Uber “minions,” Lyft partners with nuTonomy, and Postmates misleads users (again!)

LXI

Master and minions.

Is what Uber used to call the first and subsequent passengers in an UberPool according to this BuzzFeed article. We can add that to “god view,” “operation SLOG,” “greyball,” and “hell” on the list of inadvisable internal Uber codenames.

There are other interesting tidbits in this story on Pool, like that Uber once spent more than $1 million a week on the service in San Francisco, and that it has struggled to keep ridership up after trimming discounts, but I can’t get over the codenames. In theory you can tell a good bit about a company’s culture from the jokes they make and project names they use, and there is a decidedly off-color bent to the ones that have leaked out of Uber over the years. It kind of reminds me of Enron, whose strategy names included “fat boy,” “black widow,” and “Death Star.” The last one referred to Enron’s practice of receiving payments “to relieve congestion without actually moving any energy or relieving any congestion,” according to a memo famously obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

Elsewhere in Uber, finance chief Gautam Gupta left the company last week, adding to a string of high-profile departures. Gupta left as Uber said it lost $708 million, excluding employee stock compensation and other items, in the first quarter on revenue of $3.4 billion. That loss was down from the $991 million hole Uber reported in the fourth quarter of 2016, and the company said it still has $7.2 billion in the bank. Other top executives to depart Uber in recent months include ride-sharing president Jeff Jones (left), VP of product and growth Ed Baker (left), SVP of engineering Amit Singhal (asked to leave), head of self-driving technologies Anthony Levandowski (fired), and head of policy and comms Rachel Whetstone (left).

Driverless partnerships.

Self-driving cars are coming to Boston. Well, they were already there in a limited capacity, but now a lot of them are headed to the city streets thanks to a Lyft partnership with nuTonomy. Lyft and nuTonomy, a maker of software for autonomous vehicles, have just announced a pilot program that will let Lyft users hail a driverless car in Boston within the next few months. The deal is one of several that Lyft has cut with companies working to deploy self-driving technology, including a recent agreement with Waymo, Alphabet’s maker of driverless cars and the company suing Uber for theft of trade secrets. Lyft also received a $500 million investment from General Motors in January 2016, which the companies said at the time would help create an “autonomous on-demand network.”

Tl;dr that’s a lot of self-driving car partnerships. Lyft has always branded itself as friendlier and more collaborative than Uber, and with driverless cars it’s making good on that image. It makes sense. Lyft is less well-funded than Uber and probably can’t afford to set up its own Advanced Technologies Center, even if it wanted to. Companies like Waymo and nuTonomy are focused on developing the software and tech and, so far, have shown little interest in building out the consumer-facing parts of their business. Each company has something to offer the other and, for now, partnering to deploy self-driving cars is mutually beneficial.

Less clear is when the tie-ups could get Lyft into trouble. There will inevitably be big decisions to make, like who will ultimately own a self-driving fleet of cars and, if not Lyft, how much the company will pay to have them on its network. Alphabet’s Waze is slowly but steadily expanding its carpool feature in California and, while not a direct competitor to an on-demand ride-haling service, it’s also not inconceivable to imagine that some combination of Waze and Waymo would one day be more interested in handling the consumer side of an autonomous ride-hailing business themselves. Just because Lyft’s executives have a glossy vision of our self-driving future doesn’t mean they’ll be able to make good on it.

nuTonomy on the other hand is a smaller startup and it seems more clear how Lyft could help. “Both companies care immensely about solving urban transportation issues and the future of our cities, and we look forward to working with Lyft as we continue to improve our autonomous vehicle software system,” nuTonomy cofounder and CEO Karl lagnemma said in a statement. Lyft CEO Logan Green had a similar statement, and also emphasized that safety is a top priority for both companies. Another contrast with Uber, whose newly ex-head of self-driving technologies Anthony Levandowski reportedly said to his fellow engineers after a fatal crash involving a Tesla on autopilot, “I’m pissed we didn’t have the first death.”

Here’s $100.

Was the subject line of a promo email that Postmates blasted out last week. “You just got $100,” the message read, in bold. “So go ahead and order your morning coffee, late night snack, and everything in-between. You have five whole days to use your $100 delivery fee credit*!

