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Down the street from Stanford University, 20 young techies crammed into a two-bedroom apartment that served as their office. Their furniture, bought on the cheap, included a lipstick-red couch, mismatched tables, and folding chairs.

The company was focused on providing food delivery for restaurants—in this case just eight in the neighborhood. Employees, no matter their job, spent part of their day shuttling food to front porches, in an effort to learn how to improve the business, even if it only meant shaving a few seconds off the time it took to get orders to their destinations.

“Everyone in the company did deliveries—it didn’t matter what you were,” said Tony Xu, CEO of the delivery upstart, DoorDash. Back then, it was about “trying to become an expert early on.” 

Seven years later, DoorDash has become the biggest player in U.S. food delivery. And last week, amid a food delivery boom fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, it became a newly minted public company.

Following a blockbuster IPO, DoorDash is now valued at around $50 billion. That’s more than big established companies like General Mills, Kraft Heinz, and Ford.

Still, DoorDash must prove that its growth during the pandemic was no fluke. Other than a profitable blip in one recent quarter, it has hemorrhaged money for years, losing $204 million in 2018, $667 million in 2019, and, in the first nine months of this year, $149 million.

“The biggest questions investors have is how durable the current growth levels are,” said Mark Shmulik, an analyst at AB Bernstein. “Food delivery has become a part of normal life, but at what sustainable level?”

On Monday, DoorDash’s shares slid 12% to $153 in mid-day trading after another analyst questioned whether investors had been too optimistic following the company’s IPO. In a reprise of the dot-com boom days of 20 years ago, DashDash’s shares had soared 86% on their first day of trading.

DoorDash points to a couple of signs to suggest its business is sound. After operating in certain cities for several years, it’s able to make a profit in them, excluding certain costs. The company also points to being cash flow positive, a metric often touted by startups to show progress that also excludes certain costs. It means that the company, in this case, over the first nine months of this year, had more cash coming in than going out, a result that was accelerated, but not created, by the pandemic.

Whatever the case, DoorDash faces a number of challenges. Those include regulation that could increase employee costs, the demise of mom and pop restaurants that is reducing the number of merchants using its service, and competition with well-funded rivals including UberEats and Just Eat Takeaway.com-owned Grubhub.

At the end of the day, DoorDash wants to deliver more than just food: It wants to be the go-to app for shopping and delivery from nearly all Main Street stores. 

Getting buy-in

DoorDash’s early days were driven by efficiency and frugality—mostly out of necessity. Starting with just $20,000 from Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator in 2013, DoorDash has spent years tinkering with its operations to lower costs. 

“We watched profitability like a hawk from day one because we had to,” Xu said. “We always made sure we built a business that had a path to profitability.”

Initially, DoorDash expanded in urban markets in addition to suburban ones, said Christopher Payne, the company’s chief operating officer. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that delivery companies needed to dominate big, dense cities, where lots of customers live within short distances, to be successful. But after The Cheesecake Factory asked DoorDash to serve its restaurants nationwide, DoorDash executives doubled down on the suburbs despite concerns about making those areas profitable.

“We were like we’re just going to figure it out,” Payne said. “In hindsight, it looks like we were brilliant because it turns out that DoorDash works as well or better in suburbs as it does in urban environments.”

By focusing on the suburbs, DoorDash reached more families, who in turn bought more food per order. Though drivers traveled farther, they often reached their destinations and parked faster.

“Fast forward and those are the markets all growth is coming from,” said Tom White, an analyst at investment bank D.A. Davidson.

The suburban strategy was partially what helped lure big Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, which led a $17.3 million funding round in DoorDash in 2014. The other attraction was Xu. 

After initially passing on DoorDash—the category was once viewed as too capital intensive by investors—Sequoia partner Alfred Lin was finally sold in 2014 after speaking with Xu at a Sequoia-sponsored networking dinner. Xu, a Chinese immigrant who grew up washing dishes in a restaurant that also employed his mother, dissected the restaurant’s operations for Lin, even going as far as to explain how the restaurant timed the delivery of their food. Xu then tied the efficiency of the restaurant to that of DoorDash, sealing the deal for Lin. 

“He was probably the only person to talk to me about the math of it all,” Lin said. “It changed my mind.” 

Xu’s obsession with efficiency eventually trickled down into what has become the culture at DoorDash, said Sarah Wagener, the company’s chief people officer. The idea is to focus on areas where the business needs improvement, forcing employees to constantly look for problems they can solve. “It’s not like anything I’ve seen,” she said.

An overnight shift

Following rapid growth, DoorDash began eyeing an initial public offering in early 2019. Then in March, after filing for an IPO confidentially, the unimaginable happened: The coronavirus became a global pandemic. 

As the virus spread, restaurants grappled with city-wide shutdowns, some of which limited them to take-out and delivery. Many restaurants quickly signed up with third-party delivery services like DoorDash.

“Thousands and thousands of merchants were realizing in a moment’s notice they had to switch from a dine-in to delivery and pickup-only model,” Wagener said. “Tony, the management team, and thousands of employees across the company spent nights, weekends, their spare time … on boarding merchants onto the platform.”

