If Silicon Valley were a comic book, the ongoing battle between car-and-driver services Uber and Lyft would be a good chapter.
In this corner: Aspirational, fierce and a little bit sexy Uber, with its fleet of black town cars and tailored-suit-wearing CEO Travis Kalanick, who has said he can't wait until driverless cars make his employees into some "other dude in the car."
And in this corner: Lyft, with cars of all sorts emblazoned with pink mustaches, run by a gentle young man named John Zimmer who says all he wants to do is help artists and bring delight to the world, but who may (uh-oh) be engaged in the same corporate warfare as his archrival.
I like to visit startup headquarters to examine their decor, so I stopped by Lyft's new office the other day, and Zimmer, the company's co-founder, welcomed me. "You've entered the mustache," he said.
And, looking around, it seemed that I had.
You open a nondescript door on a nondescript street in San Francisco's startup-filled South of Market district, and you're greeted by a canopy of bright-pink pool noodles. You walk under them and also toward them: The reception desk at the ride-sharing company is fringed in pink plastic-foam noodles.
"We tried to fill the office with funky fun," said Zimmer, who wore a paisley shirt and held a coconut water. "To make you smile."
Zimmer, 30, is an unusual CEO. Born in Greenwich, Conn., he lives in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, grew up wanting to be a magician, and went to school to study hospitality. The Lyft experience, in which drivers are typically independent contractors and are encouraged to fist-bump their passengers, is like entering a boutique hotel, he said. He talks about Lyft as part of his mission to support artists. And he doesn't view his company as being in competition with Uber.
Uber, which named its recruitment efforts "Shave the Stache," seems to disagree.
"We're not competing with the taxi/limo service," Zimmer said. "We're competing with car ownership."
The elevator opened to reveal an almost alarming mustache faux-fur explosion coating the walls. We entered.
If Uber's sleek black-and-steel officein midtown San Francisco is something akin to the Death Star, Lyft's office is a trip to Disneyland. It's a startup wonderland, with secret rooms and Nerf guns and lots of Lyft logos. As the two companies ferociously battle for riders, drivers and market share, their corporate cultures stand starkly divided.
This is Zimmer's seventh office, as his first car-and-driver rental company, Zimride — which evolved into Lyft — has grown to 350 employees and 80,000 drivers, adding about 10,000 more provisional employees a month, in more than 60 cities.
A miniature labradoodle named Walter scurried past us as Zimmer led me to the "war room," a spare closet stocked with plastic boxes of T-shirts. On the wall was a poster with a map of all the cease-and-desist requests Lyft has received — ride-sharing companies are constantly battling taxi unions. One employee said he was told that this room would be his nap room.
Zimmer dropped down onto a gray linen couch, which has been with the team since the company's inception.
"I slept on this couch for a month," he said, patting the cushions. "When you take these back here off, it's pretty luxurious."
On the wall, employees had hung a hula hoop with gauzy fabric dangling off it. A dream catcher, perhaps? There were team photos in old-timey frames, and Lyft-branded cornhole tables. There was a painted golden fist-bump. Another wall was covered with framed portraits of childhood heroes — Willy Wonka, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins.
Zimmer pressed on the Willy Wonka portrait, and the painting swung open to reveal a secret room with leather chairs and portraits of people wearing mustaches. As we walked down the hallways, I noticed that all the computer printers were named after people with great mustaches. Tom Selleck. Ron Burgundy.
I had heard that Lyft is transitioning away from its instantly recognizable icon, the hot-pink mustaches, which are typically tacked onto the front of drivers' cars. I asked if this was true.
"Well. We started with this grand, quirky whimsical brand, and we're going to hold on to that, but with some polish," Zimmer said.
The company has staffed up its branding team to think of the next step. But judging from what I saw, there appeared to be no immediate retreat from the stache.
In the combination mustache supply room and think tank, three young men were brainstorming at a long table.
Nearby, they had swaths of mustache-material samples.
Many mustache products were still in beta.
Someone wore a mustache coat, but I'm not sure who.
There seemed to be a large emphasis on respect, and employees used care of mustache (or "CarStache") as a community touchstone.
"Everyone is going through every day staring at their phones, going through the motions of life, but then you see the mustache, and you smile," Zimmer said. "The idea here is to realize you are stepping into a different place."
Had Zimmer been cutting all those pink pool noodles himself?
And what tools did he use?
"We just used a bread knife," he said, leaving me with an image of the CEO in paisley, sawing away at pool noodles. "The trick is to cut them to different lengths. That's the secret."
Oh, sweet Lyft.