Weekly readings – 11th January 2020

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Analyst, analyze yourself

The environmental impact of today’s transport types

How to lose a monopoly: Microsoft, IBM and anti-trust

Cities Struggle to Boost Ridership With ‘Uber for Transit’ Schemes

How a plant saved a Japanese island

Uber incorporated transit ticketing into its platform

Uber rolled out the feature first in Denver last summer, allowing the city residents to buy public transit tickets straight from its platform. Apparently, it has been a positive experiment so far. The company reported an average growth of 42% each week from May to the end of June 2019. In an interview with Bloomberg Technology today, the Head of Uber Transit said that the feature’s user growth in Denver was 15% week over week. Judging by the difference of the two growth figures, I guess that the latter was taken over a longer time period and a bigger base. Furthermore, Uber announced today that it would bring the ticketing feature to Las Vegas.

Uber also said that the number of repeat ticket purchases has increased every week since ticketing launched. As of the week of June 24th, approximately 25 percent of tickets sold were purchased by users who had previously purchased tickets on the app.

Source: The Verge

I think adding the ticketing option to the platform makes sense.

In the beginning, Uber under Kalanick tried to grow exponentially by reaching as many domestic and international markets as possible. After the change in the leadership, Uber scaled back its presence overseas and sold unprofitable businesses in South East Asia and China. If it couldn’t expand geographically, how growth could be obtained? By going vertically and more deeply in the existing market.

Hence, Uber offers additionally services like Uber Eats, Uber Bike, Uber Freight or Uber Fly. Uber’s transit ticketing is another way to move towards the goal of being a one-stop shop for transportation.

I used to rely on public transit in Omaha a lot. The local bus operator’s website offers a detailed schedule of what time buses approximately will come and leave. However, it doesn’t provide an estimate arrival time and the user interface pitifully leaves a lot to be desired. Map applications such as Apple Maps and Google Maps are fairly helpful in tracking bus movements and giving an estimated arrival time. But it doesn’t provide a comparison between options such as public transit and an Uber ride. Uber’s value propositions lie in its household name, a comparison between options in terms of time and cost, cashless payments and convenience. If you can help users eliminate one click or action on the phone during a user journey, it can be an added value.

Source: Uber

It is unclear whether and how Uber has so far managed to earn revenue and profit from the new feature, though the Head of Uber Transit confirmed that it was a revenue-generating vehicle. Even if there is no money to be made yet, when the application attracts more usage, users and traffic, it will find ways to make more money later on.

Another benefit that I suspect the new feature will bring to the table is to act as an anchor option for its rides. An anchor offer is one that is presented to make the truly primary offer more attractive. It’s similar to readers, after seeing a package of online and offline access to a newspaper have the same price as the exclusive digital access, choosing the combination package. As you can see in the screenshot above, even though the transit option comes with a saving of $8, it will cost a rider 20 minutes more. In some situations, riders may be more motivated to choose an Uber ride, instead of waiting for a public transit.

Uber may not make any money when it sells bus and subway tickets through its app, but it is seeing an uptick in business as a result. Since Uber launched its transit planning feature in January, Uber trips in Denver that start or end at a transit station have grown 11.6 percent. This helps bolster Uber’s claim that it is helping solve the first mile / last mile challenge that plagues many cities.

Source: The Verge

So the transit option is just one way in which we are increasing our relevance to a greater number of consumers on a global basis. And we are seeing it in higher engagement in the app specifically with London and some of the other areas where we’ve grown transit.

Source: Uber’s Q2 Earnings Call Transcript

Furthermore, The Verge reported a concerted effort by Uber to appear less contentious towards public transit. Working with various stakeholders in the markets in which they operate will earn Uber some goodwill. For a business endlessly engaged in legal issues with local authorities across the world, some goodwill is definitely helpful.

Credibility of SoftBank called into question

SoftBank has been known for being a big money player. Their investment fund, the Vision Fund, worth of $100 billion is made of mostly money from the Middle Eastern governments. They have poured money into startups around the world, including big names such as ByteDance, WeWork, Uber, Slack, Flipkart and Brandless, as well as established companies such as Sprint in the US.

By all means, being able to the tune of $100 billion is a massive undertaking. It shows the trust of investors in Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, and his team. However, three years after the money was raised, there have been concerning signs of SoftBank’s investment strategy and execution.

