Opinion | Uber’s expectations from its IPO may be a bit too ambitious4 min read . Updated: 19 Apr 2019, 03:11 PM IST
- Sustained losses, lawsuits and regulatory troubles could come in the way of a big valuation
- Uber's biggest problem is its drivers
Ride-hailing service Uber is launching its IPO and hopes to list on the New York Stock Exchange on May 10. If it succeeds in raising its targeted $10 billion, this would be the third largest tech IPO ever, after Alibaba ($21.8 billion) and Facebook ($16 billion). The company hopes that the IPO would value it at least $100 billion. But…
One, Uber loses tons of money. It has piled up operating losses of over $12 billion since 2014. Of course, loss-making tech companies having an IPO is nothing unusual (Amazon had never made a profit when it went public in 1997, and it reported its first tiny profit only in the last quarter of 2001). The problem is that, in its IPO prospectus, Uber makes it clear that it does not see itself turning profitable soon, maybe ever: “We expect our operating expenses to increase significantly in the foreseeable future, and we may not achieve profitability."
Two, risk factors like the company’s reputation and serious legal troubles. During co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick’s regime, Uber became notorious for a work culture marked by sexual harassment and gender discrimination. After hackers stole personal information of 57 million riders and drivers from its database, the company did not report the incident till it was exposed a year later. Autonomous vehicle technology firm Waymo sued for intellectual property theft. All this led to a #DeleteUber campaign on social media in 2017 that, Uber admits now, “prompted hundreds of thousands of consumers to stop using our platform within days". Kalanick had to resign and Dara Khosrowshahi was brought in from Expedia to head the company.
He has been trying to settle and pay up, wherever possible. He settled with Waymo last year for $245 million in Uber stock. In Holland, last month, it paid $2.6 million euros to settle charges that it violated local taxi laws. It has paid $10 million to settle pay discrimination claims from hundreds of current and former employees. In December, it settled, for an undisclosed sum, a complaint brought by women who said they were raped or assaulted by Uber drivers. But, it admits in the prospectus, “We expect to continue to receive complaints from riders and other consumers, as well as actual or threatened legal action against us related to driver conduct."
Uber is reported to be the subject of several US government investigations. These include violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by employees (improper payments made in several countries, including India), its Greyball software that allowed the company to evade regulators, spying on competitors, and price transparency.
But the company’s biggest problem is its drivers. Uber has paid $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by drivers in California and Massachusetts, who argued that they were employees. The California Supreme Court issued a decision last year that narrowed companies’ ability to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees. This will soon be California law, and it is not yet clear what impact it will have on Uber. In the UK, the company has lost its appeal against a ruling that its drivers should be considered employees with rights to minimum wage and other benefits. Uber plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. But drivers’ disgruntlement across the world is not going to go away. In fact, it is going to keep rising. If Uber has to one day treat its drivers as employees (it currently uses 3.9 million drivers in 69 countries), its entire business model will implode.
And the prospectus states that the company intends to make the drivers even more unhappy—it is investing in autonomous vehicles to reduce the number of drivers, and it plans to pay them less to increase its chances of turning a profit: “As we aim to reduce driver incentives to improve our financial performance, we expect driver dissatisfaction will generally increase."
Revenues from the company’s core business—ride-hailing—have plateaued over the last two quarters of 2018. Though it remains the market leader by far, it has been losing market share in the US—from 83% at the beginning of 2017 to 69% today, while rival Lyft’s share has risen from 15% to 29%. However, one bright spot is UberEats, the food delivery service. Only five years old, it is already among the top three such services in the US, is profitable in 40 cities and currently accounts for 13% of Uber’s total revenue. Uber Freight, that helps truck drivers connect with shipping companies, now plans to expand to Europe. But Uber is still in major investment mode in both these services to grow market share, rather than bother about profit.
Of course, Uber’s ambitions are stratospheric. The company sees $12 trillion of market opportunity—yes, you read that right. In brief, that’s the total amount spent on all passenger vehicle miles and public transportation miles in all countries globally; the amount consumers spend at restaurants; the market for freight trucking (all 2017 figures). Says Dara Khosrowshahi: “We are not even 1% done with our work." Well, all the best, Dara.