When will Uber Technologies go public?
That has been one of the hottest questions in Silicon Valley for a few years now. With a reported valuation of nearly $70 billion in its last fundraising round, the ride-hailing giant is by far the richest of the Valley's not-yet-public "unicorn" technology companies.
Uber's recent string of company-shaking scandals seems to have put any plans for an initial public offering (IPO) on the back burner, to say the least. But still: At some point, Uber's early investors will want a chance to cash out. When will that happen?
For starters, Uber needs a new management team
The better question to ask might be this: What needs to happen before Uber can seriously consider an IPO?
Uber is in a tough place right now. It has been rocked by a series of scandals, including some heavy harassment allegations and reports that the company may have skated very close to (and possibly over) a number of legal lines. Those scandals have led to a slew of executive departures, both voluntary and not-so-voluntary.
Right now, Uber has no president, no engineering leader, no chief financial officer, and no business chief. The executives who had filled those roles have all left the company since the beginning of 2017. As of this writing, none of those jobs has been filled.
Uber is also effectively without its CEO and co-founder, Travis Kalanick. Likely under pressure from Uber's board of directors, Kalanick announced last week that he is taking an indefinite leave of absence.
So step one on the path to an IPO would be this: Uber needs to fill all of those openings and create a stable, credible management team that is ready and able to run a public company.
Uber also needs to resolve a bitter dispute with an angry tech giant
Step two on Uber's path to an IPO is probably to make peace with Waymo -- and to get its self-driving efforts back on track after the departure of a key executive.
Waymo is the company formerly known as the Google self-driving car project. It's now a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL). Waymo sued Uber earlier this year, alleging that Uber's self-driving effort has been using technology stolen from Waymo.
Specifically, Waymo alleges that Anthony Levandowski, who at the time was leading Uber's own self-driving development effort, took proprietary technology secrets with him when he left the Google self-driving project early in 2016. Levandowski left Google to found Otto, a start-up working on self-driving heavy trucks that was acquired by Uber last summer, just a few months after it was founded.
It's still early, but analysts think that Waymo appears to have a solid case. Worse for Uber, there are hints that Levandowski's move from Google to Otto to Uber might have been negotiated with Uber in advance. If that's true and can be proven, it will put Uber in a very tough spot.
A hint that it might be true: Uber fired Levandowski last month, apparently because he wasn't willing (or able) to help the company defend against the suit.
To say the least, it's not in Uber's long-term interest to have Alphabet as an enemy. (Last month, Waymo agreed to partner with Uber rival Lyft on self-driving efforts, a move that was seen as a loud shot across Uber's bow.)
Settling this lawsuit and mending its relationship with Alphabet is another thing that probably has to happen before Uber begins working on an IPO. Also: Because self-driving technology is key to Uber's plan to get to profitability, the company will need to show that it has a credible path to acquiring the tech -- somehow.
So when will Uber go public?
Given all of the above, I'd say an IPO is not likely to happen in 2017. Uber may have a third challenge to face before it can go public: After all of the scandals and internal strife, there's a chance that the public markets won't value Uber at anything close to the roughly $70 billion valuation it's said to have had in its latest investment round. Getting Uber's investors to agree to an IPO at a substantially lower valuation might involve some very complicated (and protracted) negotiations.
It's also possible that Uber will have missed its window in the current market cycle by the time it's ready to consider a public offering. The bull market has been running for a long time, and it's bound to turn bearish -- eventually. If "eventually" happens to coincide with Uber's IPO timing, the IPO might get postponed for a while.
Long story short: Uber's IPO isn't going to happen any time soon. It's possible that it could happen in 2018 -- but it's also possible that it won't happen for several years, at least.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. John Rosevear has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares) and Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.