By steamrolling local taxi operations in cities all over the world and cultivating cheerleaders in the business press and among Silicon Valley libertarians, Uber has managed to create an image of inevitability and invincibility. But the company just posted another quarter of jaw-dropping losses — this time over $1 billion, after $4.5 billion of losses in 2017. How much is hype and how much is real?
The notion that Uber, the most highly valued private company in the world, is a textbook “bezzle” — John Kenneth Galbraith’s coinage for an investment swindle where the losses have yet to be recognized — is likely to come as a surprise to its many satisfied customers. But as we’ll explain, relying on the extensive work of transportation expert Hubert Horan, Uber’s investors have been buying your satisfaction in the form of massive subsidies of services. What has made Uber a good deal for users makes it a lousy investment proposition. Uber has kept that recognition at bay via minimal and inconsistent financial disclosures combined with a relentless and so far effective public-relations campaign depicting Uber as following the pattern of digitally based start-ups whose large initial losses transformed into strong profits in a few years.
Comparisons of Uber to other storied tech wunderkinder show Uber is not on the same trajectory. No ultimately successful major technology company has been as deeply unprofitable for anywhere remotely as long as Uber has been. After nine years, Uber isn’t within hailing distance of making money and continues to bleed more red ink than any start-up in history. By contrast, Facebook and Amazon were solidly cash-flow positive by their fifth year.