Uber’s über IPO fiasco

This will be one for the business textbooks for years go come. Unfortunately for Uber, it’s initial public offering (IPO) is the perfect case study for all the wrong reasons:

  • The company waited nine years before its IPO. If it had delayed in order to achieve some level of a true business model, that might have been one thing. But in this case, all signs of that being achievable are vague at best.
  • In fact, the company showed no signs of a roadmap to profitability, now burning $1.8 billion a year and a staggering $10.7 billion in losses over the lifespan of the company.
  • CEO Dean Khosrowshahi was handed a compensation package tied to an inflated valuation for the company at the time of IPO. If the company reached a $120 billion in market value at IPO and remained there for 90 days, he was to be awarded $100 million. 
  • Much of the stock was in private hands already, through a network of investors, many of whom included those who were expected to buy again at the market price when the company went public. They weren’t thrilled about it, to say the least, which is why the IPO price dropped from $45 to $42 at the last minute.
  • Even the underwriters were wary of the price and were shorting employing “naked shorts,” a highly questionable tactic, which in most cases is illegal and in this case was detrimental to the overall IPO.
  • The market is souring on the Unicorns, companies with $1 billion+ valuations that emphasize gaining market share over profitability.
  • Lyft, which itself had just gone public and is Uber’s main competitor, had only days before Uber’s IPO posted less than favorable “earnings” (i.e. losses) statements.
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Can Uber survive this?  Buried deep in its S-1 prospectus, the company makes this rather pointed statement:

“Our business would be adversely affected if Drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors.” 

Uber S1 filing with the SEC

What this means is that Uber, which is paying a median rate of $8.55 per hour to U.S. drivers, with female drivers making on average of $1.24 an hour less than their male counterparts, is essentially admitting it cannot stay in business if it must act like a regular, grown-up company.

Days before the Uber IPO, Lyft and Uber drivers went “on strike” by turning off their apps, to protest their low wages. Driver turnover will be a main concern. If Uber is not able to address this, it could ultimately affect user experience. 

And now that the company is public, the pressure will be on. Under the glaring spotlight of earnings reports, Uber must continually convince shareholders, analysts and pundits that it is on the path to a sustainable business.

And while it is doing this, it has to bet big (via R&D investments) on autonomous driving, in the hopes it can do an end-run around (no pun intended) its driver problem. But it is highly unlikely that this is going to come soon enough. There are myriad regulatory hurdles, not to mention technological and social acceptance issues.The company claims it is modeling its business on Amazon, which focused on gaining market share and ran at a loss for 14 years before turning a profit. But Amazon started very, very modestly compared to Uber. (Amzon’s S-1, by comparison, had the goal of being “the bookseller to the world.”)

Also in Uber’s S-1 filing, the company states:

“We do the right thing, period.”

I guess we’ll see what that means in the coming months.

Sources:

[https://www.washingtonpost.com/b…

[Uber’s growth slowed dramatically in 2018

Uber’s I.P.O. Flop May Be Wall Street’s Worst Ever

Dara Khosrowshahi hasn’t yet earned his $100 million-plus stock bonus for when Uber hits a $120 billion valuation — but there’s still time for him to do it

Uber’s Top Investors 

Lyft’s First Results After I.P.O. Show $1.14 Billion Quarterly Loss

https://www.npr.org/2019/05/08/721333408/uber-and-lyft-drivers-are-striking-and-call-on-passengers-to-boycott

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The Path of Least Resistance Has a Habit of Prevailing

For every action, Newton tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction. True in physics. Not necessarily so in business.

In another case of a traditional industry reacting in traditional ways to an untraditional threat, we have incumbent Marriott, the largest purveyor of hotel rooms in the world, drawing a line in the sand against that pesky start-up, AirBnB. Marriott is launching its “Homes & Villas,” which is a premium home rental service, very similar to what AirBnB offers with its AirBnB Plus service.

The fact is, in just a few short years, AirBnB, which owns no properties, has turned a software platform into a network that can claim about 5 times as many rental nights as Marriott alone.

The fact is, AirBnB has turned the hotel industry upside down. And the hotel industry is trying to adjust to the new game. But is it enough?

As has been the case with myriad industries, the incumbent struggles with a major dilemma: How to protect its cash-cow-generating machine while cannibalizing that machine to combat the attacker.

It rarely works. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to come up with an example where it has worked.

Uber and Lyft can be annoying to use. But is there any comparison with taking a taxi? Does anyone enjoy a taxi more? At least with Uber and Lyft you know the price, the driver’s name, his/her ratings, the length of the trip, and you never, ever have to worry about being “taking for a ride” for an additional 45 minutes to drive up the fare.

Yes, the auto industry is swapping out internal combustion engines for batteries faster than you can say “rickety-split.” But in the meantime, Tesla has rewritten the rules by amassing millions of miles of user data to be able to provide over-the-air updates to their customers. The other guys aren’t close, at least not yet.

The reaction of Blockbuster to Netflix has become a Business 101 case study. Blockbuster’s reaction to Netflix is a beauty. Blockbuster actually thought customers would enjoy the experience of traveling to the store to pick up a USB drive, vs. clicking a few clicks on a website from the comfort of their own homes.

The list goes on, with Amazon (not only in books and everything else, but in cloud services, an industry it single-handedly created right under the noses of the biggest hardware and software companies in the world). Google did the same thing with online advertising.

The pattern for the challengers is very similar. They enter an existing market orthogonally, usually using technology to rewrite the business rules. Their strategy is to:

  1. Disrupt the market with better, faster cheaper
  2. Go for growth and scale over profits short term
  3. Use that scale to reach a critical mass
  4. Capture the market
  5. Take profits
  6. Expand into new markets
  7. Never stop

Meanwhile, the incumbents react in similar ways:

  1. Ignore the start-ups
  2. Accept the start-ups by offering some low-end solution
  3. Realize the offering isn’t working and then do some soul-searching as to how to truly protect their territory and preserve their cash-cow-machine.
  4. Struggle with their hybrid business model and their legacy infrastructure while the new guys breeze through encumbered.

This pattern has repeated itself multiple times in the past 25 years or so and is documented in the brilliant book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Clay Christensen.

Having just spent the past three months traveling the world and using both AirBnB and VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owners) for about 80 percent of my nights, I can tell, unequivocally that the value that the challengers are providing to the hotel industry is noticeable. The average nightly cost is about half of what a comparable hotel would cost, and with that you get a kitchen, washer, dryer, a living room area. A hotel’s offering would be a square room with a bathroom and a Keurig coffee maker, if you’re lucky.

Now, I’m a big fan of Clay and the book, but I had the chance to have dinner with him some time back (2006) and I posed the question to the Harvard professor: “Why isn’t your industry (higher education) vulnerable to this challenge?”

He gave me a long, unsatisfying response.

This was long before Kahn Academy, Udemy, Teachable, even YouTube had come along that provide the ability to learn just about anything for free or a small fee. Yes, it’s not perfect by a long shot. But, as with all the other cases, you can see where it is heading.


VRBO

Like it or not, this disruptive force is unstoppable in virtually every industry. If it can be disrupted, it will be disrupted.

Electricity, it is said, follows the path of least resistant. That might a more apropos “law” for business than any of Newton’s.


Luxury properties. VRBO Vacation Rentals.

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