Just like how Amazon is no longer about books, Uber is no longer about booking a car ride.
That is what Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber CEO, described in a talk hosted by the Economic Club of New York. Like how Amazon is establishing dominance in different market sectors, Khosrowshahi believes that Uber can do the same in all areas of transport. It can be private hire cars, taxi, scooter, the subway, freight and even flying vehicles. In his head, he envisions a world of making everything shared, affordable, and a solution to worsening traffic congestion. He also envisions a world of delivering food from any restaurant in under 30 minutes.
The difference is in the means. Rather than build the technology themselves, Khosrowshahi wants to build partnerships instead. It demands a “different attitude”.
Unfortunately, this household name will have a very tough time building that sort of ecosystem out. Khosrowshahi’s lofty goals are pretty much blocked by regulatory and financial obstacles even after Uber pocketed $8.1 billion from its initial public offering. The problem is, they have made 75% of that in losses, reporting a loss of more than $5 billion in the last quarter and losing another $1 billion this quarter—that is despite reporting a 30% growth in revenue.
Since upending the transportation industry and setting a precedent of tech unicorn IPOs, Uber is now facing rough, stormy seas around some of its major markets.
- Uber may be liable for a $1.97 billion VAT bill which they argued that should be borne by drivers and not the company
- London banned Uber again after discovering 14,000 trips being taken with drivers that faked their identity
- Chicago passed a congestion tax on ride-hailing services that can add as much as $3 to private rides during peak hours
- Drivers now have minimum wage under the “Fare Share” program in Seattle while also taxing Uber more
- Uber drivers are not independent contractors, according to New Jersey, who slapped Uber with $640 million worth in taxes and penalties
- It is a lay-off season for unprofitable startups and Uber is not excluded: another 350 employees will be laid off with many being relocated. Khosrowshahi promises that it will be the ‘last wave’, but reality and balance sheets do not care about waves
It is catastrophe one after another as Uber sinks lower with every setback. Yet, Khosrowshahi is still optimistic.
Will that positivity hold against reality?
Ride-sharing Competitors Are Everywhere
Uber may have upended the transportation market but it is still anyone’s game. There is virtually no moat between one app and another, apart from pricing points, membership perks and suchlike. Consumers are free to choose between them and another private hire provider.
Due to that, most of Uber’s money is spent to aggressively dominate the market especially in Asia, which is home to more than 1.12 billion trips in 2018. According to ABI Research’s latest study, that constitutes 70% of the world’s ride-hailing market share.
Unfortunately, Uber’s battles had the company spilling too much blood.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore-based Grab bought out Uber’s operations in a merger deal, which prompted a whole slew of competitors to emerge in SEA in attempt to break the ‘monopoly’ between Grab and Indonesia-based Gojek.
Uber has also exited from other markets—in China, they lost to rival Didi Chuxing. Uber is still scrambling alongside Bengaluru-based unicorn, Ola Cabs. Uber also retreated from Russia due to Yandex.taxi.
While Uber has shares in those companies—which thus means their value will rise when their competitors’ do—it also means that they lost market supremacy in many major markets. According to their S-1 filing, Uber claimed to only have owned operations in the Americas, Oceania, Europe, India, and the Middle East. With more competitors at home ground and emerging in new markets, Uber’s already thin market dominance may be threatened even more.
The Race to Be a Super App
Two years ago, Guangzhou unveiled a pilot program. Residents there will have a virtual ID card that serves the same purpose as their state-issued ID linked to their WeChat accounts.
Launched by Tencent Holdings in 2011, WeChat has now become what many know as a Super App. It unites multiple essential functions in a single mobile application, from hailing private hire cars to transferring money. Besides convenience, WeChat has also brought an era of change where more than a billion users cannot live without it.
Down in Southeast Asia, one in two people in Indonesia have Gojek installed on their phones. Unlike WeChat, Gojek is in a war for supremacy as Singapore-based Grab slowly unveils their own super app plan.
