Garrett Camp: the quiet techie who dreamt up Uber

Garrett Camp © Alamy
Garrett Camp: the brains behind Uber

The taxi app is always associated with its former boss Travis Kalanick. But it was actually his co-founder, Garrett Camp, who came up with the idea. He’s now sitting on billions. Jane Lewis reports.

So much is made of Travis Kalanick’s association with Uber – it was his “intuition and drive”, notes the Financial Times, that propelled the taxi app into the valuation stratosphere – that it’s often forgotten who originally came up with the big idea.

That honour belongs to Garrett Camp, “a serial entrepreneur” from Canada who was by far the quieter player in the double-act with Kalanick, says Forbes. The two men worked together for a tumultuous decade. Camp, now 40, was Uber’s chairman. But he was often absent – and later criticised, along with the rest of the board, for allowing Kalanick’s “frat-house” culture to go unchecked.

A factory of ideas

That was probably because his mind was elsewhere, says Bloomberg. Unlike his pugilistic co-founder, Camp is “a factory of ideas, with a preternatural aversion to confrontation” and “a near-constant state of preoccupation with life’s daily inefficiencies”. He spends a lot of time “wondering why the world works the way it does” and, to that end, has spent much of Uber’s lifetime creating new companies – some more serious than others. They include apps for booking seats on private jets and hiring personal shoppers. He has also been working on establishing “a digital currency free from government authority”.

For Camp, Uber was the big idea that delivered beyond dreams. He “holds the distinction of reaping the largest windfall for doing the least amount of work”. True, the value of his stake – estimated at $3.7bn before the float – has taken a trimming following the company’s disastrous initial public offering (IPO). But he’s still sitting pretty on billions to feed into new ventures.

Born in 1978, in Calgary, Camp “inherited his parents’ entrepreneurial spirit”, says Investopedia. His mother, an artist, and his father, an economist, had ditched their careers and set up together, designing and building houses. Their son, who had techie talents, took a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Calgary, where he majored in “collaborative systems, evolutionary algorithms and information retrieval”.

He launched his first company, StumbleUpon, in 2002 while still at university. Camp called it a “discovery engine” – the idea was to help people find sites “more targeted to their interests” than a regular search engine could. The idea flew. After attracting Silicon Valley cash, the company moved to San Francisco in 2006 and was sold to eBay a year later for $75m.

A time saver for San Franciscans

The founding myth of Uber tells of Camp and his friend Kalanick “dreaming up the concept together” while trying to find a cab “on a snowy night in Paris” in 2008, says Bloomberg. In fact, by then “the app was already pretty much designed”, according to Camp, though that evening was “a pivotal moment” in their business relationship.

He actually came up with idea of Uber “as a cool app” that would save his friends in San Francisco time. Even though Camp successfully ran Uber’s first investment pitches, he now freely admits that he “didn’t really think about the scale that it would reach”. It was only when “Travis joined” that things “started to go faster”.

Being slow to grasp the “significance” of Uber as a disruptive force was a rare “failure of imagination” on Camp’s part. But he also made another big miscalculation, says Bloomberg. In his original presentation to investors in 2008, Camp described the Uber as “profitable by design”. Ten years and tens of billions of dollars of losses later, investors are still waiting.