Off Brand

Could Airbnb Acquire Delta, Snap Scoop up Viacom, or Lyft Buy GM?

If we look at the recent history of startups swallowing iconic brands, the answer is yes.

Rob Walker
Marker
Published in
5 min readSep 25, 2019

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Illustration: Kyle Platts

EEarlier this year, Canadian retail firm Hudson’s Bay made it known that it was considering selling off one of its properties: the “iconic” Lord & Taylor department store chain. Founded in 1826 and a staple at malls across America, Lord & Taylor’s revenue last year was around $1.1 billion. But like other department stores, it has struggled to adjust to the digital era, closing stores and even selling its storied, flagship Fifth Avenue location to WeWork; it lost about $90 million last year.

A few weeks ago, a buyer emerged: Le Tote. That name is likely less familiar, given that it’s a seven-year-old startup that is part of the retail trend du jour: clothing rental. Le Tote’s revenue is reportedly about a tenth of Lord & Taylor’s — and indeed, revenue for the entire clothing-rental category is estimated about $1 billion. Le Tote, a private company reportedly valued at around $180 million with backers including Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures, is not even the alpha dog in its category, with less recognition than Rent The Runway. The deal has some unusual details, but the big picture is that Le Tote is paying about $75 million, and granting Hudson’s Bay some equity.

In other words, this is an example of a particular kind of deal that could be shorthanded as “Thing You’ve Never Heard of Acquires Thing You’ve Heard of Your Entire Life.” It’s not the first example. And it definitely won’t be the last.

It’s a notable phenomenon, because it represents a shift in the new-vs.-old dynamic of the post-digital business era. For years, we’ve been offered two basic narratives: The old will simply absorb the new (familiar business swallows clever startup), or the new will erase the old (clever startup “disrupts” and ultimately obliterates familiar business).

But maybe, as technology slowly changes consumer habits, these curious-sounding mashups of tech-centric startups and venerable “legacy” companies offers a third narrative: the new world swallows the old. Maybe Airbnb acquires Delta, Snap scoops up Viacom, or Lyft buys GM. Who…

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