The Urban Millennial Lifestyle

October 22, 2019

There are — and for some time, have been — a lot of dumb, unprofitable business ideas designed to pique the interest of urban millennials (among others), and propped up by venture capital.

If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year. If you use Lime scooters to bop around the city, download Wag to walk your dog, and sign up for Blue Apron to make a meal, that’s three more brands that have never recorded a dime in earnings, or have seen their valuations fall by more than 50 percent.

Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Are the people who use these services in for a shock if the seemingly bottomless private funding for these services collapses, as it has for WeWork? It’s hard to say, as (1) that’s a pretty big if given how much potential investment capital just sits around waiting to be suckered by the next WeWork guy or Theranos lady, and (2) part of the reasons people used these services is that they were there. If you couldn’t use DoorDash or Postmates (true story, I’ve never used either), I don’t think a bunch of twenty somethings in Brooklyn would just collapse in a corner. They’d probably just get up and pick up food.

What I do find interesting is whether companies/capital look at these high-demand/low-profit businesses and think “forget it”, or do they come back and try to meet these needs with real business models?

In a lot of cases, I think there is real opportunity for right-sized companies to provide similar services with much lower revenue and growth expectations, and as a result, with less capital. Wag doesn’t need $300 million dollars in capital in order to figure out how to get people’s dogs walked, and it really doesn’t need growth targets on its back commeasurate with a company that’s raised $300 million. This is a dumb way to solve relatively simple problems, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

In other cases, all that capital is needed to subsidize a service that isn’t actually better or more efficient than the alternative. This is Uber (and probably Lyft), so it’s hard to predict what, if anything, pops up in the place of those two companies should they disappear. Do people want private car rides from independent drivers if they cost the same as a taxi? What if they cost more?

The elephant in the room, though, is that all of these companies are looking to provide services for what seems like a great demographic — young educated people with in-demand skills in areas that are often thriving economically. But even these people don’t actually have any money, as Derek Thompson (who I’m now citing twice) has also noted. So a (the?) common thread among all of the companies mentioned above is that they’re trying to provide expensive, personalized services cheaply to a bunch of people who love services but don’t have any money. In a few cases, those services can be provided more inexpensively through technology, but in most cases, technology is really just a device for laundering costs and passing them on to someone else, like a network of contractors. Alternatively, technology is used to make an expensive service easy to access on demand, and then the actual expense is covered by venture capital.

Seems like we can do better, here.