The Ride Sharing Business: Is A Bar Mitzvah Moment Approaching? by Aswath Damodaran

I did a series of three posts on the ride sharing business about a year ago, starting with a valuation of Uber, moving on to an assessment of Lyft, continuing with a global comparison of ride sharing companies and ending with a discussion of the future of the ride sharing business. In the last of those four posts, I looked at the ride sharing business model, argued that it was unsustainable as currently structured and laid our four possible ways in which it could be evolve: a winner-take-all, a losing game, collusion and a new player (from outside). While ride sharing continues its inexorable advance into new markets and new customers, the last few months has also brought a flurry of game-changing actions, culminating with Uber’s decision about a week ago to abandon China to arch-rival Didi Chuxing. It is a good time to take a look at the market again and perhaps map out where it stands now and what the future holds for it.

The Ride Sharing Business: Is A Bar Mitzvah Moment Approaching?

The Face of Disruption

While there is much to debate about the future of the ride sharing business, there are a few facts that are no longer debatable.

  • Ride sharing continues on its growth path: Ride sharing has grown faster, gone to more places and is used by more people than most people thought it would be able to, even a couple of years ago. The pace of growth is also picking up. Uber took six years before it reached a billion rides in December of 2015, but it took only six months for the company to get to two billion rides. For just the US, the number of users of ride sharing services is estimated to have increased from 8.2 million in 2014 to 20.4 million in 2020.
Year Number of US ride sharers (in millions) % of US adult population
2014 8.20 3.40%
2015 12.40 5.00%
2016 15.00 6.00%
2017 17.00 6.70%
2018 18.20 7.10%
2019 19.40 7.50%
2020 20.40 7.80%
  • It is globalizing fast: In the same vein, ride sharing which started as a San Francisco experiment that grew into a US business has become global in just a short period, with Asia emerging as the epicenter for future growth. Didi Chuang, the Chinese ridesharing company, completed 1.43 billion rides just in 2015 and it now claims to have 250 million users in 360 Chinese cities. Ride sharing is also acquiring deep roots in both India and Malaysia, and is making advances in Europe and Latin America, despite regulatory pushback.
  • Expanding choices: The choices in ride sharing are becoming wider, to attract an even larger audience, from carpooling and private bus services to attract mass transit customers to luxury options for more upscale customers. In addition, ride sharing companies are experimenting with pre-scheduled rides and multiple stops on single trip gain to meet customer needs.
  • Devastating the status quo: All of this growth has been devastating for the status quo. Even hardliners in the taxicab and old time car service businesses recognize that ride sharing is not going away and that the ways of doing business have to change. The price of a New York city medallion which was in excess of $1.5 million before the advent of ride sharing continues its plunge, dropping to less than $500,000 in March 2016. The price of a Chicago cab medallion, which peaked at $357,000 in 2013, had dropped to $60,000 by July 2016.

In short, there is no question that the car service business as we know it has been disrupted and that there is no going back to the old days. If you own a taxi cab or a car service business, the question is no longer whether you will lose business to ride sharing companies but how quickly, even with the regulatory authorities standing in as your defenders.

A Flawed Business Model

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Disruption is easy but making money off disruption is difficult, and ride sharing companies would be exhibit 1 to back up the proposition. While the ride sharing option is here to stay and will continue to grow, ride sharing companies still have not figured out a way to convert ride sharing revenues in profits. In making this statement, though, I am relying on dribs and drabs of information that are coming out of the existing ride sharing companies, almost all of whom are private. Piecing together the information that we are getting from these unofficial and often selective leaked information, here is what seems clear:

  1. Raising capital at a hefty pace: In the last two years, the ride sharing companies have been active in raising capital, with Uber leading the way and Didi Chuxing close behding. In the graph below, I list the capital raised collectively by players in the ride sharing business over the last three years and the pricing attached to each company in its most recent capital round.
Ride Sharing Company Amount Raised in last 12 months (in millions) Investor Company Priced at (in millions)
Didi $7,300.00 Apple, Alibaba, Softbank & Others $28,000
Uber $3,500.00 Saudi Arabian Sovereign Fund $62,500
Lyft $500.00 GM $5,500
Ola $500.00 Didi & Existing Investors $5,000
Grabtaxi $350.00 Didi & CIC $1,800
Gett $300.00 Volkswagen $2,000
Via $100.00 VC NA
Scoop $5.10 BMW NA
  1. At rich prices: As the table above indicates, the investors who are putting money in the ride sharing companies are willing to pay hefty prices for their holdings, with no signs of a significant pullback (yet). Uber, at its current pricing, is being priced higher than Ford or GM. Note that I use the word “pricing” to indicate what investors are attaching as numbers to these companies because I don’t believe that they have the interest or the stomach to actually value them. If you are confused about the contrast between “value” and “price”, please see my blog post on the topic.
  2. From unconventional capital providers: The capital coming into ride sharing companies is not coming less from the traditional providers to private businesses and more from public investors (Mutual funds, pension funds, wealth management arms of investment banks and sovereign funds). The reasons for the shift are simple on both sides. Public investors want to be invested in the ride sharing companies because they have visions of public offerings at much higher prices and are afraid to be left on the side lines, if that happens. The ride sharing companies are for it because some of them (Uber and Didi, in particular) are getting too big for venture capitalists to capitalize and perhaps because public investors are imposing less onerous constraints on them for providing capital.
  3. While burning through cash quickly: As quickly as the capital is being raised at ride sharing companies, it is being spent at astonishing rates. Uber admitted that it burned through more than a billion dollars in cash in 2015, with a significant portion of that coming from its attempts to increase market share in China. Its competitors are matching it, with Lyft estimated to be burning through about $50 million in cash each month ($600 million over a year) and Didi Chuting’s CEO, Jean Liu, openly admitting that “We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for burning cash”.

