Uber is preparing for an IPO and the bankers are delivering initial valuation estimates of around $120bn. While investment banks compete to secure the deal by pitching increasingly unrealistic valuation numbers, the IPO is likely to be pitched well above the last valuation level of $68bn.
The $68bn valuation is a fictional starting point
The story around how UBER maintained its $68bn valuation, even as its sold shares at a $48bn valuation, reflects the irrational state of the market. Summary: Softbank wanted to buy $10bn worth of UBER while it was theoretically valued at $68bn on the private market. Softbank bought $9bn at a $48bn valuation and after that bought $1bn at a $68bn valuation. Uber gets to maintain the illusion of being worth $68bn. Softbank gets an immediate gain on the $9bn it bought at the cheaper price. Everyone wins.
What is a realistic valuation for UBER?
Professor Aswath Damodaran of NYU has done a number of valuations of UBER and he shares the spreadsheet used to calculate the his value of $36bn. The spreadsheet has very useful data on a operating margins in a range of industries. Damodaran uses a sustainable margin for UBER of 20%, which is almost twice the market average of 10,5%. Even with his generous assumptions he gets a valuation well short of what the banks are indicating for the IPO.
What if people stop using the UBER app?
UBER has spent almost $11bn over the last years in building a strong lead in the car service market. However, it is not clear that they have a sustainable competitive advantage. Despite its current dominance, there are no network effects, so they don’t “own” the customer. Using UBER in Europe I have seen many taxi drivers with 3 phones who are happy to pick up any passenger whether its UBER/Lyft/Mytaxi, depending on what is most profitable. Recently, Taxify has integrated with google maps in South Africa so it is very easy to do the comparison of taxi services in terms of cost and time to pickup. These are screenshots of the google maps app looking for a taxi from my work to the waterfront. I see that in the UK google maps gives you three options (UBER/Mytaxi/Gett). With this integration there is no longer any reason to go straight to the UBER app when you need a taxi.
Ride Hailing Will be a Commoditized Service
You now have a commodification of the ride hailing service on both the drivers and the rider side. The cost of developing a competing app is trivial, and if google maps (or apple maps) is the new access point for passengers, then new entrants will be able to compete directly with UBER from day one. All they need to do is give google a cut. In this environment a high margin for ride sharing companies is unsustainable, and it is likely to be lower than the average in the economy. If that is the case, then UBER is only worth only a tenth of the $120bn that its bankers are currently pitching.