Starting about a decade ago, a fleet of well-known start-ups promised to change the way we work, work out, eat, shop, cook, commute, and sleep. These lifestyle-adjustment companies were so influential that wannabe entrepreneurs saw them as a template, flooding Silicon Valley with “Uber for X” pitches.
But as their promises soared, their profits didn’t. It’s easy to spend all day riding unicorns whose most magical property is their ability to combine high valuations with persistently negative earnings—something I’ve pointed out before. If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year. If you use Lime scooters to bop around the city, download Wag to walk your dog, and sign up for Blue Apron to make a meal, that’s three more brands that have never earned a dime or have seen their valuations fall by more than 50 percent.
These companies don’t give away cold hard cash as blatantly as Seated. But they’re not so different from the restaurant app. To maximize customer growth they have strategically—or at least “strategically”—throttled their prices, in effect providing a massive consumer subsidy. You might call it the Millennial Lifestyle Sponsorship, in which consumer tech companies, along with their venture-capital backers, help fund the daily habits of their disproportionately young and urban user base. With each Uber ride, WeWork membership, and hand-delivered dinner, the typical consumer has been getting a sweetheart deal.
For consumers—if not for many beleaguered contract workers—the MLS is a magnificent deal, a capital-to-labor transfer of wealth in pursuit of long-term profit; the sort of thing that might simultaneously please Bernie Sanders and the ghost of Milton Friedman.
But this was never going to last forever. WeWork’s disastrous IPO attempt has triggered reverberations across the industry. The theme of consumer tech has shifted from magic to margins. Venture capitalists and start-up founders alike have re-embraced an old mantra: Profits matter.
And higher profits can only mean one thing: Urban lifestyles are about to get more expensive.
The idea that companies like Uber and WeWork and DoorDash don’t make a profit might come as a shock to the many people who spend a fair amount of their take-home pay each month on ride-hailing, shared office space, or meal delivery.
There is a simple explanation for why they’re not making money. The answer, for finance people, has to do with something called “unit economics.” Normal people should think of it like this: Am I getting ripped off by these companies, or am I kinda-sorta ripping them off? In many cases, the answer is the latter.