Amid much anticipation, the infamous ride-hailing giant and gig economy darling Uber floated on the stock market on May 10th. By all accounts it was a pretty miserable debut: Uber’s shares were priced at $45 (implying an $82bn valuation– well below the £120bn suggested by Morgan Stanley last year), but within two days had tumbled 18% to $37.10, and at the point of writing is still hovering around the $42 mark.
True, Uber may have had some bad luck, including uncertainty following Lyft’s disastrous IPO in March, and a plunge in the stock market following Trump’s comments about China. But the IPO is also a comment on Uber’s business model and the gig economy more generally.
Like many companies in the gig economy (where firms match workers willing to offer services with consumers willing to pay for them), Uber is far from profitable: operating losses widened to $3bn last year, with slowing revenue growth. But like most fast-growing platform or network-based businesses, Uber has strategically forgone market share over short-term profitability. To start turning a profit, Uber will likely have to raise prices and pay drivers less (or phase them out entirely, as suggested by their autonomous driving division).
Some commentators argue that Uber and Lyft’s IPO spells danger for the gig economy, but it’s more complex than that. Platform-based business with limited physical assets have exploded into every sector, and youonly have to look to Airbnb or TaskRabbit to prove that the model can work financially. More and more of us are choosing gig economy work, enabled by technology and a desire for more flexible working conditions.
Uber is facing numerous challenges, particularly in its ride-hailing division where driver relations are likely to worsen. But CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has proposed an ambitious plan to tackle an $12 trillion addressable markets in future transportation – including personal mobility, food delivery, shipping and drone-enabled logistics. The reality is that data-driven network companies like Uber go wider than the ‘gig’ economy, but it remains to be seen if Khosrowshahi can pull it off.