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Lyft becomes the first ride-hail company to go public, beating Uber

Lyft filed IPO documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission Friday, beating its main rival Uber in the race to become the first app-based ride-hail company to go public.

The company, which got its start as a college carpooling service called Zimride in 2007, says it has achieved 39 percent market share in the US as of December 2018, up from 22 percent in December 2016. This new growth comes from new riders and drivers, as well as more frequent rides from existing users. For the quarter ended December 31, 2018, Lyft says it had 18.6 million “Active Riders” and over 1.1 million drivers.

Lyft has been aggressively courting riders by heavily discounting its fares in the run-up to its IPO, according to recent reports. This comes at enormous cost to the company, and these documents provide the first glimpse of Lyft’s rapidly-growing-but-ultimately money-losing business. The company made $2.2 billion in revenue in 2018 by providing more than 1 billion rides. Lyft also lost $911.3 million in 2018 — its biggest annual loss in the past three years. For 2016 and 2017, its losses were $682.8 million and $688.3 million, respectively.

“We are laser-focused on revolutionizing transportation and continue to lead the market in innovation,” Lyft states at the beginning of its the S-1 document required by the SEC for public companies that are based in the US. “We have established a scaled network of drivers and riders, or users, brought together by our robust technology platform that powers millions of rides and connections every day.”

Lyft is also reportedly planning to give some of its drivers cash bonuses with the intent that those drivers would then be able to use the cash to purchase stock. It’s a complicated workaround to a unique problem facing the ride-sharing company, which can’t grant stock to their drivers due to SEC rules that prevent giving private company stock shares to freelancers.

Despite launching before Uber, Lyft has always been overshadowed by its much bigger competitor. But that allowed the company to position itself as the scrappy underdog, which paid off when Uber suffered a series of self-inflicted scandals in 2017. Management upheaval, allegations of corporate espionage, and revelations of sexual harassment sent Uber into a public relations sinkhole. Meanwhile, Lyft seized the opportunity to recruit disillusioned drivers and riders. It upgraded its app, stepped up marketing efforts to attract more riders and expanded its US-only service into 160 more cities for a total of about 350.

Lyft is also competing with Uber to become a one-stop shop for a variety of transportation modes, including bikes, scooters, and public transportation. In December, Lyft bought Motivate, the company that runs Citi Bike in New York. Like Uber, Lyft is also running its own electric-scooter program.

Both companies claim to want to end personal car ownership. But more than Uber, Lyft fancies itself a think tank with big ideas about the future. The company’s co-founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, have released policy papers predicting the end of personal car ownership in major cities by 2025, and calling for more people to carpool by charging a fee to those who don’t.

Lyft only operates in the US and Canada, while Uber has a presence in Europe, India, and Latin America. Lyft also lacks a massive, growing food-delivery business like Uber. As it embarks on its roadshow to meet and pitch investors, Lyft will likely field questions about those gaps.

Going public before Uber is certainly a victory, but one that comes with its own risks. In its filing, Lyft says these risks include intense competition from Uber and an unpredictable market. The list goes on to include autonomous technology, evolving regulations, and exposure to liabilities from improper activities by riders.

Investors will be looking for any insight on potential regulatory hold-ups as well as legislation that could require Lyft to classify its drivers as employees. Last month, Lyft sued the city of New York to block a new law increasing the minimum wage for drivers.

The company’s governance structure could also come under scrutiny. Last month, Zimmer and Green were reportedly preparing to take a near-majority control of the company despite together owning a stake of less than 10 percent. That amount appears to still be up in the air: the filing made public today does not indicate the percentage of stock both plan on taking.

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