by Scott Denne
Heading toward an IPO, Lyft remains miles from profitability, and it may not be able to count on the burst of growth that drove its initial rise to get it there. In its first act, the ride-hailing service, along with its rival, Uber, disrupted an existing market (taxis). In its second act, it’s looking to build a new market by turning its network to bikes and scooters. Despite the long road to profitability, Lyft, which recently filed its S-1, could still see a warm welcome on the street.
The company finished 2018 with nearly $2.2bn in annual revenue, slightly more than double its year-earlier total and more than 5x 2016’s topline. Such growth, of course, came at a cost – it posted a $977m loss last year. Most of Lyft’s operational costs rose in tandem with revenue through 2018. While it became more disciplined with its sales and marketing spending – just a bit more than one-third of its revenue went toward sales and marketing expenses, down from more than half in 2017 – much of that goes toward incentives and refunds for drivers and riders. With Lyft still battling with Uber for both groups, it’s difficult to see that cost shrinking by much more.
Growth in its core business, while still immense, doesn’t appear to have the kind of momentum that could overcome its outstanding losses. Lyft’s expanding number of riders has decelerated. In the fourth quarter, the number of active riders using Lyft rose just 7% from the third quarter, marking the first time that sequential quarterly growth in riders dipped into the single digits. A portion of those riders (though likely a modest portion) rented bikes and scooters – a business that generated immaterial revenue for Lyft today but not immaterial costs, as the company owns those vehicles. It spent $68m on its burgeoning scooter fleet last year and another $251m to acquire bike-sharing vendor Motivate, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase.
Don’t expect those caution flags to keep Lyft from garnering a higher valuation in its IPO. The company last raised money over the summer with a $600m funding round that came with a $15.1bn post-money valuation. Just to match that would imply a valuation that’s 7.2x trailing revenue, a mark that should be easy to hit given Wall Street’s embrace of Silicon Valley’s most-lauded businesses. Snap, for example, still commands a 10x multiple even after losing two-thirds of its value since its debut.
Moreover, Lyft could be coming public in a welcoming environment. According to 451 Research’s VoCUL, 22% of survey respondents said they were more confident in the stock market in February than they were 90 days ago, marking the highest such reading in more than a year.