Tech

Leila Abboud is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously worked for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.

As Rocket Internet tries to prove the short-sellers wrong, there's a lot riding on its bet on food-related start-ups. Oliver Samwer, founder of the web investment group, needs to start serving up proof that he can turn growth into profit.

Rocket Skeptics
The Internet investor has been among the most shorted stocks in Europe recently
Source: Markit data

More than half of the value Rocket ascribes to its portfolio is now in food and grocery, the biggest being meal-kit specialist Hello Fresh and online take-out provider Delivery Hero. They're two of the remaining unicorns (young tech companies valued at more than $1 billion) Samwer is trying to nurture to flotation after selling a stake in e-commerce site Lazada to Alibaba this week.

Both start-ups are growing fast but making losses as they invest in expansion and products. Rocket's results on Thursday showed an 86 million euro ($97 million) Ebitda loss at Hello Fresh last year, versus a 12 million euro shortfall in 2014, and analysts expect that to widen as it invests in U.S. marketing. Hello Fresh has enlisted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to promote its service, a $69-$109 weekly delivery of ingredients and recipes to help people cook at home.

What's Cooking
Rocket's Hello Fresh is growing but losing money as it pitches its service to home chefs
Source: Company data

Stable-mate Delivery Hero releases few financials, but it does benefit from a more proven business model. Like listed peers Just Eat and GrubHub, the start-up is in restaurant delivery. Its revenue more than doubled last year to 198 million euros, while orders tripled. Investors have experience of valuing this type of company, which should -- in theory -- make a flotation easier. But there are fears about rival services from tech giants Amazon and Uber.

There's another important difference between Hello Fresh and Delivery Hero. While Rocket is the majority owner of Hello Fresh, it's only a minority holder in Delivery Hero. Samwer bought into the Berlin-based takeaway specialist last year after realizing that its savvy founders had built a strong lead in about 30 countries, which Rocket couldn't replicate.

The 550 million-euro investment in Delivery Hero departed from Rocket's usual script of being a "builder of companies." It doesn't have a board seat at Delivery Hero, although the two collaborate on technology and have swapped assets. Delivery Hero co-founder Niklas Ostberg has said he'll decide when it goes public, "no matter how much pressure Oliver Samwer is trying to put on me."

The problem for Samwer, and the explanation for that pressure, is that exits are the only way he can monetize Rocket's portfolio. It may bill itself as an Internet "operating company" with 250 engineers, but it's really better understood as a venture capital fund that happens to be listed.

IPOs are its lifeblood, and Samwer has promised one by mid-2017 if market conditions allow. Delivery Hero's reticence could mean Rocket tries to push Hello Fresh before it's ready. It aborted a Hello Fresh listing last year because of a weak valuation.

Rushing it would be a mistake, regardless of the short pressure. Investors aren't as tolerant as they were of loss-making start-ups; there hasn't been a single tech IPO in the U.S. this year. Former stars Twitter and Box are mired below their flotation price. Impatient public markets may not be the best place for a company like Rocket, as its 10 percent share drop on Thursday shows. But Samwer has little choice but to keep investing until his food holdings are fully cooked.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leila Abboud in Paris at labboud@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net