Saturday, 3 December 2016

Uber: does the business model make economic sense?

Three hard hitting articles published on the "naked capitalism" blog regarding Uber:

Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part One – Understanding Uber’s Bleak Operating Economics

Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part Two: Understanding Uber’s Uncompetitive Costs

Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part Three: Understanding False Claims About Uber’s Innovation and Competitive Advantages

Some snippets:

Uber’s refusal to consider an IPO may best be explained by the recognition that publishing detailed, audited financial data confirming these massive losses and the complete lack of progress towards profitability could undermine public confidence about its inevitable march to industry dominance.

Uber is currently the most highly valued private company in the world. Its primarily Silicon Valley-based investors have a achieved a venture capital valuation of $69 billion based on direct investment of over $13 billion. Uber hopes to earn billions in returns for those investors out of an urban car service industry that historically had razor-thin margins producing a commodity product. Although the industry has been competitively fragmented and structurally stable for over a century, Uber has been aggressively pursuing global industry dominance, in the belief that the industry has been radically transformed into a “winner-take-all” market.

Unlike most startups, Uber did not enter the industry in pursuit of a significant market share, but was explicitly working to drive incumbents out of business and achieve global industry dominance. Uber’s huge valuation was always predicated on the dramatic growth towards global dominance. Thus if Uber’s valuation and industry dominance were to be welfare enhancing, Uber’s efficiency and competitive advantages would need to be overwhelming, and there would need to be clear evidence of Uber’s ability to generate large profits and consumer welfare benefits out of these advantages.

Published financial data shows that Uber is losing more money than any startup in history and that its ability to capture customers and drivers from incumbent operators is entirely due to $2 billion in annual investor subsidies. The vast majority of media coverage presumes Uber is following the path of prominent digitally-based startups whose large initial losses transformed into strong profits within a few years.

This presumption is contradicted by Uber’s actual financial results, which show no meaningful margin improvement through 2015 while the limited margin improvements achieved in 2016 can be entirely explained by Uber-imposed cutbacks to driver compensation. It is also contradicted by the fact that Uber lacks the major scale and network economies that allowed digitally-based startups to achieve rapid margin improvement.

Still one article to go in this series: "The next article in this series will discuss that Uber’s strategy for earning returns on its $13 billion investment was always based on eliminating both competition, and any regulatory/legal obstacles to the exploitation of anti-competitive market power."

KWAP has invested an undisclosed amount in Uber, so for their sake we must hope that the articles picture a too bleak future of the economics of Ubers business.


  1. Let's hope the business model is successful/profitable - Uber makes it considerably cheaper/easier to get around!

  2. Yes, the consumer might be the winner, "subsidized" by the VCs, or rather VCs investors. The same for many delivery services, e-commerce platforms, etc, offering big discounts to conquer the market.