Just a few months later, however, that outlook has changed. With CEO Travis Kalanick taking a leave of absence, a report from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommending broad changes to Uber's culture, the departure of senior vice president for business Emil Michael among many other executive defections and dismissals and a lawsuit by Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) unit Google's Waymo self-driving car business, the pubic market has become an unlikely destination for Travis Kalanick's ride-sharing company—at least anytime in the near future.
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Uber now presents a complicated tangle of harassment accusations, governance failures and alleged IP theft. Typically, companies delay an IPO because of a downturn in the business or market turbulence so there isn't really a perfect comparison for Uber.
"The closest thing that I could think of, and this wasn't because of controversies within the firm, is that Spotify delayed their IPO," said Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics at MIT's Sloan School of Management who is working with Uber to reduce discrimination among drivers after issuing a report on the subject last year.
Knittel noted that Spotify reportedly put off a listing while working through disputes with music publishers. While not rising to the level of a scandal, those talks had become contentious and protracted.
For Uber, testing the market now or in the near future would require the company to make substantial concessions.
"If Uber goes to the capital markets, investors are going to demand more control over the board — both for strategic and cultural reasons — which is something Travis is loathe to concede," Columbia Business School professor Evan Rawley noted in an email.
Michael's exit Monday is the latest in a long string of Uber executives leaving the company. Earlier in June, Uber let go 20 employees after the results of an investigation into sexual harassment at the company. In late May, the former head of finance, Gautam Gupta, announced his departure.
Other executives have been added recently, however. The company announced the arrival of Apple Inc. (AAPL) veteran Bozoma Saint John as chief brand officer and Frances Frei as its first senior vice president of leadership and strategy from Harvard Business School. And the company is reportedly adding Nestle SA executive Wan Ling Martello to its board.
One of Uber's former trophy hires, self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski, has landed the company in another scandal. Uber bought Levandowski's startup, Otto, for $680 million last August. Google's Waymo unit, which is Levandowski's former employer, argues that the engineer stole intellectual property when he left the company. Uber fired Levandowski in May, though the litigation and the potential for damage to Uber's self-driving car effort remains open.
Waymo's lawsuit reflects Uber's conflicted nature as both a dynamic investment and a magnet for scandal. In addition to being a litigant through Waymo, Google is both an investor, through Google Ventures.
Other setbacks in self-driving cars could damage Uber's brand perception among consumers and investors, and therefore make an IPO a big dicey, Christian Renaud of 451 Research suggested.
"Uber has been, rightly or wrongly, the subject of a number of accusations that it is rushing technology to market and operating autonomous test vehicles illegally," Renaud wrote in an email, alluding to a clash with government officials in California about its self-driving car tests in San Francisco.
"The 'stepping away' of Levandowski is a late gesture to address his (accused) theft of IP from Google that supposedly gave Uber a big head start on its own autonomous efforts, however if it turns out to be true or not, a shadow has already been cast over Uber's efforts, which will impact public sentiment and adoption of Uber's technology," Renaud added.
Meanwhile, Wall Street has been less friendly to tech companies. After a big run-up so far this year, the market crushed tech stocks Friday, and was not being kind again on Monday. While former darling Snap rocketed 44% at $24.48 in its first day of trading, the stock now trades around $18.25 -- putting investors who bought at the peak of its IPO under water.
Though Uber does not publish its financial results, the company disclosed 2016 numbers to Bloomberg in April. Gross bookings, or the total fares collected, grew 126% to $20 billion. However, the company posted a $2.8 billion net loss on $6.5 billion in net revenues.So Uber faces cultural and financial impediments to an IPO.
"If you're trying to parse which set of issues if more important, my sense is that Uber's struggles have revealed serious cultural problems that will require fundamental reforms," Columbia's Rawley suggested. "However, I think the biggest barrier to going public, at this point, is the cash burn rate."
For all of its woes, though, Uber is still the lead unicorn. Kalanick's company has a $68 billion valuation, according to CB Insights. Didi Chuxing, essentially the Chinese version of Uber which Uber acquired a stake when it abandoned its own China efforts, is next with a $50 billion valuation.
If Uber's backers hoped to exit through an IPO this year, they may have to wait a little longer for their returns.
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