How Uber is swerving to survive post-pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis has given the ride-hailing giant a chance to strip down to the chassis and rebuild—just in time for its Fortune 500 debut.
May 18, 2020, 8:30 AM UTC

Nothing has ever been typical about Uber. 

A maverick at birth, Uber embraced rule-­breaking as a business model, what with its catch-us-if-you-can flouting of local regulators. It expanded globally long before it saturated its home market. It lost money nearly as quickly as it raised it. The startup changed out its CEO and much of its management team, and then its board of directors—all before becoming a public company. 

Now, in its first year of eligibility and only the 11th of its existence, Uber has joined the Fortune 500. Given the devastating effects on its revenue of a global pandemic that has pummeled its passenger-trip volumes by 80%, Uber might well fall off the list next year—which certainly wouldn’t be typical.

Indeed, as a result of the crisis, Uber has been forced to undergo a reset even more traumatic than the one that followed the ousting of its mercurial CEO, Travis Kalanick, in 2017. At the beginning of this year, the company had signaled it could make profits in its ride-hailing business—and just about nowhere else. Its fast-growing Uber Eats restaurant-meal delivery business was hemorrhaging money. Experiments from self-driving cars to flying taxis to a freight-­forwarding service accounted for hundreds of millions of dollars of losses. A bike and scooter business it bought in 2018 was in no better shape.

The pandemic changed everything. Suddenly food delivery became Uber’s near-term savior. Uber made moves that would have been unthinkable in its bad-boy era, like cleverly and empathetically urging riders to stay home. It offered financial and job-hunting assistance to drivers, with whom it has long had a love-hate relationship. And faced with the reality of a shriveling business, Uber moved aggressively to prune products, locations, and people in ways that were long overdue. 

A dizzying set of challenges remains, not least of which is the uncertainty around when its core business will recover. But there’s every chance the unwanted onset of COVID-19 could leave Uber more focused, and possibly more profitable, than it would have been without it. “We have to relook at all of our assumptions,” says Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, in a late-April Zoom interview from the library of his San Francisco home. “We’re making sure that we are prepared for the world as it’s going to be three months from now or 12 months from now, versus the world of yesterday.”

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Uber’s world wasn’t all that rosy as recently as a year ago. After tearing through the 2010s with breakneck expansion and achieving a private-market valuation that topped $75 billion, it prepared to go public last spring. Yet despite continued torrid topline growth—sales jumped 26% in 2019, to $14.1 billion—investors soured on the company’s unprofitability. (It lost $8.5 billion last year.) The IPO was a flop—shares debuted at a lower-than-expected $42, valuing Uber at around $70 billion, and fell by more than a third in the ensuing months. But it accomplished one critical achievement: Uber raised $8 billion.

By late February of this year, Uber began to understand how valuable that cash would be, having seen the effects of the pandemic on its revenue in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The company formed a working group in Asia to address the new coronavirus, then upgraded it to a global COVID-19 task force. On March 3, the 150 top leaders of the company from around the world were scheduled to meet in San Francisco, where Uber is based, for a management summit. Andrew Macdonald, who heads Uber’s rides business from Toronto as well as the 50-plus-person task force, says senior management canceled the gathering because health experts were warning against travel. “But more than that, we felt like leaders needed to be in place, getting ready to respond to the crisis,” says Macdonald, a 36-year-old Kalanick-era holdover whose star has risen under Khosrowshahi. 

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COOL HAND CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, a focal point of criticism since succeeding Travis Kalanick in 2017, has displayed steady nerves and a sharp pencil in guiding Uber through the coronavirus crisis.
Akio Kon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a company that had made a habit over the years of doing and saying the wrong thing, Uber showed itself capable of grace under fire. It suspended its UberPool ride-sharing option, mindful that strangers wouldn’t want to be cooped up together in a back seat. It offered short-term financial help to drivers diagnosed with COVID-19, and helped drivers migrate to making food-delivery runs. It stopped charging independent restaurants delivery fees and mobilized Uber Freight, its freight-forwarding service, to move relief supplies, at cost. Uber also provided millions of free rides to health care workers. 