SoftBank’s most infamous flop is WeWork. After pouring $9 billion into the startup, the Japanese firm had to see WeWork’s IPO scrapped, its CEO and founder ousted and to plan another $10 billion bailout at a valuation that is significantly lower than what Son and his team expected (per WSJ). It’s mind-blowing that billions of dollars were invested with what seemed to be insufficient scrutiny and due diligence

SoftBank executives were alarmed by what they found looking deeper into the company’s financials, people familiar with the matter said.

Source: WSJ

In addition to WeWork, other high profile investments such as Uber and Slack haven’t met expectation either. Uber had to scale back its valudation upon going public and since being on the stock market, neither Uber nor Slack has been trading above its initial price

Source: Financial Times

Six years ago, SoftBank bought a controlling stake in Sprint. This paragraph below from CNBC summarized how the move is six years later

SoftBank successfully engineered a sale of Sprint for $6.62 per share to T-Mobile in 2018. (State attorneys general are in court attempting to quash the deal on grounds that it will unacceptably decrease competition.) But SoftBank acquired its majority stake in Sprint for $7.65 a share in 2013. When SoftBank bought Sprint, it was the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier by subscribers. When SoftBank sold, Sprint was a distant fourth behind VerizonAT&T and T-Mobile.

But Sprint’s annual revenue has shrunk since SoftBank took over, from $35.3 billion in 2012 to $33.6 billion in the latest fiscal year. Recently, subscriber numbers have been dropping, and the company recorded a $1.9 billion loss last year. Still, Claure made over $40 million in compensation from 2015 through 2017, primarily because of stock awards that resulted from keeping the shares above $8 per share, which was only marginally higher than the price SoftBank paid in 2013.

Sprint even acknowledged in April it didn’t have a sustainable path forward in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission, asking for the regulator to approve its sale.

“Sprint is in a very difficult situation that is only getting worse,” the company said in the letter. “Sprint is losing customers — which then reduces revenues and cash flow — further limiting its ability to invest in its network and service its debt. Simply put, Sprint is not on a sustainable competitive path.”

Source: CNBC

Furthermore, troubles have surfaced at other startups that SoftBank invested in. Fair, an online car-leasing startup, announced that it would lay off 40% of its workforce this week. Wag, an on-demand dog walking firm, laid off more than 50 employees this year already. Brandless saw declining revenue by 54% compared to the same period last year and planned to cut marketing budget.

On the other side of all the problems that hit SoftBank lately, the Japanese firm does have success in the form of its investments in Alibaba and Flipkart. Plus, its capital allowed ideas and founders to come into life. Nonetheless, the struggles at companies listed above do call into question its hype, strategy, execution and credibility. When you want to raise an unprecedented amount of money and invest in an unprecedented fashion, you are put under unprecedented scrutiny and expectations.

Book: Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber

Having a lot of time on my hands during bus and train rides to Chicago and back, I decided to read this book. It turned out to be a really interesting and good book about Uber’s history and the list of events that led to where it is now. The growth at all cost mentality and the toxic culture both catapulted Uber into the stratosphere of startup valuation and cost the ride sharing company millions of dollars and a litany of problems. Uber was drowned in so many scandals that it was mind-blowing to see how the governance allowed that to happen. The part in which Benchmark and its allies did everything they could to oust Kalanick was fascinating. If you are interested in one of the most interesting startups of recent times, then I highly recommend it

At the end of the week, Uber’s finance team added it all up. The entire “X to the x” celebration cost Uber more than $25 million in cash – more than twice the amount of Uber’s Series A round of venture capital funding.

The reality was much less noble. As Uber’s insurance costs grew exponentially, the “Safe Rides Fee” was devised to add $1 of pure margin to each trip, according to employees who worked on the addition. That meant for each trip taken in the United States, Uber took in an extra dollar in case. The drivers, of course, got no share of the extra buck. That number added up to hundreds of millions of dollars over years of operation, a sizeable new line of income. After the money was collected, it was never earmarked specifically for improving safety.

When Uber cut rates in 2015, rather than worry about the effects lower income would have on drivers, Kalanick was giddy. To Travis, lowering prices meant raising demand. Growth would explode again, and growth – not the concerns of his drivers – was Travis’ top priority.

