Uber isn't in Kansas anymore

CLIV

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Storytelling.

This spring, I took a course on valuation, or, the theory of how to value something, usually a company, with Aswath Damodaran at NYU. The aptly named “Dean of Valuation” has valued Uber a handful of times, and most recently concluded it was worth about $60 billion, plus or minus a few billion dollars based on your approach.

Damodaran in his class emphasizes that valuation is not an art or a science, but a craft. A good valuation, he says, is a bridge between stories and numbers. Every story should have a number attached to it, and every number a story behind it.

As private technology companies, Uber and Lyft were surrounded by people who told big stories with even bigger numbers. Uber’s story—personal transportation and logistics, for the world!—had venture capitalists valuing it at nearly $70 billion as early as August 2016. The pressure to expand the story never went away. In Uber’s IPO filing, it framed the total market for its rides service as the 4.7 trillion vehicle miles traveled in trips under 30 miles in the 63 countries where it operated in 2018, of which Uber said trips taken on its platform made up less than 1%.

It strikes me that as these unicorns go public, what we really are witnessing is the collision of very different stories. Bankers, in their early proposals, somehow figured out a way to value Uber at up to $120 billion, a story that now looks like a fairy tale. When the company finally priced its IPO last week, it did so at $45 a share for a market cap of around $82 billion, the low end of its expected range.

So far, public investors seem to think even that was too high. After falling 7.6% from its $45 IPO price in its first day of trading, May 10, Uber tumbled another 11% on May 13 to $37.10. The debut wasn’t helped by an escalating US-China trade war that pushed major indices sharply lower on May 13. At the end of that day, Uber’s market cap had fallen to $62.2 billion, its lowest point since private funding in July 2015 valued the ride-hail company at $51 billion. On Wall Street, people have gone from celebrating the $120 billion story to wondering how bankers indulged in such fantasies.

“Obviously our stock did not trade as well as we had hoped post-IPO,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a note to staff on May 13. The stock rebounded a bit yesterday and this morning alongside the broader market.

Lyft, which went public in late March, hasn’t fared much better. The company’s stock most recently closed at $50.52, roughly 30% off its $72 IPO price. It took less than three weeks for the first shareholder lawsuits to accuse Lyft of overhyping its prospects. For the first quarter of 2019, Lyft reported a loss of $1.1 billion on $776 million in revenue—more than it lost in all of 2018.

Khosrowshahi has urged employees to focus on Uber’s long-term prospects. “Remember that the Facebook and Amazon post-IPO trading was incredibly difficult for those companies,” he wrote in his staff note. “And look at how they have delivered since.”

Uber employees aren’t the only ones with a lot riding on the company’s public fate. While early investors are bound to make a killing, Uber’s biggest later-stage backers bought in at a much higher price. Softbank, for instance, Uber’s single largest shareholder, paid $48.77 per share for a chunk of series G preferred stock in January 2018, though it purchased the bulk of its stake from existing shareholders and employees at a discounted price of $32.97. Other series G investors such as Tiger Global Management, T. Rowe Price, and the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund may also have bought in at $48.77 per share, a figure higher than both Uber’s IPO and current market price.

Softbank also slipped lower on May 13. “It’s a bit hard to be sure, but I think the performance of Uber is probably the biggest driver of Softbank’s fall,” Morningstar analyst Dan Baker told CNBC. “SoftBank is long ride hailing through the Vision Fund and the performance of both Uber and Lyft since listing may have lowered investors’ expectations on what SoftBank’s investments in the space are worth.”

Entrepreneurial opportunity.

The National Labor Relations Board released an April 16 memo yesterday that says Uber drivers are independent contractors, not employees, under US labor law. The decision, hardly surprising under a Trump-appointed NLRB, makes it even less likely that Uber drivers in the US will ever see certain protections afforded to traditional employees, such as the right to form a union.

The NLRB decision relied on a ruling from January that found shuttle van drivers for SuperShuttle to be independent contractors, not employees, and stripped them of the right to unionize. As I said at the time:

This case is not about Uber, and yet it is entirely about Uber. SuperShuttle’s business model is a shabby, low-tech version of Uber. The company enlists shuttle drivers who own their vehicles and pay their on-the-job expenses. It provides them with a dispatch system to receive ride requests. The thesis on which the labor board based its decision—that SuperShuttle drivers are not employees because they “have total autonomy to set their own work schedule”—could easily have been penned by Uber.

In its April 16 memo, the NLRB wrote that “the level of company control should be assessed in the context of its effect on entrepreneurial opportunity.” The board made a similar observation in the SuperShuttle case. It concludes that because Uber lets drivers set their own schedules, choose where they log into the app, and work for competitors, the company offers them “significant opportunities for economic gain and, ultimately, entrepreneurial independence”:

The Board’s recent decision in SuperShuttle squarely supports the conclusion that the extent of company control—by minimally impacting economic and entrepreneurial opportunity—weighs in favor of independent-contractor status for the UberX drivers. Indeed, UberX drivers had more entrepreneurial opportunity than the drivers in SuperShuttle, who could control their earnings by selecting specific trips based on profitability, because UberX drivers could base decisions about where and when to log in on time-limited earnings opportunities like “surge” fares and their total freedom to work for competitors.

Case closed, at least for this NLRB.

Scooters!

Bird, the shared electric scooters company, would like to sell you a scooter. The Bird One is the industry’s “most durable e-scooter for sharing and ownership,” Bird says in a recent press release. Bird One comes in three colors: jet black, dove white, and electric rose. It’s available for preorder now, with delivery expected in the summer. Oh, and it costs $1,299.

What is Bird thinking?” asks Fortune, and, well, here’s a guess. A Bird One presumably costs less than $1,299 to manufacture, meaning Bird can turn a profit on each sale. That would be a big improvement on Bird’s current business model of hoping each scooter in its shared fleet generates enough revenue to offset its purchase purchase price and operating costs before being stolen, vandalized, or just getting too banged up to ride. (The rebranded Xiaomi scooters Bird initially deployed on its platform definitely weren’t cutting it.) Bird’s scooter preorder page also hints at additional fees for services like GPS tracking and “advanced network connectivity,” suggesting the full price of a Bird One could not only top $1,299, but also have some sort of recurring software licensing component, sort of like the Peloton model.

