When Logan Green, chief executive of the ride-hailing service Lyft, was asked which tech leaders he admired, he pointed to three men who had built their companies ruthlessly: Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
“A lot of other Silicon Valley companies are very scared to get their hands dirty with operations,” Mr. Green said in a 2017 interview with The New York Times, adding that he wanted to emulate the take-no-prisoners methods of Mr. Musk, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Bezos.
The problem for Mr. Green is that Lyft seems very nice. Its app is pink. Its cars were once adorned with fuzzy bubblegum-colored mustaches. Its drivers have a reputation for being friendly. And while Lyft has racked up more than one billion rides and become a strong No. 2 to Uber in the United States and Canada, it has not shaken off its cuddly image.
Now Mr. Green, 35, must show that Lyft can be as assertive as an Amazon or a Facebook. He and Uber are locked in a race to take their companies public: Both filed papers in December to list on the stock market in the coming months. The offerings — the first for any ride-hailing firm — are likely to create a bonanza of riches in Silicon Valley and set the stage for listings of other highly valued tech start-ups, including Slack and Pinterest.
The pressure is on Mr. Green to get the jump on Uber. (Both offerings have been stalled because the government shutdown, which ended Friday, prevented the Securities and Exchange Commission from reviewing their filings.) Lyft, which was last privately valued at $15.1 billion, is tiny compared with its rival and could be overshadowed if Uber debuts first. Uber could go public at a $120 billion valuation.
For Mr. Green, this means he may have to give up some up his reserve and step into a more public role. While Lyft’s more gregarious president, John Zimmer, his No. 2 for the last 12 years, has frequently handled the public-facing side of the business, Mr. Green would rather speak at staff meetings than at tech conferences. Colleagues describe him as reserved.
In a 2017 interview, Mr. Zimmer said Mr. Green was often misunderstood because of his quiet demeanor. “He is, like, extremely competitive,” Mr. Zimmer, now 34, said. “He has been an activist.”
Lyft declined to make Mr. Green or Mr. Zimmer available for new interviews, citing the quiet period before an initial public offering. In a statement, the chief operating officer, Jon McNeill, described them as “cutthroat missionaries in service of creating positive change.”
One of the tech leaders Mr. Green cited as inspiration, Mr. Musk, recommended against taking Lyft public.
“The current system makes long-term value creation and product innovation difficult,” Mr. Musk, chief executive of Tesla, wrote in an email last week. “It insists on quarter-by-quarter results or punishes companies severely. This is particularly bad for companies that are high growth and are valued on potential, like Lyft (or Tesla).” (The S.E.C. fined Mr. Musk last year for a tweet about taking Tesla private.)
Mr. Green, who was born and raised in Culver City, Calif., graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2006 with a degree in business economics. He then worked as the university’s sustainability coordinator, poring over alternatives to the gas-guzzling one-car-per-owner model. He was also on the board of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District, a position that gave him insight into municipal transportation.
While visiting Zimbabwe on vacation during his 20s, Mr. Green said in the 2017 interview, he was inspired by Zimbabweans who had created makeshift services to fill every seat in car pools, saving passengers money and taking cars off the road.
So in 2007, Mr. Green started Zimride in Santa Barbara, Calif., to provide long-distance car-pool rides to college students by matching them with other students who were driving.
Mr. Zimmer, then working at Lehman Brothers, noticed posts about the start-up on Facebook from John Siegel, whom he had met while studying abroad and who had attended middle school with Mr. Green.
“John didn’t have this technical or programming background, but he was this really impressive guy,” Mr. Siegel said. “I thought they could work together well.”
Mr. Green and Mr. Zimmer, who remained in New York, embarked on what Mr. Zimmer called a “long-distance relationship,” working together over Skype. In 2008, they moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, Calif. Neither drew a salary in the first three years of building Zimride, and each contract they sold to a college was celebrated with a trip to Ikea for Swedish meatballs, Mr. Zimmer said.
In 2011, Zimride raised $6 million. But as a web service, it was caught flat-footed by the rise of smartphones and mobile apps. In 2012, Mr. Green decided to spin out of Zimride a mobile, peer-to-peer ride-hailing service, calling it Lyft.
Instead of just pairing students for long-distance rides, Lyft would put drivers together with riders on public streets, in real time. Mr. Zimmer came up with the idea to emblazon the cars with pink mustaches; Mr. Green encouraged passengers to greet their drivers with a fist bump, to keep the community feeling of Zimride.
At the time, ride-hailing wasn’t legal, and only licensed drivers could pick up passengers on public streets. Ann Miura-Ko, a partner at the venture capital firm Floodgate, who had invested in Zimride and sits on Lyft’s board, recalled that some board members had been doubtful about the change — but that Mr. Green had been confident.
“Someone asked, ‘Will this really work?’ And he wasn’t just sure, he was positive,” she said.
But Mr. Green didn’t reckon with one issue: Uber. At the time, Uber, run by Travis Kalanick, had positioned itself as a luxury service for the wealthy that used only licensed drivers, unlike Lyft’s lower-cost service. In 2013, Uber published a white paper outlining the risks of peer-to-peer ride-hailing, a way to elbow Lyft out of the market.
“They were trying to get the whole category shut down behind the scenes,” Mr. Green said. “They didn’t want competition.”
Uber officials met with California regulators about the matter. As for Mr. Green, several current and former regulators and lawmakers who oversee ride-sharing in California said they had never worked with him, because Mr. Zimmer was often the one who communicated with officials.
“Truth be told, I’ve never heard of him,” said Aaron Peskin, a San Francisco supervisor who called for crackdowns on Uber and Lyft in their early years and negotiated a new per-ride tax with Uber and Lyft last summer.
Mr. Kalanick eventually moved Uber into non-luxury ride-sharing with no licensed drivers, the same as Lyft. He and Mr. Green quickly became bitter rivals. When Mr. Green was set to introduce Lyft’s car-pooling product in 2014, Uber announced the same service first.
That same year, Uber considered buying Lyft. Over dinner at Mr. Kalanick’s home in San Francisco, the Uber chief laughed at Mr. Zimmer’s high asking price. No deal was struck.
An Uber spokesman declined to comment. A spokesman for Mr. Kalanick didn’t return a request for comment.
While Mr. Kalanick went on to raise billions of dollars in funding for Uber, Mr. Green relied on Mr. Zimmer’s Wall Street knowledge and showman personality to garner investments from venture capitalists and others. In total, Lyft has raised close to $5.1 billion, compared with Uber’s roughly $14 billion in equity.
In 2017, Mr. Kalanick was ousted from Uber after a series of scandals. Mr. Green seized the moment, billing Lyft as a kinder, gentler network. Ridership surged, with Lyft taking a share of up to 35 percent in some American cities.
More recently, Lyft has ventured into self-driving cars, offering autonomous rides in Las Vegas. It also acquired Motivate, the largest bike-share operator in the United States, giving Lyft a dominant position in an emerging transportation market.
In the 2017 interview, Mr. Green said he was far from done.
“As an entrepreneur, you always kind of want what you’re pitching to sound somewhat off the wall,” he said. “You’re trying to pitch the future that doesn’t exist, and you want it to be — it needs to be — a little bit of a stretch.”