Portrayed as a win, what good is it when a company needs billions more to keep in business?

Staff Writer

Ride-sharing and self-driving vehicle company Uber reportedly has an impending multi-billion investment from Softbank. But what seems on the surface to be great news looks more like a sign that things are really bad and that Uber will have a big challenge surviving, let alone making the big profits that early investors had expected.

It might seem hard to believe that additional investment is a bad sign. In comparison to what has happened, you’d think anything would be good. From a corporate culture that embraced sexual harassment to reported surreptitious attempts to undermine competitors and even reported FBI investigation into possible computer crimes, Uber has taken the “bad boy corporation” image to new heights (or lows). The installation of former Expedia chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi as CEO was supposed to be good news. A leader with a clean record is one thing the organization needed.

The new deal Softbank deal, reported by the Wall Street Journal, should be additional glad tidings. But when you think about what they really represent, it’s more like hearing that a hasty medical procedure is keeping someone alive for now. That’s better than a failure, and yet the future is still dark.

You can move only so far beyond fundamental business models. The U.K. labor tribunal ruling that Uber drivers were actually employees and not contractors was a serious blow. Uber depends on shifting operational costs onto others. Even doing so, it’s been losing an estimated $2 billion a year, at least over the last couple of years.

That would put any company into dire straits. You need a fat piggy bank to fund all that red ink. Uber has never made a penny in profit as it funded expansion and attempts to push into markets with little regard for regulatory realities or compliance. Instead, the money has flowed like crimson flood waters over worn levies.

With a funding deal last September, the total reached $11.6 billion, according to Crunchbase’s tally. That’s before any new Softbank deal. That amount is staggering and utterly insane.

If you have a bucket with a perforated bottom, you can keep it filled with water, so long as you keep adding liquid more quickly than it leaks out the bottom. That’s Uber. Remember the old saying that if the bank lends you $100, it owns you, but if you borrow $100 million, you own the bank? When the sum is $11.6 billion, not only do you own the bank, but you now take possession of everyone employed at the institution and their families to boot.

A company can seek investment to expand and set itself up for an eventual IPO — Khosrowshahi has confirmed that Uber wants to go public in 2019. But the investments should start tapering off, not grow. The business has to become profitable if it’s to be a good bet going forward.

Uber is in a hole and keeps digging further down, with everyone telling themselves that eventually they’ll hit a rock bottom and somehow build a ladder back to the top. But, good gravy, how do you ever justify that amount of investment. Even Amazon is under heavy criticism for thin profits after years of heavy investment, and it at least is profitable.

Uber isn’t close to profitable in the U.S., its biggest market. The difference, as an excellent analysis by Seyi Fabode shows, is that when you insert yourself in the middle of a business transaction, as Uber and other Internet-based platforms do, there had better be an advantage to the actual provider of goods or services to make up lost revenue the middleman takes.

Amazon does this by making its logistics and computing services available. (Plus, it attracts buyers, so also performs a marketing service.) Sellers give up a greater portion of the sales price because they can’t perform the operational activities as well or as cheaply as Amazon.

Uber also attracts users. But it pushes costs off onto the drivers and subsidizes the cost of rides to attract riders, which is why it loses so much. In other words, if you use Uber and the company is ultimately successful, you’ll find few other options and much higher prices than today. Sorry, but those are the realities of the strategy. What, you thought they’d keep subsidizing your convenience forever?

At the beginning of the year, Lyft claimed to be on target for becoming profitable by 2018 — a full year ahead of Uber. That may be true or not, as companies are always ready to reshape reality as part of a psychological game of competition and keeping investors happy.

But say for a moment that Lyft isn’t lying and that even as it subsidizes riders to compete with Uber, it’s found a way to be more efficient and keep closing the gap between expenses and revenue. Then the news that Uber is getting even more money is ultimately good. Uber could use some of the new funding to try driving subsidies up even higher, but that may not be feasible. When you’re losing billions a year, additional funds might allow you to continue. They don’t mean you can open the spigot even more. In my observation and experience over a long time, the money providers keep tight control over management’s spending inclinations.

In addition, the deal reportedly hinges on a number of conditions, including some of the shares coming at below the current market valuation for Uber. You don’t make that kind of deal unless you have to. The signs suggest Uber’s back is against the wall and the clock is running fast.

Perhaps these big money companies are simply smart and prescient. They know there will be long-term value. Then again, there have been some pretty big failures in the past, like the entire global meltdown that showed how badly financial cleverness can falter.