The Bird One will appear in Bird’s shared fleets in addition to being sold for individual use. Bird has made several tweaks to this model to make it better suited for sharing, such as improving the scooter’s battery life and range, and increasing its weight limit to 220 pounds. The Xiaomi scooters had a weight limit of 200 lbs, barely more than the weight of the average American man.

Bird, in its ongoing quest to build a sustainable or at least less-money-losing business, has already marketed a franchise program, raised prices, and introduced a subscription-style offering in San Francisco and Barcelona that costs $25 a month. Building a more durable scooter strikes me as the most important thing the company can do, considering how wildly unsustainable some of them seem to be, and Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden seems to agree. “We’ve been hard at work on future hardware as well, with even bigger batteries and more ruggedized [scooters],” he told the Verge last week. “If it makes sense from an economic standpoint, and ideally improves the rider experience, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Hidden fees.

Postmates is up to its old tricks, according to a class-action complaint filed in US District Court for the Southern District of New York on May 1. The complaint alleges Postmates “has made false, misleading statements that are likely to deceive reasonable customers.” It specifically cites Postmates’ service fee, which is concealed behind a box in the order checkout process titled “taxes and fees.”

The plaintiff also alleges that Postmates’ online ads promising to deliver “Anything. Anytime. Anywhere” is “false, misleading, and likely to deceive reasonable customers, such as Plaintiff and members of the Class, because the Service is not able to deliver ‘Anything. Anytime. Anywhere.’”

I mean look, I feel like most “reasonable customers” would see that for an ad and not a true honest-to-god promise. It’s not like anyone expects Postmates to deliver them a burrito on an airplane. As for the hidden fees, this racket has been going on for a long time—please see the cautionary tale of Shawn Cook—but if someone feels like suing over it now, more power to them.

This time last year.

Uber ends forced arbitration for sexual harassment, Cereal saves Airbnb

Other stuff.

WeWork wants to be its own landlord. Uber Eats needs to deliver more than ever. Amazon paying employees to start their own delivery companies. Amazon rolls out machines to automate packing customer orders. Uber tests Uber Comfort. Lyft experimenting with rental cars. Uber settles most arbitration claims. Airbnb hires Chief Trust Officer. IPO bubble not boosting SF housing prices. Uber talking with Nuro to test autonomous Eats delivery in Houston. Profile of Uber CFO Nelson Chai. Profile of Uber co-founder Garrett Camp. Social-good investment firm touts strong returns. Boxed looks for spot on grocery shelves. HelloFresh now selling regular TV dinners. Harry’s razors bought for $1.4 billion. The second time around, Kozmo.com is profitable. Semiretired millennials.


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Uber drivers strike ahead of Uber IPO

CLIII

Hello and welcome to Oversharing, a newsletter about the proverbial sharing economy. If you’re returning from two weeks ago, thanks! If you’re new, nice to have you! (Over)share the love and tell your friends to sign up here.


The prom.

Uber Technologies Inc. plans to go to the proverbial prom this week, in an IPO that could value it between $80 billion and $90 billion, per the Wall Street Journal. As much fun as I’ve made of this particular Travisism, prom is actually not a bad metaphor for what’s about to happen. An initial public offering, like the prom, follows a period of great anticipation, excitement, and anxiety. It’s the natural ending of one phase and the natural start of another. Uber hasn’t really been a startup for a long time, but an IPO brings those startup days to both a formal and a symbolic end.

It’s also fitting that in the days leading up to its IPO, the Uber news cycle is being dominated by a global Uber driver strike. Drivers have gathered to protest Uber and its labor practices in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC. Protesters are also reportedly convening in Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, Nigeria, and the UK, among other countries.

The strike has garnered a fair amount of Twitter buzz, with support from Bernie Sanders and Catastrophe co-star Rob Delaney, and been covered extensively online and on cable news. How the demonstrations are going is less clear. The New York Post, for instance, reported earlier today that the strike was a “flop,” with cars plentiful and surge pricing scarce (the actual strike was scheduled for only two hours, from 7am to 9am). In San Francisco, things are only just getting underway, with 12 hours of demonstrations starting at noon local time. In London, hundreds of drivers began protesting at 9am local time and marched through the city.

Collective action has largely eluded drivers over Uber’s 10-year history. Uber regards its drivers as independent contractors, and in the US there are no collective bargaining rights afforded to contractors. Early attempts at strikes by driver groups were easily broken up by the company, which could pull one of its many levers—surge pricing, promotions, and so on—to ensure a critical mass of drivers stayed on the road. Uber has aggressively fought a first-of-its-kind 2015 law in Seattle that gave local drivers permission to unionize. It preempted a similar effort in New York City by sanctioning the Independent Drivers Guild, a non-union driver advocacy group that helped organize the strike taking place today.

I took an Uber earlier today, which I suppose makes me a bad person, but I was in suburban Connecticut and needed a ride to the train station, and had no other options. My driver, a nice guy named Andre, said he’d only briefly heard of the strike from a family member who saw it on TV, but didn’t know any details of where or when it was happening, or what was expected of him. We chatted about what it’s like driving for Uber and Lyft, how rising gas prices have depressed his wages, and New York City’s effort to set a pay floor for drivers. Andre is hoping that once Uber goes public, it will finally get serious about giving drivers the recognition they deserve.

While an IPO seems unlikely to make Uber change its ways, it’s also hard to see what a strike accomplishes. The public pressure may last a few days, but sooner or later people need to make money and get places, and Uber for all its faults helps them do that. The company emerged not unscathed but intact from 2017, a year that makes today look like a comparative blip. More to the point, Uber counted 3.9 million drivers on its platform as of Dec. 31, 2018. Tens, even hundreds, of thousands of those drivers could go on strike before the impact was really felt.

Drivers are understandably angry that Uber employees are about to get rich while they get additional pennies per trip, yet the company is still hemorrhaging money, and it’s unclear whether Uber could pay drivers more even if it wanted to. In New York City, where minimum driver pay rules took effect in February, the company paused new driver signups and said in an amended IPO filing that the rules “had a negative impact on our financial performance” in the first quarter. Uber, as we talked about before, has also basically admitted that it thinks of drivers as comparable to restaurant service workers, and that taking a bigger share of the fare is its path to profitability.

