Riding the Gig Economy

Case 8 Uber Riding the Gig Economy In many ways, the gig economy has begun to revolutionize how people consume products and services. Companies such as Airbnb, for exam- ple, provide an online marketplace that connects would be renters with people seeking accommodations and eliminates the “middleman” in 192 countries worldwide. Companies following a “gig” approach are grow- ing in number and popularity, with more appearing every day. The list is huge and includes-just to name a few-Lyft, which connects drivers with passengers, Turo, which connects rental cars with customers in need of a car; and OpenAirplane, RVshare, Sailo, Boatsetter, Parking Panda, Closet Collective, and Grubhub. We are seeing a revolution in the way the “mar- ket” functions… or are we? Uber Perhaps, currently, the best known of the gig companies making big waves in the press and in the new economy is Uber. And it all started because no one would give them (Uber's founders) a ride. In 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp were in Paris and couldn't get a cab. Their experience led to the development of an extremely con- venient, relatively safe, and also rather inexpensive app-enabled online driver service. Founded in 2009 and currently operating in 63 countries and 700+ cities, Kalanick and Camp's simple solution- Uber-has become a cultural phenomenon. Uber connects custom- ers in need of a ride with “gig” workers who pick them up. The model is simple and extremely streamlined. Uber provides the market and takes a cut of the proceeds. No cash is exchanged between drivers and passengers. Everything is handled by Uber, whose app-enabled market has changed the way people think about transportation. Untraditional Financial Models Following in the path of other well-known new economy companies, Uber has continued to generate eye-popping revenues-estimates put Uber's revenues in excess of $11 billion in 2018-its balance sheet is startling, but in the wrong way. Although these kinds of sales numbers are astonishing, particularly for a company that is only 10 years old, they have to be understood in light of the company's massive financial losses during the same period. Uber is estimated to have lost nearly 53 bil- lion since its inception (exact figures are difficult to calculate because, as a privately held company, Uber is not required to disclose its finan- cials). It is estimated that Uber spends $1.55 for every dollar in revenue it generates. So, although Uber generates huge annual sales numbers, it also spends a lot of money on drivers' pay, incentives, and bonuses. What Is Uber Really Doing? Uber is spending a substantial amount of money on technology. These investments include the recent strategic purchase of Geometric Intelligence–a start-up cofounded by academic researchers focused on making artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can navigate in the real world-perhaps hints at the company's longer-term strategic intent. This intent becomes more apparent when one considers that the company's investments in Al coincide with the fact that Uber is cur- rently running fleets of self-driving cars. These vehicles are operating on the streets of California and in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Uber is actively and aggressively testing its Al assets on the same city streets on which you and your friends and family drive every day. The city streets have essentially become a laboratory for Uber to road-test the machinery of its long-term vision. Given these kinds of investments, does this long-term vision include human drivers? What's the Long-Term Vision? Although some estimates put the number of drivers currently employed by Uber at upward of 150,000, the company's recent investments in Al navigation technologies, and self-driving cars suggest that this particular gig employer may not be in it for the long term, at least as far as opportu- nities for human drivers are concerned. What do you think the new CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, has in mind for the future of Uber? What role do you think he wants this emerging giant in the mass transit market to play moving forward? Do you think that investments in Al and self-driving cars are a good signal for future human employment with Uber? Why or why not? Is Uber the long-term answer for gig employees? Case Analysis Questions 3. Problem Solving You've been hired on by Uber's CEO Dara Khos- rowshahi as the Chief Financial Officer and asked to address the issue of huge quarterly losses, despite massive sales revenues. The Uber fleet is not likely to be “self-driving” for at least another five years, and it isn't clear whether the current model will be sustainable until then, particularly given increasing competitive pressures to raise driv- ers' rates from companies such as Lyft. What steps could you take to address these competing pressures–market pressures to raise rates and the need to generate profits? 4. Further Research Look into some of the more well-known gig companies currently making headlines in the financial press. Are any of these companies generating a profit? What factors are at work here? How have these profitable companies organized to become profitable? Are any of these companies moving toward models that remove the “human factor”—that mechanize in the way that it looks like Uber could be seeking to mechanize? How are the financial values of some of these gig companies being determined? In light of the huge losses experienced by some gig economies, what factors are likely playing a role in these financial evaluations? Are people speculating on an unknown future?