The Ride Sharing Business: Playing Pundit by Aswath Damodaran, Musings On Markets

This is the third and final post in a series of three on the ride sharing business. In the first, I valued Uber and looked at the evolution of its business over the last 18 months. In the second, I valued Lyft and looked at pricing across ride sharing companies. In this one, I look at the future of the ride sharing business from the perspective of an outsider with no expertise in this business.

In my last two posts, I first valued Uber, with its expansive narrative, and then looked at putting numbers on Lyft’s less ambitious storyline. In my Uber post, I argued that the ride sharing market was proving to be bigger, broader and growing faster than I had estimated it would be in June 2014. In the Lyft post, I examined how VCs were pricing ride sharing companies. In this post, I want to complete the story by looking at the current state of the ride sharing market and for scenarios for the market over time, with consequences for investors, car riders and drivers.

The Ride Sharing Market: The State of the Game

In my posts on ride sharing, I noted that the ride sharing market has grown exponentially in the last two years, drawing in new users and redefining the car service business. That growth can be seen  in multiple dimensions:

  1. Anecdotal & Qualitative evidence: I am usually wary about using anecdotal data but I have been keeping tabs on Uber usage in my travels and I have been amazed at the company’s global reach. This summer, I did seminars in São Paulo, Moscow and Mumbai, and in each venue, a significant proportion of the attendants had taken Uber to the event. In fact, my children talk about Ubering to destinations unknown, rather than taking a cab, just as xeroxing and googling became synonyms for copying and online searching.
  2. Operating metrics at ride sharing companies: The operating metrics at the ride sharing companies individually, and in the aggregate, back up the proposition that this is a high growth business.
Company Revenues in 2014 Revenues (2015) Growth Rate (2015)
Lyft $125 $300 140.00%
Uber $400 $2,000 400.00%
Didi Kuaidi $30 $450 1400.00%
Ola $50 $150 200.00%
GrabTaxi $15 $50 233.33%
BlaBlaCar $30 $72 140.00%
  1. Investor expectations: The increases in the values attached to ride sharing companies indicate that investors are also scaling up expectations of future growth in this business. Using Uber’s estimated value of $51 billion in its most recent VC funding to illustrate the process, I estimated imputed revenues of $51.4 billion in 2026, which, if you hold its revenue slice share at 15% (my assumption) yields an imputed gross billing of $342.8 billion in 2026. If I repeat this exercise with the other ride sharing companies, the collective revenues being forecast by investors may exceed attainable revenues, an example of what I termed the big market delusion.
Company Estimated Value (Price) Revenue Share Operating Margin Failure Probability Imputed Revenue(2026) Imputed Gross Billing (2026)
Lyft $2,500 15% 25% 10% $2,800 $18,665
Uber $51,000 15% 25% 0% $51,418 $342,787
Didi Kuaidi $15,000 15% 20% 0% $20,044 $133,629
Ola $2,500 15% 20% 15% $3,927 $26,183
GrabTaxi $1,500 10% 20% 15% $2,392 $23,923
BlaBlaCar $1,600 12% 20% 10% $2,392 $19,935
Total $74,100 NA NA NA $82,974 $565,123

The growth in ride sharing has been accompanied with more intense competition and rising costs, as can be seen in the large and growing operating losses reported by the companies in this business. The reasons for these losses are manifold, as I noted in my Uber post. Some of the costs come from intense competition for drivers and customers, with companies following the Field of Dreams model, that Amazon has used to such effect in the last decade. Some costs come from outside, higher insurance costs and employee expenses, as ride sharing companies go from being fringe players to larger businesses. Some costs flow from legal fights with regulators, licensing agencies and other rule-writers, whose desire to control the business clashes with the market-driven imperatives of ride sharing. The optimistic view is that these costs will become smaller as companies scale up, but will they? As revenues scale up, the number of drivers will increase proportionately, and unless the competition disappears, the costs of fighting for drivers and customers will continue. In brief, the existing ride sharing model looks like a long term money loser, unless something fundamental changes.

Future Shock

At the risk of playing market prognosticator in a market where I am a novice, I see four possible scenarios that can unfold in this market, all possible, but perhaps not equally probable.

  1. Winner-takes-all: The big prize in many technology businesses is that there is a tipping point, where the winner ends up capturing much of the market. That is the template that Microsoft used two decades ago with MS Office to capture the business software business and that Google used to scale the heights of online advertising. The payoff to such a strategy is that you not only control the dominant market share but that you get pricing power (and higher profits). It does seem to be the strategy that Uber is following in the ride sharing business, but there remain three road blocks that may get in the way. First, you have to remove your competitors from the playing field and while Uber had the cash buffer and capital raising upper hand last year, that advantage has narrowed as a result of partnerships and new capital flowing into other ride sharing companies. In a perverse way, Uber’s best chance of succeeding at this strategy is if there is a hitch or stop in the flow of capital to tech companies, though that may work against its objective of going public in the near future. Second, you have to navigate your way through the anti trust and monopoly questions that will inevitably follow, not an easy or an inexpensive task, as Google and Microsoft have discovered over the last decade. Third, while technology remains a focal point for ride sharing companies, the car service or logistics business needs physical infrastructure, making it more difficult to preserve global networking benefits.
  2. The Losers’ Game: While the winner-take-all is alluring, its logical conclusion, if you have multiple players pursuing it, and none winning, is that you can make the business a loser’s game, one in which the market grows as promised and companies generate high revenues, but make very little in profits. A big business can sometimes be a bad one, as I noted in this post on bad businesses and why companies in these businesses continue to invest and grow in them.
  3. The Divide and Rule Game: As the old colonial empires discovered a few centuries ago, and the Sicilian crime families realized in the late 1920s in the United States, the most profitable end game, when competition is cut-throat (literally), is to negotiate a truce, where the spoils are divided up and each competitor is given control of a segment. In the ride sharing market, if the business boils down to two or three large players, they may be able carve up the global market and each player will get a free run in their carved up portion . This will be, of course, terrible news for drivers and customers and may attract regulatory or legal scrutiny, but for investors collectively, it will be most value-adding scenario. There are two potential weak links. The first is that this truce, by its very nature, will not be a friendly one and small violations can lead to it unraveling. The second is that it rests on
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