“We have a history of net losses and we may not be able to achieve or maintain profitability in the future,” reads the second risk in Lyft’s March 1 prospectus for an initial public offering.
In other words, Lyft has never made any money, and can’t promise that it ever will.
Despite booking $2.2 billion worth of revenue on $8.1 billion worth of rides and other sales in 2018, Lyft also lost $911 million. That was up from 2017, when it recorded a net loss of $688 million, and from 2016, when its net loss came to $683 million. Adding that all up gives you a net loss of $2.3 billion over the past three years. That’s a lot of money!
Of course, losing money is fashionable in Silicon Valley, where investor subsidies are king and startups that bleed cash to acquire users reassure themselves that they’ll “make it up later in volume.” Profitability is also no longer a necessary precondition for a technology company to go public. Google (now Alphabet) and Facebook were profitable when they went public, but Twitter wasn’t, nor was Spotify, Blue Apron, Snapchat parent Snap, Box, Dropbox, Etsy, Roku, Square, Shopify, Twilio, and plenty of others.
Why does this matter? Well, a company that only loses money is not a very good business. Meal-kit company Blue Apron was valued at $3 billion by private investors who believed it could redefine the way America eats, although it had never made any money and spent a considerable amount on marketing. Public markets turned out to be less forgiving than venture capitalists. The company’s stock has been pummeled since it started trading in mid-2017, and now stands at barely more than $1 per share. It perked up a bit earlier this January when Blue Apron said it planned to finally be profitable in the first quarter of 2019.
In addition to its history of losses, Lyft’s IPO filing gives would-be investors little reason to believe it will change course anytime soon. “Our expenses will likely increase in the future as we develop and launch new offerings and platform features, expand in existing and new markets, increase our sales and marketing efforts and continue to invest in our platform,” Lyft writes in its filing. “These efforts may be more costly than we expect and may not result in increased revenue or growth in our business.”
In other words, it plans to spend more and may spend more than it plans, which still might not increase revenue. That is not reassuring!
Even more pressing, Lyft could run out of money. The company had $1.1 billion in cash and cash equivalents at the end of 2017. By Dec. 31, 2018, that stockpile had shrunk to $518 million, and competition with Uber is unlikely to get any easier. “We believe our existing cash and cash equivalents will be sufficient to meet our working capital and capital expenditures needs over at least the next 12 months,” Lyft offers in its prospectus.
The company will raise money with its public offering—that, after all, is one of the reasons why startups go public—but it seems safe to say its current rate of spending is not sustainable, and that profitability remains a long way off.