Lyft's John Zimmer put it all on the line to catch Uber

Right now, Lyft is thriving. In the last year, the company expanded its business into bikes, scooters and se...

Posted: Dec 11, 2018 8:49 AM
Updated: Dec 11, 2018 8:49 AM

Right now, Lyft is thriving. In the last year, the company expanded its business into bikes, scooters and self-driving cars, and has grown to 4,500 employees. It's ridden a wave of user growth as some customers switched to the platform following a series of scandals at rival Uber. And it recently filed to go public in early 2019, a move that could raise billions of dollars.

But things were different in 2014. Uber had raised over a billion dollars in two separate fundraising rounds, giving it 10 times the capital Lyft had. Critics wondered if Lyft, which had only a few hundred employees, would even survive. Adding to the tumult, a key Lyft executive quit to join Uber, leading to litigation that was later settled.

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Logan Green

"I was in a funk for several months," Lyft co-founder John Zimmer told CNN's Laurie Segall in a recent interview, speaking of that year. "I was depressed. I didn't know what to do. It was foggy and I didn't necessarily take action and focus on what I could control. I got overwhelmed with the things I couldn't control. ... I think that's normal, and I've learned a lot from it. I was slower to lead, I think, in that moment because I had to get myself right."

At the time, Zimmer leaned on his wife and on Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green for support.

"[Green] tried to help me focus on the positives," Zimmer said. "[He said], 'Look, let's enjoy this journey. Let's make the best of it. Let's continue to fight for the values we believe in,' and it luckily worked out."

More entrepreneurs are speaking up about the toll that starting a business can take on one's mental health. Tesla founder Elon Musk previously compared the process to "staring into the abyss and eating glass." Research indicates a high rate of depression among entrepreneurs, citing stressful work environments, lifetime mental health conditions and family history.

Leah Weiss, who lectures at Stanford Business School on mindful and compassionate leadership, called Zimmer's revelation heartening.

"My ideal world is one where we can talk freely about our strengths and weaknesses in a number of areas," Weiss said. "For a business to be well run, you need a lot of different kinds of thinking."

Zimmer has been the public face of Lyft as the company worked to escape from Uber's shadow.

"He enjoys it and he's amazing at it," Green told CNN Business earlier this year, noting he's happy to have Zimmer to do public work that a CEO often handles.

Zimmer, 34, will be in the spotlight next year as Lyft may become the first of the major two ridesharing companies to go public.

But he envisions a future for Lyft that is far broader than just ridesharing. The company has a self-driving vehicle program with new offices in Munich and London to develop software and hardware. It recently hired electric vehicle experts as it explores e-bikes and electric scooters. This year the company acquired Motivate, the country's largest bikeshare service, and has since rolled out rentable e-scooters to streets in several cities, including Denver. They already make up 15% of Lyft's rides in the city.

"We're just scratching the surface of the possibilities of bikes and other electric vehicles that are small," Zimmer said. "The mold of a car looking like a car or needing to be the way it is I think is going to change dramatically."

Uber still leads in trips completed: it hit a 10 billion trip milestone in July, compared to Lyft's one billion mark a couple months later. But Zimmer remains focused on bringing a human touch to the company's business. That element is what helped him get through the tough times, he said.

"I have a lot more perspective than I had in the moment. I think in the moment it was scary. One, we cared so deeply, as we do today, about our mission... And you had this entity that had [many] times the amount of cash as you, that wanted to destroy you, and it was very clear that they were willing to go to whatever means to do that. ... And so we were, I'd say, more hungry. The why behind our work was stronger than, I would say, other companies'. And we just kept grinding and pushing, to the point now where we now have markets that have more market share than they do. And I think that's because of that focus on people."

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