The tough reality is that Uber isn’t designed for workers to make good money, whatever it may have told them in the past, and it probably never was. Ahead of its IPO, no amount of striking will change that.

“Bending cost curves.”

Lyft Inc. is no longer a startup but it still loses money like the best of them. Lyft lost $1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2019 on $776 million in revenue, a hit it attributed to $894 million in stock-based compensation and related payroll tax expenses triggered by its March IPO. The company lost $234 million on $397 million in revenue during the same period in 2018.

Lyft said active riders, or the number of people who took at least one ride on a Lyft service during the quarter, increased by 46% year over year to 20.5 million, and that revenue per active rider jumped 34% to $37.86. Those rider numbers were likely boosted by the $275 million Lyft spent on sales and marketing in the first quarter, or $230 million excluding the portion related to stock-based compensation, up from $169 million in the first quarter of 2018.

Despite that sizable increase in marketing, Lyft chief financial officer Brian Roberts noted “competitive pressure in terms of rider incentives has recently receded” and said the industry was “becoming increasingly rational” on pricing. Lyft chose not to report gross bookings, a measure of the total dollar value of sales made through its platform that Uber has long shared with its investors.

Lyft’s first-ever quarterly earnings report as a public company made clear that it prefers to focus on its adjusted net loss, which strips out most of those stock-based compensation costs and related payroll tax expenses. By this measure, Lyft lost only $212 million in the first quarter, a lot better than $1.1 billion and also an improvement from an adjusted net loss of $228 million in the first quarter of 2018.

Whether Lyft should strip these costs out is a separate question. NYU finance professor and valuation guru Aswath Damodaran has long critiqued this treatment of stock-based compensation, arguing that stock-based compensation is how companies pay and retain employees they otherwise couldn’t afford. Here is Damodaran discussing a similar move by Twitter in 2014:

Attempting to give Twitter, the benefit of the doubt, the rationale for adding back the expense to get to adjusted EBITDA is that it a non-cash expense (though I will take issue with that claim later in this post), but that cannot be the rationale for adding it back to get to net profit, since net profit is an accounting earnings number, not a cash flow. One possible explanation that can be offered (and it is a real stretch) is that Twitter views stock-based compensation as an extraordinary expense that will not recur in future years and that the adjusted net income should therefore be viewed as a measure of continuing income.  I will believe this explanation, if I see Twitter stop using stock-based compensation, but I don't see how they can afford to. They have a lot of employees, some of whom are highly paid, and they cannot afford to pay them cash.

Asked by an analyst to discuss the company’s path to profitability, which remains tremendously unclear, Roberts pointed to a variety of customized accounting figures, including the improved adjusted net loss, while pointedly ignoring that $1.1 billion number. “We have teams across the company dedicated to initiatives that will help us grow more profitably in the core ridesharing business by both bending cost curves and increasing the efficiency of growth levers,” he said, a perfectly vague answer fit for a public company executive.

Scooters!

Over 936,110 scooter trips from Sept. 5, 2018, through Nov. 30, 2018, in Austin, Texas, an estimated 190 riders were injured, or about 20 per every 100,000 trips, according to the results of an “epidemiological investigation” released by Austin Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 1.

The study was the first in which researchers interviewed dockless e-scooter riders to learn more about the circumstances of their injuries. These circumstances tended to include riding on the street, going faster than expected, consuming alcohol, and perceived scooter malfunctions, like the brakes not working. About half of riders met the National Transportation Safety Board criteria for a “severe injury,” typically involving either bone fractures or nerve, tendon, and ligament injuries. Almost half of riders sustained some sort of wound to the head, with about 15% potentially suffering a traumatic brain injury such as a concussion.

Dockless e-scooters look like larger versions of the classic children’s toy, with their sleek designs and bright colors, but they go much faster on streets much busier than the neighborhood cul-de-sac. I recently tried one in Washington DC and was surprised by how fast 7 or 8 miles per hour feels—and most scooters go up to 15mph—when standing bolt upright on a narrow platform with only the handlebars to hold.

Scooter riders also don’t tend to wear helmets, as evidenced by the number of head injuries in the Austin study, and scooter companies have only tepidly encouraged helmet use among riders, with advisories in the app and the occasional offer to ship a free or discounted helmet to a customer’s home. Bird, for instance, says it will ship one helmet to each active rider for $9.99 to cover shipping, but what would the rider do with the helmet after that? Half the appeal of the scooter model is spontaneity; you are out for a walk and see a scooter, and grab it to accelerate your journey from point A to point B. It seems unlikely that the casual scooter rider would take to carrying around a helmet with them the same way a veteran cyclist might. Plenty more scooter riders probably never even consider that they should wear a helmet to go a couple miles on a device that resembles a toy they had as a child.

Since companies like Bird, Lime, Scoot, Spin, and Skip popularized dockless e-scooters last year, the devices have been linked to hundreds of injuries and a handful of deaths. In one of the latest tragedies, a 5-year-old boy died in late April after he fell from the Lime scooter his mother was driving and was hit by a car in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Scooters, of course, remain much safer than cars. There were 16.9 deaths from motor vehicle crashes per 100,000 licensed drivers in 2016 in the US, according to the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There were 1,418 injuries per 100,000 licensed drivers. Austin’s statistics aren’t exactly comparable, as they give injuries per number of trips rather than active riders, but they are an order of magnitude lower. In 2015, 818 cyclists died in motor vehicle crashes, making them 2.3% of all motor vehicle fatalities, and another roughly 45,000 were injured, according to NHTSA.

Is “safer than cars” good enough? Austin Public Health and the CDC say their study likely underestimates scooter injuries, as anyone who sought care at an urgent care center or doctor’s office, or didn’t seek care at all, wasn’t included. They suggest many of these injuries could have been avoided with greater helmet use, as less than 1% of riders were wearing a helmet when they were injured. And they clearly think scooters shouldn’t go so fast. Thirty-seven percent of riders attributed their injuries to “excessive e-scooter speed,” to which the researchers concede, “This perception may be true.”

WePO.

