Which Tech Company Is Uber Most Like? Its Answer May Surprise You


By Mike Isaac

SAN FRANCISCO — Pop quiz: Which technology company does Uber, the ride-hailing giant on the cusp of an initial public offering, consider itself to be the most like?

Is it Lyft, its rival North American ride-hailing firm? Nope.

How about Didi Chuxing, Uber’s equivalent in China? Nah.

It’s Amazon, the e-commerce giant.

On the surface, the two companies have little in common. Amazon sells books, toilet paper, toys — pretty much everything, really — and it provides cloud computing services and makes artificially intelligent speakers. In contrast, Uber lets people hail rides through a mobile app.

But just as Amazon began as a modest online bookseller before growing into a digital retailing behemoth, Uber wants people to believe its ride-sharing business is the foundation for a larger “platform” spanning multiple transportation industries. Like Amazon, Uber is no stranger to taking on competitors across many areas to accelerate its growth. And also like Amazon, Uber is willing to lose geysers of cash to achieve its aims.

This Uber-is-like-Amazon argument will grow louder starting on Monday, when the ride-hailing firm’s top executives begin meeting investors on a so-called roadshow ahead of its I.P.O. next month. As part of its pitch, two people close to the company said, Uber plans to say that it is O.K. for it to lose money right now because — just like Amazon, which was unprofitable for years — it needs to burn cash to build out its business for the future.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, has not been shy about the Amazon analogy.

“Cars are to us what books were to Amazon,” he said at a Fortune tech conference in July. “Just like Amazon was able to build this extraordinary infrastructure on the back of books and go into additional categories, you are going to see the same from Uber.”

Uber declined to comment, citing the quiet period before it goes public. Amazon declined to comment on Uber.

Shawn Carolan, a venture capitalist at Menlo Ventures and an early investor in Uber, said the Amazon comparison is apt. “Because the ubiquitous need for transportation is so huge, they’re able to cross-sell different products to their existing customer base,” he said of Uber.

As it goes into its roadshow, Uber faces two main issues. One is that it needs to tell Wall Street a growth story — something to convince investors that its best and most lucrative days are still ahead of it. For years as a private company, that growth came easily as it expanded its service into more and more places across the world.

But nearly a decade later, that growth has slowed. In an amended offering prospectus on Friday, Uber said revenue growth in the first quarter was roughly 20 percent, less than half of what it was a year ago. As ride-hailing has evolved from a luxury business to a mass-market service, competitors have multiplied and the number of people using the service may be starting to max out as Uber finds fewer new locations to expand into.

Uber’s other issue is its lack of profit. The company lost $1.8 billion last year excluding onetime gains; it lost $1 billion or so in the first quarter of this year alone. Because ride-hailing is expensive to operate — Uber continually needs to spend to lure riders and bring on new drivers — some critics have wondered if it will ever be able to make money.

All of this explains why citing Amazon is so useful.

The Seattle-based retailer has always cared more about customers than Wall Street, which meant it was willing to spend aggressively to get ahead of competitors and create new businesses even if investors carped. Then just as Wall Street patience wore thin, Amazon produced profits that underlined the innovation machine that Jeff Bezos, its chief executive, had built over many years.

In 2014, for example, Amazon was hit hard by investors amid slowing sales growth and the introduction of the Fire Phone, a smartphone that landed with a thud. Then a year later, Amazon disclosed how large and profitable its cloud computing business had become. For almost a decade, Amazon had plowed money into building data centers and an army of engineers and sales people. When it finally broke out the details of the cloud business, it turned out that Amazon Web Services had $5 billion a year in sales and was growing almost 50 percent a year, with fat margins.

Now all of Amazon’s investments over time have made it seemingly impregnable in numerous areas, from logistics and delivery to cloud computing. Wall Street is not complaining about Amazon anymore, and it has become one of the world’s most valuable public companies with a market capitalization of about $960 billion.

“Uber, like Amazon, operates with an obsession on customer value over anything else,” said Mitchell Green, a venture capitalist at Lead Edge Capital, which invested in Uber.

Amazon’s experience is meaningful for Uber as it also expands into new businesses to set the stage for future growth.

Those include Uber Eats, its restaurant delivery service. Started in 2014 as an experiment, it became part of a line of thinking that Uber could one day deliver anything and everything to people whenever they wanted it, at the touch of a button. Internally, that idea was called Uber Everything.

While Uber Everything stalled, Uber Eats boomed. The division is on track to book more than $10 billion in deliveries in 2019, up from $6 billion in 2018. It is also projected to take a 27 percent share of the food delivery market by the end of 2019, up from 3 percent in 2016, according to Wedbush Securities.

Uber is also building Uber Freight, a service that matches local truck drivers with shippers in the United States and the European Union. It has contracted with more than 36,000 carriers serving more than 1,000 companies, according to filings, and the business generated more than $125 million in revenue in the final quarter of 2018.

In addition, Uber acquired Jump, an e-bike and scooter company, last year and is working on autonomous vehicles. Mr. Khosrowshahi has said he plans to make Uber the hub for many modes of transportation, from cars to bikes to scooters to cities’ public buses, trains and subway systems.

On Friday, the company also said in its filing that it was working on its payments infrastructure, which is used by more than 91 million people to pay for rides and by the company to instantly pay its drivers.

While it invests in its future, Uber will continue to lose money. So the company needs Wall Street to put up with its spending on these initiatives before they potentially pay off with profit. And it needs investors to be patient as it also works to turn its core ride-hailing business into a moneymaker.

That leads back to the Amazon comparison. If Amazon can pull it off, so the thinking goes, then Uber can, too.

“Just like Amazon sells third-party goods, we are going to also offer third-party transportation services,” Mr. Khosrowshahi said in an interview with Recode last year. “We want to kind of be the Amazon for transportation.”