The operating system for everyday life, as Khosrowshahi envisioned, is what Uber aims to be today. Gojek has become more than just an Uber of the East—today, Uber needs to be the Gojek of the West. Fortunately, rivals in Asia have already showed Uber the path to follow beyond mobility services.
How Fast Can They Deliver food?
At the Forbes 30 under 30 Summit, Uber unveiled a small, sturdy white drone, intended to help Uber Eats delivery drivers send the food even faster. That is great, but Uber is still losing money on every order (with analysts expecting that to be that way for the next five years).
The $125.8 billion food delivery market is just as crowded as the transportation market, with huge delivery players like Foodpanda, Grubhub, Deliveroo and Just Eat. Other rival competitors such as Grab and Gojek also offer their own food delivery service.
As these food delivery companies pedal furiously to send food to their customers, they are also pedaling towards growth. There is the race for creating a sticky platform—there are no moats between one application and the other. Consumers can simply switch between one application to another simply due to price point and type of food.
The Saturation in the Bike And Scooters
The mobility market is huge and Uber wants a slice of even micromobility, which includes bikes and scooters. In the US alone, it is predicted to be a $200B — $300B market by 2030. To capture this market, Uber bought over bike-sharing startup Jump for nearly $200 million.
Months later, electric bikes and scooters are pulled out from two cities. Los Angeles said ‘no’ to Uber’s plea to rent out electric scooters and bikes, so Uber is responding with appeals. Meanwhile, Bird and Lime are operating well in the city.
Competition is also heavy in this space. Uber won the bid to deploy up to 10,000 e-scooters in Washington D.C., but so did Lyft, Skip, and Spin. Residents don’t really like it, and there are demands for safety regulations by lawmakers.
The micromobility space is not one without its own issues. Different market pose different challenges—some of them even outrightly ban it. France has banned e-scooters riding on pavements. In Singapore, an e-scooter ride crashed and killed a pedestrian, prompting a nationwide ban.
Each problem poses more costs for Uber. While Uber can skirt around dealing with the issue directly and go for partnerships, that is simply an illusion of a market share. The company needs to directly deploy their own micromobility vehicles into the city but at the end of the equation lies the support of the city: without permits, there is no chance of even capturing a single percent.
Fighting for Airspace
With plans for a flying taxi service in 2023, Uber is now deep in talks with NASA on how they can have effective airspace management. Thus far, Uber has been using helicopters—with their own slew of problems—but the company insists that they will be replaced by eVTOL vehicles.
Uber is not the only player in the space: in fact, there are many startups competing for this flying-car moonshot, with Airbus and even Google’s co-founder Larry Page accumulating their chess pieces.
The problem is in economics: will it actually give more returns to Uber if flying taxis become a norm? With so many players in the space, there will definitely be regulatory concerns as companies will be figuring out how their vehicles can navigate around one another. In essence, it is a microcosm of the world of airplanes.
An admirable ambition but nonetheless, an expensive high-risk bet. Besides facing competition at home, future expansion plans will have to be adjusted to face rivals in different countries—which also means more regulations, laws, and authorities to face.
Self-Driving Vehicle Crashes
Early Monday morning in Tempe, Arizona, the life of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was taken away by a self-driving Uber. The female pedestrian was struck by the car, which sparked a series of investigations about Uber’s autonomous vehicle masterplan.
That plan, apparently, excluded formal safety plans. Vehicles were not programmed to react to jaywalkers and according to the National Traffic Safety Board’s study, the reasons run way deeper than just that.
The impact was also fatal to Uber’s autonomous vehicle plans as they scale back their ambitions. Operations in Arizona were shuttered with 300 operators laid off. More were laid off after in Pittsburgh. Today, Uber is still testing more self-driving cars with plans to operate driverless services by 2022. That also comes with a $20 million monthly loss.
