Prepped delivery meal kit Blue Apron has finally filed for an IPO. The financial results place Blue Apron as the worldwide market leader regarding revenue but also poses some serious questions regarding the company’s ability to grow.
We’ve outlined some success factors, risk points and some comments on the company’s future. With right timing, management, and common sense, Blue Apron may be able to become the largest online restaurant in the U.S.
Blue Apron‘s revenue is growing faster than its losses: 2016 ‘s revenue resulted in $795.4 million in revenue for 2016, up 133% from about $340 million 2015. However, losses grew only from $30.8 million in 2014 to $46.7 million in 2015 to $54.9 million in 2016. It seems the company could create profit but preferred minor losses to maintain growth. But in the first quarter of 2017, the company had a net loss totaling $52.2 million—almost as much as all of the last year.
Source: Blue Apron’s S-1
“The biggest online restaurant in the U.S,” – Scale and incumbency:Blue Apron is probably the ‘Uber’ of meal kit industry. It is a pioneer in offering meal kit delivery service and still the world’s largest regarding revenue. Its German competitor, Hello Fresh, now competes with Blue Apron in its own U.S backyard. Hello Fresh‘s revenue in 2016 grew by 104%, less than the growth rate of Blue Apron. But while Blue Apron‘s cost of good sold doubled to $532.6 million, Hello Fresh‘s cost of goods is standing merely on half of the number. The two companies are losing money, but while Blue Apron‘s net loss grew in 2016, Hello Fresh‘s net loss went down by almost 20%.
Source: Blue Apron’s S-1 / Hello Fresh April 2017 financial statement
It’s all about data: If Blue Apron is the “Uber” of meal kit in its scale, it is also the “Netflix” of food delivery in the manner of data ownership. Blue Apron knows it customer’s taste even more than GrabHub or Yelp does, and collect data on personal preferences including ingredients, tastes, styles of food and timing.
Source: Blue Apron
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Low barrier to entry mean lots of competition: Entry barriers to the meal kit industry are low. All that you need is a digital asset, warehouses full of goods, and people to pack them and deliver them. Today, there are at least 18 meal kit delivery companies operating in the U.S alone, including Plated, Home Chef, Sun Basket, Martha & Marley Spoon, and Chef’d. The market is big enough to include varieties of services: vegan-oriented, supermarket-oriented and more. In this fragmented market, scale and resources are necessary to expand faster and become a giant.
Growing cost per customer, higher churn: Blue Apron‘s revenue increased significantly in 2016, but so did to cost of acquiring new customers. Blue Apron pays $94 per each new user and its marketing expenses in the first quarter of 2017 are bigger than the entire marketing budget of 2015. The cumulative net revenue per customer isn’t growing enough as seen here in the graph. For instance, an average customer that is subscribed for 36 months expands only $72 more than a 30 months-old subscriber.
Source: Blue Apron’s S-1
A halt in growth: The company’s increase in revenue in 2016 was high and impressive, but looking at 2017’s indicators, a halt in the company’s growth is apparent. According to Google Trends, there’s a sharp decline in Blue Apron‘s popularity since the end of 2016. At the same time, Hello Fresh grew in popularity so that the two companies are standing on approximately the same level now.
Source: Google Trends
Looking at LinkedIn’s HR data, employee count has been stopped growing for a few months, and last May it went down 1%. It is entirely possible that Blue Apron wanted to increase its workforce significantly before filing for an IPO, but a lack of future growth in these indicators is something to follow. The sudden increase in the company’s losses in the first quarter might be a hint to the way the company deals with the lack of growth.
In addition, as demonstrated by the below, it is not far from reality that users may order a few meal kits to try it out, and then they forget about it or are just less eager to seek to order more meals.
Source: Slice Intelligence / TheInformation.com
Growing competition from supermarkets: Retail chains have already discovered the fast growing market of meal kit and are offering kits with pre-measured fresh ingredients and instructions. These meal kits can be quickly picked up on the way home, saving delivery fee. The other reality is that supermarkets including Kroger, Publix, Hy-Vee and Mariano’s to name just a few, are stepping up with high-quality meal kits that we can pick up on our way home, which might be the fatal bullet for the burgeoning meal kit industry, no matter how much money they raise.
