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Uber CEO: Oft-criticized ride-sharing service is just misunderstood

Uber has been pelted with criticism over price surging and aggressive recruiting tactics, but that's what happens when you get too big, says the company's leader.

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Uber CEO Travis Kalanick defends his company's aggressive business tactics. D Dipasupil, FilmMagic/Getty Images

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, said it's not the controversial ride-sharing service's fault that everyone has a problem with his company.

Uber is just misunderstood.

"When people start to perceive you as the big guy, you're not allowed to be scrappy fierce," he said at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco on Monday.

What Kalanick describes as "scrappy" is the company's history of aggressive expansion tactics. The on-demand car service, which lets users order a car through a smartphone app, is constantly the center of controversy, but its most recent claim to fame is public mud-slinging with competitor Lyft. The two companies accused each other of purposely clogging up their networks by ordering and canceling thousands of rides. Additionally, Uber has admitted to having overly aggressive driver recruiting tactics in the past.

The company has long been a thorn in the side of the taxi industry. Launching with a black car service in 2010, Uber expanded to offering many types of on-demand services, including taxis and UberX, its peer-to-peer service that rivals Lyft. Often criticized for extreme price surging, in some cases charging hundreds of dollars for a single ride, Uber has still managed to grow swiftly, reaching 200 cities worldwide last month.

Uber was not even free of criticism during the rest of the conference on Monday. Peter Thiel -- co-founder of PayPal and an admittedly biased investor in Lyft -- added to the anti-Uber chorus while he was onstage. "Uber is the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley," said Thiel, who was also an early investor in Facebook. "Uber is in a class of its own."

Thiel is well-known for his outrageous remarks, including encouraging kids to drop out of college in favor of entrepreneurship. He mentioned Google's famous mantra in bashing Uber. "If the slogan for Google is 'Don't be evil,' then the slogan for Uber should be, 'Do a little evil and don't get caught,'" Thiel said.

Kalanick said he's receiving bad press because the people don't understand "where he comes from." He started his first company, a networking software company in 2001, and didn't make a salary for four years. "I don't want to say destitute, but you don't have anything going on, you don't have a lot of money," he said.

That isn't an issue for Uber. The company recently raised an additional $350 million in funding, giving it a valuation of $3.5 billion. Kalanick tried to stay away from the idea that Uber is "the man," with a lot of money. Instead, he returned to a familiar message: his David and Goliath story with the taxi industry playing the giant. The company, which recently hired former White House strategist David Plouffe to spearhead its political agenda, is gearing up for a larger fight with legislators over car-sharing service regulations. There are several US markets, still dominated by the taxi industry, that Uber wants to get into.

"The nature of this business is that this is so disruptive, so insanely disruptive that we've got a lot of incumbents and a lot of people to sway from the other side," he said.

CNET Staff Writer Richard Nieva contributed to this report.