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Uber faces the 'last 1bn person market' left.

Summary: Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick often describes India as a "global priority market".

Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick often describes India as a "global priority market". Quite how much of a priority only became clear last week, as the ride-sharing service unveiled plans to sink an extra $1bn into the country over the next nine months.Depending on the point of view, Mr Kalanick's gambit is either a bold move by one of America's most daring technology companies, or a last-ditch attempt to avoid being left behind by a larger local competitor, a fate his company has already suffered in China.

But while Uber is fighting taxi-app wars with a host of rivals across Asia, its battle with Bangalore-based Ola carries special significance, given the huge potential size of India's still underdeveloped market.

Uber has deep pockets, having raised close to $10bn in equity and debt since its founding five years ago. But Ola is also well-financed, with backing from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner's DST Global fund, and Japan's Softbank.

Ola is also nearing closing a new $500m funding round at an implied equity valuation for the company of more than $4bn, according to three people familiar with its plans. A further round at an even steeper valuation is likely later this year. "Cash isn't the issue," says one Ola investor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They [Uber] are putting in $1bn, but we are going to have at least $1bn too. We won't be outgunned."

Elsewhere Mr Kalanick is playing catch-up. Uber says it can hit 1m rides a day by next March, up from around 200,000 today. Ola, by contrast, already claims 500,000 daily rides, making it more than twice as large -- although both companies routinely accuse each other of inflated figures, making the true picture hard to judge.

What is clear is that Uber has often struggled since launching in India in 2013. Its growth has been rapid, helped along by its willingness to adapt to local conditions, such as allowing customers to pay in cash or adding cheaper auto-rickshaws to its service. But India's sheer complexity has often overwhelmed the small teams Uber deploys to launch in new cities. A temporary ban in New Delhi last December following sexual assault allegations caused a particular crisis, forcing it to beef up its management.

Uber's hopes now rest on quicker expansion. Today it operates in just 18 cities, far behind Ola's 100 or more. Amit Jain, Uber's president in India, says this "rigorous" approach has been deliberate, implying that its narrower footprint allows better service. Either way, spates of new city launches are likely.

Serving more customers in existing locations like Mumbai will be just as important, which in turn means finding extra drivers. In mature markets like America, Uber increases supply by persuading people to turn their cars into part-time taxis. In India, where few people own vehices, this is unlikely to work.

Instead, it must now find, train and retain a vast pool of new drivers, most of whom will not have worked behind the wheel before. Ola says it will grow from 150,000 drivers today to around 1m by 2017. Uber, which now has around 50,000, needs a similarly dramatic jump.

Then there is the thorny issue of profit. Uber's deep pockets allow it to lure drivers and passengers from rivals via costly incentives, often losing money on each ride. But eventually these sops must be cut back, often causing resentment.

"I earned a lot of money in the beginning, but it has gone down drastically now, because they cut back on special bonus payments," says one driver in Mumbai who signed up with Uber six months ago, who asked not to be named. "They have put in too many cars and now there are not enough customers," he adds.

Other problems are likely too, from regulatory delays to protests from anxious old-style cabbies. Yet India's taxi-app sector is still set for rapid growth. Morgan Stanley analysts say it will be worth $5bn by 2020. Ola founder Bhavish Agarwal talks even more boldly of India becoming the first country to grow rich without mass car ownership -- because Indians will use cheap and readily-available taxis instead.

That may be far-fetched, but it helps to explain why Uber, Ola, and their investors, are willing to deploy such vast sums to conquer a market that remains far smaller than China's -- and in which the American company is by no means assured of victory.

"It's a bit of a war out there, but it will be winner takes all, and India is the last billion person market left," says Anupam Mittal, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur and early Ola investor.

"And remember this is India, it isn't Sweden. We have entrepreneurs with knuckles and sharp elbows. They aren't going to get knocked over easily."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Aug 3, 2015
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