Uber: What Investors Need to Know Before Its IPO

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It wasn't all that long ago when you had to hail a taxi to get around in a city. And if you needed a ride to the airport, your only options were to take a cab, drive yourself and pay to leave your car in the airport lot, or try to convince a friend to drop everything so that they would take you.

But then came Uber.

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In 2009, Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick came up with the idea after they were traveling in Paris and couldn't find a taxi to drive them around. The idea was simple: Create an app that allows users to tap a button on their smartphone and have a car show up -- just for them -- a few minutes later.

The company has since evolved into a ridesharing juggernaut spanning 60 countries. And it has added a slew of new businesses -- including Uber Eats and Uber Freight -- and committed to developing its own autonomous vehicles (AVs).

But Uber has been mired in problems during its short history. Kalanick, the company's co-founder, was a controversial CEO and was ousted back in 2017. The company faced allegations of widespread sexism beginning when a former Uber engineer wrote in 2017 about her experiences and the company's work environment. Uber began an internal investigation, which resulted in more than 20 employees being fired. But the company nonetheless is reported to be under investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for gender discrimination as well.

On the project side, Uber's self-driving cars are under increased scrutiny after one pedestrian was struck and killed by an Uber AV in 2018.

Despite its rocky past, Uber, which is now run by former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, is still a powerhouse in its field. And it continues to expand into new transportation and delivery services that will likely keep the company growing for years to come. Here are some of the most important aspects of Uber to consider.

Uber's financials, in a nutshell

Uber recently disclosed some financial data showing that revenue grew 43% year over year to $11.3 billion in 2018. Additionally, the company's gross bookings for the full year (what Uber makes before it pays its drivers) reached $50 billion, up 45% from 2017.

What's impressive about this growth is that the company's losses are slowing. Uber's losses totaled $1.8 billion last year, down from $2.2 billion in 2017. Significant losses at this stage for a fast-growing company aren't unusual. For example, Uber's biggest rival in the United States, Lyft, had a net loss of $911.3 million last year on revenue of just $2.1 billion.

It's worth mentioning, however, that Uber's sales are slowing on a sequential basis. In the fourth quarter of 2018, sales were up 25% year over year, but that's not as strong as its 38% increase in the third quarter. Investors only have a snapshot of Uber's financials to consider, but the slowdown might not be too much to worry about, especially when considering that in the most recently reported quarter, gross bookings jumped 37% to $14.2 billion.

Uber's key growth opportunities

Uber isn't content to only be a ridesharing company. In fact, about 13% of the company's sales in the third quarter of 2018 came from its food delivery service, Uber Eats. This business is likely to become an increasingly important part of Uber, and the company contends that it is the "largest online food-delivery business outside of China, based on gross bookings." But according to a third-party analytics firm, DoorDash surpassed Uber Eats in U.S. sales toward the end of 2018.

Uber Eats represents one of the company's best ways to diversify its revenue stream given the increasingly crowded and competitive ridesharing market. The food delivery industry will be worth an estimated $24.5 billion by 2023, and Uber is already a very strong contender.

But the company is also positioning itself as a broader transportation platform. Uber bought bike-sharing company JUMP last year, and is pushing into freight transportation by pairing shippers and truckers through its Uber Freight business. That isn't a large part of the company's business right now, but it shows how committed Uber is to using its brand and platform to find new ways to make money.

Finally, Uber has aggressively pursued AVs as part of its future. The company has encountered major problems with its self-driving car technology, including reports in early 2017 from The New York Times indicating that Uber's self-driving SUVs were failing to identify traffic signals and running through several red lights.

Even worse, one of Uber's self-driving vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018. Uber halted its self-driving efforts after that accident, in which the human technician overseeing the autonomous vehicle was watching a video on her smartphone rather than keeping an eye on the vehicle's surroundings. But Uber has since restarted the project and has committed to better safety standards.

By 2040, IHS Markit predicts, more than 33 million AVs will be sold annually across the globe. And Intel believes that a $7 trillion passenger economy will emerge by 2050. Uber is trying to plan for a future where self-driving vehicles play a bigger role in transportation.

Can Uber continue to defend its market position?

There's no denying that Uber is a ridesharing leader in the U.S. with virtually 60% of the market (Lyft takes up the rest). With operations around the world, Uber has already made huge gains building out its brand.

Its early lead in the ridesharing market in the U.S. makes it unlikely that Lyft or any other company will be able to overtake it for many years. While Lyft is a strong competitor, it falls far short in matching Uber's number of riders and revenue.Uber has about 75 million monthly active riders and generated $50 billion in bookings in 2018. Meanwhile, Lyft had just 30 million riders for all of last year and $8.1 billion in bookings.

Although its position in the U.S. is secure, Uber still faces hurdles with its international business. The company found this out a few years ago when it began building out services in China, spending $2 billion over a two-year period trying to take on the largest ridesharing company in the country, DiDi Chuxing. Uber eventually left China and took a 17.7% stake in DiDi in a deal worth about $35 billion.

China helped prove what other ridesharing companies have come to discover: Locally run services tend to do better in their own regions than companies from outside markets. That realization likely played into Uber's move to purchase its Middle East rival, Careem Networks FZ, for $3.1 billion.

Investors should remember that there's nothing fundamentally unique about Uber's business. Other such companies will likely emerge, but Uber has an advantage in being one of the first to market and one of the largest. Its head start is what should help it maintain a healthy distance from its competitors for years to come.

Uber will continue to face regulation and lawsuits

All large companies face the specter of regulations and lawsuits, and Uber has had its fair share as a young company. The attention it garners likely won't decrease with a public filing.

Uber faced some intense scrutiny back in 2017 after The New York Times reported that the company was using deceptive practices with its app by creating a fake version of it, called "Greyball," that would help the company avoid being caught by government officials as it operated in restricted cities.

This move played a part in London authorities revoking Uber's license to operate in the city, though a judge recently allowed the company to have a temporary license. London is one of Uber's largest markets, which makes any legal pressure there a big deal. But Uber faces other challenges as well.

The company has received numerous lawsuits from drivers who want to be classified as employees instead of their current status as independent contractors. The latter allows for more flexibility for drivers but doesn't provide them with benefits including health insurance. Uber in March reached a settlement with drivers from Massachusetts and California, agreeing to pay out $20 million without changing their status.

Uber faces further regulation when it comes to driver wages. The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission recently issued new rules for ridesharing companies that require drivers to receive a minimum hourly wage of $17.22. Regulations like this aren't likely to end anytime soon, and new rules could change how Uber runs its business and how much money it's able to earn.

What investors should remember

Admittedly, Uber has a lot going for it. The company dominates the U.S. ridesharing market, its brand recognition is virtually unrivaled, and it's moving into new growth businesses outside of its core.

But as with any IPO, it's best for investors to wait a little while to buy shares after the company goes public. IPOs usually underperform the market for a few years, which means that anyone swept up in the hype will likely be disappointed -- at least temporarily.

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