To appreciate the scope of Uber's ambition, consider the name of the unit that spawned the company's newest service: Uber Everything.
The service, called UberRush, officially made its debut in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago on Wednesday. For a fee of about $5 to $7, bicycle couriers and drivers will shuttle food and other small packages around the city. The offering is marketed not directly to consumers like the ones that use its ride-hailing app, but rather to restaurants, retailers, and other businesses, including launch partner Delivery.com and a burrito chain called Blockheads. The tagline: "With UberRush, your packages travel like a VIP."
In the scheme of Uber, it seems like kind of a minor deal. "I don't understand why Uber is bothering with this business," tweeted New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo. While the heavily regulated, capital-intensive taxi industry made an obvious target, bike-messenger-based delivery is not considered an extremely lucrative business to begin with, nor one exactly budding with inefficiencies ready to pluck away. Competition abounds: Any number of well-funded startups have food delivery covered, and one of them, Postmates, is making serious inroads in retail as well. Amazon and Google, meanwhile, are doing battle to create the delivery network for all e-commerce.
Going head-to-head with some of the world's biggest tech companies over 25 percent of a $4 burrito delivery sounds like insanity. It's exactly because Uber's ambition is so big, though, that it deems no opportunity too small. Just look what happened in its core business. Uber started out offering only black-car rides, for which it could charge a premium. Then it tweaked its model slightly and allowed a customer to hail not just a black sedan, but also, well, some underemployed guy's Prius--you know, its low-cost UberX ride service. Single-passenger rides gave way to UberPool, its even lower-cost carpooling option, which now accounts for a majority of rides in mature markets.
In other words, Uber has--excuse the phrase--disrupted itself. Making a profit on transactions in the near term is less important than building out the world's most efficient logistics network--meaning the most extensive one. Uber chief Travis Kalanick recently told Marc Benioff he looks forward to a day when every car in the world is an Uber.
To Kalanick, bicycles and Priuses and Town Cars may all be just nodes, but delivery and personal transportation are very different businesses. Uber is still on the steep part of the learning curve when it comes to the former. The Wall Street Journal noted that UberRush already lost a few deals with businesses to Postmates, which charges less per delivery--as little as $2.50. Most notably, Starbucks partnered with Postmates. Some fashion retailers who experimented with delivery via Uber reported having bad experiences. Deliv, another delivery startup, is already working with Macy's and Kohl's to power same-day deliveries.
In an interview with ReCode, Uber Everything head Jason Droege said the success of UberRush will be judged on traditional metrics of financial performance: "It's no longer an experiment...; it's a business for us. When it's a business, you're worried about profit and loss."
That differentiates it from the whimsical test-runs the company always seems to be running, for "products" like Uber Ice Cream, Uber Kittens, and something we'll call "Uber Portlandia," or Uber artisanal-cocktails-via-an-old-timey-rickshaw. At Uber, these customization ideas are left to local Uber employees to dream up, and local general managers to approve, so they are still a little bit anything-goes. On-demand kitten cuddling probably isn't a big part of Uber's future--but if Kalanick could find a way to make the logistics of kitten-cuddling more efficient, he'd probably go all-in on that, too.
Uber Everything isn't just a name; it's also a strategy. And maybe it's just the start.