The Wall Street Journal and New York Times picked up on a story first reported by Bloomberg, that the Japanese technology firm SoftBank is considering investing in Uber.
Given how eagerly Uber has been planting press stories, it’s hard to know whether SoftBank is interested. The articles depict SoftBank as having approached Uber, which strikes me as odd. Given how well funded and visible SoftBank is, it has to have been approached repeatedly in past Uber fundraising rounds, and separately, SoftBank is certain to be solicited regularly by the big VC that have invested in Uber. Moreover, the real reason for former CEO Travis Kalanick’s ouster was that Bill Gurley of Benchmark had long led the investors who had fought with Kalanick over his refusal to let the early investors cash out even a portion of their original investment.
Gurley led the coup against Kalanick. It had nothing to to do with mistreatment of women or lawbreaking, but because the bad press was pushing an IPO further off into the future. At a minimum, Kalanick’s failure take strong enough measures to improve appearances happened to dovetail with his desire to keep the company private. So it is likely to be an open secret that Uber is open for offers.
Since then, Uber has been working hard at getting the press to put the best possible spin its affairs. For instance, at the meetup in San Francisco last week, one reader pointed out that the New York Times had run an article that presented a rosy picture of how the Uber CEO search was going: Uber Offers a Thankless Job, and the Applications Flood In. In fact, if you read the article carefully, there was no influx of star candidates for the job. Instead, it presented the search committee’s wish list:
For now, Uber’s executive search committee, which includes five members of its board, has kept the lid tight on the list of candidates….
Among those up for consideration have been Susan Wojcicki, who leads YouTube. Others include Adam Bain, Twitter’s former chief operating officer; David Cush, a former chief executive at Virgin America; the former Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer; and Thomas Staggs, a former chief operating officer at Disney, according to three other people familiar with the search. It was unclear what level of interest, if any, these executives had expressed in the Uber job.
And as our faithful reader pointed out, an article in ReCode a few hours earlier already said none of them wanted the job. That story did say a lot of people not up to the job were putting up their hands, perhaps lending a veneer of legitimacy to the New York Times account:
So who is interested in being Uber CEO, with the job of leading 15,000 employees? A lot of people, with lots of applications sent in and ginned up by Heidrick & Struggles ace recruiter Jeff Sanders, even if most of them are not up to the kind of challenge the task presents.
Our Uber expert Hubert Horan made another observation:
Some of the names floated (other than the ridiculous Sheryl Sandberg/Marissa Meyer mentions) seemed to be clients of these headhunters where they hadn’t had any luck placing, and wanted to keep their names in the press.
Hubert also weighed in on the SoftBank rumors. By way of background, here are the key sections from the Wall Street Journal:
SoftBank Group Corp. is angling for a piece of Uber Technologies Inc., a move that would further the grand ambitions of the tech investor’s founder and muddy the mix of alliances in the global ride-hailing business.
The Japanese technology company has approached San Francisco-based Uber about a multibillion-dollar stake, people familiar with the matter said…
Softbank is a big investor in the three largest Asian ride-hailing companies: Singapore’s GrabTaxi Holdings Pte., India’s Ola and China’s Didi Chuxing Technology Co. On Monday, SoftBank said that it and Didi would lead a $2.5 billion fundraising round in Grab, giving the startup more ammunition in its battle against Uber across Southeast Asia.
While it is rare for SoftBank to hedge its investments, an offer could mean the company hopes Uber combines its operations with Grab and Ola, as it did last year with Didi. Such a merger would give SoftBank a formidable share of the Asian market.
1. Ridesharing economics in Asia aren’t any different than ridesharing economics in America. Nobody has discovered how to produce taxi service at significantly lower cost. And Asian cites have massively better public transit options.
2. SoftBank may be far more clueless than anyone in America, and is simply flushing billions down the toilet, as suggested by this quote from the Wall Street Journal story:
SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son has sought to seize hold of cornerstone technologies he expects to dictate how humans interact with the world for decades to come. As early adopters of self-driving technology, ride-hailing firms are central to Mr. Son’s strategy to accelerate a robotic revolution and generate value from his varied investments in semiconductors, networks, cybersecurity and deep learning.
3. However, the possibility still exists that it is the WSJ reporter who is utterly clueless, and not Softbank:
SoftBank may have figured out that Uber is desperate to conserve cash and is willing to abandon its losing investments in Asia for 20 cents on the dollar (let’s get Uber to stop competing with Grab and Ola following their abandonment of the Russian market)
SoftBank may have realized that Uber desperately needs new investment but any traditional Silicon Valley VC play would totally trash their valuation, and have approached Uber with an offer they can’t refuse (that would give them a big % of Uber for very little money but would maintain the fiction that they are worth $68 billion)
They are trying to set up an Uber-Lyft merger at some point in the future
4. All of these hypothetical scenarios support my longstanding theory that the people with serious money have always understood that the game totally depended on the creation of huge, powerful monopolies that “market economics” could not justify. No one can make money in Russia, Singapore, China, America or anywhere else if competition still existed. VC returns will go to whoever can create those monopolies. It is still totally unclear whether one of these artificial monopolies can actually make big sustainable profits. The point is just that its totally hopeless without the monopoly. There is still no evidence that Grab could actually achieve a monopoly in Singapore or Ola could achieve a monopoly in India. And still no evidence that the owner of a Grab/Ola local monopoly would have any ability to leverage that brand/monopoly power into other markets.
Uber has some of Silicon Valley’s supposedly best and brightest behind it, yet they now have a company bleeding cash, run by a 14 person committee, desperately in need of more money since even with their big bank account, Uber will get relatively low on funds in 24 months. If that were to occur, you can imagine that employees with better options start leaving en masse (to the extent that hasn’t already happened due to revolving door leadership and power struggles over efforts to change the culture). So it will be interesting to see how these supposedly clever investors who got themselves in this fix try to find new chumps, and who winds up getting the better deal.