When Uber began its car ride service in Jacksonville in 2014, Ed Baker’s parents told him they didn’t understand why people in Jacksonville would want it.
“It wasn’t clear at the time,” said Baker, a Jacksonville native who joined Uber as vice president of growth in 2013.
However, Baker was confident that it would be successful.
“In every city we launch in, it works,” Baker said Friday at a World Affairs Council of Jacksonville luncheon at Jacksonville University.
“It was very exciting that Jacksonville was the first city we launched in Florida shortly after I joined Uber,” he said.
According to Baker, the company that allows riders to connect with independent drivers through a smartphone app has been a success in Florida.
He said the service is accessible to 95 percent of Floridians and provided 24 million trips in the state in the last 12 months.
That’s just a fraction of the overall business for Uber, which was founded in San Francisco in 2008. It’s available in 400 cities in 68 countries and since Baker joined the company, it has grown from 3 million trips a month to 3 million a day, he said.
“We’ve seen some pretty explosive growth over the last couple of years,” he said.
Jacksonville University President Tim Cost, who introduced Baker at the luncheon, said Uber is a significant force in many cities.
“Uber became a part of our life the moment it was invented,” Cost said.
Baker joined Uber after starting several Internet-based businesses himself since he graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville in 1997.
While still in college at Harvard University, he started a website called datesite.com, which simply allowed students to enter email addresses of people they had crushes on. If the other person responded, it created a match.
After getting his MBA at Stanford University, Baker created a Facebook app called Send Hotness that allowed users to send messages to people they thought were “hot.”
“It turns out that people like to use these things,” Baker said.
After selling that application, he created a website called Friend.ly that was a social media question-and-answer site.
“It was a way to get to know new people,” Baker said.
“It was actually just another dating site in disguise.”
Baker sold Friend.ly to Facebook in 2011 and became Facebook’s head of international growth.
During his entrepreneurial years, Baker met Uber founder Travis Kalanick, who started the company after a frustrating attempt to hail a taxi during a visit to Paris.
Several years later, Baker told Kalanick he was interested in investing in the privately-owned Uber.
“He basically convinced me the best way to become an Uber shareholder was to join Uber,” Baker said.
Uber has been controversial in some cities as government officials attempt to block its entry. Jacksonville’s City Council has wrestled with whether transportation network firms like Uber and Lyft are operating legally here.
Baker said Uber benefits cities by offering an efficient, inexpensive driving service that improves highway safety.
It also benefits drivers who sign up with Uber, including those that are just looking to make some extra cash. He said 50 percent of Uber drivers work less than 10 hours a week.
“It’s something that’s good for riders. It’s good for drivers. It makes the city a better place,” he said. “As long as we’re making cities better, ultimately it’s going to work.”
One major issue is Uber competing with regulated taxi services.
“I don’t think it’s the yellow cab driver that gets hurt. I think it’s the medallion owners,” Baker said.
He thinks taxi drivers would benefit by joining Uber instead.
“Life as a taxi driver is pretty brutal,” he said. “I think Uber helps taxi drivers.”
Baker said Uber is looking beyond rider services for future growth.
For example, it has started UberEats to deliver restaurant meals and UberRush to deliver other goods from local merchants.
“They’re not in Jacksonville yet but I can’t wait for them to come here as well,” he said.
Baker worked for Facebook when the social network site reached 1 billion monthly users in 2012, and he is hoping Uber can reach that same milestone.
“I’m hoping someday Uber’s going to get there. That’s my goal,” he said.
Baker’s talk Friday came before news over the weekend of an Uber driver in Michigan killing six people in an apparently random shooting spree.
Baker said Uber does background checks on drivers and takes as many precautions as it can before allowing drivers to transport passengers. Uber said the driver in the Uber shootings passed the company’s background checks.
“We’re really focused on Uber being a safer way to get around,” he said.