As global ride-hailing startup Uber heads toward a possible IPO this year, Wall Street’s eyes will be on its financials. Revenues have continued to grow quickly for the eight-year-old Silicon Valley company, but the bottom line isn’t pretty: Uber was on track to lose about $3 billion in 2016 on net revenue of $5.5 billion, according to Bloomberg News. That’s remarkable for a startup that has raised more than $11 billion with scant capital costs — it does not own a global fleet of cars or much of other hard assets. Uber itself is valued at more than $60 billion.
Can Uber slow its rate of cash burn before losses start to threaten the company’s viability? On the surface, stemming the red ink doesn’t sound so hard. Since it does not own vehicles or employ drivers, the company saves a fortune in capital and workforce costs. But Wharton experts point to other substantial costs: In helping to create an innovative new market — the sharing economy — Uber spent a fortune training, recruiting and subsidizing drivers, giving away free rides so consumers would get hooked on the service, setting up a global system of local and regional offices as well as hiring lawyers to deal with lawsuits and regulators.
“I think Uber thought, ‘We have this platform — this app, this technology — that can be leveraged anywhere in the world, so let’s just go and conquer the world,’” says Wharton management professor Exequiel Hernandez, who wrote two case studies on Uber for his classes, based on interviews with executives. “What Uber underestimated were the costs that didn’t have to do with their technology and their business model, costs that have to do with the politics of being legitimate, [addressing] regulatory resistance and even cultural differences across markets.”