The We Company, yet another startup to distinguish itself by the tremendous amount of money it loses, has filed for an IPO. According to the Wall Street Journal, The We Company, formerly WeWork, in December filed confidentially for an offering, a move that “caught many observers and even some investors by surprise.” WeWork made its filing without the help of bankers, the Journal reported, an unusual move even for a self-proclaimed capitalist kibbutz, and perhaps part of the reason why the filing went undetected for so long (over at Axios, Dan Primack points out that no bankers means no leakers). Here is more from the Journal:

The public markets would mark a huge test for WeWork, which has long attracted scrutiny from landlords, analysts and many tech investors for its lofty valuation assigned by private investors, especially when compared with real-estate companies in similar businesses. WeWork is primarily focused on real estate, renting long-term space, renovating it, then dividing the offices and subleasing them on a short-term basis to other companies. Chief Executive Adam Neumann and his deputies have said investors should treat WeWork more akin to a tech company, pointing to its rapid growth and various services it eventually hopes to offer that cater to its tenants.

It is also aided by strong demand from a generation of young workers and large companies seeking hipper offices and which laud its avant-garde design and offerings like kombucha on tap.

I really hope kombucha is mentioned in the IPO filing.

This time last year.

“Earnings excluding gluten” and other suggested startup accounting schemes

Other stuff.

Uber’s Stunning Journey to a $90 Billion IPO Changed Transportation Forever. PayPal puts $500 million behind Uber. Goldman Sachs could see 12,000% return on $5 million Uber bet. In tight labor market, gig workers harder to please. Invest in the gig economy with this ETF. Waymo deploys self-driving cars on Lyft. The accounting practice that should raise eyebrows at Uber and Lyft. Wheely raises $15 million for luxury ride-hail app. Boston’s Logan Airport passes fee increases for Uber and Lyft. Bronx man sentenced to 39 months in prison for scheme to defraud ride-hail drivers. Can Uber Ever Make Money? Airbnb says no city makes up more than 1% of listings. Instacart adds new features to improve relations with shoppers. How much Americans spend on groceries every month. That time America almost banned chain grocery stores. Uber adds public transit ticketing to its app. Uber and Lyft “biggest contributors” to congestion in San Francisco. Whale With Harness Could Be Russian Weapon. Who Controls a Tech Company Once It Goes Public? Women’s health-care startup Nurx shipped returned drugs to customers. I Fell Out of Love With Microsoft Excel, Because Google Sheets Is Better.


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Send tips, comments, and scooter injury reports to @alisongriswold on Twitter, or oversharingstuff@gmail.com.

Some Uber drivers still don't know what they actually earn driving for Uber

CLII

Hello and welcome to Oversharing, a newsletter about the proverbial sharing economy. If you’re returning from last week, thanks! If you’re new, nice to have you! (Over)share the love and tell your friends to sign up here.


Slippery wages.

Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor released a two-year report (pdf) on the working conditions of 40 Uber drivers in the Washington DC area. The top-level points:

  • Uber drivers don’t know how much they earn (or lose)

  • Regulators and researchers lack information on driver work conditions

  • 33% of Uber drivers took on debt relating to the job

  • 30% of drivers reported physical assaults or safety concerns

  • And yet, 50% of drivers would recommend it to a friend, and 45% planned to continue for at least six months

The researchers define the “complex and difficult-to-track set of earnings and expenses” involved in working for Uber as a “slippery wage.” They cite a conversation with a 53-year-old Uber driver, Suzanna, who said her weekly pay is hard to measure “because it changes every time they change the rules.” During its time in DC, Uber has cut the base rates drivers earn, added a rider safety fee (later renamed a booking fee), and increased its own commission. Driver wages also became harder to predict when Uber introduced upfront pricing in 2016, which decoupled driver earnings from the fare the rider paid, with Uber pocketing the difference between the two.

Uber’s take rate on rides improved to 21% in 2017 from 16% in 2016 “as a result of declining Driver incentives,” the company said in its S-1. It ticked up again, to 22% in 2018, on “increases to booking fees in select markets.”

In other words, Uber’s fare games have helped it improve margins, often at the expense of drivers. From the Georgetown report:

Of the 40 drivers in this study, 83% knew what percentage of their fares Uber took but 38% did not know how Uber determined the amount drivers took home on a single fare (whether, for instance, the booking fee is removed before or after Uber takes its commission), whether they were required to buy commercial insurance, or how tax filing worked at the end of the year. This varying degree of knowledge about compensation details could have been expected if the majority of drivers in our study were new to the Uber platform. But they were not. Seventy percent of the drivers in this study had worked on the Uber platform for at least seven months.

Such realities of driving for Uber aren’t exactly news. Technology ethnographer Alex Rosenblat documented these problems in her book, Uberland, writing, “Drivers operate at an information disadvantage, and so it is harder for them to make full and informed decisions as independent contractors about the work they do.” The US Federal Trade Commission investigated Uber’s messaging to drivers, and fined it $20 million for greatly exaggerating what drivers could earn, as well as the terms of its vehicle financing programs. Even Uber, in spite of its aspirational marketing around earning “on your terms,” admitted in its IPO filing that it views the gig as “comparable to that available in retail, wholesale, or restaurant services or other similar work.”

The problem is that Uber has never been clear about these realities to drivers; Uber sold drivers on the job using unrealistic earnings expectations and it has struggled to wean them from those expectations ever since. Uber told the Washington Post the company “has changed a lot since this research was started,” but the fundamentals of the business—that Uber sets rider fares and driver earnings and has only so many ways to improve its own take—remain largely the same. The real question is how long Uber can continue walking this tightrope before autonomous cars hit the mass market and render human drivers unnecessary, which by most estimates is still quite a ways off. (An Uber employee recently likened the company’s self-driving cars to a “science experiment.”)

“[A]s we aim to reduce Driver incentives to improve our financial performance, we expect Driver dissatisfaction will generally increase,” Uber writes in its S-1. The company can only try to cut costs without having drivers quit or defect to competitors. It’s hard to see a good way out.

Labor slack.

Elsewhere in ride-hail driver wages, here is an interesting post from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on how wage growth has been subdued in part because “the headline unemployment rate has understated the amount of available labor, or labor slack, owing to gig employment”:

In labor markets, there has been a rising self- or gig-employment trend, as tracked by the share of households earning enough to pay self-employment tax, as Chart 1 shows. This tax-return-based measure avoids underreporting of gig employment in surveys in which some households report their status as employed even though they’re actually contractors or running a small business.

New technologies that encourage contingent or just-in-time labor (gig employment) lower the bargaining power of workers. This, in turn, lowers the natural rate of unemployment and real equilibrium wages.

