Uber’s new plan: Slim down to get ahead

Uber’s big spending on far-out bets like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence research may be over. With its latest cost-cutting on Monday, the company made clear that it plans to slim down by focusing on rides and deliveries, and jettisoning most everything else.

On Monday, Uber announced it would lay off 3,000 employees, along with closing or consolidating nearly 40 offices. The cutbacks come on top of the company slashing 3,700 jobs earlier this month. The measures, which reduce Uber’s headcount by 25%, are expected to help save $1 billion annually.

For both layoff rounds and in a conference call with investors earlier this month, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi stressed his new plan to prioritize revenue-generating services over risky bets. His comments marked a huge change in direction for Uber, which, for years, has hemorrhaged cash.

“We have decided to refocus our efforts on our core,” Khosrowshahi said in a letter to employees on Monday. He added, ominously: “We need to fundamentally change the way we operate.”

Analysts say the new strategy will help Uber emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, which has decimated its rides business, as a leaner and more financially responsible company. The cuts, including exiting “money-losing markets and business lines,” are unlikely to be revisited after the pandemic is over, said Tom White, an analyst at investment bank D.A. Davidson. 

Even before the pandemic, Uber had planned to tighten its belt after losing $8.5 billion in 2019. James Cordwell, an analyst at brokerage firm Atlantic Equities, said the pandemic has given Uber still more of a reason to make the cuts it arguably already needed but had so far avoided. “You could argue this crisis is a great thing for Uber’s business,” he said. “It enables them to slim down…and emerge stronger than most of their competitors.”

While Uber’s ride-hailing business has suffered recently, the outbreak has helped to accelerate the growth of its food delivery service, Eats, after many cities limited restaurants to selling meals for takeout. And while the gains in food deliveries help bring in extra revenue, they don’t make up for the decline in its rides business, which dropped 80% in April alone.

In recent months, Uber has been tweaking its Eats business by exiting unprofitable markets and expanding into grocery delivery. The company is also in talks to acquire food-delivery rival Grubhub, Bloomberg reported last week. “We no longer need to look far for the next enormous growth opportunity,” Khosrowshahi said in Monday’s note to employees, referring to the Eats business. “We are sitting right on top of one.”

As part of Monday’s cuts, Uber said it would shutter its internal incubator, which was responsible for partnerships with public transit agencies. It’s also closing its AI Labs, a group created in 2016 for artificial intelligence research, while also looking for “strategic alternatives” for Uber Works, a project that debuted last year to help temporary employees find jobs.  

While it’s more focused on being smaller and nimbler, the company also faces challenges with its food delivery businesses and declining rides business, Cordwell said. Although growing rapidly, the Eats business still loses money, and it’s unclear whether rides will ever return to pre-pandemic levels. It also means, at least in his opinion, continuing to push ahead in some side businesses like freight, in which Uber matches truck drivers with shipping companies.

“They have to be careful not to throw the baby out with bathwater,” Cordwell said. 

But many of the cuts may be determined by when the pandemic ebbs, over which Uber has no control. And while Khosrowshahi regularly boasts about Uber’s $8 billion in cash, that safety net could quickly disappear during a prolonged pandemic.

If more cuts are needed, Uber’s self-driving unit, unmentioned in association with the latest cuts, could be a potential target, said White of D.A. Davidson. Last year, the unit, which has received some funding from Toyota, Denso, and SoftBank, lost $499 million, excluding certain expenses. “That’s particularly an area they could reduce overhead and expense,” White said.

Either way, it’s safe to say growth at any cost is now a thing of the past.  

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