CNN, CNN BUSINESS
By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN
David Risher had a rocky first week at his job.
Days after taking over as the new CEO of Lyft last month, Risher announced plans to “significantly reduce” the company’s workforce and stressed that the decision was his. The next week, Lyft revealed the extent of the layoffs: 26% of the staff, or more than 1,000 employees, would lose their jobs.
“It was a very, very tough decision and a tough, you know, set of days and weeks to go through, of course,” Risher told CNN in an interview Thursday. “Nobody likes it.”
“But,” he added, “It’s also really important for us to be a strong player.”
Lyft hasn’t seemed like such a strong player of late. The company has shed 90% of its market value since going public in 2019. It has lagged behind its chief rival, Uber, in recovering from the pandemic shock to business. And Lyft has gone through multiple rounds of layoffs and management changes, including Risher taking over as CEO last month and the company’s two co-founders stepping back.
Now, Lyft’s new chief executive says he hopes to draw on the lessons from Amazon, where he worked very early on, and from his former boss Jeff Bezos in his efforts to turn the rideshare company around.
“We’re going to focus on customers,” Risher said, alluding to Amazon’s guiding principle. “That’s a fundamental, just truth of business — if you can create a business that, really, your customers love, you can do amazing things for the world.”
Many tech companies like to compare themselves to Amazon, but if anyone has the credibility to say it, Lyft is probably hoping it’s Risher. Risher was Amazon’s 37th employee, and his contributions are memorialized on the site with a thank-you note from Bezos, which can still be seen today more than two decades after Risher left the company.
In its first product update since Risher took the helm at Lyft, the rideshare company on Thursday unveiled new features aimed at taking some of the pain points out of the summer travel season. With the update, customers can preorder their Lyft rides from the airport the moment their plane touches the ground; Lyft then handles the rest of the logistics to ensure a driver is waiting for the customer as they exit the airport.
The airport preorder option rolled out at Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports on Thursday, with plans to expand to other airports in the near future.
“You can outsource a lot of that stress to us, that’s what we want to do. And that really is Jeff Bezos,” Risher told CNN. “I’m just copying his strategy that worked pretty well for Amazon. I think it can work pretty well for Lyft and our customers.”
But as Risher works to revive Lyft’s fortunes, he faces a rival, Uber, that has shown renewed strength in recent quarters. (Uber has also added features to make airport pickups less painful.)
When asked what went wrong for Lyft, Risher told CNN, “I think the pandemic went wrong with Lyft.” But the pandemic did not impact Lyft and Uber the same.
Under the leadership of Expedia veteran Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over after founder Travis Kalanick resigned following a long list of PR crises, Uber doubled down on diversifying its business with meal deliveries. That service has helped carry it through the pandemic and bounce back quicker as the economy reopened.
But in a previous interview with CNN, Risher seemed to dash hopes that Lyft would borrow from Uber’s playbook and branch into other delivery categories.
Risher told CNN’s Julia Chatterley he wants to make sure Lyft focuses on providing a great ride-hailing service and “not get distracted by delivering pizzas or packages or all sorts of other things that other companies are doing.”
For now, Risher and Lyft are focusing on the all-important summer travel season.
Another update unveiled Thursday helps customers get out the door to the airport at the best time by syncing their flight info from their smartphone calendar into their Lyft app to get reminders about booking airport rides. Risher told reporters Thursday that the basic idea for this arose because he and his wife could never agree on the best time to leave for the airport.
“Our focus right now as summer travel begins is really de-stressing the airport experience in particular,” Risher told CNN.
Risher demurred when asked if Lyft would be an independent company a year from now, after many industry-watchers initially thought news of his appointment was aimed at positioning the company for a sale.
“It’s not our focus to be part of somebody else’s company,” Risher said.
Uber may be outpacing Lyft today, but Risher believes customers are best served by having both companies around.
“My view is every single person who’s a rider should have both apps on their phone, I really believe that, because sometimes you want a choice,” he added, “but then we want you to choose Lyft, and the reason we want you to choose Lyft is because we think we can provide a better experience.”
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