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Uber launches in Beijing, eyes more growth overseas (Q&A)

As the 4-year-old on-demand car service opens for business in its 100th city, its head of global expansion talks to CNET about what it’s been like to go international.

Chinese tech blogger "Keso" takes his first Uber to an event in Beijing. Uber

Uber hit its 100th city Wednesday with its launch in Beijing, marking a milestone for the hot mobile startup that's shaken up the transportation industry.

The company, which started as an on-demand, luxury black car service in 2010, has since expanded to provide a range of car options, including taxi and peer-to-peer drivers. Users tap the app to instantly order cars through their smartphones.

Uber has had its fair share of drama and setbacks, but there's no denying that it's changed the way people think about transportation. The company has butted heads with the taxi industry, which sees it as a risk, in the US and overseas, where cabbies have turned to protests and even violence. Launching UberX, its peer-to-peer service, opened the door to a new slew of problems with regulatory agencies. And customers often complain about Uber's price surging practices, which have caused some people to rack up extra charges without them realizing it.

Through it all, Uber has been able to attract investor money to keep growing. To make that kind of growth happen, Uber employs nearly 30 people, led by Head of Global Expansion Austin Geidt, to lay the groundwork in cities, and then hires a team of local residents to manage the service in the city.

Uber's Head of Global Expansion Austin Geidt Uber

It's these small teams, which think of themselves as mini-startups within the company, that have helped Uber reach success in these cities, according to Geidt, who is also Uber employee No. 4.

"Who am I to say I know how Beijing works more than the local who really knows the fabric?" she asked.

While Lyft, one of its competitors in peer-to-peer car services, is also growing quickly -- Lyft has entered 36 cities in the last two years and it's preparing to launch in more soon -- Uber, which started UberX in 47 cities over the last two years, has been able to make its name synonymous with on-demand cars.

So much so that the company has snagged deals with PayPal and the NFL, and often gets celebrities, athletes, and other notables to play rider No. 1 when it launches in a new city. On Wednesday in Beijing, it was Hugo Barra, former Google boss, and currently head of International at smartphone-maker Xiaomi, that played the role.

Geidt talked with CNET more about Uber's past growth and what's in store for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What's it like to be employee No. 4 and to have watched this growth from the very beginning? Did anything surprise you along the way?
Geidt: It's all surprised me. I presume any startup you go to is just a rocket ship, based on my own experience, which probably isn't fair. It started four of us in a little room, just getting excited every time we saw someone riding that we didn't know, and now, today is such a huge milestone of 100 cities. Like our first expansion of just New York -- it was mind-blowing. And then, the first time we went international, in Paris, it was mind-blowing. And now 100 cities. We just don't know where the growth ends. It's been just insane to watch, and so exciting.

Did you imagine you'd get to 100 cities in this time frame? Has it gone faster or slower than you thought?
Geidt: In the beginning, it was just "let's see if this thing scales." I think at this point, my team certainly has goals. It's just a dedicated team and we're starting to plan so efficiently and our product is getting better and our tools are getting better, and so cities that we go to are just making it easier to expand and welcoming us. At this point, we're definitely surpassing the goals we had in place.

In some areas of the US, Uber has run into regulation issues because there are places where the laws haven't caught up yet, or the government isn't ready to regulate a service like Uber. Is that the same case internationally?
Geidt: I think what's been true about our company is we get push-back everywhere we go and we get breakthroughs everywhere we go and people use the app everywhere we go. Cities are so similar, so yes, I think governments tend to work the same, we get push-back. Some are more forward-thinking than others, but we certainly see similar things all around the world.

You guys have been pushing into Asia pretty hard in the last few months, and it's a huge market. Is there any significance in making Beijing your 100th city?
Geidt: I think it's pretty symbolic. We went on a trip to China originally to vet out how China works and operates, and Beijing is where we started. It's 11 million people, it's a city that's packed with people who are just getting around all the time, and that's where we come in. And it's kind of like the tech hub of China, and it took us a lot of work to get there. Its our fourth city in China, but it's certainly symbolic. We've had our eye on it all along, and getting that local team in place has taken a lot of work.

What's coming up next for Uber? Any new cities or areas you definitely want to focus on?
Geidt: I like to keep it a little under wraps...but it's not a secret for long. Louisville (Kentucky) is going live tomorrow, so it's on the smaller side. I would expect more in India. I would expect a lot more in Latin America. And we have some pretty exciting European cities as well, right around the corner.