It didn’t matter to Kalanick that drivers were logging more trips and picking up more people – basically doing twice the work – to make the same amount of money. It didn’t matter that drivers were commuting absurd distances to busy cities like San Francisco – often from places two hours away, but occasionally as many as six hours away – sleeping in their cars overnight on side streets and empty parking lots for the chance at more rides per hour. It didn’t matter than San Francisco lacked sufficient public bathrooms for drivers, forcing them to find coffee shop bathrooms, or, more often make do elsewhere. And it certainly didn’t matter that drivers pulling dayslong shifts were overworked and under-slept.

Most importantly for Son, SoftBank would purchase those shares at a steep discount from Uber’s valuation earlier in the year. Son and Khosrowshahi settled on a purchase price of $33 per share, pegging Uber’s valuation at about $48 billion – a steal for SoftBank. That meant that the scandals of the previous twelve months had knocked about $20 billion off Uber’s private market value.

To keep the price propped up on paper, the investors did some sleight-of-hand maneuvering. SoftBank would purchase $1.25 billion in additional, newly issued shares at Uber’s previous existing valuation of $68.5 billion. The premise was absurd; the secondary market clearly valued Uber’s shares at far lower than they were before Uber’s 2017 from hell. Yet in the eyes of the market, the maneuver worked; Uber’s valuation would remain at $68.5 billion.

One particularly raucous evening, a bunch of Uber Thailand employees, were up late drinking and snorting coke, a semiregular occurrence at that office. One female Uber employee with the group had decided she didn’t want to do drugs with her colleagues, and tried to abstain. Before she could leave, her manager grabbed the woman and shook her, bruising her. Then he grabbed the back of her head and shoved her face-first into the pile of cocaine on the table, forcing her to snort the drugs in front of them.

The New York office was largely defined by its machismo, sexism and aggression. Sao Paolo saw angry managers throwing coffee cups across the room or screaming at employees when they weren’t happy with results.

AB5 threatens the existence of gig companies like Uber & Lyft

Yesterday, Gizmodo reported that AB5, a bill that is aimed to force gig companies to treat their workers as employees instead of independent contractors as they are now, passed California’s Senate Appropriations Committee and will go to a full vote in the Senate next month. If passed, it is expected to be signed into law by the Governor.

AB5 stems from a decision by a California Supreme Court decision in 2018, which essentially decrees that “Workers must be treated as employees, not independent contractors, if their jobs are central to a company’s core business or if the bosses direct the way the work is done.”, according to LA Times. According to the ruling, ride-hailing businesses cannot exist without drivers and drivers have to follow certain standards to be able to operate on their platforms. Hence, they should be treated as employees.

Ride-sharing companies exist as middlemen between riders and drivers, managing the supply of drivers and demand for rides. Drivers no longer have to drive around to pick up riders. Surge pricing gives drivers incentives to go out at unpopular hours like early in the morning. The argument that these companies make against AB5 is that drivers have flexibility to choose when and where to work, and as a result, shouldn’t be classified as employees. Well, even as employees, drivers can surely negotiate with Uber or Lyft that right. One of my colleagues moved from Omaha to Austin to work remotely so that she can be with her husband. What is at stake here is the bottom lines.

Gig companies like Uber or Lyft haven’t made any money despite treating their workers as independent contractors. If the proposal is signed into law, it will mean higher operational costs as these companies will need to pay minimum wages and be responsible for other benefits to their employees. Any chance of profitability will become even slimmer.

To be fair to Uber and Lyft, what they have done so far is perfectly legal as up to now there is no law that regulates the industry. They just take advantage of the situation and the bargaining power that they have over drivers. On the driver side, each cannot fight with these companies. They need lawmakers.

Regarding lawmakers, they have reasons to help both drivers and ride-sharing companies, especially in the US. Regulators that are more concerned about the well-being of drivers, their constituents as well, will support proposals such as AB5. Those who are more concerned about the power of lobbyists and about staying in power will fight against AB5. Since California is a progressive state, there seems to be more proponents than opponents of AB5. I am not sure the same can be said in other less progressive states or the federal administration.

Neither am I sure that collectively laws such as AB5 will benefit our society, but personally I am for it. Drivers should be protected against the abuse of these gig companies. Eventually, it has been proven that there is demand for services such as Uber or Lyft. I am confident there will be startups wanting to tap into the demand. As for Uber or Lyft, they will either adapt and innovate to survive and thrive or fall into the category of “thanks for being the trailblazers, but perhaps your time is up” companies.