Essentially, firms are able to hire contract or self-employed workers, who are not on their payrolls and not counted among the unemployed when not on the job. As a result, the headline measure of unemployment may understate labor slack.

Just something to think about.

Airport fees.

Uber and Lyft are battling proposed changes to ride-hailing at Boston’s Logan International Airport that they say will worsen the airport trip experience.

The Massachusetts Port Authority plans to increase pick-up fees on private rides at the airport to $5 from $2.50, and to add a $5 drop-off fee. Massport would charge a smaller $2.50 fee on shared rides in an effort to encourage carpooling. The proposal would also require Uber and Lyft to pick up and drop off passengers in Logan’s central parking garage, several minutes’ walk from the airport terminals, rather than right at their terminal, with an exception for riders with disabilities.

The stated goal of the Massport plan is to reduce congestion at Logan and in East Boston, which increased a stunning 47 percent from 2013 to 2018 alongside the rise of ride-hail. The transit agency also plans to put the increased fees toward subsidies on Logan Express buses, an alternative airport transport option, cutting fares from Back Bay to $3 from $7.50. The changes wouldn’t affect taxi companies.

Ahead of an April 25 vote on the proposed changes, Uber has been circulating one of its classic online petitions. This one comes from “someone who relies on Uber to get to and from Logan Airport” and says the changes would “add unnecessary hassle to the airport traveler experience.” Lyft in its own online petition says the new fees “could lead to fewer passengers taking Lyft rides to the airport,” which really demonstrates a very solid grasp of the concept. Massport wants to reduce congestion at the airport, and that probably involves reducing ride-hail trips too.

The battle at Logan is telling in light of Lyft’s recent IPO, and Uber’s upcoming one. Uber disclosed in its prospectus that 15% of gross bookings on rides in 2018 came from trips that either started or ended at an airport, and said it expected that share would increase. “[I]f drop-offs or pick-ups of riders become inconvenient because of airport rules or regulations, or more expensive because of airport-imposed fees, the number of Drivers or consumers could decrease,” the company warned. Uber had $104 million in “government and airport fees payable” on its balance sheet as of Dec. 31, 2018.

Lyft didn’t break out airport-related revenue in its IPO filing, but did cite existing permits, fees, and penalties at airports, and the potential for new ones to be created, among its risk factors.

Uber and Lyft took over airports largely because the other transport options were quite bad. Before ride-hail was a going concern, more than 80% of trips to and from US airports were made in private cars, taxis, and rentals, according to a November 2018 report from consultancy LEK. Then Uber appeared, and it was so much better than dialing 7777 to get a car. The shift to ride-hail trips continued the trend of people taking cars to airports, but decimated airport revenues by undercutting car rentals, garage parking, and taxi charges.

Ride-hail companies won the first round with airports by simply continuing to operate. Uber and Lyft knew they provided a valuable service to travelers, and that gave them leverage in their negotiations. But now airports like Logan also know how valuable they are to Uber, and probably to Lyft. That gives Logan and Massport more bargaining power; whatever the companies may threaten, it seems they likely can’t afford to suspend airport service flat out.

Robotaxis.

Tesla plans to launch a ride-hail service with self-driving cars in 2020, Elon Musk said during the company’s Autonomy Day yesterday:

“I feel very confident predicting that there will be autonomous robotaxis from Tesla next year — not in all jurisdictions because we won’t have regulatory approval everywhere” Musk said without detailing what regulations he was referring to. He added that he is confident the company will have regulatory approval somewhere next year.

Tesla will enable owners to add their properly equipped vehicles to its own ride-sharing app, which will have a similar business model to Uber or Airbnb. Tesla will take 25 percent to 30 percent of the revenue from those rides, Musk said. In places where there aren’t enough people to share their cars, Tesla would provide a dedicated fleet of robotaxis.

A take of 25% to 30% would be pretty good, especially if you recall that Uber’s take on rides, as discussed above, only recently inched up to 22%. Musk also estimated some of the costs associated with operating a robotaxi, a big question mark as companies think about transitioning from human to autonomous operators. At the moment, Tesla estimates it would cost about 18 cents per mile to operate a robotaxi, compared to 62 cents per mile for personal vehicle owners in the US and $2 to $3 a mile for ride hail. You can see why that’s attractive to the ride-hail industry.

This time last year.

The tech bros are older than you thought

Other stuff.

Sony launches Uber competitor in Japan. Uber and Lyft IPOs could lead to higher fares. Happy Fresh raises $20 million for online grocery shopping in Southeast Asia. Prosper fined $3 million for materially overstating returns to investors. Car2Go suspends service over mass fraud in Chicago. Amazon and Walmart join SNAP pilot for online groceries. Older millennials are bargain grocery shoppers. Waymo opening factory in Detroit. Eat Club buys meal-delivery service Taro. New York Stock Exchange plans IPO test ahead of Uber debut. Startups reach for $120 billion travel activities market. The Airbnb Invasion of Barcelona. Underage kids call Uber for rides home from school. Congressman drives for Uber. Lyft limits employee access to customer data. Lyft promotes the “Dutch reach.” Lyft suffering on the public markets. Uber and Lyft add safety measures after college student death. Toronto Uber driver accused of two sex assaults. Teen charged for smuggling migrants in a Lyft. Gig satire. Uber questions. Marijuana Delivery App Crashes on Pot Industry's Black Friday. The kids are over driving.


Thanks again for subscribing to Oversharing! If you, in the spirit of the sharing economy, would like to share this newsletter with a friend, you can forward it or suggest they sign up here.

Send tips, comments, and slippery wages to @alisongriswold on Twitter, or oversharingstuff@gmail.com.

Everything I learned reading Uber’s massive IPO filing

CLI

Hello and welcome to Oversharing, a newsletter about the proverbial sharing economy. If you're returning from last week, thanks! If you're new, nice to have you! (Over)share the love and tell your friends to sign up here.

Thank you to everyone who sent in updated Bird scooter rates last week! Lime and Uber have apparently followed suit. Please keep ’em coming, we’ll do something with the new scooter rates soon.