International expansion: In contrast to Hello Fresh, Blue Apron operates in the U.S alone, and in order to keep growing it will soon have to expand overseas. Blue Apron will have to find a more environmentally viable packaging solution for its meal kits. Millennials are buying meal kits also because they are more environment-friendly than grocery products. In average, people will throw three times as much food with regular home cooking than with a meal kit, according to a Nielsen study. But the multitude, tailor-made, and complicated packaging of meal kits that include portable coolers, freezers, and bags, makes the whole experience a little less environmental.
How to be the Amazon of Food: The fact that Blue Apron is, perhaps, “the biggest restaurant in America,” brings multiple scenarios of growth to the table, to compensate for the lack of growth. As meal kit delivery companies are focused on dinners, there is plenty of space in the breakfast and snacks. Chef’d, for instance, partnered with Quaker Oats to deliver meal kits for breakfast. Blue Apron will probably need to develop a brick and mortar presence to compete with supermarkets. Hello Fresh, for instance, already sells kits at Sainsbury in London. An acquisition is, of course, another great way to eliminate competition and acquire market share. After its IPO, if successful, Blue Apron can consider acquiring each of the smaller companies in the space. Plated is a great opportunity: it is covering the entire U.S market very well, it’s strategy focuses on offering quality food in places where the supply of mid-range quality food is lacking.
Comments on the company’s future
Blue Apron will probably need to develop a brick and mortar presence to compete with supermarkets. Hello Fresh, for instance, already sells kits at Sainsbury’s in London. An acquisition is, of course, another great way to eliminate competition and acquire market share. After its IPO, if successful, Blue Apron can consider buying each of the smaller companies in the space. Plated is a great opportunity: it is covering the entire U.S market very well, it’s strategy focuses on offering quality food in places where the supply of mid-range quality food is lacking. Also, Plated is cheap and valued at about $300-$400 million by Zirra, a startup that has developed big data and AI tech to better research companies.
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On demand companies, especially online food delivery services, are still considered by many VCs as a trendy, bubbly, and ambitious investment. After all, it was this industry that brought the internet revolution of the nineties to a hype and from there to a total crash during the dot-com tech market crisis of 2000. Yet, in 2017 some of the biggest private companies offer on-demand services (Uber, Airbnb), including food delivery startups such as Instacart, Delivery Hero, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Postmates, each of whom has raised hundreds of millions to feed a generation of busy young professionals.
After a harsh previous year, the investors are back, hungry for the profitable and growing companies around the delivery space. Last August, UK based Deliveroo snatched $275 million in equity funding, while last month Instacart completed a huge round of $400 million.
It’s true that many companies in the space are experiencing heavy losses and are struggling hard to grow, a possible consequence of the low barrier of entry. M&A activity of food delivery startups has also seen a massive increase in recent years as smaller players are seeking a buyer, sometimes at any price. But, slowly and surely, some companies are surpassing the clutter with an effective modus operandi, as well as an excellent orchestration of technology, supply chain, marketing and food quality.
The startups are not alone in their quest to feed the world. They are surrounded by public competitors such as GrubHub, Just Eat, Yelp, and by other companies such as Amazon and Uber, that are now trying their hand at grocery and meal delivery.
The total food and grocery market in the U.S are currently $1.4 trillion a year. Currently addressed from that market on mobile is only 1.4%, so the growth potential is enormous. Zirra, a startup that has developed AI and machine learning technology to effectively analyze the private tech market, has already mapped the 5 highest valued automotive startups and built a list of the 10 highest valued UK startups. Now, Zirra is proud to present you with a brand new and updated list of the 10 highest valued delivery startups. Here are some insights we picked from the list:
*Food is just the beginning: Food is for some of the delivery startups what books were for Amazon – one category mastered before moving on to other categories. Instacart partnered with Target and Costco to offer various products beyond prepared food. Postmates couriers, who are more famous for meals delivery, are starting to deliver items from Apple Stores and will soon start to work with local groceries, allowing a deliverable grocery inventory of about 200 essential items.