The cash burn at ride sharing companies, by itself, is neither uncommon nor, by itself, troubling After all, to grow, you have to spend money, and a young start up often loses money because of infrastructure investments and fixed costs, and as revenues climb, margins should improve and reinvestment should scale down (at least on a proportional basis). The problem with ride sharing is companies in this business are losing money only partially because of their high growth. In fact, I believe that a significant portion of their expenses are associating with maintaining revenues rather than growing them (ride sharing discounts, driver deals and customer deals). I am afraid that I cannot back up that statement with anything more tangible than news stories about ride sharing wars for drivers, big discounts for customers and the leaked statistics from the ride sharing companies.  In effect, it looks like the business model that has brought these companies as far as they have in such a short time period are flawed, because what allowed these companies to grow incredibly fast is getting in the way of converting revenues to profits, since there are no moats to defend.

If you are skeptical about my contention, here is a simple test of whether the cash burn is just a consequence of going for high growth or symptomatic of a business model problem. Assume that the growth ends in the ride sharing business tomorrow and that the ride sharing companies were to compete for existing riders. Do you think that the pieces are in place for these companies to generate profits? I don’t think so, as ride prices keep dropping, new ride sharing businesses pop up and the costs continue to increase.

The Bar Mitzvah Moment

In a post in November 2014 on Twitter’s struggles, I argued that every young growth company has a bar mitzvah moment, a time in its history when markets shift their attention away from surface measures of growth (number of users, in the case of Twitter) to more operating substance (evidence that the users are being monetized). I also argued that to get through these bar mitzvah moments successfully, young growth companies have to be managed on two levels, delivering the conventional metrics on one level while working on creating a business model to convert these metrics into more conventional measures of business success (revenues and earnings) on the other.

This may be premature but I have sense that the bar mitzvah moment has arrived or will be arriving soon for ride sharing companies. After an initial life, where investors have been easily sated with reports of more ridesharing usage (number of cities served, rides, drivers etc.), these investors are starting to ask the tough questions about how ride sharing companies propose turning these impressive usage statistics into profits. What’s driving investor uneasiness?

  • The first factor is that the public investors who have put their money into the ride sharing companies operate under shorter time horizons than many VC investors and the fact that an IPO is not imminent in any of these companies adds to their impatience to see tangible results.
  • The second factor is that the belief that there will be a winner-take-all, who can then proceed to charge what the market will bear, has receded, as all of the players in the market continue to attract capital.
  • The third factor is that the possibility that big players like Apple and Google will enter the market is becoming a plausibility and perhaps even a probability and their technological edge and deep pockets could put existing ride sharing companies at a disadvantage.

In my view, it is this perception that change is coming that is leading the flurry of activity that we have seen at ride sharing companies in the last few months. In conventional business terms, the ride sharing companies are trying to shore up their business models, generate pathways to profitability and build competitive advantages. Broadly speaking, these efforts include the following:

  1. Increased Switching costs: The ride sharing companies are working on ways to increase the costs of switching to their competitors, both among drivers (who I described in a prior post as uncontracted free agents) and customers. Uber’s partnership with Toyota, where Toyota will lease cars on favorable terms to Uber drivers, will benefit drivers but will also bind them more closely to Uber, and make it more difficult for them to threaten to go to Lyft for a few thousand dollars. GM’s agreement with Lyft is not as specific but seems to be directed at the same objective.
  2. Cooperation/Collusion: In my ride sharing post in October 2015, I raised the possibility that the ride sharing companies would follow the route of the Mafia in the United States in the middle of the last century, where crime families divided the US into fiefdoms and agreed not to invade each other’s turf. Uber’s decision to abandon the Chinese market to Didi in return for a 20% ownership stake in that company, in particular, seems to be designed to accomplish this no-compete objective. Uber’s China move specifically seems to be designed to stop the mutually assured destruction that a free-for-all fight with Didi will create.
  3. Higher Capital Intensity: Though there is little that is tangible that I can point to in support of this notion, I think that the ride sharing companies now recognize that their absence of tangible assets and infrastructure investment can now operate as an impediment to building a sustainable business. Consequently, I will not be surprised to see more investment by the ride sharing companies in self-driving cars, robots and other infrastructure as part of the phase of building up business moats.

