Before Uber was a massive ridesharing company that's slowly but surely changing how we move, how cities work, and what it means to be "employed," it was a small monthly newsprint magazine in Niagara, Canada that wrote about local beer, panhandling around town, and a relatively new fad called "net surfing."
Lots of startups have to pivot at some point, and that's what Uber, the magazine, did in 1995 after four months of being in print. Surging printing costs and a hunch that net surfing would have cultural staying power pushed David Cole to decide that he'd better secure a web address for his business.
"When I registered Uber.com, you had to actually fill out honest-to-god paperwork and take it to an office," Cole, who now lives in Hawaii, recently told me. "I had to go to Niagara.ca, which was a local dialup ISP, and they faxed that paperwork to Internic, which was the only domain registrar at the time."
By now, you probably realize that Cole's little startup didn't become a multibillion dollar ridesharing empire. But the history of www.uber.com is a fun reminder that few companies exist in untrod ground on the internet.
"I registered that name because I liked that it juxtaposed the German utilitarianism of the word with this 1950s sort of graphic style we did with the magazine," Cole said. "It was before the word entered the general lexicon, so I did get sick of telling people how to pronounce it."
Slick graphics or not, Cole quickly realized his magazine wouldn't survive long term, and decided to become a web design company called Uber Interactive, which designed sites for video game companies like Infogrames and Namco. Cole also worked on the launch website for the first Sony Playstation.
"Around the time we started, there was a newsprint supply constraint, so every month the price for our printing would go up and there was nothing we could do about it," Cole said. "So we decided to try our luck online."
Cole eventually decided that rather than simply building websites, he wanted to run them too: He and partners Sarah Bunting and Tara Ariano started Television Without Pity, a popular TV recap community that was eventually sold to Bravo.
"I thought, 'This is the universe telling me to sell the domain.'"
As Television Without Pity took off, Uber Interactive and uber.com sat dormant until 2006. So how did the domain end up in the hands of Travis Kalanick's Uber?
"I got a ring from a guy who was also in Toronto who wanted to buy the domain. World of Warcraft was just getting going, and he had an idea to do a third party character personalization or artwork based on your character—I didn't quite grasp what it was, but it was in that realm," Cole said. "I expected him to offer $500 bucks, and he offered me $36,000. Our roof was leaking at the time and it was going to be $40,000, so I thought, 'This is the universe telling me to sell the domain.'"
This is where the trail turns cold, however. Cole didn't remember the man's name and wasn't able to track down any emails from. Uber.com never actually turned into a World of Warcraft site—whoever bought it left Cole's site up for two years, and then it became a blank error site for at least two years in 2009 and 2010, according to the Internet Archive.
In 2011, the Uber took it over. The logo was different, and the mission was less lofty: Uber advertised "dispatch software [that] provides licensed, professional drivers the ability to receive and fulfill on-demand car service reservations as your private driver." A quote from TechCrunch noted that "the service eliminates everything bad about a taxi experience."
If you're an Uber nerd, you know that Uber actually launched in spring of 2010 as UberCab. In October of 2010, UberCab dropped the "Cab" from its name, though its main sites at the time were still www.UberCab.com and UberApp.com.
Uber declined to tell me anything about how the company acquired www.uber.com or how much it paid for the site: "We unfortunately do not have any information or comment on the origins and acquisition of Uber's domain," the company told me. If you know anything more about what happened to www.uber.com, how much Uber paid for it, or this mysterious World of Warcraft company, please email me.
Cole says he's never used Uber to get around, but says his own little startup was disruptive in its own right.
"One of us interviewed the mayor of our city and made fun of him and he got pissed off and threatened to not allow us to distribute it," he said.
"Uber the magazine was a startup in the internet sense, even though it had nothing to do with the internet. It was me and a couple friends operating by the seat of our pants—let's throw it together and see how it goes, kind of like how internet startups are now," he added. "We're all working on the internet now, but I do really miss the three-guys-in-an-office feel to it."
Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.