It’s a rarity when a concept comes along and completely disrupts a well established product category. The disruption Uber has caused in the ground transportation industry is unprecedented. At first, the only ones who got it were the Millennials and the techies. Now it’s a phenomenon – so much so that the brand name is being used as a verb! Executives operating in other categories are burning the midnight oil coming up with strategies to protect their brands from being “Uberized”:
to subject (an industry) to a business model in which services are offered on demand through direct contact between a customer and a supplier, usually via mobile technology
Recently I found myself unemployed and looking for an opportunity. My stepson, Clay had been driving for Uber for several months and he convinced me to “just check into it”. I discovered the approval process is ridiculously simple.
The first step is a background check. Then you fill out a short application and within 24 hours, bada-boom-bada-bing you’re anointed – Uber Driver! No muss no fuss. Approved on a Friday I decided to try out my new gig the next day. Once I got over the weirdness of looking in the rearview mirror and seeing a stranger in my back seat, I was good to go. After a few rides, I found it enjoyable not knowing who I would be picking up next. My other early challenge was developing 100% faith in Google Maps. Since I’m directionally challenged, this caused me a bit of anxiety knowing the ultimate embarrassment as an Uber driver is getting lost.
My second ride on day 1, I was summoned to pick up a rider at an In and Out Burger. It was two kids, who needed a lift to the high school. It took about 5 minutes which earned me a whopping $3.00. I guess anyone, regardless of age, can use the Uber app, as long as they have Mommy’s credit card number!
That Monday, my next order of business, was to get my airport sticker. Anyone who is providing transport to and from the airport has to have one. It took me 10 minutes and cost ten bucks. I drove out of the airport security parking lot with my head held high and my chest puffed out. I was now ready for the big time.
I learned quickly that airport rides are coveted in the Uber world. Following my stepson’s instructions, I met him in what I refer to as “The Uber Yard” (at the airport)where all the drivers park and wait for ride requests. When I pulled in it appeared to be just another parking lot. As strange as it sounds, because this lot was filled with Uber drivers and their cars, this parking lot had a personality. I was about to become exposed to the Uber culture.
I met up with Clay who was my Uber mentor. An outgoing sort, he had become immersed in the culture. I couldn’t help but notice several lawn chairs located on a narrow strip of grass, adjacent to the lot. I asked Clay, “What’s with the chairs?” He explained that’s where the drivers hang out and hold court while they wait for rides.
At any given time there can be over 200 Uber cars in the lot. Many of the drivers pass the time shining up their rigs so they can impress their passengers and maybe get a thumbs up on the app in the cool car category. Clay shared all kinds of stories that he’d heard from the various drivers. I was struck by the diversity of the group – it’s like a mini United Nations. All nationalities, all walks of life, all shapes and sizes. Some dressed in cutoffs and others in tuxedos! Figures it would be that way. There is no interview to become a driver so there is no discrimination. Maybe corporate America should take note.
Clay introduced me to several drivers who were more than willing to share their thoughts on how to maximize my Uber earning potential. What I’ve learned, while everyone has a different strategy, there really is no perfect formula. Essentially, every day is a crapshoot. The panacea for a driver is when they can take advantage of surges that can happen at various times throughout the day. A surge is based on supply and demand. When there are lots of people looking for rides and there are not enough Ubers available, the fares go up, in that area. Drivers are notified by the app that a particular area is surging. Unfortunately surges can be there one minute and gone the next. Chasing a surge can backfire. I learned the hard way by driving to an area that was surging just to look at the app and realize the surge was no longer in affect!
It didn’t take me long to get into the Uber groove. Call me crazy, but I found the experience invigorating. The passengers are even more diverse than the driver community. On my best days I was up at 4:30am and on the road by 5:00am seeking a passenger bound for the airport. Some mornings I got stuck with a McDonald’s pick up and delivery. Doing the UberEats thing can be annoying for a variety of reasons. The worst is a McDonald’s delivery to someone who speaks broken english living in a large apartment complex. Nothing like a cold Egg McMuffin to start the day.
My passengers included Tiffany the California Yogi, an African-American woman named Pablo and Rajad, a college accounting professor. I picked up families and their groceries at Kroger, a man and his couch at a furniture store, an elderly woman who spends her vacations scuba diving in exotic locations around the world, young entrepreneurs, corporate execs, laborers, nannies and a rather large man who talked about himself the entire 45 minutes he was in my car. this guy was a human run on sentence! I said 2 words, hello and good-bye! Oh, and have a nice day.
I was inspired by my millennial passengers, many of whom are doing their part to change the world. I had interesting conversations about about business, technology and travel. Some of my passengers were glued to their phones and said very little.
There were two experiences that were especially memorable. The first was with a young Nigerian gentleman named Emmanuel. He’d only been in the US for 6 months. His story is similar to those of other immigrants. He left Nigeria by himself to come to the land of opportunity. During our conversation, I found myself apologizing for the current administration’s stand on immigration. Emmanuel had a different perspective.
He was so grateful to be in America. While we have such a tremendous amount of political turmoil, he says it’s nothing close to what they have in Nigeria. My visit with Emmanuel prompted me to do a little research on his homeland. Despite an abundance of human and natural resources, Nigeria remains a poor country with 40-55% of the population living below the international poverty line. (Versus 10% in the US). Their government is notoriously corrupt and unreliable. This helped me understand Emmanuel’s point of view.
He went on and on about how wonderful America is and how happy he is to be here (in spite of missing his family). He is going to school to get an advanced degree in the technology field while working as a programmer. Throughout our conversation I couldn’t help but notice the ear-to-ear smile on his face. I could tell it was genuine. When we pulled up to his place of work, he thank me profusely for the conversation and the ride then bounced out of the car. I drove off feeling inspired.
My final story is about a gentleman named Derek. One Friday afternoon I just happened to give him a ride to the airport. An affable middle aged man, he had just taken a new position for a company based in Kansas City. He went on to mention the company’s expansion plans including opening a new sales office in nearby Plano. I shared that I was looking for employment. Little did I know I was speaking with my future boss. I’ve been working for Derek and eSolutions for a couple of weeks now. I learned that Uber can also provide an opportunity to network and ultimately find a job. Wonders never cease!