On bikes and scooters, messengers with bright orange satchels whipped and weaved through Manhattan’s teeming streets. Their bags held snacks, DVDs, and diapers for a start-up called Kozmo.com, which promised deliveries in under an hour. It was the year 2000. And it all seemed magical.
The real magic, it soon turned out, was Kozmo’s ability to raise more than $250 million in funding despite running a money-losing operation. As the dot-com bubble burst later in 2000, a planned initial public offering was canceled. Kozmo was liquidated in April 2001. Among the investors left holding the bag were
(ticker: AMZN) and the venture-capital arm of SoftBank Group (9984.Japan).
Two decades later, Kozmo-like businesses are raising huge sums of money and delighting consumers. New movies get streamed straight to TVs, car service shows up instantly, and meals and goods arrive with the push of a button. Companies like
and SoftBank are still footing the bill.
Each new service undercuts the incumbents.
(LYFT) are cheaper than city cabs. A month of content from
(NFLX) costs less than one movie ticket; and Amazon makes every day feel like Black Friday.
But now we are on the precipice of another Kozmo-like reckoning. WeWork’s failed IPO—and a sudden focus on profits—has forced venture capital to rein in its voracious appetite. Investors have begun to feel the pain of a more discriminating market.
Consumers are likely to be next. Their free lunch—fueled by technology and generous private capital—is coming to an end. As the spigot turns off in both public and private markets, consumers will probably see changes from ride-sharing to food delivery that pinch their pocketbooks.
Billionaire investor and owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban says it will be difficult for many companies to adapt to the new reality. And it will be painful for consumers who have grown accustomed to great tech and low prices.
“It’s hard to sustain the growth rates that IPO investors look for, and it’s even harder to retrain customers to accept higher and profitable pricing after [companies’] subsidizing the cost for so long,” Cuban tells Barron’s in an email.
Several customers of these start-up services agree. “There is a tipping point,” says Kristen Ruby, president and founder of the Ruby Media Group, who spends $30 to $40 on food delivery multiple times a week. “Consumers will be put over the edge if the fees continue to get any higher.”
Andy Bachman, a rabbi who works as executive director of a New York City organization called the Jewish Community Project Downtown, says he orders with Seamless or
(GRUB) a couple of times each month. “Many people in the city who have more disposable income, they’re not going to have a problem with a small rise in delivery price,” he says. “But a normal family like ours, we’d stop using it.”
For much of the past decade, investors poured billions of dollars into start-ups, choosing to judge success by scale. Profits were for another day. Then, investors started to fear that the day might never come.
First came the weak performance of the unicorn IPOs. The share prices of hotly anticipated new stocks like Uber and
(PINS) have tumbled by more than 30% from their summer highs. The direct listing for
(WORK) has also proved to be a disappointment.
The turning point was the failed IPO of WeWork, the shared office-space company. At its peak, the company was worth $47 billion in the private market. Its IPO filing—which detailed huge losses and bewildering managerial decisions—triggered a reawakening among investors who suddenly remembered lessons from the internet bubble. WeWork was forced to shelve its offering and ultimately needed a bailout from SoftBank to stay solvent.
“The WeWork IPO process instilled a level of discipline in the market that hadn’t been there for a while,” says Mario Cibelli, manager of hedge fund Marathon Partners Equity Managment. “From the summer to the fall, you have gotten into a completely different environment. That exit opportunity that a lot of the private companies would be eyeing essentially dissipated. The public markets are demanding a different kind of risk profile and behavior.”
Jim Chanos, the short seller best known for predicting the collapse of Enron, blames SoftBank and its $100 billion dollar Vision Fund for fueling many of the unsustainable strategies. The Japanese company was WeWork’s largest investor.
“It’s very clear now that SoftBank got swept up and led the vanguard on this and maybe didn’t spend the time they should have on the business models,” says Chanos, the founder and managing partner of Kynikos Associates. “The whole WeWork thing was silly from the beginning.”
SoftBank declined to comment on the criticism over its business-model analysis of WeWork. But in an investor presentation in November, SoftBank said that it was now telling companies to focus on generating free cash flow (a measure of profitability) and that they should aim to be “self-financing.” It also started a new “no rescue package” policy for its portfolio companies.
“SoftBank figured that out a little bit late,” Chanos says. “Maybe these companies should have a path to profitability.”
The shift in sentiment has hit private markets, too. In the third quarter, start-ups received $27.5 billion in new venture capital during the third quarter, down 17% from the previous quarter and the lowest total in nearly two years, according to Dow Jones VentureSource.
