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Travis Kalanick speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO – Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is trying to turn a scrappy startup into one of the titans of a burgeoning industry. And that transition is coming with a little bit of heartburn, given the recent media storm over the company’s tactics against rival Lyft.

In his view, a lot of the negative press is caused by media perceptions of the company’s size, when TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington jokingly asked him if he thought he was “like Darth Vader, or worse.”

“When people start to perceive you as the big guy, you’re not allowed to be scrappy fierce,” he said at today’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

uberxIn his view, Uber still sees itself and acts like a rough-and-tumble startup, even though the company has a multibillion dollar valuation. Kalanick said that the way he runs Uber now is heavily influenced by his experience at his past startup. For four years at that company, he didn’t take a salary, and it suffered from constant funding problems.

“When you’re scrapping that hard, it requires you to be abnormally perfectionist, abnormally fierce, because that last inch is the difference between living at mom’s one more year or essentially just being poor,” said Kalanick, who previously co-founded Scout.net and Red Swoosh.

Now that Uber has become the big fish in the market, that attitude may be a liability as much as it helps.

His comments come as the company continues to duel with regulators around the world about its place in a city’s transportation market. Kalanick said that he sees the growth of the transportation startup field as a sort of political campaign, with Uber fighting a general election battle against existing players in the taxi industry, as well as primary battles against companies like Lyft and Sidecar. That’s why the company hired former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to manage Uber’s campaign.

When asked if there was any company that Uber wasn’t fighting, Kalanick danced around the question.

“The nature of this business is that it’s so insanely disruptive, that there’s a lot of incumbents in a lot of places, that we have to persuade to come to the other side,” he said.

Uber raised $1.2 billion in equity financing in June, valuing the company at more than $17 billion. Backers include Fidelity Investments, Wellington Management, BlackRock, as well as Summit Partners, Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Menlo Ventures and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

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