Uber even devised various methods to urge customers not to request rides, an out-of-character gesture for a company once known for winning at all costs—and which relied on the passenger business for more than three-quarters of its 2019 revenue. First, it used its app to make sure riders understood local restrictions. Then its marketing group proposed a slick, PSA-style TV ad campaign and hired the prestigious agency Wieden+Kennedy to create it. Its tagline: “Thank you for not riding.” Khosrowshahi says he wasn’t initially sold on the idea, “but once I heard the messaging I was all in.”

The result of all this is a bit of a shocker: Uber’s response to a global health crisis may have done more so far to rehabilitate its image than any of its strenuous efforts during Khosrowshahi’s tenure to convince people Uber had changed. Says Jon McNeill, a former Lyft chief operating officer who is now a venture capitalist: “I think they out-‘woked’ Lyft.” 

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Before the crisis, Uber already had decided it had one other winning business in its portfolio. Begun four years ago, Uber Eats had grown to a $2.5 billion business by 2019. But it also lost $1.4 billion and trailed competitors DoorDash and Grubhub in U.S. market share. In early March, when riders had begun to stop hailing Ubers, Khosrowshahi started talking up the ability of Eats to counterbalance the lost revenues.

To a degree, that’s what happened. In April, Uber Eats saw global volume perk up by 89% (not including India, which Uber is exiting). That progress comes with caveats. Even in a quarter when its business was surging, food delivery made up only 23% of Uber’s overall sales, up from 18% for all of 2019. And the “take rate,” Uber’s share of the total check, is around 11% on food orders, roughly half its haul for a passenger trip. 

Still, Uber is so enthusiastic about the Uber Eats lifeline that it is busily adding new delivery products. At press time, news accounts said that Uber had approached publicly traded Grubhub about an acquisition. In the meantime, it’s been adding other services. In April, the company announced Uber Direct, a delivery service for retailers, and Uber Connect, a courier service for individuals. “I don’t think we’re going to be delivering packages in three days,” says Khosrowshahi. “But if you need something within 30 minutes to a few hours, we think we can deliver that service better than anyone else can.”

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HOT RIDES An Uber Eats driver picks up a meal at a restaurant in Hong Kong. Global order volume for the food-delivery service soared 89%, even as Uber’s core passenger service cratered.
Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Such offerings provoke a sense of déjà vu because Uber ran a similar (and unsuccessful) service called UberRush before killing it in 2018. Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, a 35-year-old French citizen and an eight-year veteran of the company, recently was named to run Eats and the other delivery businesses. He says Uber’s scale, and its scars, will help it succeed this time. “There have been nuances, and we’ll learn from the mistakes,” he says in an interview from Amsterdam, where he is based. Gore-Coty also oversees Uber’s push into grocery delivery, where competitors include Walmart, Amazon, and startup Instacart. The company is buying a majority stake in Cornershop, which delivers groceries in Chile and Mexico as well as two U.S. locations. 

Uber confronts fierce competition in each of its delivery markets and, like its competitors, it has for years incentivized drivers and restaurants to choose it over its rivals, losing money as a result. In that regard, a wrecked economy could benefit Uber and its foes alike. Given the dire employment situation and the shaky state of dining businesses worldwide, says Mark ­Mahaney, an e-commerce analyst with RBC, “they will not need to subsidize drivers or restaurants anymore.” 

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Investors dramatically bid down Uber’s shares in March, driving the price below $14 as it became apparent what a U.S. lockdown would mean to its business. The stock rebounded above $30 primarily for one reason: It is widely perceived the company has enough cash from its IPO and other fundraising to ride out the storm. Still, the well isn’t bottomless. At the end of March, Uber had $9 billion in cash. But that was down from more than $11 billion at the beginning of 2020. The company has warned that in a worst-case scenario its cash could dwindle to $4 billion by year-end. 

I think you should constantly look at rationalizing your portfolio, and we are. It would be foolish not to, especially with the kinds of changes that have happened with COVID.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi

Uber doesn’t expect a quick return of its passenger business. Behavior in China, which is further along the economic recovery curve than most countries, suggests an uneven ride. Early indications there suggest that commuters prefer ride-hailing to mass transit, but they choose their own cars over ride-hailing. Airport runs, 15% of Uber’s pre-pandemic revenue, will be suppressed for some time, as will trips to bars and restaurants. UberPool, the cost-splitting service, isn’t likely to return until the pandemic passes completely. 