Some of the start-ups won’t survive the new environment, while established businesses will be forced to raise consumer prices.
Internet TV is a good lesson for what consumers can expect. Virtual cable bundles, or virtual MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors), hit the market roughly three years ago, promising to allow cord-cutters to get the best of live TV at a fraction of the cost of cable. At first, YouTube TV, Hulu Live TV,
PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now (currently called AT&T TV Now) all offered live-TV packages streamed over the internet for just $30 to $40 a month.
The low prices didn’t last. Craig Moffett, MoffettNathanson’s telecom analyst, says the virtual bundlers wrongly assumed that the business would have the winner-take-all economics akin to Google and
But content businesses are weighed down by a cost structure that doesn’t scale like native web businesses.
“The math never made any sense,” Moffett says. “The programming costs alone were north of $30 for those packages. After customer-service and customer-acquisition costs, there was simply no way anyone was going to make money.”
Faced with rising losses, Moffett notes, the internet TV services were forced to replicate the same price increases that drove people to cut the cord in the first place. As the prices went higher, subscriber growth sputtered. In October, Sony announced that it would shut down its Vue service in January. AT&T TV Now, meanwhile, raised its price so high—$65 a month, from the initial $35—that customers started to defect. Net subscriber losses for the service totaled nearly 700,000 in the past four quarters, according to MoffettNathanson. Internet TV now looks much like cable TV—both in cost and subscriber trends.
“Everybody initially hoped they would be able to grab market share and build a position that would give them more negotiating leverage and eventually be profitable to raise prices,” Moffett says. “In retrospect, neither of those assumptions held water.”
Moffett thinks the virtual-cable story could be repeated in other markets.
So what can consumers expect to happen in the ride-hailing, food-delivery, and streaming-video-subscriptions markets in the near future? Here’s a breakdown by industry:
With stocks of the major U.S. ride-hailing players—Uber and Lyft—battered in recent months, consumers should expect to see a wave of price increases in the coming year.
Wall Street data indicate that the ride-hailing firms can get away with higher prices. Canaccord Genuity says its latest price tracker shows that Lyft and Uber fares were up 6% on average since May, adjusted by ride class. Last month,
released an analysis of New York City ride-hail data, suggesting that demand for the service was inelastic. The firm found that when per-ride pricing rose 23% because of a congestion surcharge, it resulted in only a 10% decline in volume.
There are strong signals that a sea change is already under way. On Lyft’s last earnings call, the company’s chief financial officer said there was “increasing rationality” in the market, noting that average ride prices were higher year over year, adjusted for type of ride. Moreover, the company’s September-quarter adjusted margin on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, or Ebitda, improved 32 percentage points, to a negative 13%, from the prior year. Lyft has said that it expects to be profitable by late 2021.
Marcelo Lima, a hedge fund manager at Heller House whose firm owns Lyft shares, sees a brewing duopoly in the U.S. ride-hailing space. He is more optimistic about Lyft than Uber because of the former’s North American focus. “I like the focus of Lyft; it’s a clear story,” he says. “They have a good chance of reaching very good economics soon.”
Uber, meanwhile, is being held back by its other money-losing units, like autonomous driving and food delivery.
What kind of actual price changes can consumers expect in the near term? Mike Puangmalai, a private investor who spent eight years as an analyst at Relational Investors, says, “For a $25 trip, don’t be surprised if it’s $30 this coming year. I do think prices will go up.”
Uber’s willingness to lose money has thrown the nascent food-delivery business into disarray. Four well-funded players—DoorDash, Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Postmates—have been trying to outdo one another with wider networks and better discounts. Staggering losses and great deals for customers are the result.
Uber Eats lost more than $300 million in the September quarter, with losses up nearly 70% year over year. Grubhub shares plunged 43% in late October, when it offered profit guidance well below Wall Street expectations. Industry analysts widely believe that DoorDash and Postmates are losing money and will have difficulty going public, given recent trends.
DoorDash and Postmates didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.
Chanos, whose firm is short shares of Grubhub, believes that the food-delivery companies are facing pressure from restaurants asking for lower commission rates. He also expects that consumers will see fewer coupons and promotions from the delivery firms, adding that higher prices would probably result in far lower delivery volume.
In a statement, Grubhub said that it “has proved itself as the only food-delivery business in the U.S. with a profitable, transparent, and sustainable business model.”
“Several of our peers have achieved national scale,” Grubhub said, “but we are the only one that has grown without unsustainable shortcuts like incurring massive operating losses, offering irrational diner pricing, and giving drivers substantial subsidies.”