*Silicon Valley is not the whole picture: delivery service is a territory and scale-based industry, which allows non-U.S players to thrive and even compete with pure American companies within their home market. According to Zirra, the biggest delivery startup is China-based Ele.me. Other leading startups, such as Delivery Hero and Hello Fresh, are Germany-based companies, and the latter expanded to the U.S, competing back to back with local services Blue Apron. Deliveroo, another startup listed in the top ten list, is based in London and now expanding outside of the British Isles into Asia and the Middle East. Historically, the biggest success stories of food delivery always grew outside Silicon Valley: GrubHub was founded in Chicago, Seamless in New York. Eat24 was founded in San Francisco and was acquired by local company Yelp, but it is a smaller player in the market.
*Learning from the mistakes of Webvan: Webvan, the grocery delivery company from the start of the millennium is the poster child of the dot-com bubble that led to the tech market crash 17 years ago. Its biggest mistake, perhaps, was its decision to build its infrastructure from scratch: buy a fleet of vans, hire full-time couriers and build huge warehouses. Today’s companies, such as Instacart and Postmates, are leveraging the sharing economy and the existing infrastructure of grocery stores to their service. They focus on customer service and delivery and use sophisticated algorithms to optimize the matching of orders with the couriers. Also, they focus on a customer base that is willing to pay more for convenience, in general, an audience of young professionals.
*Signs of profitability: The investors are flocking back to the on-demand economy, thanks to first signs of profitability that some of the mature companies show. Indeed, the vast majority of them are struggling with ever-growing expenditures and losses, but some on the top 10 list are talking about being profitable in at least some locations. Instacart announced only last month that the company is profitable in 25 of the 35 cities where it operates.
*Restaurant-less restaurants: Restaurant owners that offer only delivery service are realizing more and more that property costs for a kitchen are significantly lower than a restaurant as you don’t have to have a prime location or space for diners. Delivery companies, such as UK-based Deliveroo’s Roobox, are taking part in the trend to offer a delivery service for kitchen-only restaurants. A Kitchen-only attitude can solve problems like lunch rush hour for restaurants that serve large businesses, or for an expansion to new cities.
*Among the delivery startups we can find restaurant delivery services such as Delivery Hero, Doordash, Deliveroo, and Ele.me. Grocery delivery services such as Instacart, Dada and Postmates, and meal kit services such as BlueApron and Hello Fresh and Plated.
Shanghai-based Ele.me is, according to Zirra’s valuation algorithm, is the highest valued delivery service. Founded in 2009 and backed by Alibaba, Ele.me controls about a third of the Chinese food delivery market, according to Analysys International. It is grossing around $2-3 billion a year in a rapidly growing market that can expand as much as dozen of times within just a few years. After reporting that they will receive a further $1.25 billion in financing a year ago, Ele.me said it had a customer base of 50 million in 300 Chinese cities. [Read here for Zirra’s automatic Spotlight Report on Ele.me]
Grocery shopping app Instacart raised a whopping $400 million a few weeks ago, a financial round led by Sequoia Capital. According to research firm Zirra, which uses A.I and machine learning technology to analyze private companies, Instacart’s valuation has reached at least $3.3 billion.
Instacart is a unique company in its offering and business model. First, the company is profitable in 25 of the 35 cities where it operates, which is not bad for an on-demand company that deals with grocery products, a low margin industry. Second, the company has developed three different channels of income: a double delivery fee from the shop and the customer and a promotion platform for coupons and branded products. The company isn’t profitable, but it’s growing quickly and shows profitability in some of its markets. According to sources close to Zirra, the gross profit per order can be as high as $7 in some of Instacart’s market.
This is done by using Instacart’s algorithms that compute the most efficient way to collect products and deliver them. According to data published by the company, in 2016 it increased efficiency by 20% and decreased late deliveries by 25%.