The company is certain to use the business decline to dramatically lower its costs. In early May it cut 3,700 positions in customer support and recruiting. It also effectively paid the startup Lime to take Uber’s bikes and scooters business in exchange for Uber investing $85 million in Lime. (A sign of how badly the unit was foundering: Uber said the deal will lower its annual operating losses by $164 million.) Uber also will leave eight Eats markets where it reaps a negligible share of its bookings. 

These cuts are just the beginning. Uber promised investors on a May 7 earnings call that it would eliminate $1 billion in costs. It has hinted there will be more layoffs, this time to corporate staff. It also is widely expected the company will trim or eliminate completely its self-driving car business, Uber Freight, and Elevate, the outfit trying to build a flying taxi. Khosrowshahi, a former investment banker and later a dealmaking CEO at online travel giant Expedia, is blunt about the cost-cutting. “I think you should constantly look at rationalizing your portfolio, and we are,” he says. “It would be foolish not to, especially with the kinds of changes that have happened with COVID.” As Nelson Chai, Uber’s chief financial officer, said on the call with investors, “The reality is the world has changed. There are no sacred cows.” 

Uber also faces an existential threat that has nothing to do with COVID-19. The State of California enacted a law in January, AB 5, that specifically targeted “gig workers” at Uber and similar companies. The goal of the legislation was to compel Uber to classify drivers as employees rather than contractors. Uber contends its drivers don’t qualify as employees, and it joined with Lyft and others to raise $110 million to place an initiative on the November ballot that will exempt the companies. In May, California’s attorney general filed suit against Uber and Lyft, arguing that the companies are depriving drivers of benefits like paid sick leave and unemployment insurance. A loss in court or at the ballot box would be devastating for Uber. The company hasn’t quantified the cost of having to classify drivers as employees, but Barclays analyst Ross Sandler projects that the reclassification would add $500 million in operating losses annually.

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Khosrowshahi enjoyed a honeymoon when he first arrived at Uber, so dramatic was the contrast between his suave and genial character and Kalanick’s in-your-face abrasiveness. But when investors soured on Uber’s losses after its IPO last May, he went from hero to goat. He suffered numerous departures from his senior management team, including the chief operating officer he brought over from Expedia. The rap among Uber watchers was that Khosrowshahi was merely a numbers guy: neither an operator nor an innovator.

The crisis has put his qualities in a new light—and given the CEO a second chance. His demeanor inspires confidence, especially when the world is falling apart. After all, a cool hand and a sharp pencil will be more useful these days than hard-charging bluster. “Travis would’ve been commandeering test kits from South Korea and talking about driving Lyft into the ground,” says a banker who knows both CEOs. At this point, Khosrowshahi doesn’t have to drive anyone else into the ground. He just needs to keep Uber on the road. 

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Uber everything

The ride-hailing giant has multiple business lines, but not all will outlast COVID-19.

Delivering people

The Rides business is the original product that made “Uber” a globally recognized verb. It’s the bulk of the company, accounting for 76% of 2019 sales.

Delivering things

Uber Eats made up 18% of revenues last year. The restaurant-food-delivery business is unprofitable, but in demand right now as dining-in options shrink. Uber sees an opportunity to use its delivery network to move merchandise from retailers, packages on behalf of individuals, and groceries.

Freight forwarding

The nascent Uber Freight competes against logistics stalwarts, a bet that Uber’s algorithms can outweigh the competition’s experience.

Bikes and scooters

Uber bought startup Jumpin 2018, but essentially gave the business to Lime, another startup, this May. Uber also invested $85 million in Lime.

Self-driving cars

Uber’s Advanced Technology Group once promised to anchor a driverless ride-hailing network. But the unit loses hundreds of millions and faces stiff competition.

Flying taxis

A flight of fancy, Uber Elevate isn’t likely to survive the pandemic.

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Uber swerves to survive.”