This late edition brought to you by the length of Uber’s S-1 (395 pages!), which I printed and three-hole-punched at my office late on April 11. The document has big margins, tiny font, and gaping white spaces at the bottom of each page. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to reformat it before giving up and concluding the filing was designed to be both unreadable and unprintable, which, as my lawyer friend said is “how management discourages snoopers like you.”


Glossary.

Helpful terms for reading Uber’s filing:

  • Personal Mobility. “Personal Mobility refers to our offering that includes our Ridesharing and New Mobility products.” Less jargon: ride hail, electric bikes, and electric scooters. Uber’s primary business.

  • New Mobility. “New Mobility refers to products in our Personal Mobility offering that provide consumers with access to rides through a variety of modes, including dockless e-bikes and e-scooters.” Less jargon: e-bikes and e-scooters, a subset of personal mobility.

  • Core Platform Adjusted Net Revenue. “We define Core Platform Adjusted Net Revenue as Core Platform revenue (i) less excess Driver incentives, (ii) less Driver referrals, (iii) excluding the impact of legal, tax, and regulatory reserves and settlements recorded as contra-revenue, and (iv) excluding the impact of our 2018 Divested Operations.” Less jargon: Uber’s revenue from rides and Eats, minus most driver promotions and some other technical costs. Uber thinks this is a good measure of its net revenue from rides and Eats.

  • Excess Driver incentives. “Excess Driver incentives refer to cumulative payments, including incentives but excluding Driver referrals, to a Driver that exceed the cumulative revenue that we recognize from a Driver with no future guarantee of additional revenue.” Less jargon: When Uber pays a driver more than the rider pays to Uber.

Fun facts.

Interesting tidbits I learned from the S-1, in no particular order:

  • Uber thinks driving is on par with a job in retail. “While we aim to provide an earnings opportunity comparable to that available in retail, wholesale, or restaurant services or other similar work, we continue to experience dissatisfaction with our platform from a significant number of Drivers.”

  • Dara is an at-will CEO. “We have entered into an employment agreement with Mr. Khosrowshahi, which is at-will and has no specific duration.”

  • Three-quarters of rides are international. “As of the quarter ended December 31, 2018, we operated in over 63 countries, and markets outside the United States accounted for approximately 74% of all Trips.”

  • Nearly 13% of global gross bookings are paid in cash.

  • Fifteen percent of gross bookings come from rides that start or end at an airport.

  • Drivers have earned more than $78.2 billion since 2015, plus $1.2 billion in tips since July 2017.

  • Uber had a 28-minute outage in February 2018. “…as a result of an error with one of our routine maintenance releases in February 2018, we experienced an outage on our platform for 28 minutes, resulting in Drivers, consumers, restaurants, shippers, and carriers being unable to log on to our platform in major cities, including Las Vegas, Atlanta, New York, and Washington D.C.”

  • The drama with Waymo isn’t over. “The independent software expert recently identified, on an interim basis, certain functions in our autonomous vehicle software that are problematic and other functions that are not. If these interim findings become final, they could result in a license fee or in design changes that could require substantial time and resources to implement, and could limit or delay our production of autonomous vehicle technologies.”

Charts.

A solid C- to whoever made the charts in Uber’s S-1. Poor grayscale, low image quality, fuzzy numbers. Charts like these give data editors heart attacks! I redid some of them in Quartz’s Atlas charting platform (feel free to use it next time, guys).

Gross bookings

Core platform adjusted net revenue

Excess driver incentives and driver referrals, but not plain old driver incentives, which Uber doesn’t actually break out in its cost of revenue.

Themes.

  • Uber’s game plan is to be big. “Our strategy is to create the largest network in each market so that we can have the greatest liquidity network effect, which we believe leads to a margin advantage.” There are undoubtedly benefits to being the biggest player in a logistics space. More drivers and riders gives Uber more options for pairing them up, helping it keep driver utilization high and rider wait times low. The same goes for food delivery, which, as Uber points out, is also a way to give drivers additional work when the rides platform slows. Less clear is whether being big alone can sustain Uber or help it turn a profit, especially amid intense competition in just about every market.

  • Uber can’t quit incentives. “To remain competitive in certain markets and generate network scale and liquidity, we have in the past lowered, and expect in the future to continue to lower, fares or service fees, and we have offered and expect to continue to offer significant Driver incentives and consumer discounts and promotions.” And: “Many of our competitors are well-capitalized and offer discounted services, Driver incentives, consumer discounts and promotions, innovative products and offerings, and alternative pricing models, which may be more attractive to consumers than those that we offer.” Uber is spending significant amounts of money on freebies: cheap fares, higher driver wages, bonuses, referrals, and so on. Not all of these are detailed explicitly in its filing, but they are discussed a lot. As I’ve said before, the danger of the subsidy model is that when you sell something below cost for a long time, it starts to become unclear whether a critical mass of your users will continue to want that thing at its actual price.

  • Driverless cars are far from a sure bet. “We may fail to develop and successfully commercialize autonomous vehicle technologies and expect that our competitors will develop such technologies before us…”. And: “Waymo has already introduced a commercialized ridehailing fleet of autonomous vehicles, and it is possible that our other competitors could introduce autonomous vehicle offerings earlier than we will.” Uber spent $451 million on R&D specifically related to its Advanced Technologies Group in 2018, up from $377 million in 2017. The company also just raised $1 billion for that unit from investors including Softbank and Toyota, valuing it independently at $7.25 billion. At Uber’s current pace of spending, that money could be gone in two years, though it seems unlikely the company will have a fleet of passenger-ferrying driverless vehicles to show for it.

  • Competition is tough. In the US there is Lyft, in the rest of the world, there is everyone else. Uber also revealed a unique handicap in its IPO filing. Minority ownership stakes restrict Uber from competing with Didi Chuxing in China, Yandex.Taxi in Russia/CIS, and Grab in Southeast Asia for another four to six years, but don’t restrict those companies from competing with Uber anywhere in the world. Didi, for example, competes with Uber in Latin America and in January 2018 acquired Brazil’s 99, another Uber competitor.

  • Uber Eats might not be as good as it seems. Uber’s Eats take rate, which is adjusted net revenue divided by gross bookings, fell by more than half in 2018, as Uber added more large restaurants to Eats with a lower service fee and in competitive markets. The Eats take rate was 6.4% in the fourth quarter of 2018, compared to 13.3% at the end of 2017. Uber also revealed that the lower fees it charges to some of the largest chains on its platform “may at times result in a negative take rate with respect to those transactions after considering amounts collected from consumers and paid to Drivers,” and that a “significant amount of our Uber Eats Gross Bookings come from a limited number of restaurant chains.”

