RIP Uber (but not for the reasons you think)
Uber is doomed, but it's not for the reasons you think.
It looks like the company will fail because of a never-ending series of PR disasters, lapses in judgment and downright malicious behavior.
For example, last week's news that Uber had concealed a data breach — hackers stole 57 million riders' and drivers' names, email addresses and telephone numbers, and Uber paid a $100,000 ransom but didn't tell anybody — is just the latest slap in the face for the troubled ride-hailing company.
Is Uber sliding down the back side of the mountain? / Uber
Even months after the board forced out bad boy co-founder CEO Travis Kalanick the hits keep on coming. The new guy — Dara Khosrowshahi — can't catch a break as he tries to reform Uber's sexist bro culture, penchant for ignoring the law and lying about things like data breaches and knowingly leasing Hondas to drivers in Singapore that tend to catch on fire.
If you're a marketer, then this is a classic brand-in-peril story. Uber is losing ground to Lyft and other competitors because it is losing the enthusiastic fandom of riders everywhere. Khosrowshahi is bailing a sinking ship with a grapefruit spoon, and the Uber brand is unlikely to recover.
But the reality is that the data breach story is a gift from God for Uber because it's yet another jazz hands distraction from the company's fatally flawed business model.
Uber isn't doomed because the brand has taken a hit; it's doomed because the business cannot survive once its multi-billion dollar VC war chest starts to empty. (The company has burned through much of the $15 billion it has raised, and it was down to $7 billion by June).
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Uber's ambition is to be a total replacement for the private car, and if it achieved that ambition the company might survive. However, our work on the Future of Transportation has shown that most people use Uber selectively — to get home from a bar when they've been drinking or to get home from an airport at the end of a trip. Indeed, only a very small percentage (2%) of people use Uber and its competitors regularly.
Don't get me wrong: once people try Uber (or Lyft, et cetera) it has a transformative, asteroid-hitting-the-planet impact on how they think about transportation. Consideration for ditching the car in favor of Uber doubles from 20% to 40% for that thin slice of people who have use Uber regularly (2%) or just sometimes (14%).
Even this happy story is a mirage because Uber massively subsidizes the cost of its rides in order to keep prices low and bribe riders into using its service instead of taxis or their own cars. As my friend Peter Horan quips, "Uber is the greatest ongoing transfer of wealth from investors to consumers ever — or at least since the first internet bubble of the 90s."
You don't have to take my word for this: transportation analyst Hubert Horan (no relation to Peter) has written a magisterial, devastating, ten-part analysis of Uber's flawed model called "Can Uber Ever Deliver?" for the economics blog Naked Capitalism. (The blog's navigation is, ahem, challenging, so Googling the series title is the fastest way to get there.) Horan convincingly shows that Uber subsidizes almost 60 percent of its average ride.
The math is eye-popping. A $10 Uber ride actually costs the company $25, so the price difference between taking Uber and a taxi is not due to the company's efficiency or logistics — it's due to a liberal application of venture capital. Every time you take Uber you should silently multiply the fare by 250 percent, and then ask yourself, "would I pay that much?"
Uber has three constituencies — drivers, riders and investors — but only the riders get a good deal. I chat with Uber drivers all over the world. The happiest ones do it part time to earn a little extra money. The people driving for Uber full time grumble as it gets harder and harder to find riders because Uber is flooding every market to keep supply higher than demand.
If drivers give up in disgust, then it's game over for Uber.
This leads me to self-driving cars, in which Uber has been investing frantically. Former CEO Kalanick described self-driving cars as an "existential" issue for Uber, but the idea that driverless cars will solve Uber's problems is just another mirage.
Right now, Uber pushes the cost of vehicles, gas, maintenance, and insurance onto the drivers, some of who have to work for a week or more each month to make their nut before they start earning a profit. Take out the driver and all those costs drop smack onto Uber's plate.
If Uber merely provides the software to power another company's self-driving fleet (the sort of thing suggested by Uber's relationship with Daimler), then the slender revenue on a SaaS (software as a service) play is unlikely to make the company profitable or its investors happy.
It gets worse. Although Uber arguably has a superior routing algorithm, the riding experience is now a commodity. There is zero difference between Uber and Lyft, as evidenced by the fact that so many drivers work for both companies. A local knockoff can materialize overnight, powered by a smart phone app that connects to GPS, Google Maps and a credit card.
Uber expects loyalty from its riders but doesn't do anything to be loyal in return. It has no frequent rider program like what airlines do for frequent fliers, and the credit card that Uber announced in October is a way to compile more data about its riders rather than provide a service for them.
Right now, Softbank is jockeying to invest billions in Uber. If the deal goes through, then it will buy the Japanese company a substantial piece of a company doomed to fail. It will also buy new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi time, but it won't be enough.
With another several billion dollars of venture capital to burn through, Uber will continue expanding, subsidizing its rides, creating more jazz hands distractions for investors and the media like Uber Eats, and fruitlessly searching for a better business model that can juggle the needs of riders, drivers and investors.
It's useful to distinguish between Uber the company and uber the verb. The verb is here to stay: "let's uber to the bar; I don't want to drive." We'll never abandon frictionless ride hailing where you press a button on your smartphone, a driver magically appears to take you where you want to go, and you know the price ahead of time. For the noun, Uber the company, things are not so permanent.
During the heyday of Myspace, nobody could have predicted Facebook. Likewise, nobody knows what will come after Uber.
It just won't be Uber.