While Uber is tempering their expectations, companies all over the world are pouring more money to win the self-driving car race. Khosrowshahi may have to face off Elon Musk, as the Tesla CEO intends to develop driverless cars to operate commercially in a ride-hailing network. At this point, Uber needs a breakthrough; without overwhelming success in this sector, those self-driving car dreams may be attained by others first. All these companies need to do is to simply clone the Uber application, which many agencies are already doing anyway.
Freighting Against Freight Powerhouses
Up against freight giants like DAT Mobile and rival competitor Convoy raising $400m to become a unicorn, Uber Freight is hemorrhaging $1.36 for every dollar they are earning. Problem is, Uber shares 99% of gross revenue with carriers and it backed itself to the corner with that. Taking on the typical early-stage startup growth method, Uber Freight has taken on huge risks.
When profitability becomes a focus, there is a chance that carriers become alienated.
Legacy logistic companies like Coyote Logistics and C.H. Robinson are also launching their own digital freight matching services—according to CarrerLists, they are the top few applications that carriers regularly used. The aforementioned competitor Convoy is standing in the runner-up pedestal.
Definitely, the digital brokerage is anyone’s game, unlike the incumbent-dominated freight market space. However, simply because it is anyone’s game, there is no real moat between one app and another. Users can simply switch between one another, which means a real uphill struggle for market supremacy. Uber may have to tamper their ambitions or double down, which will leave their coffers lighter than it already is.
It is a battle of balance at this point. Uber needs to find the maximum amount of money they can burn without sinking, while also fuelling their ever-aggressive growth. With other unicorns like WeWork serving as a great case study, Uber must also keep their balance sheets in check lest they become owned by one of their investors.
At this point, it is clear the Wall Street is not forgiving and public investors are not entertaining private valuations—essentially, those valuations are what investors think they are worth. The year of the unicorn may come to an end with disappointing IPO and post-IPO performances like:
- Money-losing Snap may have overtaken their debut IPO price but time is ticking: they’ve got three more years before they run out of cash;
- Cannabis company Tilray’s stock reached $180 at an all-time high—today, it’s 10x less, with more regulatory problems on the way;
- Lyft may be the only one thought as a flawless executor towards profitability, but the reality is that they are still deep in losing money with a stock price less than half of its debut IPO price
- Happiness-selling Peloton needs to step on the pedal towards profit and not towards being “weirdly profitable”, which was revealed to be baseless from the IPO filings
- Financial reports from Pinterest spooked the stock price out of them, as shares plunged by 20% while reporting a net loss
Though in a similar situation like those companies, Uber still has the super-app route. The challenge here is to learn from Asian companies: how can Uber utilize their large audience of frequent users and embedded payment systems? Today, Uber’s food delivery, scooter, and bike services are all united in one app but there is still a rush for product diversification.
- Startups are increasingly becoming banks and Uber needs to be one. Even though fintech companies like Robinhood and Social Finance pulled out from applying to become a bank, startups are partnering left and right with payment providers — or building payment technologies themselves. Like Gojek, Grab and WeChat, Uber needs to establish dominance in the payment system. Uber needs to double down on their efforts with the digital wallet, credit card, and debit card plans. At this point, Uber is the latecomer to move into financial services.
- Uber needs to develop more products that are either essential to human life or making life more convenient. The product similarity between Uber and Gojek is that they both have food delivery, tickets, ride-hailing, and micro-mobility. Past that, there is mobile data, parcel delivery, and bill payments just to name a few. Uber needs to be as synonymous with daily life as the super app predecessors without tearing a hole in their wallet.
Uber's quest to become a super app is going to be a long, arduous journey. Within every product lies fierce competitors and underdogs. There is an inherent disadvantage: Uber is fighting against specialists (like Lime in micromobility) and super apps (like Grab and Gojek) from a unique position. Being a specialist at the start, Uber has now evolved into a ‘mini’ super app. With public markets not responding very well to Uber’s latest moves, there is a desperate need for breakthroughs and innovations.
If all else fails, at least Uber can try to become profitable, which only makes our reality even more surreal.