More IPO coverage.

Other thoughts?

Send your favorite S-1 observations to me at oversharingstuff@gmail.com.

This time last year.

The tenth circle of hell might be scooters

Other stuff.

Inside Softbank’s Push to Rule the Road. Softbank forced to give up board seats for national security. Lyft investors sue over slump. Lyft lands exclusive nine-year bike-share contract in Chicago. Lyft pulls Citi Bike e-bikes on braking safety concerns. Cabify affiliate Movo gets €20 million ($22.5 million) to expand scooters in Latin America. Pony.ai raises another $50 million for driverless technologies. Keeper raises $1.6 million to help gig workers deal with taxes. Inboard refunds electric scooter customers. New York City could force delivery apps to disclose what happens to tips. Researchers say Airbnb listings increase rent prices. Roman parent Ro reaches $500 million valuation. Airbnb makes movies now. Airbnb leads $160 million funding round in hospitality startup Lyric. Getting to Know MacKenzie Bezos. Welcome to the World’s Biggest Tax Haven: The United States of America. Scooter-riding thieves nabbed in Hollywood. “Riders of Scoot and Skip are 63 percent white, 68 percent with incomes over $100,000 annually, and 82 percent male.”


Thanks again for subscribing to Oversharing! If you, in the spirit of the sharing economy, would like to share this newsletter with a friend, you can forward it or suggest they sign up here.

Send tips, comments, and thoughts on Uber’s S-1 to @alisongriswold on Twitter, or oversharingstuff@gmail.com.

Bird raises prices to trim scooter losses

CL

Hello and welcome to Oversharing, a newsletter about the proverbial sharing economy. If you're returning from last week, thanks! If you're new, nice to have you! (Over)share the love and tell your friends to sign up here.

Excited to say Oversharing made Substack’s new **newsletter leaderboard** for free publications. As the ranking is based on active readership, this is really a huge thank you to all of you for being dedicated readers. We did it! Keep it up 🙏


Scooters!

Bird launched with the same price structure across most US cities: $1 to unlock a scooter, plus 15 cents a minute to ride it. As we’ve previously discussed, the economics of that model are likely quite bad. Case in point: Bird is now raising prices.

Over the weekend, Bird lifted per-minute rates to 33 cents from 15 cents in Detroit. In Baltimore, it increased per-minute rates to 29 cents. In Austin and Los Angeles, it upped them to 25 cents per minute. Bird dropped per-minute fees to 10 cents in at least three cities. It had previously added a $2 “transportation fee” in Raleigh to offset regulatory fees charged by the city, before it bowed out of the market entirely in protest of those regulations in late March.

Bird has yet to widely share details of its new price structure, but told Detroit News it had updated its pricing range. “Similar to ride-hailing, Big Macs and cups of coffee, our pricing now varies by city,” the company said in a statement. Bird declined to provide me with a list of its new per-minute rates by city, or to explain why it couldn’t provide that information, so by all means email me any rate changes not listed above if you happen to live in a city with Bird scooters.

Anyway, here is the Bird scooter math adjusted for a per-minute rate of 33 cents, if Bird hypothetically were to charge 33 cents a minute in Louisville:

Revenue

  • Bird charges $1 to unlock a scooter and $0.33 per minute

  • At 18 minutes, the average trip would generate $6.94 in revenue, up from $3.70 at 15 cents per minute

That is a lot better! Double the per-minute rate, and you nearly double the expected average revenue per scooter. Let’s assume general operating costs remain the same, at about $2.75 per ride. That leaves net ride revenue of $4.19, or daily scooter net revenue of $14.62. Subtract the city’s daily $1 operating fee and you still have $13.62 in revenue for the day, a nearly sixfold increase on daily revenue at 15 cents per minute. Over a 29-day lifespan, that scooter averages about $395 in revenue, which is sufficient to recoup its cost and eke out a small profit at $360 and a much smaller loss on a scooter that costs the company $551 (again, see the original number crunch here).

The point I want to make is that the per-minute rate, while deceptively small, is a powerful lever Bird can pull. That’s because doubling that rate leads to a roughly proportionate increase in revenue per ride without changing the costs associated with that ride. That in turns leads to an even bigger jump in revenue per day and over the scooter’s life. I ran Bird’s estimated Louisville numbers with per-minute rates starting at 10 cents and increasing in 5 cent increments until average lifetime scooter revenue exceeded $551, the high-end cost of a vehicle. Working backward, Bird would have to charge about 42 cents per minute to break even on a $551 scooter.

Of course, that also assumes that changing the price wouldn’t change other things, like customer demand. As any ride-hail company could tell you, when prices rise, demand for the service will probably fall.

IPOs.

Are we in a bubble? Who knows! There are lots of big private technology companies that this year plan to become big public technology companies. These companies are by and large older and more mature than their predecessors of the late ’90s and early aughts, but like the dot-com era companies, they also lose gobs of money. The net profit scoreboard from S-1 filings so far this year:

  • Lyft lost $911 in 2018 on $2.2 billion in revenue

  • Jumia lost €170 million ($195 million) in 2018 on €130 million ($150 million) in revenue

  • Pinterest lost $63 million in 2018 on $756 million in revenue

  • Zoom Video Communications made $7.6 million in 2018 on $331 million in revenue

Everyone other than Zoom is losing money. I’d expect similarly of many of the other companies expected to IPO this year, although their filings are not yet public, such as Instacart, Postmates, and Uber.

These losses are on a different scale from losses we’ve seen before. Pets.com, the poster child of the dot-com bubble, lost about $150 million from when it was founded in 1999 to when it collapsed in late 2000. Webvan, another infamous dot-com company, lost $610 million from 1998 through 2000.

Let that sink in: The bubbliest companies of the dot-com bubble lost less over multiple years than Lyft lost in just 2018. Another fun fact: Amazon, the company that everyone loves point to as an example of how losing money eventually makes money, lost a combined $2.8 billion over its first 17 quarters as a public company, significantly less than the $4.5 billion Uber lost in 2017.

