Helbiz earns its name with punishing 2021 earnings
When Helbiz chose its name, did it know that its business would eventually so aptly resemble its moniker? That’s an easy jab to make, but one that feels fitting after reading through Helbiz’s fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 earnings report, which was released well into the second quarter of 2022.
Some say companies either go public too early or too late. Helbiz’s own public-market debut was perhaps too early. The startup was the first shared micromobility operator to go public via SPAC in August 2021, a transaction that included a $26.5 million PIPE and about $24.5 million in net proceeds. When the company first announced its intention to go public, it expected $80 million in cash. (Many SPAC combinations in recent quarters have seen hoped-for cash proceeds dwindle before the deal is formally consummated.)
Since joining the public markets, Helbiz appears to be on a journey of self-discovery. What started as a shared micromobility company offering a combo of e-scooters, e-bikes and e-mopeds in Italy is now starting to resemble the business equivalent of an amorphous blob.
On Wednesday, Helbiz announced a partnership with Aon Mobility Solutions' long-term electric car rental service, Flee, which will allow users in certain Italian markets to access Flee's service through the Helbiz app.
In the third quarter of 2021, Helbiz started to diversify in increasingly strange ways. The company said it had started taking preorders for the Helbiz One, a retail e-scooter. Then it launched its first “ghost kitchen” in Milan, from which customers can order food off a fixed menu to be delivered via Helbiz scooters by “butlers.”
During the same quarter, the company launched Helbiz Live, a sports streaming platform that is currently showing Italy's Series B soccer, NCAA football and basketball, and MLB games.
You might be wondering, what the Helbiz? But wait, there’s more.
Helbiz is also, apparently, running an advertising business on its app that geotargets riders with ads for local businesses, although its latest earnings report said next to nothing about this particular effort.
To make matters just that much more oddball, crypto has been involved. Last year, CEO Salvatore Palella was sued by a group of investors who claimed they were defrauded into buying HelbizCoin cryptocurrency, which was announced in 2018 as a means to allow users to rent vehicles. In a suit that’s still active, the plaintiffs allege Helbiz kept the money and killed the crypto in a “pump and dump” scheme.
How does this hellacious business represent itself on the balance sheet? Let’s dig into the financials.
One hell of a business
Helbiz reported 2021 revenue of $12.8 million, which the company said is up 190% from $4.4 million in 2020. Encouraging? Think again! That revenue comes at a price of a teeth-clenching $72 million net loss. Its operating losses came to $59.1 million, which Helbiz attributes in part to the costs of launching its delivery and media lines of business, as well as significant investments in product, technology and marketing infrastructure.
In reality, a solid chunk, $24.4 million, came from general and administrative expenses, including, but not limited to, a cheeky $2.97 million for Palella’s total compensation. That single piece of employee compensation was worth nearly a quarter of Helbiz’s total 2021 revenues. And over half of that compensation was a bonus for the executive — a bonus for what, we’re still wondering.
“The 2021 compensation was highly impacted by bonuses for IPO and the start of new business lines,” a Helbiz spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We have a robust corporate governance structure, with Board committees supervising and approving all relevant corporate activities, including compensation. Our CEO is the majority owner of Helbiz; his financial success is completely aligned with other shareholders, and dependent on the financial success of the company. He is fully committed, as demonstrated by his recent purchase of 900,000 of Class A shares and 850,000 warrants in the company that increased his exposure.”
In case you don’t have the balance sheet in front of you, this also means that Helbiz spent more on the CEO’s salary than on R&D, which only set the company back $2.8 million in 2021.
Spending a lot of money on business isn’t necessarily a problem if the company has guap to back it up, but Helbiz appears to be nearly out of cash, with around $21 million at the end of the year and liabilities of $61.47 million. Even more, with an average burn of about $5 million per month, Helbiz likely has very limited cash reserves left on hand, given that we are looking at its Q4 and 2021 performance in April 2022, which is to say, into the second quarter of the year.
