Jan 11, 2016 ยท 4 minutes

One of my favourite memories from my brief stint at the AOL-owned version of TechCrunch was hearing about a management conference call between a TechCrunch business manager and the mothership.

Apparently AOL had chosen a category -- I can’t remember whether it was webmail, or messing or horoscopes or whatever the hell -- and set itself an ambitious goal: To become the number two player in thew world.

Not number one. Number two.

That was their big goal for the year.

As the manager joked to me afterwards, you can almost imagine the pep rallies with ten thousand AOLers chanting “We’re number two, we’re number two!”

When your biggest ambition is to be the second best at something, you really have no business calling it an ambition.

I remembered that anecdote as I browsed the New York Times website over the weekend and read David Gelles’ and Mike Isaac’s perfectly serviceable story about how, by raising a new billion dollar round, Lyft is managing to remain in the game as a solid number two (no scatology intended) alongside the mighty Uber.

Specifically I remembered the AOL thing when I realised Gelles and Isaac’s story was almost identical to the LA Times story from earlier in the week about how... by raising a new billion dollar round, Lyft is managing to remain in the game as a solid number two (ditto) alongside the mighty Uber.

Compare: “Challenging Uber, Lyft Bets on a Road Wide Enough for Two

Contrast: “Lyft defies predictions by continuing to grow as a rival to Uber”

One newspaper writing a ho-hum story about Lyft’s plucky runner up status, and their plans to stay that way in 2016, could be put down to a slow news day. Two newspapers on opposite coasts writing the exact same angle on the same story, with quotes from the same senior exec, starts to look a lot like a concerted media push by Lyft’s PR team. Or at the very least, an active unwillingness to push out a counter-narrative.

"People thought that this was a winner-takes-all market, and I think everyone's realized that's not the case," John Zimmer told the LA Times.

 And according to the NY Times: “Mr. Zimmer said the company was quickly increasing market share in the United States. He also sees the on-demand ride business as different from search or social media and more like telecommunications companies, where several big competitors can compete on service.”

I’ve written before about Lyft’s godawful marketing efforts, including their utterly pointless billboard campaign which can be summed up as “you know Uber? well, we’re exactly like that.” And Sarah’s story last week about “the coalition to stop Uber” included this neat imagining of Lyft as David to Uber’s Goliath:

Lyft is the David that everyone is rooting for, and waiting for, but who just keeps shuffling around, sizing up different rocks, almost putting one in the slingshot and then shrugging and tossing it back to the ground.

“I dunno, I’m just gonna do my own thing down here...Goliath is gonna do his own thing up there… there’s room enough in the Valley of Elah for both of us… *fistbump*...”

But the way the company is positioning its latest funding round suggests they’re backing off on even the “we’re exactly the same as Uber” messaging. Now it’s “we do exactly the same as Uber, just not quite as successfully, but still it’s nice to have a choice, huh? And, hey,  at least we outlived Sidecar! ”

We’re number two! We’re number two!  

I’m sure if you asked Logan Green or John Zimmer to explain their logic, they’d say they were being realistic. There’s no way they can compete with Uber. No earthly possibility that they’re going to become the number one ridesharing player. Might as well own that second step on the podium. A silver medal, is still a medal, right?

To understand the gigantic flaw in that argument, you only have to look at a few of the other companies who boasted of being happy at a runner-up slot. AOL and Yahoo spring to mind as companies that took comfort in owning second place in multiple categories but rarely, if ever, first. By relishing the number two slot, you send a message to users, drivers, investors, the media -- everyone -- that you’ve given up. That you’ve lost whatever energy and confidence you once had. That they can all give up too.

If I were a Lyft investor, or employee, or one of the few drivers who doesn’t also work for Uber and whose livelihood depends on Lyft , I’d be putting a gun in my mouth about now.