On The Uber Rollercoaster: Narrative Tweaks, Twists And Turns! by Aswath Damodaran, Musings on Markets

A slightly abbreviated version of this post appeared in TechCrunch on October 9, 2015, and it is the first of series of three on the ride sharing business. In the second post, I value Lyft, the other ride sharing company, and also look at how ride sharing companies globally are being priced. In the third and final post, I look at ride sharing as a business and at four possible scenarios for its evolution. Those posts will also appear in TechCrunch over the next two weeks and will be reproduced here soon after.

It seems like ages ago, and perhaps even in a far-off galaxy, that I first valued Uber on my blog, but it was in June of 2014. One reason it seems like a lot of time has elapsed is that Uber has managed to be in the news, for good and bad reasons, almost all through this period. With each news story, the response is either rapturous or funereal, depending on the responder’s prior views on the company. Given how eventful this last year has been, I think it is time for me to revisit my estimates, eat some humble pie and redo my valuation.

A look back

I became interested in Uber after reading a news story in June 2014 that indicated that it had been valued at $17 billion in a venture capital round. I posted my first valuation of Uber in June 2014, viewing it as an urban car service company, with local (but not global) networking benefits. Assuming that it would increase the size of the urban car service market by about 40%, while preserving its low capital-investment business model, I valued Uber at just under $6 billion.

While some in the VC community were quick to dismiss the valuation, I will remain grateful to Bill Gurley for a post where he took me to task for having too narrow a vision of Uber’s business model. In his counter narrative, he argued that Uber was not just urban (it could create inroads in suburbia), not just a car service (it was in logistics & transportation) and that it was working with other businesses to create global networking benefits. Since Bill, as an early investor in Uber with access to its internal workings, clearly knew far more about the company than I did, I revalued Uber using his narrative and arrived at $54 billion as the value that reflected the narrative.

I was then taken to task by value investors who took issue with the value changing so dramatically from my assessment to his, and my response was that this was exactly what you should expect, early in the life of a company, where there is room for widely divergent narratives, and values that reflect these divergences. In December 2014, I tried to show this by creating a build-your-own-Uber valuation template, where I let readers choose Uber’s market (urban car service, all car service, logistics or mobility services), the effect it would have on that market’s size (from none to doubling it), the competitive advantages that would determine its cut of the ride receipts (from the existing 20% down to 5%), the networking benefits it would have (none, local, partial global, global) and business model (from its current no capital intensity to higher capital investments), and derived values for Uber, ranging from less than $1 billion to close to $100 billion.

The news keeps coming..

As I noted at the top of this post, it is an understatement to say that Uber has been in the news. Each week brings more Uber stories, with some containing good news for those who believe that the company is on a glide path to a $100 billion IPO, and some containing bad news, which evoke predictions of catastrophe from Uber doubters. For me, the test with each news story is to see how that story affects my narrative for Uber, and by extension, my estimate of its value. In keeping with this perspective, I broke the news stories down based upon narrative parts and valuation inputs.

The Total Market

The news on the car service market has been mostly positive, indicating that the market is broader, bigger, growing faster and more global than I thought it was, even a year ago.

  1. Not just urban and much bigger: While car service remains most popular in the urban areas, it is making inroads into exurbia and suburbia. The evidence for this lies not only in anecdotal evidence and the market capitalizations commanded by ride sharing companies, but also in the numbers that have been leaked by these companies. A presentation to potential investors in the company put Uber’s gross billings for 2015 at $10.84 billion. It is true that these are unofficial and may have some hype built into them, but even if that number over estimates revenues by 20% or 25%, that represents a jump of 400% from 2014 levels.
  2. Drawing in new customers: One reason for the increase in the car service market is that it is drawing in customers who would never have taken been in this market in the first place. While the evidence for this is still mostly anecdotal, another leaked report out of Uber indicates that ride sharing has created a market three to four times larger that the original taxi cab/ limo market in San Francisco, the city with the longest history with new ride sharing services. While San Francisco is unusual in terms of the high proportion of its population that is young, tech-savvy and single, the argument that ride sharing is increasing the size of the market elsewhere, though not to the same magnitude that it did in the Bay Area, seems to be a solid one.
  3. With more diverse offerings: The other reason for the jump in the size of the ride sharing market is that it is no longer just a cab service, but instead has expanded to include alternatives that expand choices, reduce costs (car pooling services) or increase flexibility.
  4. And going global: The biggest stories on ride sharing came out of Asia, as the ride sharing market has exploded in that part of the world, and especially so in India and China. That should really come as no surprise since these countries offers the trifecta for ride sharing opportunities: large urban populations, with limited car ownership and bad mass transit systems.

The bad news on the car service market front has come mostly in the form of taxi driver strikers, regulatory bans and operating restrictions. Sao Paulo may be the latest city to restrict Uber, but it is part of a long list of cities or entire countries that have tried to ban or restrict ride sharing. Even that bad news, though, contains seeds of good news, since the status quo would not be trying so hard to stop the upstarts, if ride sharing was not working. In my view, the attempts by taxi operators, regulators and politicians to stop the ride sharing services reek of desperation, and the markets seem to reflect that. Not only

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