The vast majority of companies invest in public relations to raise their public profiles — and with a little luck, fortify the corporate brand.
Then, there are the situations in which PR becomes a blunt instrument in a public spat, and the objective becomes exerting as much pain on your opponent as possible.
That’s what we’re witnessing with Benchmark’s lawsuit against ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. With PR serving as the hammer, the window to advance the Uber narrative with everyone’s dignity in tact has officially closed. The story line has some parallels to “Game of Thrones” if you think of Uber as Westeros and Benchmark playing the part of Lord Baelish, a.k.a., Littlefinger.
Before examining the legal attack on Travis, it’s revealing to consider Benchmark’s public profile. In an era when Andreessen Horowitz and other blue-blood VC firms view PR as part their secret sauce, Benchmark adheres to the old-school adage — when you’re minting money, it’s best not to flaunt it in public. Sure, Bill Gurley periodically surfaces on CNBC or the Journal, but good luck finding feature stories that take you behind the curtain of the firm.
Even their social channels eschew their own narrative, instead promoting the positive news on their portfolio startups. With that said, they did go off script responding to the August 3 WSJ story on Uber knowingly deploying defective Hondas that caught fire in Singapore.
Yet, I would argue that this was calculated to let the world know that they had soured on Travis, not Uber.
Consider how Benchmark cultivates its online presence with a website consisting of its name, two addresses and an email address for more information on the home page.
We can safely conclude that Benchmark won’t be delivering a talk on content marketing at Disrupt.
So why does a firm that consciously stays out of the public spotlight take an action that guarantees media scrutiny for what could last for weeks?
In short, Benchmark was fed up.
They want to rid Uber of Travis once and for all. I suspect the lawsuit had an effect similar to a three-year old throwing a temper tantrum at a restaurant with a Michelin star. It got everyone’s attention.
And don’t think that Benchmark will be the one that goes quietly in the night. Keep in mind that the firm’s tweet projected Uber’s valuation “could comfortably be worth over $100B in just two years.”
But the lawsuit isn’t solely aimed at Travis. No one knows better than Benchmark why the adjective “pugnacious” always makes an appearance in Travis stories. If the decision were his, he would treat this like a demolition derby, confident that he would be the one still running at the end.
Alas, the decision isn’t his. The board will have the ultimate say on what happens to Travis. The Benchmark lawsuit was a warning shot to the rest of the board to punt Travis and get on with hiring a new CEO or things will get really ugly. How else do you explain Benchmark suing Travis without keeping their board brethren in the loop. The lawsuit communicates a simple message to the board: Everyone stands to gain a gazillion dollars from a Uber exit. Refuse to kick Travis to the curb, and you jeopardize the pot of gold.
Does the Benchmark lawsuit have merit?
While the extent of my legal knowledge comes from watching seven seasons of “The Good Wife,” it seems hard to fathom that Benchmark could prove that little old Travis so thoroughly duped the boys from Sand Hill Road. If you’re on the board as a major investor, aren’t you supposed to keep your hand or at least a finger on the pulse of your investment? And once they convinced Travis to step down as CEO and take a leave of absence, why didn’t Benchmark make damn sure that the terms of this agreement included a clean exit from the board with language that prevents him from using one of the three board seats under his control? (I want to play chess against these guys.)
None of this matters though.
The lawsuit will never reach a courtroom.
After trying to reason with their fellow board members and failing, Benchmark is saying you have a choice:
1. Jettison Travis so he has zero involvement in Uber, refresh the company and eventually enjoy the type of once-in-a-lifetime payday that comes from a company valued at nearly $70B today.
2. Allow Travis to continue as a board member, recognize that the lawsuit will erode Uber’s value like a car with a long daily commute and end up with a fraction of the potential windfall.
Which isn’t really a choice when you’re in the business of money.