The big round is good news for the company after an extended period of bad PR. Some “1099 employees” said that the company treats them as full-time employees, demanding them to participate in workshops while paying them as if they were freelancers. Others blamed the company for making arbitrary salary cuts now and then, pointing to the fact that Instacart is struggling to be profitable, at least in some markets.
This caused the company to lay off dozens of employees, which may indicate aggressive hiring or a decrease in revenue. All of this has led Instacart to increase their prices. The $400 million round should calm the price hike a bit, opening a new window for Instacart to expand and attract many new customers and retailers in new locations. [Read here Zirra’s full report on Instacart]
3. Delivery Hero
Delivery Hero is the parent company of many popular brands in the online food order and delivery space. Globally the company has more than 30 brands, B2C and B2B. The company is headquartered in Berlin and runs out of 33 locations globally, partnering with over 271,000 restaurants around the world. For Delivery Hero. the number of processed orders in first half of 2016 grew like for like by 45% compared to the first half of 2015. This positive trend continued in July with year-over-year order growth of 55%. This was their fastest growth as a group since 2013. Revenues during the first half of 2016 grew by 53%, while Delivery Hero’s core business is operating profitably. According to Zirra, Delivery Hero’s valuation is estimated at $2.9 billion. If the company chooses to go public it can ask for a higher valuation, as much as $4.7 billion. Read here for Zirra’s full report on Delivery Hero
Deliveroo sells and delivers restaurant meals to households or offices. It was founded by William Shu who moved from the US to the UK and didn’t find proper higher-end meals to order beyond junk food. After raising abruptly $275 million six months ago, a part of the on-demand investment spree culminated to $5.5 according to CB Insights; the British service became one of the highest valued worldwide on-demand startups. It became popular among customers who seek for a higher class meal, delivered directly from a premium restaurant. Despite this fact, most of the recommended offers in the homepage offer burgers, pizzas and pasta meals, which means that they are the most popular on the site.
The technology platform optimizes food ordering and delivery by integrating the web and mobile consumers with restaurant tablet-based point-of-sale order management terminals. Deliveroo promises its logistics optimization algorithm will make the business efficient for both sides, and in the end will allow the company to profit from a standard fee of 2.50 pounds per order. Already today the company boasts a few cities to be profitable but does not mention them by name. It said in the past that building a loyal customer base is the key to profitability: The drivers, who are paid by the hour, will deliver more meals. Shortly, the company wants to build more kitchens that restaurants could use exclusively for providing takeout.
The large financial round at August prized Deliveroo with a $1 billion valuation according to the press, but as for today, Zirra estimates the delivery service’s valuation between $1.2-$1.3 billion.
Deliveroo is expanding throughout Europe, and eastward towards Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. Even though, the company said it is unlikely to enter the US market, a decision that marks the overwhelming competition in the country and the fact that Deliveroo will not be the “Uber” of restaurant delivery service.
A leading meal delivery such as Deliveroo is dependent on yearly multi-million financial rounds. It has raised so far close to $500 million to maintain the fierce competition within a crowded market, to subsidize deliveries, and to expand to new territories. Deliveroo competes with incumbents such as UK-based Just Eat and Germany’s Delivery Hero, and other giants penetrating the food delivery business such as Uber and possibly Amazon. The latter has just tested its first drone delivery on UK soil last December.
The whole on-demand industry is on the hold, with smaller startups in the field having hard times to raise money. In recent months, several companies have shut down, while others have been acquired. Recently, Take Eat Easy filed for bankruptcy.
Also, the company will have to deal with potential legal actions and protests from drivers claiming to be underpaid. Recently, the Independent Workers Union IWGB has been pointing towards Deliveroo, claiming it underpays the drivers and that it over-hires drivers, creating a spare time with no work for the rest of them. There are many bodies who seek the same ruling last year that Uber drivers are employees and not contractors. [Read here for the automatic Spotlight Report on Deliveroo]
China-based Dada connects delivery workers with short-distance delivery jobs, backed by Yuri Milner’s DST, Sequoia, and Walmart. A year ago, JD.com, known as the “Chinese Amazon” merged its food delivery division with Dada. It helped Dada reach and deliver JD’s complete grocery offering around China.
