Questions Swirl Around ‘Uber for Trash’ Startup Rubicon Global

October 3, 2017, 2:09 PM UTC
Trash accumulates and awaits pick-up in New York
Richard Levine Corbis via Getty Images

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about a startup called Rubicon Global, an Atlanta-based waste management startup that marketed itself as the “Uber for trash.” Armed with ~$200 million in total venture funding and a shiny new valuation of over a billion dollars, Rubicon claimed it was disrupting the $60 billion garbage industry with its proprietary tech.

But as I noted before, the numbers didn’t add up. Yesterday, Bloomberg published a story about how the company has overstated its growth and tech capabilities.

In the last two weeks, I’ve looked at pitch decks presented to potential investors, service proposals, and emails. I’ve also spoken with 14 people including former employees, former and current executives, potential investors who met the team and evaluated the company, and waste industry analysts. (Some of the people I spoke with requested anonymity due to confidentiality agreements or fear of retribution.)

Below is a breakdown of some key areas I found problematic in researching the company:

Inconsistent revenue numbers: I reviewed two Rubicon pitch decks, both from 2015. In the “financial overview portion,” the historical revenue numbers did not match up across presentations. In one version of the pitch deck, 2014 net revenue was listed as $3.4 million, up 54% from 2013. In the other, revenue from 2014 was $1.9 million, a 41% decline from the year before. Additionally, Rubicon now claims that its 2014 audited net revenue was $2.163 million, which does not reflect what was presented in either pitch deck.

Technology troubles: One investor who passed on the company several times said that Rubicon seemed like “a trash brokerage business masquerading as a tech company.” It is tough to nail down specifics about Rubicon’s technology. Rubicon execs have said the company is “on the cutting edge of leveraging emerging technologies, such as big data and IoT.” A 2016 pitch deck says the platform offers “a seamless experience.” In reality, the app’s feature include optimizing truck routes and confirming trash pickup. According to Bloomberg, Rubicon experienced software crashes, with some customers complaining they were unable to schedule trash pick ups. Rubicon declined to disclose the number of haulers using the technology, but said that 75% of Rubicon’s pickups are handled by a truck that uses some form of its software.

Lack of data to support key claims: One of Rubicon Global’s selling points is its “high diversion rate,” a figure that represents the amount of waste that is diverted from landfills and recycled. The company has repeatedly referred to its competitors as “landfill companies” that divert ~35% of waste and “are incentivized to send as much as possible to landfills.” Rubicon has told reporters and potential investors that its own diversion rate “is three times the rate of landfill companies,” yet refuses to disclose the rate (on or off the record), saying the figure is a competitive advantage.

High executive turnover: Three chief operating officers have left since 2014, according to Bloomberg. Sources told me the company has also cycled through multiple chief financial officers, including one that was only at Rubicon for only 5 months, according to LinkedIn.

High valuation: I spent a few days trying to get a straight answer on how much Rubicon was raising in funding for its latest round. (Update: the final funding is ~50M at a valuation of more than $1 billion.) Another detail that made me (and some of the VCs I spoke with) pause: While notable investors have participated, including Goldman Sachs, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Promecap, not a single top-tier VC firm chose to invest in a tech company valued at more than a billion dollars.

In response to these questions, as well as the discrepancies raised in the Bloomberg article, Rubicon again painted itself as an underdog taking on the trash industry’s giants.

“Given the threat Rubicon poses to their core business model, it’s not surprising to see their fingerprints all over this piece,” the company said in a statement. “At Rubicon we readily acknowledge that there remains work to be done to truly transform this industry into one that prioritizes recycling and sustainability in a way that’s cost-effective and driven by technology, but our success and our competition’s reaction to that success are evidence that we are on the right track.”

I’ve previously written about what happens to startups when their optics veer too far from their actual operations, but this one is different. Rubicon is not a small startup that will fizzle into obscurity when its tech falters or its employees get laid off. This is a unicorn startup that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars and talked seriously about an IPO. It is a reminder that big ambitions, positive press, and slick marketing are not enough to build a sustainable business.

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