Travis Kalanick, chief executive officer of Uber Technologies Inc., gestures as he speaks during the annual convention (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Uber’s Kalanick Starts India Tour With Cricket, Bikes

(Bloomberg) -- Travis Kalanick brought a personal touch to Uber Technologies Inc.’s Indian operation this week, hopping onto a Honda scooter to launch a new service and hobnobbing with cricket royalty during a visit that will emphasize the country’s growing importance to the world’s most valuable startup.

The company co-founder is on a whistle-stop tour of Asia’s third-largest economy, to engage with government officials and look at Uber’s operations up close. Kalanick chose startup-friendly Hyderabad, where Uber has avoided many of the regulatory tangles that’ve plagued it elsewhere, for the public launch of UberMOTO, its motorbike-sharing service.

“This is what progress is,” the Uber CEO said as KT Rama Rao, IT minister for the state of Telangana, looked on. 

India is Uber’s largest overseas market and a pivotal battleground now that it’s ceded China to Didi Chuxing. The U.S. company and its backers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to vie with local rival Ola for a $10 billion market that’s on the cusp of legalizing ride-hailing. Kalanick’s company aims to recruit a million drivers by 2018 – dwarfing any other country in which it operates.

Kalanick began his tour by discussing a test match between India and England with cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar at the star’s Mumbai home. In that, he was taking a page from Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, who also publicly endorsed the national sport earlier this year. “Learnt about a religion called cricket from the god himself!...” Kalanick later tweeted, attaching a photo of the celebrity.

After withdrawing from China, Uber’s under pressure to show it can succeed abroad as it heads toward a potential initial public offering. It’s re-focusing its resources across Asia, Europe and Latin America, to justify a valuation that at $69 billion surpasses General Motors Co. or Tesla Motors Inc.

But it’s India, a country of over a billion people, that may hold the greatest promise for Uber. Ride-hailing has exploded in popularity in a country where car ownership is less common and traffic congestion is rife. Uber’s main rival there is ANI Technologies Pvt’s Ola, an operator far smaller and less well-funded than Didi.

Kalanick is in India not just to signal the importance Uber attaches to the market, but also to rally the troops. On Monday, he tweeted photos of a business review and Q&A with employees in Mumbai.

Uber has expanded to 29 cities and, in August, handled about 5.5 million rides per week -- more than triple the amount at the start of the year. It’s stepped up spending to recruit drivers and is investing in technology to broaden its services.