One reason modern tech startups can lose so much money is because investors are willing to provide it. Lately, the most important of all those investors is Japanese tech conglomerate Softbank and its founder Masayoshi Son.

Softbank established its $100 billion Vision Fund in October 2016. The fund has since made investments at a breakneck pace, pumping tens of billions into Uber, Slack, WeWork, Compass, Grab, Wag, Nuro, Flexport, DoorDash, and others. Softbank is reportedly seeking another $15 billion to keep the deals flowing and hey, it will probably get it. Startups used to worry about Amazon getting into their industry. Now they fear Softbank, which has approximately as much firepower as the Death Star.

Lockups.

Lyft Inc. is peeved at Morgan Stanley, The Information reports:

Lyft threatened Morgan Stanley with legal action earlier this week, demanding in a letter the investment bank stop marketing a short-selling product that the ride-hailing firm believed was disrupting trading in its stock, according to four people familiar with the situation.

The letter, sent on April 2, cited an article in the New York Post published on Monday night that said the bank was marketing a product that appeared to offer Lyft’s pre-IPO shareholders a way to get around lockup agreements that prevent them from selling for at least six months after the IPO. If true, the letter said, Morgan Stanley “is engaged in tortious interference” and the company demanded the firm stop sales of the product or face legal action.

Most Lyft pre-IPO shareholders, with the notable exception of Lyft drivers, are subject to a customary lockup in which they agreed not to sell any shares for 180 days, and specifically not to “offer, pledge, announce the intention to sell, sell, contract to sell, sell any option or contract to purchase, purchase any option or contract to sell, grant any option, right or warrant to purchase or otherwise dispose of, directly or indirectly, or” a variety of other things. You get the idea, the full language is available here under “Lock-Up and Market Standoff Agreements.” The goal of a lockup is to keep pre-IPO shareholders from dumping their stock immediately, which would depress the price of the company and be an inauspicious start to its life in the public markets.

Lyft went public on March 29 at an IPO price of $72 a share. The stock briefly jumped to $86 a share but quickly fell off that high and is currently trading around $68 a share, less than investors in the IPO paid. (Billionaire investor Carl Icahn is probably feeling pretty good about selling his 2.7% stake in Lyft to George Soros ahead of the listing.)

Here is more from The Information:

For weeks during the roadshow, Morgan Stanley salespeople had been calling early Lyft investors and pitching them on a short-selling transaction that would enable them to lock in gains, regardless of the lockup, the executive said. Morgan Stanley, which has a key role in the upcoming Uber IPO, was not involved with the Lyft IPO. JP Morgan led the Lyft deal.

One of the transactions was called a “total return swap,” a way for the investor to get the returns from short-selling the stock, while not technically selling the stock. In this instance, Morgan Stanley would be doing the short-selling, not the investor. But the investor would be able to lock in gains—the difference between what they originally paid for Lyft shares and what the sale price was struck at. In some cases Morgan Stanley offered investors the chance to share in any upside if the Lyft shares rose in value, said one person familiar with the deal. Swaps are common ways investors obscure their transactions but several investors said they had never heard of them being used to get around IPO lockups.

Whenever swaps or derivatives enter the discussion I immediately look to Money Stuff’s Matt Levine, and he did not disappoint on Lyft. I would also refer you to him for a better explanation of what a total return swap is, and how, in Lyft’s case, it “is not a way around the lockup, except in the narrow sense that Lyft can keep track of its shares but can’t necessarily keep track of who’s doing total return swaps.”

Elsewhere, Uber Technologies Inc. is expected to unveil its IPO filing tomorrow. The company plans to sell around $10 billion of stock in its offering, mostly in newly issued shares and a bit from existing shareholders cashing out. Uber will seek a valuation of between $90 billion and $100 billion, less than the much-reported $120 billion figure, reflecting the relatively poor performance of Lyft’s stock since its debut.

Community adjustments.

The We Company, formerly WeWork, is spending a truly astounding amount of money, according to FT Alphaville:

The $47bn business, which is backed by investors including Softbank's Vision Fund, previously reported a net loss of $1.9bn in 2018, after generating revenues of $1.8bn — more than double 2017's top line.

However the documents reveal new information which highlight the business's growth-at-all-costs assault on the once mundane sector of commercial real estate.

The filings specifically show WeWork’s net cash used in investing activities was $2.5bn in 2018, financed by $2.7bn of net cash provided by financing activities.

The income statement, not disclosed before, also divulges WeWork's voracious appetite for expansion. In 2018 its “growth and new market development” expense accelerated 335 per cent year-on-year to $477m. Similarly, the company's sales and marketing costs were $379m, up 164 per cent from 2017.

In perhaps the most stunning sign of how WeWork is performing, the company’s “Community-Adjusted EBITDA” margin came in at 27.5% for 2018, largely unchanged from 26.9% in 2017. The community-adjusted metric, lest you’ve forgotten, is WeWork’s preferred way of assessing its financial health. It looks at membership and service revenue and subtracts out “adjusted rent, tenancy costs, and adjusted building and community operating expenses,” which is to say, all major costs. I feel like if you’re going to go to this much trouble to engineer a financial metric then you definitely want it to be one that can show big improvement year on year. When reality closes in on even community-adjusted figures, then things really must be bleak.

This time last year.

Everyone is glad not to be Mark Zuckerberg

Other stuff.

Morgan Stanley gets stabilization role for Uber IPO. WeWork acquires Managed by Q. Driver sues Uber over unpaid signup bonus. Uber thinks driverless cars are a long way off. Seattle woman raped by man pretending to be her Uber driver. Lyft edges closer to bike-share monopoly in Chicago. Airbnb bans users headed to white supremacy conference in Tennessee. Booking.com says it’s beating Airbnb at home rentals. Airbnb donates free housing for cancer patients. Judge questions why Boston can’t regulate Airbnb. Airbnb admits it miscounted hosts with illegal listings in New York City. Amazon demotes private-label ads. Tesla cars can now change lanes on their own. China Is Forcing the World to Rethink Recycling. How men stage comebacks from Me Too allegations.


Thanks again for subscribing to Oversharing! If you, in the spirit of the sharing economy, would like to share this newsletter with a friend, you can forward it or suggest they sign up here.

Send tips, comments, and scooter prices to @alisongriswold on Twitter, or oversharingstuff@gmail.com.

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