The asterisk went to a message in small light gray text at the bottom of the email that noted the offer was valid only for new customers. What it didn’t explain further was that “delivery fee credit” was just that—credit to use against the fee Postmates charges to deliver its orders, but not toward the price of the orders themselves. Savvy Postmates customers (or long-time Oversharing readers!) might have known the difference but a lot of people were upset when they learned the $100 wouldn’t actually pay for the stuff they wanted to get. “This is bullshit,” said a friend. I mean yes, it kind of is! If you email me that I got $100 it is pretty disappointing to be told that $100 will only cover the delivery fee on your order and nothing else. That’s like if Amazon emailed you and said hey congrats, you just got $100, and then when you went to spend the $100 they were like, oh, wait, LOL, that money only covers the one-hour delivery fee for Prime Now, you didn’t actually think we were giving you free stuff???

The covfefe promo on the other hand was actually funny.

Something’s cooking.

Elsewhere in food delivery, Blue Apron is going public. Blue Apron, the meal-kit unicorn that delivers pre-portioned ingredients to aspiring chefs across the US, filed for an initial public offering last week. The S-1 is here and, if you have some time on your hands, it’s a fun read. Or a stressful one? I suppose it depends on your perspective. If I were a Blue Apron investor I would be stressed reading about how much money the company spends on marketing ($60.6 million in the first quarter!) or how much money it lost last year ($54.8 million!), but I’m not, so instead it was just fun. Anyway the takeaways seem to be that (1) it is very expensive to help America cook, (2) all those podcast ads add up, and (3) Blue Apron foresees a lot of risks, including, “We have a history of losses, and we may be unable to achieve or sustain profitability.”

Should Blue Apron go public successfully, it would be a big vote of confidence for the VC-backed food delivery sector. Blue Apron filed its S-1 the week after Sprig shut down in San Francisco and a few weeks after Maple closed its doors in New York. Blue Apron is New York-based and, interestingly, its founder and CEO Matt Salzberg was a seed investor in Maple. That said Blue Apron has consciously tried to distance itself from many other food-tech companies, particularly those that operate in the on-demand space. “We’re totally the opposite of an on-demand food company,” Salzberg told me when I interviewed him in February 2016. “On-demand companies add an additional step on top of an existing supply chain and charge a price premium for it… But we’re the opposite of that. We are rethinking an entire food system from the ground up in a way that unlocks value for everybody.”

Ah, tech speak. If you had “supply chain,” “price premium,” “rethinking food,” and “unlocks value” then congratulations, you are very close to bingo. I’m being facetious but also I remember interviewing a bunch of these companies last year and hearing all of them say very similar things to this, with similar key words and grandiose statements, and here we are in 2017 and one has filed to go public while many more are struggling or going out of business altogether. Blue Apron says it’s different but I think it remains to be seen whether customers will continue ordering once it pulls back on the podcast ads and hefty sign-up discounts. Also, how many of their “repeat orders” (92% of net revenue in 2016) are genuine resubscribes? Blue Apron cites these repeat orders as evidence that “the bond we have developed with our customers is forged in frequency and trust” but I am not so sure. I ordered from Blue Apron once and because they automatically enroll you for future orders, I ended up ordering from Blue Apron a second time by mistake. I can tell you I was not pleased when that second box showed up, nor did it win my trust.

For more on the IPO: What a VC Thinks of Blue Apron’s S-1.

Other stuff.

Waymo is testing a self-driving truck. Why Uber Still Has a Shot. Uber falls out of favor in Europe. Lyft diversity report. Lyft accused of wage theft in New York. Did Uber know about accounting error in New York? Uber hires HBS’s Frances Frei to advise Travis Kalanick. Uber delays release of the Holder report. Ride-hailing rules shelved in Louisiana. San Francisco Investigating Whether Uber, Lyft Are Public Nuisances. Google rarely sues, but made an exception for Uber. Ola says it’s smarter than Uber. Shipt raises $40 million. Hubble raises £1.2 million. Carmera raises $6.4 million. Audi gets first permit to test self-driving cars in New York. Can Shared Rides Save the Yellow Cab? How to Drive 10 Billion Miles in an Autonomous Vehicle. Worcester Airbnb Graduation Hosts Earned $36,000. We’ve reached 200 unicorns. China may be oversharing. Airbnbs in the West Bank. The $7 trillion “passenger economy.” Call Uber Anything But Transportation. “It’s not like we’re allergic to the notion of taking money.”