To respond to the coronavirus, DoorDash temporarily waived signup fees for new restaurants joining the service and cut commission fees in half for local restaurants with five or fewer locations. It also spent $120 million on masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for drivers and built a no-contact delivery option, in which drivers leave food on the doorstep to avoid close contact with consumers.

For Krazy Hog, a Chicago-based barbecue restaurant, DoorDash became vital. Owned by husband-and-wife duo Victor and Dana Cooksey, Krazy Hog shut its doors after the pandemic hit. But just weeks later with guidance from DoorDash, the restaurant moved into a shared kitchen set up for delivery and pickup only owned by a third-party operator. The delivery service also helped the restaurant lure more customers through the use of the data it collects like customer demographics and ordering frequency and is working to include Krazy Hog’s barbecue sauce in DoorDash’s digital convenience store that debuted earlier this year.  

“When they told us about all this … you know the little emoji with the brains being blown out? It was that.” Dana Cooksey said, suggesting she was mind-blown.

“I view the delivery totally different now,” Victor added.

But not everyone is sold on DoorDash. For one, Darden Restaurants, the parent of the Olive Garden and Yard House chains, has been unimpressed by the sales and quality of third-party delivery services, generally. Darden says it still stands by a statement its CEO Gene Lee made two years ago about delivery: “We just don’t see this as something that we want to get involved in today with the current way it’s being executed.”

Some restaurants have sued DoorDash for allegedly adding their eateries to the service without permission. For example, Chicago-based Burger Antics filed a lawsuit against DoorDash in 2018, saying that customers had claimed they had received cold food from drivers after long waits. And In-N-Out Burger sued DoorDash in 2015. 

By listing what the company calls “non-partner” restaurants, DoorDash hoped to convert those restaurants into customers by proving that its service increased their business. DoorDash said it stopped the practice in November.

No stranger to scrutiny

DoorDash has had its share of scrutiny.

Some restaurants have complained that food-delivery services like DoorDash hurt profits by charging excessive commissions, which analysts say amount to 15% to 20% per order. The complaint has received so much traction that cities nationwide have started implementing caps on delivery commission, most of which have been added since the pandemic started.

“We don’t know how permanent or temporary these caps are,” said Shmulik, of AB Bernstein said. “Is this just the pandemic or is this going to be a permanent thing that is going limit them?”

Several state regulators have also targeted DoorDash and its fellow gig companies, arguing that drivers should be classified as employees rather than independent contractors who get no benefits. California has taken the lead on the matter, enacting a new law that would have required companies to reclassify their drivers as employees. But that law was nullified after voters approved a November ballot initiative called Proposition 22 that let gig workers remain independent contractors, but get a few additional benefits like a minimum hourly wage and medical coverage. 

Xu touted the passage of the proposition, which DoorDash helped fund, and said he hopes that the company leads the effort on finding similar solutions for drivers in other states. “We need to build upon what began in California to find innovative solutions elsewhere,” Xu recently wrote in an op-ed for Business Insider.

Though other states are still considering their options, “driver classification is certainly going to remain an issue,” says White, of D.A. Davidson. DoorDash has said it can survive the adoption of Prop 22-like laws elsewhere, but so far the company has mostly been working through hypothetical outcomes and costs. Any adverse decision by state or federal regulators may delay DoorDash’s plans to become profitable in upcoming years.

In 2019, DoorDash faced a customer revolt over a tipping policy that appeared to allow DoorDash to pocket tips that were meant for drivers. Under pressure, DoorDash reversed that policy, which it said was initially implemented to increase driver earnings.

Beyond criticism, DoorDash must fend off rivals. The company’s main one, UberEats, reported a 125% gain in third-quarter revenue to $1.45 billion. By comparison, DoorDash had $879 million in revenue during the same period, a gain of 268%.

As it expands internationally—DoorDash currently operates in Australia and Canada— it faces growing competition including from U.K.’s Just Eat and Deliveroo. UberEats has also extended its reach through a $2.65 billion acquisition of rival Postmates and by taking a majority stake in Latin American grocery-delivery startup Cornershop. 

As DoorDash expands into other categories like grocery delivery and convenience, the list of rivals is growing. As a result, it could face competition from grocery-focused giants Instacart and Target-owned Shipt, and even e-commerce behemoth Amazon

Working in DoorDash’s favor is that it has already attracted more than 18 million users to its service and more than 390,000 merchants. “It’s hard to see how they lose share moving forward,” said Shmulik. “The only question is can they penetrate these other categories or do they leave the door open for others to gain that share?”

Despite the growth and mounting challenges, Xu said his focus remains on restaurants, diners, and operations. And the IPO, well, that’s the icing on the cake. 

“When we started the company, I wasn’t thinking about an IPO; I was thinking about how I am going to make sure we have enough Dashers on the road tonight in addition to me schlepping hummus from my Honda,” he said, using the company’s terms for is delivery workers. “It’s a bit of an incredulous moment.”

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