Rethinking Uber

Once the darling of every mobile urbanite, it’s hard to recall a company that’s endured more bad press and scandal than Uber. Their labor practices are problematic. They’ve long fostered a workplace culture of misogyny. Their business model is questionable. Their leadership is in flux. And they’ve consistently lost money, and lots of it. Yet the venture capital keeps pouring in. Are we witnessing the final, insufficient flailings of a dying company, or does Uber have a shot at a comeback?

Uber is currently raising another secondary round of funding of up to $600 million, based upon a valuation of $62 billion.While the company continues to lose money, this latest valuation is much stronger than the $48 billion valuation it received at the end of 2017, but still not on par with its highest valuation of $69 billion. Its Q1 financials indicate continued losses, although they’re slightly smaller than what we’ve seen in the past. Revenues reflected a seven percent quarter-over-quarter increase, and a 67 percent increase year-over-year. And at the end of Q1, it still had $6.3 billion in gross cash, even though it’s raised over $21 billion in funding to date. Essentially, things are looking up. But this is still an unprofitable business riddled with challenges.

Uber’s investors say that the company is worthy of continued support based on its size and growth, as well as the fact that it has disrupted global transportation networks as we knew them. Its gross bookings are impressive, and it’s true that few companies have grown as quickly as Uber. Supporters also love to point out the similarities between Amazon and Uber. It’s certainly true that Amazon spent years losing money, but Amazon’s losses quickly shrank after reaching $1.4 billion in its fifth year, while Uber’s have been largely growing, climbing to over $3 billion in its seventh year. Uber has burned through approximately $10.7 billion in cash over the past nine years and, according to Bloomberg, no other company has spent as much in its first stage of life—so the amazing growth and market share have come with great expense. And in the past two years, its primary competitor, General Motors-backed Lyft, managed to steal away substantial market share and recently announced that its revenue is growing nearly three times faster than that of Uber.

Still, glimmers of hope abound. In addition to 2018’s smaller losses, Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, is attempting to keep the company’s impressive growth rate on track by expanding into several new markets, while simultaneously dealing with its substantial list of business issues: a toxic corporate culture, government regulations and investigations, competition, civil lawsuits galore, and profitability problems.

Khosrowshahi will be working to reign the unwieldy company into something more palatable and scandal-free, all without sacrificing the elements that made it successful in the first place. A tall order, to be sure, but with the right leadership in place, Uber has a chance at survival. After all, despite the problems, it is one of the world’s most recognizable brands, and one of the largest privately held companies with 18,000 employees operating throughout 73 countries. And in addition to its core business, it’s also making strides with new initiatives like takeout food delivery, vertical-liftoff aircraft, and driverless cars, the latter of which experienced a setback in March with the death of a pedestrian.

But, first and foremost, the company will need to figure out how it makes money in order to succeed in the future, a question that many experts don’t believe it has sufficiently tackled. Its losses are mainly a result of the fact that rider fares only cover about 40 percent of the cost of a ride, with the remainder subsidized by venture capital. Not to mention the fact that the company is facing increasing pressure to convert its drivers from contractors to employees, a move that would riddle the company with costs it couldn’t currently shoulder. Add to these increased regulations and the costs to settle outstanding lawsuits, and you’re looking at a company that simply will not be able to offer customers a nicer, more inexpensive ride than the competition.

Most experts remain split on whether Uber will ultimately pull through or not. I believe that it’s a tall order, perhaps too tall, but the promise it there. It will all come down to the execution.