CNBC Disruptor 50

As Lyft goes public, profitability is a long-term goal, not a near-term likelihood

Lyft goes public but has no clear path to make a profit
Lyft goes public but has no clear path to make a profit

Lyft beat Uber to the punch on Friday — the number-two ride hailing service in the U.S. was the first to go public, pricing shares ahead of the IPO at $72. The stock popped as much as 20% in the first minutes of trading, valuing the company at nearly $25 billion.

But Lyft is deeply in the red today, with a net loss of $911 million in 2018. During its road show, Lyft told investors that eventually, it expects to hit twenty-percent margins. The company just didn't say when.

A fierce competition

Uber, which is expected to go public next month, still commands greater market share than Lyft.

It offers rides on-demand in 65 countries and has a stake in Didi and Careem, which operate in Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, respectively.

Lyft is far behind Uber when it comes to coverage. In 2018, its geographic expansion focused on coverage in 95 percent of the U.S., and some new locations in Canada, filings ahead of its IPO disclosed.

Uber was also the first ride-hailing company to expand into services like food delivery and bike-sharing (via its acquisition of Jump in April 2018) which provide it with different revenue streams.

Lyft has been slower to diversify, although it has invested in other modes of transit as well. It bought Motivate in 2018, a bike-sharing company after Uber bought Jump, for example. It also offers scooters to riders looking for options beyond the car.

Lyft has invested in other modes of transit including scooters and bike-sharing.

Uber is making plays in logistics with Uber Freight, short-hop air travel with Uber Air, and driverless taxis with its own autonomous vehicle division, Uber Advanced Technology Group.

Lyft is more focused, although it is starting book passengers into self-driving vehicles via a partnership with Aptiv. It hasn't talked about any plans for air taxis.

The race to profit

The next race will pit these ride-hailing players against each other in a quest for profitability, and the confidence of the public market investor.

D.A. Davidson senior vice president and research analyst Tom White says Lyft is doing well with some traditional sales and marketing efforts, and incentives that keep drivers and riders loyal to their platform.

Long term, he says, "There's the potential for autonomous vehicles and autonomous technology to basically reduce the amount of times Lyft has to pay a driver. And that could be a big, big lever for profitability."

Uber's costly ambitions and lack of focus could challenge its path to profitability, he suggested. "One of the things we like about Lyft being a little smaller than Uber is the fact that they are more focused," he said.

Lyft says it has facilitated 35,000 rides in autonomous vehicles like this one

Head of research at Manhattan Venture Partners, Santosh Rao, told CNBC: "The macro market is good, IPO sentiment is good, so I think this is the right time to get out and they're doing the right thing."

Others look at Amazon, which lost money for the first several years it operated as a public company, and Tesla, which has yet to record a profitable year, as examples of growth stocks that didn't always prioritize profits.

For those holding out to see an end to Lyft's losses before buying shares, one recent SIG report forecasts the company will become profitable...but it may take seven years.

WATCH: Lyft begins trading on the Nasdaq at $87.24 a share

Watch the moment Lyft begins trading on the Nasdaq at $87.24 a share
Watch the moment Lyft begins trading on the Nasdaq at $87.24 a share