As we witness the breakneck pace of change in the ride sharing business, the big question if you are considering investing in these companies is whether these actions will work in laying the groundwork for profitability. Well, yes and no. If the ride sharing business were frozen to include only the current players, it is probable that they will come to an uneasy agreement that will allow them to generate profits. The problem, though, is that the existing structure of this business is anything but settled, with new ride sharing options popping up and large technology companies rumored to be on the cusp of jumping in. The unquestioned winners in the ride sharing game are car service customers, who have seen their car service costs go down while getting more care service options. .

Uber: An updated valuation

In September 2015, I valued Uber at $23.4 billion, based upon my reading of the market then. In assessing this value, I incorporated what I saw as Uber’s strengths (its reach globally and across many different businesses) and its weaknesses (an out-of-control cost structure and the elimination of many of the insurance and regulatory loopholes that allowed ride sharing to gain such an advantage over conventional car service).  In the last year, as I see it, here is how the fundamental story has been impacted by developments in the last year:

  1. Revenues: Uber’s growth continues, measured in cities and rides, though the rate of growth has started to slow down, not surprising given its size. Its decision to leave China, the largest ride sharing market in the world, even if it was the right one from the perspective of saving itself from a cash war, will reduce its potential revenues in the future.
  2. Competition: Before you over react to Uber’s exit from China, there is good news in that decision. First,by removing the costs associated with going after the China market from the equation, it reduces the problem of cash burn, at least for the near future. Second, its peace treaty with Didi Chuxing puts the smaller players at risk. Lyft, Ola and Grabtaxi, all companies that Didi invested in to stop the Uber juggernaut, may now be left exposed to competition. Third, in return for its decision to leave the China market, Uber does get a 20% stake in Didi Chuxing.
  3. Costs: On the cost front, the ride sharing business continued to evolve, with most of the changes signaling higher costs for the ride sharing companies in the future. Seattle’s decision to let Uber/Lyft drivers unionize may be the precursor of similar developments in other cities and higher costs for both companies. On the legal front, cities continue to throw up roadblocks for the ride sharing companies. Uber and Lyft abandoned Austin, after the city passed an ordinance requiring drivers for both services to pass background checks. One symptom of these higher costs is in the leaked financials from Uber, which suggested that the company lost more than a billion dollars in the first half of 2015.
  4.  Imminent competition: The Silicon Valley gossip continues about Apple and Google preparing to enter the ride sharing market, with Google announcing that it has entered into a partnership with Fiat and that a top robocist had left the self-driving car unit a few days ago. Never one to hide in the shadows, Elon Musk added car sharing to his long list of to dos at Tesla in his Master Plan for the company. It seems clear that while the timing of the change remains up in the air, change is coming to this business.

None of the changes are dramatic but tweaking my valuation to reflect those changes, as well as changes in the macro environment in the last year, my updated valuation for Uber is $28 billion, a little higher than my estimate last year of $23.4 billion. The loss of the China market reduces the total market size but it is offset by a higher market share of the remaining market and a 20% stake in Didi Chuxing. The pricing attached to this Didi stake is $7 billion, but since the same forces that have elevated Uber’s pricing are at play across the ride sharing market, I have attached a value of $5 billion to the stake. The picture of the valuation is below:

Uber, Lyft, Ride Sharing Business Download spreadsheet

Clearly, the Saudi Sovereign fund, Goldman Sachs and Fidelity would disagree with me, since their estimated pricing for Uber is more than double my value. They could very well be right in their judgment and I could be wrong, but my valuation reflects my story about the company, which is perhaps not as expansive nor as optimistic as the stories that they might be telling.

What’s next?

The ride sharing business is in a state of flux and the next few months will bring more experimentation on the part of companies. Some of these experiments will be with the services offered but more of them will be attempts to get business models that work at converting riders to profits. The ride sharing companies have clearly won the first phase of the disruption battle with the taxicab and car service companies and have been rewarded with high pricing and plentiful capital. The next phase will separate the winners from the losers song the ride sharing companies and it is definitely not going to be boring.

YouTube Video

Last year’s posts on ride sharing

  1. On the Uber Rollercoaster: Narrative Tweaks, Twists and Turns
  2. Dream Big or Stay Focused? The Lyft Answer!
  3. The Future of Ride Sharing: Playing Pundit

Uber Valuations

  1. June 2014
  2. September 2015
  3. August 2016
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