From our Obsession
Looking at Big Tech as the next Big Oil.
Lyft unveiled its much-anticipated IPO prospectus this morning (March 1), offering a first peek into the inner workings of the ride-hail company’s business ahead of an initial public offering. The main question, of course, is how Lyft stacks up against its no. 1 competitor, Uber.
Lyft differs from Uber in a few key ways. It operates only in North America, and mostly in the US. Lyft mainly provides on-demand rides, and has recently invested in shared bikes and scooters. Uber, on the other hand, has a large food delivery business (Uber Eats), a trucking business, similar investments in shared bikes and scooters, and is reportedly exploring on-demand staffing.
But the core of what Lyft and Uber do is the same. Both companies hire drivers as independent contractors to provide rides at the touch of a button via a smartphone app. The two companies are so similar that many riders and drivers keep both apps on their phones, and use whichever is offering the cheapest fares (in the case of riders) or the best pay (in the case of drivers) at any given moment.
Industry observers think Lyft is racing to go public before Uber in part to avoid being measured against it. Lyft was founded a few years after Uber and never really caught up, even as Uber struggled to repair its image and overcome scandal after scandal in 2017. If Lyft filed before Uber, the thinking went, it was more likely to be valued on its own instead of in comparison to its chief rival.
The comparison isn’t really avoidable, though. Uber has yet to publicly file its IPO prospectus, but we know plenty about its core operations from quarterly financials the company has distributed to private investors over the past couple of years.
So, how does Lyft compare to Uber? Quartz took a look using data in Lyft’s S-1, those quarterly Uber reports, and some data from third-party analyst Second Measure.
Lyft defines bookings as the total value of rides and other revenue, such as shared scooter and bike fees, booked on its platform. You can think of it like sales. Lyft doesn’t include certain things—like tips, tolls, and sales tax—in this bookings calculation because the company wouldn’t end up taking a cut of that revenue; it passes straight through to the driver or government. Uber’s bookings are similar, though they also include sales from Uber Eats and its other lines of business, such as trucking. We reached out to Uber to see if it also excludes things like tips and tolls from bookings, and will update accordingly if we hear back.
Not surprisingly, Uber’s bookings are far greater than Lyft’s. For the fourth quarter of 2018, Lyft reported $2.3 billion in bookings compared with Uber’s $14.1 billion. For the full year 2018, Lyft did $8.1 billion in bookings compared with Uber’s $50.1 billion. That said, Lyft currently has a better growth story. Its bookings were up 58% in the latest quarter compared to the same period a year earlier, while Uber’s increased by only 30%. It makes sense that a smaller company would have an easier time achieving big growth numbers, but still means Lyft can talk up its growth story as a benefit over Uber.
Revenue is the portion of bookings that Lyft takes from fares in service fees and commissions—in other words, roughly the share of sales left after paying out regular wages to drivers. The company said in its prospectus that it generates “substantially all” of its revenue from these service fees and commissions on rides. As of 2018, it also booked some revenue from a subscription service it launched, plus fees paid by users of its shared bikes and scooters, though Lyft said revenue from bikes and scooters was “not material” for the 2018 calendar year. Uber’s revenue includes the cut it takes from rides plus other businesses like Eats.
As with bookings, Lyft’s revenue is substantially less than Uber’s. Lyft booked $670 million in revenue for the fourth quarter of 2018 and $2.2 billion for the full year. Uber weighed in with $3 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter and $11.4 billion for the full year. Again though, Lyft had the better growth story. The company’s revenue grew 94% year-over-year in the latest quarter, while Uber’s increased by only 25%. Slowed growth was a theme of the fourth-quarter results Uber reported in February, and helps explain why it has invested so heavily in Eats and modes like bikes and scooters, which are less saturated than ride-hail.
Net profit (spoiler: it’s a loss)
Whoa, that’s a lot of negative net profits! (Also known as a net loss.) Despite the massive size of their respective businesses, both Uber and Lyft remain wildly unprofitable. Uber technically turned a profit in the first quarter of 2018 thanks to selling its Southeast Asian business to competitor Grab and its Russian business to regional internet giant Yandex. Stripping those sales out, however, left Uber with a loss of $312 million before interest, taxes, and other expenses in the quarter.
For the fourth quarter of 2018, Lyft recorded a net loss of $249 million. Its net loss was $911 million for the full year. Uber reported a loss of $865 million in the fourth quarter. Uber told investors it lost $1.8 billion on an adjusted basis before interest, taxes, and other expenses for the full year 2018.
While Lyft is growing bookings and revenue faster than Uber in percentage terms, its losses are also increasing, whereas Uber’s are decreasing. Lyft’s quarterly loss grew in every quarter in 2018 compared to the same period a year earlier. Lyft also cautions at the start of its IPO prospectus that it has “a history of net losses” and “may not be able to achieve or maintain profitability in the future.” Indeed, Lyft says it expects expenses to increase in the future, as it expands and invests more in sales and marketing. Uber, on the other hand, cut its loss in each quarter last year on a year-over-year basis.
Lyft in its S-1 said it achieved 39% market share in the US as of December 2018, where market share is measured as Lyft’s share of the number of rides provided by drivers working for Lyft or Uber. The company said it had 18.6 million active riders as of December 2018, where “active” was defined as haven taken at least one ride during the quarter.
As of this January, data analytics firm Second Measure, which analyzes anonymized purchases, took a somewhat more conservative view of Lyft’s US ride-hail market share, estimating it at 29% in terms of sales, compared with 69% for Uber. That said, momentum over the past several years has once again been in Lyft’s favor—a theme! a theme!—with Lyft growing its share of sales while Uber’s share has declined.
Both ride-hail companies are ramping up their rider promotions as they vie for market share in the final stretch before an IPO. Lyft made the first move, The Information reported (paywall), and increased its US market share by around 4 percentage points. The sweeteners may look good now, but are sure to make a dent on Lyft’s bottom line when first-quarter results are reported. The company is likely aiming to stay ahead of that by listing on the Nasdaq in late March, as the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) it plans to, long before first-quarter numbers are due.