What Uber’s IPO should tell us about value and profitability
Sustainability isn’t always profitable in the short-term. But then again, neither is Uber.
Three months ago the quintessential Silicon Valley disruptor, Uber, went public. In the days that followed, the IPO once promised to be the biggest had been declared by most as one of the greatest IPO flops in US history. In a matter of days, the company lost nearly half of its once $120 billion valuation. Though the stock price had started to show signs of recovery over the summer, as Uber published its first (disappointing) post-IPO earnings report last week, the price yet again dipped.
As with all publicly listed companies, the greatest question on investors’ minds, and the one question Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi seems to constantly battle with is: will Uber ever be profitable? The company is adamant that profitable times are ahead, despite the current $1.3 billion losses in the second quarter (an increase of 30% from last quarter, adjusted for stock-based compensation). And Uber isn’t the only one struggling — competitor Lyft has had similar problems, with adjusted losses tallying nearly $200 million and a dipping share price to match.
Despite reassurances, in its IPO filing in April Uber stated that it does not, nor may it ever, make a profit.
Make money. Break even. Get into the black. Increase the bottom line.
Yet the company has still managed to find shareholders to the tune of $65 billion, all expecting a return for their dollars. Some shareholders will get their value back one way or another, either through the stock market, dividends, or other forms of financial payouts that have less to do with how the company performs and more with how money moves between stakeholders. But is stock market speculation the only motivation to invest here?
At the heart of it, the idea that a company losing billions (at least in the short-term) is worth investing in seems to contradict the fundamental business logic many still rely on to justify not spending on projects, companies or initiatives that advance sustainability.
Too often, companies, CEOs, boards and investors will argue that doing the responsible, sustainable thing is just too costly and will lose the company money. Some say that businesses shouldn’t be gambling shareholder dollars on projects unlikely to return a “real” (monetary) investment.
What then, are companies — what is Uber — good for, if not making a profit?
Uber does bring other kinds of value to the table that may be worth the investment: innovative mobility services, increased convenience, cost and time savings for the customer, new jobs, and creating data (how that data is handled, and who owns it, is a topic for another day). And one day, we hope, Uber will bring a monetary return on investment.
Why then can’t the same company mechanisms be used to create other kinds of value: clean air, universal healthcare, equal and effective educational systems for “customers”, supporting biodiversity. And one day, we hope (indeed, we know), these efforts will bring a monetary return on investment.
Whether or not Uber will pull into the black seems insignificant compared to questions of whether we will be able to provide a safe climate, ample clean water, functioning democractic systems or better lives for ourselves in 20–30 years’ time. To get there, we need to rethink how we define “value” and what we expect from our investments.