomes for customers and employees in the best way possible is a really important part of who we are. 

Have you been able to apply your previous insights at Uber to your new role at UberEats – or was it a learning curve?

I think a bit of both. For me the idea of starting again but also learning from my experiences was a big part of the reason for taking on this role. With UberEats we’ve built technology that has a positive impact for consumers, local businesses and those looking for flexible work. We complement that with a great operational team in all the countries we operate in that can help localise, scale and build a product that’s hyper-relevant.

So we’ve had to learn a lot about the restaurant industry and the challenges that restaurateurs face – it’s obviously a very crowded space with a lot of options, so that forces you to be clear about who you want to be. Some of the most fun I’ve had has been doing deliveries myself in London and Amsterdam. It’s an incredible way to understand the product and experience, understand the challenges people are going through and how to build a better business. 

What characteristics make a top digital executive?

The people who do it really well have a balance between the macro vision and the bottom-up customer view. If you go too far on the macro side, I think you lose sight of what you’re really trying to get to and who you’re trying to serve.

The other point is about leadership and empathy. You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you don’t have the ability to empathise and bring your team together, you’re nowhere.

What advice would you give to other companies on how to scale at speed?

Number one: focus on what you’re good at. When you think about innovation, oftentimes there’s a tendency to be too broad in what that means. Part of what makes expansion successful, or innovation successful, is derivation from who you are and what you want to be, rather than doing something completely different.

The second point is that you cannot drop-ship solutions from one place to another and expect it to work. I get that if you’re a technology company you want to be on the forward-edge of the future, but I’m also a huge believer in the localisation piece. Even if it’s something as simple as the language in which people access the product, that makes a huge difference.

Jambu Palaniappan: Quick facts

Age: 30 

Born: San Francisco 

Role: Head of UberEats – EMEA (Previous: Uber, Intuit, Huron) 

What do you do when not working?: I enjoy cycling and I still love to travel. One of the great ironies about my career is that I’ve travelled so much and have been super-fortunate to see the world, but I’ve been to Kenya five times and never seen an animal! Stopping to remember where you are is not something I’m always great at. 

What excites you about technology?: I’m excited right now by the democratisation of access, and how people anywhere in the world are able to access information in a really fast, reliable way. Things like VR and augmented reality will only enhance that. I also think the Blockchain movement is a massively powerful one that can fundamentally change how we think about not just transactions but relationships. 

Who is your mentor?: There’s a few folks here at Uber and who I’ve worked with previously that I still tend to call once in a while. I think it’s really important to have that community and that network. | @SteRosenthal | @TheMBSGroup