If I were writing this article, say, five years ago, you would probably be confused by its title. There was no “battle” in the ride-share market back in 2014. There was Uber, which at the time controlled over 93% of the market, and a handful of tiny ride-share startups that were struggling to gain even the tiniest semblance of market share. Uber’s first-mover advantage meant it was able to gobble up nearly all the early adopters to ride-sharing – drivers and riders alike – with everyone else essentially playing catch-up.
The clear standout among these upstarts was San Francisco-based Lyft. Even back then, Lyft looked the most likely to challenge Uber’s ride-share hegemony, despite having only about a 7% share of the market. Fast-forward to today, and Lyft has managed to carve out a nearly 40% share in the United States ride-share market. With its IPO last Friday, Lyft became the first rideshare company to go public in the United States—beating Uber to this major, if only symbolic, milestone.
The War Gets Off to an Ugly Start
Lyft beating Uber to the public markets is especially significant considering that Lyft achieved this despite Uber’s best efforts to undermine its rival.
After Uber saw its bid to acquire Lyft rejected by the company’s co-founders in 2014, Uber notoriously deployed an arsenal of shady (borderline illegal) tactics to try to run Lyft out of business.
Uber relentlessly tried to starve Lyft of venture capital funding and effectively run them out of business. Former CEO Travis Kalanick admitted that he had actively interfered with Lyft’s fundraising efforts to steer potential investors away from Lyft.
Uber monopolized much of the traditional funding channels from New York City and San Francisco-based venture capital firms. In early 2015, Uber had completed a funding round in which it raised more than $2.5 billion dollars in VC funding. This was in stark contrast to Lyft, which at the time had only a few months left of cash left in their bank account. Co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer were being urged to shut down the company and use the remaining funds to return some money back to their investors and give their employees some holdover cash until they can find new jobs elsewhere.
But Green and Zimmer, defiant in the face of defeat, went out and raised the money they needed from unlikely sources. They convinced Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce giant, to invest $300 million critical dollars into the company. Less than a year later, in early 2016, General Motors invested another $500 million. Lyft grabbed a hold of the lifelines GM and Rakuten extended to them and never looked back.
Who’s got the lead now?
Today, Lyft is not far behind Uber in its North American ride-share duopoly. Lyft gained considerable ground on its rival over the past four years, during which Uber has been wrapped up in an unending web of scandals during the tenure of former C.E.O. Travis Kalanick.
Lyft, meanwhile, has cultivated an image as the “friendlier” of the two companies, particularly towards drivers.
Being the first of the two rideshare giants to do an initial public offering, Lyft could capitalize on the wave of pent-up investor enthusiasm surrounding the ride-share industry though it is more likely that the investors who were looking seriously into the ride-share industry have already made up their minds on which of two companies they would place their bets.
Lyft is the smaller, and faster-growing of the two companies which for many investors meant it had the bigger upside. But Uber is still THE dominant force in ridesharing and generates more revenue in a single quarter than Lyft generates in an entire year. It also doesn’t help that Uber’s name is the verb people have used to describe ride-hailing.
It’s also important to understand that while Lyft and Uber are viewed as direct competitors, the two companies are, in fact, different.
Lyft is laser-focused on passenger transport in North America. They do not appear to have any immediate plans to expand beyond North America or ride-hailing. Uber, on the other hand, is more of a comprehensive transportation company focused on the movement of things from point A to point B across the globe. Their concern isn’t so much what, how, or where those things are moving, so long as Uber is responsible for that movement.
Most notably, Uber has built out a massive food delivery platform in UberEats, which alone is estimated to be worth as much as Lyft. Uber has also invested in a commercial freight network (UberFreight), flying taxis (UberElevate), hospital rides (UberHealth) and bike rides (Jump). They are also way ahead of Lyft in building out autonomous vehicle technology. This, I view as the only major path to sustainable profitability for these platforms. It’s also worth mentioning that Uber operates in 60 countries around the world, according to its public records. Lyft only operates in two.
Despite Lyft gaining ground over the past few years, Uber remains the larger, more diversified, more innovative and more global company.
This underscores why Uber’s valuation is almost six times that of its rival.
However, if there is one thing these companies have in common, it’s that they are both losing boatloads of money.
Lyft lost almost $1 billion last year according to Forbes, and Uber lost about that much in the second quarter alone. Both platforms are having to burn through cash to incentivize drivers and discount fares for riders in order to build out their networks. Drivers represent around 70% of these companies’ costs. The path to profitability for both companies hinges heavily on their ability to eliminate drivers with autonomous vehicles. This is, of course, a matter of if, not when, but as it stands, Uber appears to have the lead.