Uber is wildly unprofitable, suggest that prices will rise once they've succeeded at monopolizing the industry: https://t.co/m3HB3q5YZV pic.twitter.com/taXcHfD2g5— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) December 1, 2016
There are a few different issues that need to be teased apart here. Firstly, there is the fact that Uber is continually launching its service in more cities and countries. Nobody should expect the service in a new city to be instantly profitable. The total figures that Kaminska has obtained raise further questions - whether some cities are more profitable for Uber than others, whether there is a repeating pattern of investment returns as a city service moves from loss-making into profit. Like many companies in rapid growth phase, Uber has managed to convince its investors that they are funding growth into something that has good prospects of becoming profitable.
Profitability in Silicon Valley seems to be predicated on monopoly, as argued by Peter Thiel, leveraging network effects to establish barriers to entry. This is related to the concept of a retail destination - establishing the illusion that there is only one place to go. Kaminska quotes an opinion by Piccioni and Kantorovich, to the effect that it wouldn't take much to set up a rival to Uber, but this opinion needs to be weighed against the fact that Uber has already seen off a number of competitors, including Sidecar. Sidecar was funded by Richard Branson, who asserted that he was not putting his money into a "winner-takes-all market". It now looks as if he was mistaken, as Om Malik (writing in the New Yorker) respectfully points out.
But is Uber economically sustainable even as a monopoly? Kaminska has raised a number of questions about the underlying business model, including the increasing need for capital investment which could erode margins further. Meanwhile, Uber will almost certainly leverage its cheapness and popularity with passengers to push for further deregulation. So the survival of this model may depend not only on a continual supply of innocent investors and innocent drivers, but also innocent politicians who fall for the deregulation agenda.
Philip Boxer, Managing over the Whole Governance Cycle (April 2006)
Izabella Kaminska, Why Uber’s capital costs will creep ever higher (FT Alphaville, 3 June 2016). Myth-busting Uber's valuation (FT Alphaville, 1 December 2016). The taxi unicorn’s new clothes (FT Alphaville, 13 September 2016) FREE - REGISTRATION REQUIRED
Om Malik, In Silicon Valley Now, It’s Almost Always Winner Takes All (New Yorker,
30 December 2015)
Brian Piccioni and Paul Kantorovich, On Unicorns, Disruption, And Cheap Rides (BCA, 30 August 2016) BCA CLIENTS ONLY
Peter Sims, Why Peter Thiel is Dead Wrong About Monopolies (Medium, 16 September 2014)
Peter Thiel, Competition Is for Losers (Wall Street Journal, 12 September 2014)
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