Lyft Inc’s rocky road as a public company should be a warning for other high-fliers hoping to hit it off with stock investors. It is ugly out there for the elite start-up superstars.
Lyft said in its second-quarter earnings report on Wednesday that the rate of revenue growth slowed less than it had forecast and that losses weren’t as bad as investors expected. Still, even the company’s slightly raised forecast for 2019 revenue growth of as much as 62% would represent a comedown from last year, when Lyft’s revenue was doubling or more year-over-year. Both Lyft and rival Uber Technologies Inc are posting slowing growth at the same time they’re telling investors that they’re just barely scratching the surface of their potential.
Lyft shares were initially higher in after-hours trading following the release of the earnings report but then retreated. Questions about Lyft’s slowing growth, high losses and the general viability of on-demand transportation have pushed its share price far below the $72 at which the company sold stock in its initial public offering in March. Shares of Uber have also been underwater since its IPO. And those two are far from alone in their misery.
In addition to the decline in shares of Uber and Lyft, the prices for Snapchat, Dropbox Inc, Spotify Technology SA and China’s Xiaomi Corp. and Meituan Dianping are also below their IPO levels.
For many of the top tier of richly valued young technology companies, the early message from public investors has been clear: If the company’s business model is a string of question marks and there are few public precedents and high losses, stock buyers are not greeting them with open arms. The lacklustre performance of the unicorn elites isn’t a great set-up for WeWork Cos., Postmates Inc, Didi Chuxing Inc and others in the crop of still-private start-up elite edging to go public soon, with even-bigger-than-Uber-sized doubts about their viability and wild valuations.
Many more richly valued start-ups remain private, so it’s too soon to call the elite unicorn crop a success or failure. But if the top-flight start-ups are being greeted with scepticism in the midst of an unprecedented decade-long bull market for US stocks, what happens when and if market conditions deteriorate?
There are notable exceptions to the public investor shunning of unicorns. Investors are crazy in love with young tech companies that sell software or other products to businesses. The tier of tech start-ups below the richly valued elites such as Uber — think Zoom Video and Stitch Fix Inc — have typically fared better than many of the superstars. Pinterest Inc, the online scrapbook, has a familiar advertising-based business model, seems to be managing itself well and has a share price that reflects hopes rather than fears. (A familiar business model hasn’t helped the less competently managed Snap Inc Even after a wild run-up this year, Snap shares are trading below the price at which the company went public in early 2017.)
Even with the declines, there probably aren’t many regrets among the early backers of the elite unicorns. Investors who bought shares of companies such as Lyft and Snap early in their lives have made a fortune. Even stock buyers who bought at significantly higher prices soon before the IPO may feel fine about the investments because they were adding to stakes built earlier or they were making relatively small starter investments for giant investment funds.
This underscores why the last decade of start-up investing has been so odd. It has been economically rational for investors to pour money into young companies and prod them to grow as big and fast as possible. Even when those start-ups aren’t home runs if they become public companies, those early backers have done fine, or far more than fine.
There are few losers, then. The early backers of elite start-ups are in the black. Buyers of public stocks can shun the young companies if they are too speculative once they go public. It’s all good — except for the start-ups themselves, perhaps. They are the ones under the most pressure to figure out how to thrive far into the future.