Cibelli, whose firm owns Grubhub shares, predicts that all of the players will have to fix their businesses by cutting back on the discounts that attracted customers in the first place. “Uber Eats, Postmates, and DoorDash are all going to have to approach break-even and cease their cash burn,” he says. “The odds of consolidation are quite high. Likely, you will eventually have two dominant players.”
The hedge fund manager believes that with fewer players, aggregate industry profitability will improve as the overlap in operating expenses such as marketing and administrative spending gets eliminated. After the consolidation, he predicts, the remaining companies will be able to raise prices, benefiting Grubhub’s stock price.
Bulls and bears agree that the current competitive landscape isn’t sustainable. Cibelli says that the private companies that used their enormous fund raising to chase low-profit-margin sales will face the biggest obstacles.
“DoorDash, especially, has created transactions more aggressively than would have occurred naturally by offering too good of a deal for consumers, especially on the fast-food-chain side,” Cibelli says. “It’s nice to press a button to have
delivered to you very cheaply, but these are inferior transactions.”
consumer survey revealed that 58% of diners said promotions and deals played a role in their food-delivery decisions. Furthermore, only 36% of consumers said they were exclusive to one platform.
Fast-food orders are especially problematic in terms of profitability. Morgan Stanley estimates that two-thirds of fast-food orders were under $7. In a typical $10 fast-food order, the firm says that a food-delivery company would lose $3.80 because of a $5 cost per delivery, net of fees.
Consumers are unlikely to readily accept higher delivery prices, as they might be with higher ride-hailing costs.
“If there are less promotions like free delivery, I’m not going to order as much personal meals,” says Puangmalai, 37, who is also a freelance software developer. “My usage will go down on the lower-ticket stuff.”
While the ride-hailing and food-delivery industries are due for a reckoning, online video streaming has a longer runway. The “free lunch” in video could last for a while, thanks to the deep pockets of big tech and media.
These companies have already told their investors to expect many years of continued losses, as they build their streaming libraries. AT&T, for example, expects its HBO Max to lose more than $4 billion before turning profitable in 2025.
The WeWork moment hasn’t hit the streaming business largely because video-streaming companies have other profitable businesses, like theme parks, movies, wireless services, and smartphones that can subsidize the streaming efforts at attractive price points.
(DIS) launched its Disney+ streaming service at just $7 a month, about 45% lower than Netflix’s standard plan. In its first year, Disney plans to have a library of 7,500 TV episodes and 500 movies—including the company’s Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel films. Disney has told investors that it won’t make money on Disney+ until 2024.
Disney isn’t alone in firing large shots in the streaming wars. In October, WarnerMedia unveiled details for its HBO Max streaming service, which will start in May. Warner says the service will have 10,000 hours of content from HBO, Warner Bros., DC Entertainment, CNN, TNT, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, and other WarnerMedia properties. It will have 50 “Max Originals” by 2021. Despite having double the content, HBO Max will cost $14.99 a month, the same current cost as standard HBO.
The low cost of streaming is all the more striking given the costs being spent on content to power the services. Cowen estimates that Netflix and Amazon will spend $15 billion and $8 billion, respectively, for content in 2019. The firm thinks that
(AAPL), which just introduced its Apple TV+ service at $4.99 a month, will spend $6 billion annually within two years.
“The pricing environment will definitely be more muted than in the past five years due to the increased competition,” says Cowen analyst John Blackledge.
Indeed, Netflix may be looking to cut the entry price in certain markets. It is already trying lower-priced mobile-only plans in India, suggesting that cheap plans may be the key to its international expansion.
The problem for Netflix is that running a streaming service continues to get more expensive. On its last earnings call, Netflix’s management acknowledged that the content cost for the hottest TV shows with multiple bidders had risen 30% over the past year. The bull case for Netflix stock has always been its potential to raise subscription prices over time. But new streaming options are sure to limit Netflix’s pricing power.
Over the past year, it was quite the roller-coaster ride for the streaming giant’s investors. Netflix’s stock price started 2019 strong, with a 40% rally through July, but it then lost all those gains in just two months after the company posted a disappointing second quarter. Netflix shares did rebound into year-end, closing up 21% for 2019, though materially lagging the major indexes. Shareholders should expect more volatility and lackluster relative returns for the next few years.
The uncertainty for the longtime market darling speaks to a new dynamic on Wall Street. Delighted consumers are no longer aligned with happy investors. As the unicorns grow up, they’ll look more like cable companies and less like nonprofits.
“If something is too good to be true, it probably is,” Moffett says.
Josh Nathan-Kazis contributed to this article.
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