Perhaps that’s why the guidance portion of the company’s call was a bit light. Pretty much all Helbiz CFO Giulio Profumo offered in the way of the 2022 outlook was a droll “we expect solid revenue growth in 2022.”
Helbiz executives took no questions at the earnings call.
A serious question: Is Helbiz’s business philosophy based on the tried-and-true method of throwing wet spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks? And that what sticks will magically help the company raise more capital?
Let’s look at Helbiz’s varied flavors and see if we can understand what course the company is charting for itself, or if it’s completely adrift.
Despite its many business efforts, Helbiz’s revenue mainly came from its mobility segment, which brought in $9.9 million, or 77% of total revenue. Helbiz Live apparently brought in another $2.8 million, which more or less made up the remainder of 2021’s revenue. According to data from Apptopia, Helbiz Live has been downloaded about 144,000 times, with 91.3% of downloads being from Italy.
While the Helbiz Mobility app and Helbiz Live app are currently still separate, during the earnings call, Palella expressed nothing but positivity and excitement for turning the Helbiz app into something of a “super app” that offers multiple services to enable a “modern urban lifestyle.”
“There is plenty more we can do with it from advertising to financial services,” the executive said during the presentation.
We’re going to ignore the mention of adding “financial services” to the app for the moment because, frankly, it’s getting tricky to keep up with Helbiz’s business gymnastics. The company is currently trying to peddle its €40-per-month Helbiz Unlimited subscriptions, which include full access to Helbiz Live on all platforms, unlimited trips with Helbiz Mobility and, in at least one market, free delivery on food orders. Helbiz said subscriptions grew last year by 246%. Up from what, the company didn’t say.
Helbiz has stated its intentions to grow its kitchen vertical, which is still unprofitable, across Europe and into the U.S., starting with Rome with ITA Airways, but has not provided any further guidance for that either. Maybe that’s because it’s too steep of a hill to climb. After all, as we already established, it looks like Helbiz is running out of cash. Without enough cash to expand, who knows if Helbiz Kitchen will ever serve up profits?
Oddly, Helbiz is spending money on long-term branding plays despite its somewhat suspect financial footing. Stating that it has “entered into an agreement with Miami FC for the sponsorship of four United Soccer League Championship Seasons,” the company details that it is on the hook for $525,000 this year and $650,000 in 2023.
The final piece of the questionable puzzle is the retail scooter. When Helbiz first announced its intention to get into retail in Q3 2021, Palella boasted a growing preorder list. The company did not provide any updates on this during its most recent earnings call, such as when customers might expect to receive their Helbiz scooters or whether the company is even in the process of manufacturing them. Some who are familiar with the space say the dangling of a retail vehicle is nothing more than a PR stunt. Helbiz has not responded to requests for comment.
When TechCrunch reached out for more information, Helbiz said it was still finalizing details and that production will start “soon” because the company intends to make its scooter available by the end of the year.
“We’re hoping to avoid supply chain issues that other companies are facing but can’t guarantee it,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.
There's a lot going on here, and it's not clear whether Helbiz actually has a coherent strategy for growing its business holistically. Aside from its questionable 2021 earnings, the company has seen some recent issues come to light, namely a "payroll update" that caused a delay in payment to Helbiz's U.S. employees.
One area that could potentially grow its revenue at a cost that's far less than sports sponsorships and ghost kitchens is its advertising business. Again, not much revenue has been generated through this line of business, but there's a possibility of expanding it beyond in-app ads and onto docking stations and on-vehicle advertising, along with advertising during Helbiz Live streaming, the company told TechCrunch.
"Our CEO and the company’s belief is that advertising is a key part of making micromobility profitable while also allowing prices to stay level or reduce so that the offerings become more accessible for all. This is why we’ve dedicated a whole team just to advertising technology," a Helbiz spokesperson told TechCrunch.