Is Uber really worth $40 Billion? What is value?

Today it was discovered that Uber raised about $1.2 Billion in its latest round of VC funding. This puts Uber at the stratospheric valuation of $40 billion. This valuation makes Uber worth more than companies like Haliburton, CBS, Yum! Brand (Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC), Northrup Grumman Corp, Kraft Foods, and basically 72% of the Fortune 500, according to this Fortune article, that means there are only 140 companies in the world valued more than Uber. On the other hand, its revenue is only $400 million which is one fifth the revenue of the smallest company on the Fortune 500.

Clearly this means that investors expect a massive IPO and that the company will continue to double revenue every 6 months. This is one of the major reasons for this round of funding as well – Uber needs to be able to expand in Asia and this money will allow them to do so. They’ll have to hire staff, fight law suits, bribe people, and who knows what else. It begs the question, are we going to see Uber Rickshaws?

With this astronomical valuation of the company, it makes you ask what is value, who is receiving this value, and how long can this valuation truly be valid? There are only two stakeholders that are truly receiving $40 billion in value, that’s the startup founders and the early investors. With the bad press that┬áthe company has been receiving, it’s clear that it’s not Uber’s customers, whom expect privacy and discretion on the part of Uber, whenever they are not receiving it. Ok, maybe that’s not completely fair, as a large number of people use Uber today, it’s clearly filling a void that aging regulations wasn’t really filling. However, it’s clear that this benefit is coming at great cost to the “employees” of Uber where aribitrary rate cuts in some areas prevents it from being possible to make a true living wage. Furthermore, this valuation will only last as long as Uber is able to continually grow, as soon as the company fails to show that they are continuing to grow, their stock prices (as they will be public by then) will eventually fall back to much more realistic prices. This is similar to what initially happened with Facebook and more recently with prices falling for Twitter. The major difference being that Uber has a much clearer revenue model than either of those companies that does not rely on ads, simply drivers and riders. Furthermore, we only know what the revenue for Uber is, we do not know what the profit margins on that revenue are, clearly they are looking good, because for a given city the overhead for Uber can’t be more than half a million dollars, which means they are likely doing rather well.

Compare this to companies that actually make things that drive the economy through providing many jobs, like Kraft, it makes you wonder where these valuations come from and what it is that investors truly see in companies like Uber. To me, it’s an interesting company that has an aggressive approach to business, but that isn’t worth that kind of money. Maybe I’ll see things differently if it comes to Portland.

Venture Capitalists goals to exit will drive winner-take-all growth

While watching a friend stream on twitch today, his radio station played a commercial from Audible an Amazon company. Which made me think about how Audible was a really up and coming company that a lot of people were interested in. Companies like Audible are funded by Venture Capitalists to help them in a few ways – pay for more developers, pay for access to content, hire marketing folks, or any other litany of things that a business needs. They come in at a stage when a company has little to no revenue.

These VC’s then put pressure on the companies to become profitable through new businesses, increasing the number of number of subscribers, or even changing markets or product types (pivots in their language). This is for a pretty simple reason, they make money in a boom or bust manner. If they fund 64 companies having at least one of them profitable means it needs to raise a massive amount of money to break even or to make all of those investments profitable for the company.

This means that whenever a company like Amazon approaches the leadership board of a company like Audible, the board will likely push for a higher price, but will likely be willing to sell. This is because Amazon, Google, Apple, and other companies similar in size, breadth, and depth in the market, offer absurdly deep pockets. For example, Facebook bought Oculus Rift, a company that’s only had a few prototypes released for $2 Billion. This is a huge amount of money which likely made the VC’s extremely happy.

Because of these market conditions we’ll likely continue to see a winner take all approach to markets that these players are in. Since most of these companies are competing in the exact same space, a company like Audible, that could offer a distinct advantage in the market place would be extremely valuable. It would actually have significantly higher value than if there weren’t 4 giant companies competing in the same space.

It’s likely we’ll see this continue to expand as Sony tries to figure out how to move into these spaces more adeptly, as well as Microsoft resurgence in consumer markets. Fully expect more and more of this to happen and greater and greater valuations for these companies in the coming months and years.

Kickstarter, Oculus Rift, and internet rabble rousing

The internet is mad that Facebook bought the VR company Oculus Rift. We shouldn’t be surprised that someone bought this company, it was going to have an IPO or be bought. There’s no doubt about that. The problem isn’t that it was bought, but the company that bought it.

Oculus Rift was a startup. Startups need money so they launched a Kickstarter Campaign and raised $2.4 million. Startup money typically comes from three groups of people in early stages (3Fs) – Family, Friends, and Fools. The Kickstarter campaign clearly is the fools. Not because they didn’t think the company would succeed, but that they thought they’d have a say in the end result. Kickstart has had other scams, such as the feminist blogger that was going to buy a bunch of games and show how awful they were (but didn’t). Kickstarter has always said that you are donating and has no control if you ever get anything out of it.

If a startup is successful with the money provided by the 3Fs (and this is a huge IF as this is typically called the Valley of Death in startup parlance), these companies try to get Venture Capital Funding. The VCs are the people that have a boatload of money and try to make even more by getting companies to “exit.” There are three options for “Exiting” a startup – IPO, Purchase by another company, or failure. VCs prefer your startup being purchased by another company – it has the least risk (you never can tell what your stock price will be – see Facebook’s IPO. To get this money you typically have to give up control of your company. This comes in two forms ownership and members on a board of directors. In some cases the VC will take less ownership for more members on the board. Apparently one of those people that owned a large portion of Oculus Rift was Mark Zuckerberg – he reportedly made $337 Million on the Facebook purchase of Oculus Rift. That means he owned roughly 1/6 or 16% of the company ($2 Billion sale and all). Supposedly 2 other VCs made roughly the same amount of money on the deal. Which means that the founder likely owned less than 50% of the company and could have been forced into the deal.

Effectively, the moment Mark Zuckerberg invested in Oculus Rift, the company was going to be sold to Facebook – as long as it was shown to be successful. What this means to me is that if you read or see Zuckerberg personally investing in something, expect Facebook to eventually buy it. Additionally, with Zuckerberg owning that large of a percentage of the company, there’s no way it could have been sold to any other company. It was IPO, Facebook, or bust.

With this broader context, I cannot be mad at either Luckey or the other leaders of Oculus Rift. They knew the game when they got into VC – even if you aren’t into making a lot of money when you start, your VC will push for a positive exit for themselves.

One of the angriest people about this whole thing was Notch, the Minecraft guy. He finds Facebook creepy and is upset that his $10,000 facilitated that sale. Even if he had gotten stock for his investment, he would have only had 0.42% ownership share over the company (assuming Luckey sold all his stocks through the Kickstarter which is unlikely). Unfortunately, it’s likely his stocks would have been diluted and the VCs would have controlled enough of the board and stock to force the sale to Facebook despite all the people that could have owned stock if the money had been raised through a Kickstarter alternative like Fundable.

When investing in a Kickstarter, you can’t get emotionally attached, you need to look at it as if you’re gambling. You might never get anything from it, but at least you helped someone else’s dream come a step closer to reality. I’m happy for the folks at Oculus Rift because they got lucky in a very unfair game. I don’t like Facebook either – but it was unlikely for any other outcome unfortunately.