Ultra-fast deliveries are burning twice as bright: will they burn half as long?

Ultra-fast delivery companies are being bought by unprofitable cash-burning unicorns. It's hard to tell if they're shaping the future of delivery or a transient illusion of it.

“The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long”: says an ancient Taoist proverb, or, if you prefer, Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. Such a piece of wisdom comes to mind on hearing that Doordash might be interested in financing, or buying outright, ultra-fast delivery company Gorillas. In less than a year Berlin-based speedy grocery delivery startup has raised $335.4M, attained unicorn status, asked for $1B more and saw its valuation drop from a potential $6B to $2.5B.  

This is not bad for its founders and funders, who’ll get away much richer than before, but underlines in clear terms the amount of economical stress to which the ultra-fast delivery market is subjected. These startups burn cash at a rate that makes Uber look like Ebeneezer Scrooge. “There’ll be rationalization and consolidation with some going away,” says Burt Fickinger, the managing director of Strategic Resource Group in New York. In the meantime, Gopuff is acquiring British competitor Dija and DoorDash held talks to buy Instacart

Consolidation under bigger umbrella companies might sound like a sound solution, but here comes an exquisite modern paradox: the buyers, in this particular case, are not profitable either. Just Eat Takeaway.com reported a 52% increase in first-half revenue, together with an EBITDA loss of €190 million for the period. What happens when a cash-burning company is sold to a cash-burning company? The word “Bubble” comes to mind. 

The impact that crowdsourced delivery companies have on cities and society is still under scrutiny. It certainly calls for regulations that will rarely be kind to the startups. English giant Deliveroo has pulled out of Germany in 2019 and will retreat from Spain in the next few months. Rotterdam alderman Roos Vermeij wants to sit down with the fast delivery companies to limit the negative consequences of the new business model for the city and the list goes on. This suggests that ultra-fast delivery might be here to stay but will have to adapt to stricter rules and higher price tags for the end-users. 

Revolutions come at a price. Home delivery dives deep into the connective tissue of our society. Any disruption is bound to take more time and ask for more assessment than any visionary founder would like to accept. These companies’ clocks run faster than ours. It’s an extension of something we’ve already seen. We were promised drone deliveries by 2020. Amazon Prime Air’s UK operations have recently closed among rumours of total chaos. We were expecting self-driving Ubers and delivery vans. We’ll have to wait for them much longer. 

It would be nice to live in a world in which these solutions are already feasible cost-free for the quality of life for the workers involved or the health of our cityscapes and economies. Last-mile is an industry in which a few seconds saved for every delivery are worth a fortune; not stopping at a wrong address or at an empty house means saving billions in the long run; sending out half-empty trucks should not even be taken into consideration.

These revolutions have to come first. When the ground to build upon becomes solid, it will become easier to test its ability to support flashier, more cover-friendly niche solutions.   

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