A landmark case against Uber and Lyft is playing out in California courts that could fundamentally challenge their business model. Proposition AB5 would require companies like Lyft and Uber to reclassify their drivers from independent contractors, as they are today, to employees. As a result, both companies have threatened to pull out of California altogether as they simply cannot comply with the ruling. Their business model isn’t built for that structure. The economics of ride hailing don’t contemplate having W2 employees. If this was the case, fare’s would rise substantially across the board, and demand would likely fall. That said, they are already prepping to lose this fight and this will require a radically different approach to how their business functions moving forward. It’s been surmised that they will pivot to a franchise model whereby independent franchisees will license the ride hailing companies software as well as brand IP while making drivers now regular employees. If you think this is a step backwards, you’re right. Under this model, you’ll end up with potentially thousands of black car and taxi companies using the software. This is exactly how the model existed before the Uber’s of the world came around and, I’m afraid, won’t even address the larger issue.
It’s true innovation when a business builds something for themselves and then realizes there’s a potential application beyond internal needs.
Take, for example, a company like Apple that started predominantly as a hardware company making computers and other peripherals. Years later, when they created the App store it was originally conceptualized as a platform to deliver programs directly developed by Apple. But they realized that there was a much bigger opportunity here to create a marketplace model and the App store of today was born. In 2019, this line of Apple’s business contributed over a half a trillion dollars in billings and further reinforces the stickiness of their hardware business. If Apple had kept this ecosystem truly closed for fear of losing control, then their market penetration would be significantly less.
This is a period of immense uncertainty but also a time for great opportunity. Some of the most well known companies were created during past periods of volatility. Apple and Microsoft were born during the OPEC induced recession of the 1970’s. Netflix survived the Dot.com bubble and came out stronger than ever, and Airbnb was born during the 2007-2008 recession. Fast forward to today and there seems to be two schools of thought on investing during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Either it’s batten down the hatches and conserve cash or let’s use this as an opportunity to double down on our winners and also invest in other startups that are booming due to stay at home restrictions. As we’ve seen in the public markets there are multiple bulls out there in certain sectors and the same theme applies to venture.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen coined the term “Software is eating the world” nearly 10 years ago. His argument that software would be at the heart of every business moving forward could not have been more astute. For example, Amazon’s not a retailer; their primary capability is their software technology enabling sellers around the world to get their products to consumers. The same could be said for their AWS cloud business; again a software play. Uber, Google, Facebook, Netflix, and to some extent Apple’s app store business, are all examples of companies that are fundamentally software first. Interestingly, this same software has empowered a foundational shift in business model. It has enabled disintermediation. The complex network of intermediaries that have existed historically have been circumvented which has led to the world of everything being direct-to-consumer (D2C) or direct to source. Many think of D2C as mainly having an impact on consumer goods, but the theme permeates into numerous industries. Here are some examples:
You lease your car. You rent your apartment. You subscribe monthly to Netflix and you rent your clothes from Rent the Runway. But would you rent your furniture? There’s a slew of startups that are betting you will. Companies like Fernish, Feather, Oliver Space and CasaOne are a few that allow customers to rent their furniture and return when they no longer need. The concept isn’t new; legacy players such as Rent-a-Center ($RCII) and Aaron’s ($AAN) have been doing this for years. The difference now is that there hasn’t been an updated brand narrative. Rental furniture has historically been aimed at middle America, subprime borrowers as an alternative to those who weren’t candidates for financing. The loans were borderline usurious or prices were marked up to cover the credit risk.
As tech companies descended on Capitol Hill this week, the ongoing debate around antitrust continues. Startups have long lamented about the anticompetitive business practices adopted by the big 4: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. If you build a business that relies on the Apple or Google app stores then you automatically know you’re going to pay a ~30% toll to access consumers. The debate has further been heightened as some startups like Classpass have been hit with this toll as they roll out virtual classes due to COVID. The founders argue that they are forgoing their normal take rate from providers (gym’s, etc) they work with during COVID so why is Apple charging them 30%. Apple is in an interesting situation, because if they make exceptions for one business, they need to make for others. They also would face potential legal battles from previous customers that did have to pay.
It’s been interesting to watch Q2 play out in VC land – especially given the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street throughout the Covid pandemic. While initially a cataclysmic drop-off in funding was expected, the industry overall was not as affected as originally thought. Similar to the public markets, many investors continued to see a buying opportunity and had re-allocated their portfolios to support their likely winners. A key takeaway – early stage funding continues to face some challenges while late stage appears to have fared better. Many early stage B2C companies, however, are struggling.
I’ve been reading a lot of commentary recently on tech companies that took PPP loans during Covid. Was this right? What’s definitely not right is our government bailing out bloated corporations during the pandemic. If you believe in capitalism then we should let the free markets take their path and prune the weak. One would argue that this infusion of cash saved jobs. Not sure how true that ultimately will become in October when the stipulations attached to the loans disappear. I bet we’ll see more layoffs, lots of them. US airlines have already made announcements for layoffs as soon as they are legally able. So basically taxpayers have funded a short term experiment on borrowed time that was setup for failure from the beginning. Harvard economists agree, the program has had little impact on employment at small businesses to date.
I’ve always had a strong viewpoint that digitally native vertical brands are a dime a dozen and those who will have successful exits are the ones who are vertically integrated, own manufacturing, strong defensible positions and/or are durable/consumable businesses built on recurring revenue and more enticing LTV metrics. With the recent news on Lululemon acquiring Mirror for $500 million it proves there is still an appetite for strategic buyers to pay premiums for DTC startups. In this case, I estimate LULU paid 5x-6X revenue which is a phenomenal outcome for the founders and investors. LULU was already a minority investor in the company which gave them intel into the business that other competitors likely didn’t get. Why corporate VC gets a bad rap sometimes, a good strategic investor can bring a lot of value.
If you look at the majority of venture backed DTC brands in the market today, they all could benefit from diversifying their revenue streams. As this cohort scales and eventually becomes omnichannel (since that’s the playbook most are following), gross margins will inevitably suffer. When startups expand into new product categories it’s still often challenging to get >50-60% landed margins if you’re selling physical products. This is where services come in.