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10 big things: Pandemic puts meal delivery at a crossroads

Talk of a merger between Uber and Grubhub joins self-driving cars, Andreessen Horowitz deals, The Chainsmokers and more in our recap of the week.

Social distancing presents a unique opportunity for meal-delivery companies. It also highlights the precarious tightrope these businesses are attempting to walk. Shutting in the public has led to higher revenues for delivery companies like DoorDash and Uber Eats. But high marketing costs and razor-thin margins make it as difficult as ever to turn a profit.

Many have long believed that consolidation was the ultimate end game for meal delivery, with the power of scale perhaps the only force strong enough to overcome the industry’s many headwinds. Others have argued that such consolidation could be a worrisome development for restaurants and consumers.

For better or worse, Uber might be ready to get the merger party started.

Dealmaking talk is heating up in the meal delivery space, and that’s one of 10 things you need to know from the past week:

The takeout game has changed amid a pandemic. (Serhii Sobolevskyi/Getty Images Plus)

1. Delivery deals

Reports emerged on Tuesday that Uber is in talks to acquire Grubhub, news that sent Grubhub’s share price soaring nearly 30%. A combination of the two would transform the sector by reducing the number of companies fighting for true meal-delivery supremacy in the US from four to two.

During March, DoorDash accounted for 42% of all meal-delivery spending, according to consumer analytics specialist Second Measure. Grubhub checked in with 28% market share, while Uber’s Uber Eats arm was at 20% and Postmates at 9%. A combination of Uber Eats and Grubhub, then, would essentially create a duopoly, placing some 90% of the market in the hands of two companies. It could also spur DoorDash and Postmates to join forces in a bid to keep up with the Joneses (or the Khosrowshahis, if you will).

If those two startups do have deal talks, it wouldn’t be the first time. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats had all discussed merger combinations at various times in 2019.

The four industry powers have traveled different paths over the past several years. Grubhub has been publicly traded since 2014. Uber just went public last year, and both DoorDash and Postmates remain VC-backed. Uber Eats, of course, is also just one part of a much larger corporation. That means the companies have had different degrees of resources, and different motives. Grubhub’s responsibility to public shareholders made it difficult to spend at the same level as its younger rivals.

But so far none of those models have resulted in any sort of sustained profitability. Grubhub posted a net loss of $33.4 million in Q1, and Uber Eats lost $313 million in the quarter in terms of adjusted EBITDA.

And business isn’t getting any easier. Meal-delivery providers have always spent heavily on marketing, and that has continued during the pandemic. They also now face higher costs in part because of new safety measures for their workers. And these companies still have plenty of critics who complain about the power they wield over labor and restaurants.

Other food delivery companies were also in the news this week. The Information reported that Instacart is raising new funding at a pre-money valuation of between $12 billion and $14 billion. Louis Borders—the founder of both the Borders bookstore chain and Webvan, the legendary grocery delivery flameout of a prior age—is back with a new delivery startup called, appropriately enough, Home Delivery Service. China’s Dingdong Maicai secured $300 million in funding this week for its grocery delivery services, according to Reuters.

But it’s in the meal-delivery sector where the most notable drama is unfolding. If Uber and Grubhub go ahead with a deal, it could mark the beginning of a new era in the industry—assuming a combination is allowed by antitrust regulators.

2. Self-driving seesaw

In a bit of positive news from the autonomous driving sector, Waymo raised $750 million in an extension of the Alphabet subsidiary’s latest funding, taking the round’s total to $3 billion. On the other side of the coin, there was Cruise, the self-driving unit of General Motors, which this week laid off around 160 workers, according to Bloomberg.

3. Big tech goes shopping

On Friday, Facebook announced its acquisition of Giphy from the GIF specialist’s VC backers, with reports placing the valuation between $300 million and $400 million. A day earlier, Apple reportedly confirmed its acquisition of NextVR, a virtual reality company specializing in live events that was previously backed by SoftBank, among others. And Microsoft agreed this week to buy Metaswitch Networks, a cloud-based communications company.

4. Buyout optimism

So far, at least, early predictions are holding up that the biggest PE firms would still be able to raise massive funds in the face of a pandemic. BDT Capital Partners, a merchant banking firm led by former Goldman Sachs star Byron Trott, has raised nearly $9.1 billion for a new fund, according to a regulatory filing. Bain Capital, meanwhile, is targeting $9 billion for its next buyout fund, and the UK’s Hg has raised some $11 billion for a new trio of funds, Bloomberg reported.

5. EDM to ROI

Alex Pall and Drew Taggart are best known for crafting electronic-influenced earworms as the Chainsmokers, becoming the highest-paid DJs in the world in 2019, according to Forbes. Now, the musical duo is putting some of that cash to work in VC: The Grammy Award winners have launched a new venture firm called Mantis, with reported plans to invest an initial $50 million.

Alex Pall (left) and Drew Taggart, aka the Chainsmokers, are ready to take the VC stage.
(Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

6. Andreessen activity

Andreessen Horowitz led an investment this week in Clubhouse, valuing the buzzy voice-chat startup at a reported $100 million. The Sand Hill Road stalwart also took part in two other headline-grabbing deals, joining a $50 million investment in DigitalOcean that valued the creator of a cloud-based platform for developers at $1.15 billion and backing fantasy sports startup Sleeper alongside several notable angels, including frequent a16z collaborator Kevin Durant.

7. Hoop dreams

Durant’s deal with Sleeper wasn’t the only instance this week of the NBA crossing over into finance. Bloomberg reported Thursday that the league is in talks with Dyal Capital Partners about launching a new fund that would buy minority stakes in multiple NBA teams, essentially offering an avenue to liquidity to existing owners who might otherwise struggle to find deep-pocketed buyers. I wrote earlier this month about the deepening ties between pro sports and Wall Street.

8. Carlyle in court

Does the coronavirus pandemic qualify as legal grounds to walk away from a deal? That’s the question at the heart of an ongoing legal dispute between The Carlyle Group and American Express Global Business Travel, a corporate travel specialist in which Carlyle had planned to acquire a 20% stake before calling off the deal this month. A Delaware court’s decision on whether Carlyle is allowed to back out could have major implications across the dealmaking landscape.

9. Saving face

A group of Chinese state-owned investors invested a reported 1.8 billion yuan (about $253 million) this week in CloudWalk Technology, an AI giant focusing on facial recognition. The deal comes about nine months after Megvii, another Chinese facial recognition company, filed for an IPO in Hong Kong, a listing that’s yet to occur. Two months after that filing, the US government placed Megvii on a blacklist due in part to concerns that its technology may have been deployed to surveil the Uighur population in northwest China.

10. Quiz whiz

Schools might not get back to normal anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean an edtech startup can’t turn into a unicorn. Quizlet, which specializes in flashcards and other study tools, raised a $30 million Series C round this week led by General Atlantic, reportedly resulting in an even $1 billion valuation.

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    Written by Kevin Dowd

    Kevin Dowd wrote The Weekend Pitch newsletter for PitchBook, covering startups, buyouts and the rest of the private market.

    A native of the Pacific Northwest, he’s an alumnus of the University of Washington with a degree in creative writing and journalism. He enjoys books and basketball and, most especially, books about basketball. He feels uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person.

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