Uber thought it was in a winner-takes-all market. So what went wrong?

Some Ubers. Image: Getty.

As the ride-hailing company Uber lurched from one clumsy mess to the next, it had appeared that CEO Travis Kalanick would somehow ride out the storm. His recent resignation is an admission that the company needs to explore new avenues.

I wrote recently about tech CEOs who had protected themselves from the usual pressure from shareholders, and were able to freely dictate strategy and culture. I’m happy to say that Kalanick’s departure from the top job (he will stay on the board) signals that there is indeed a line to cross where even disenfranchised investors can assert their power. It is not hard to see why: Uber is facing up to some tough decisions.

Aside from the rows around a damaging corporate culture, news that rival Lyft has increased its share of the US ride hailing market from 17 per cent to 23 per cent is rapidly destroying investor assumptions about this industry. Uber investors have stumped up $12bn in the belief that this is a winner-takes-all market. That now looks not to be the case.

This is great news for the customer as low fares are likely to persist. Uber investors had been funding incentives to both customers and drivers in the hope that both would stay put once the incentives stopped. Evidence is beginning to suggest otherwise. Uber’s 2016 losses, largely driven by the funding of incentives globally and from the development of driverless car technology, were $2.8bn.

Flawed model

So where did that winner-takes-all belief come from? Well, investors had looked at Amazon, Facebook and Google. The first mover in those cases developed a large customer base attracted by an increasing number of suppliers. In turn, suppliers found access to large numbers of customers and had no motivation to go elsewhere. The software simply does the matching.

An Uber customer wants a quick pick-up and cheap fares while the drivers want to be busy generating higher wages. So, in theory, an app which offered both at a high level, and was first to market, should attract most of the drivers and customers.

However, the app is readily copied. Many taxi firms now have their own app with similar attributes. Customers may now have several ride hailing apps on their phones which they can check for the cheapest and most rapid arrival.

Additionally, drivers are self-employed and can switch their allegiances rapidly. This is not a recipe for world domination.


Rivals everywhere

Existing firms leap at the opportunity to expand. Lyft has proved that to be so by gaining US market share just as Uber’s reputation was soured by allegations of a sexist and macho culture. A major lawsuit from Google has only added to the sense of a company struggling to maintain its grip.

Uber can learn from Lyft, which has succeeded with a clear market focus, unhindered by unrelated diversification. Lyft has focused on ride hailing in the US alone. Uber has expanded globally and invested heavily in driverless car technology: the firm spent $2bn in a Chinese market it has now exited under pressure from the local competitor Didi Chuxing.

In the Indian market, which is led by Ola, Uber was slow to adapt to very different market conditions and lost time and position. Even in the UK, Uber has faced competitive and political pressure from established taxi operators. Focus means being able to channel resources, knowhow and competitive strategy into one area. Uber has left itself open to attack on too many fronts.

Unfair fight

That brings us to Kalanick’s odd move into driverless car technology, taking on the might (and vast resources) of Google. Many of the world’s major car companies, with their own attendant resources and technology partners, are also investing heavily. Was Uber really going to win a fight against Ford, Mercedes, GM, and Tesla?

It is likely they are all further ahead than Uber. Indeed it is difficult to see what technology Uber has to offer in this particular market. Surely this is a prime opportunity for a deal where Uber supplies the demand while the more advanced partner supplies the technology and cars.

The ConversationKalanick’s ambition has been fundamental to the rise of Uber. With his departure from the CEO role, perhaps that ambition will give way to strategic sense. Kalanick was able to cling on for so long partly thanks to investors’ desire to unearth the next tech giant, which made them indulgent of the founder’s control. The hope must be that the Uber experience encourages investors to tighten the reins on tech executives. The job for the next CEO will be to convince investors and customers that it is worth sticking around to see how this all ends.

John Colley is associate dean at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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