6. Hello Fresh, 8. Blue Apron & 10. Plated
Blue Apron, Plated, and HelloFresh are among the most growing players in the meal kit market; a new industry turned into a booming trend. It offers busy millennials the opportunity to cook the food themselves but without the hustle of spending hours on it. Customers receive a box in the mail with all necessary ingredients and recipe cards estimating the preparation process to no more than 30-40 minutes. The cost is lower than ordering a prepared meal: about $8-$12 per meal, with a monthly or weekly subscription plans pushing it to the lower side. [Read here for the full spotlight report on HelloFresh]
The meal kits trend was the missing part of the chain of “real world products” apps like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb or TaskRabbit, that connected users with physical goods such as cars or rooms. But, Blue Apron or HelloFresh don’t see themselves as merely delivery services that bring food to customers. They see themselves as retailers aiming to fix the broken market of food, decreasing food waste from 10% as is today, to no more than 3%.
As the food delivery market is capital intensive, companies have raised hundreds of millions each to support expansion in the U.S and other markets. Germany-based HelloFresh has raised $367 million since 2012, while Blue Apron, it’s American nemesis, has raised $194 million since 2012. But new signs from the market show that it is about to slow down if it’s not already slowing down. Heavy losses, creaking logistics, and fierce competition are clouding over the companies’ endless appetite for growth. It is no wonder that Blue Apron and HelloFresh have each stopped talking about a possible IPO.
Earlier this month The Information reported that Blue Apron and HelloFresh weren’t able to keep up their breakneck growth at the end of last year and both saw a sharp decrease in growth in the second half of last year. To keep growing, the firms must convince customers that the convenience they provide outweighs the cost. Plated, another competitor, has increased at a slightly faster pace in the fourth quarter but it is a distant third in its market share.
As other on-demand startups such as Uber or Lyft are trying hard to do, Blue Apron and HelloFresh are struggling to reduce the cost of acquiring customers and to retain customers. The competition and scale demand high growth in customer acquisition, fueled by massive marketing campaigns and subsidies that make the price much more attractive. In Blue Apron’s case, the company runs about $800 million in total revenues but is struggling to improve profit margins.
The press rumors Blue Apron to be valued at $2 billion and that they wish to go public with a $3 billion valuation. However, Zirra, a company that analyzes private tech companies using AI and machine learning technology, values Blue Apron at $700-$800 million. The probability of an exit, such as going public, is low (40%-50%) according to the algorithms. If it chooses to make an exit, Zirra predicts a lower valuation that the press, with an estimate of $1.2-$1.3 billion.
HelloFresh has the same idea. Valued at $2.18 billion not a long time ago, Zirra now estimates its valuation at $1.1-$1.2 billion. The chances to make an exit are higher than Blue Apron’s, with a probability of around 60% in a window of 2-3 years. Think of the Seamless-Grubhub merger a few years ago that started a consolidation trend in the food delivery industry.
Blue Apron is suffering recently from growing criticism over its employment policy, and some have said it provides customers with small portions of food. This definitely happened due to an uninhibited push to grow at any price – possibly at the expense of quality of employees and ingredients.
Earlier this month restaurants and grocery delivery service Postmates announced it had grossed $250 million in the first quarter of 2017. Also, the company expects to be profitable at the end of 2017, or earlier, at an annualized run rate of $1 billion, and that the corresponding revenue run rate should be the same for 2018.
Originally a meal delivery service, Postmates is now turning to grocery delivery service. In January, the company launched an alcohol delivery service, partnering with 50 local liquor stores in LA and San Francisco. Based on that delivery model, Postmates now plans to work with corner shops to deliver up to 200 grocery items. [Read here for Postmates’ automatic Spotlight Report]
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